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I learned that little Polish phrase from the late Mr. She, not very long after I met him, on a day when we were swapping stories about our eccentric and (in wholly different ways) exceptional families. It’s one of the few (SFW) bits of Polish I know, and I say it with great determination and verve, although, unlike the lady in the photo at the top of this post, I don’t usually spit before enunciating. Over the decades, I’ve found it to be an excellent party trick after a few drinks, and I have reduced more than a handful of Polish friends, acquaintances, and co-workers almost to tears of joy at my effort.
I became acquainted with the lady in the photo only posthumously, as she died many years before Mr. She and I met, but she’ll be known to me first and foremost, always, as my husband’s “barrel-shaped Polish grandma.” (He adored her.)
Aniela (anglicized as ‘Angela’) Skczrypek (roughly: ‘Pschipik’) arrived on these shores through the port of Galveston, TX, on the SS Koln on March 9, 1908. Accompanying her were her husband, Caryl (Cyril, Carl) Zbozny, and their daughter–Helenia, age 3–who’d been born in the Old Country. (I won’t be more specific than that, because we’re talking about that area of Europe that changed hands so often that it’s almost impossible to pin any location down to a specific country for any length of time). The little family was headed for Englewood, CO, where Caryl hoped to take up his trade as a miner. And indeed, some digging around in the census records of the time turns up the fact that Caryl started work not long after at St. Mary’s Beacon Mine, just south of Cripple Creek.
Family lore has it that Carl and Angela had six more children (well, that’s an actual fact), all in different states, as they moved around following the work and the mines. Ancestry records almost bear that out, revealing that Stephen and Mary were born in AZ and NM (referred to in the records as ‘Mexico’ at the time), while Bill, Sophie, Frank, and Joe were born in different towns in NY and PA, after the family moved East. We don’t know why they made the move (a project for a later time) but by 1920 they were in Binghamton, NY, Carl was working as a machinist at a shoe manufacturer, and Helen rolled cigars at a cigar factory.
Eventually, they fetched up in Pittsburgh, and the men of the family entered the steel-working trade, something at which they excelled, and that was pretty much universally expected of them–and in which Sophie joined them, in a ‘Rosie the Riveter’ role during WWII. Most of the boys of the family were exempted from service because of their essential work at the mill (Jones & Laughlin, or as it was known on the South Side of Pittsburgh, “JayNell”) but Bill and Joe served as Seabees in the Pacific. Eventually, a family member broke the mold and went to college, astonishing some, and breaking his other grandmother’s heart, as she’d mapped out a career for him in the church. (“But, Gram, I might like to get married one day.” “Pffft. You can always have a housekeeper.”)
But that’s a story of another generation, for another time.
It was a hard life, even when the family had settled for good on the low-lying riverside flats of Pittsburgh’s South Side (“Hell with the lid taken off“). There was never enough money, there was an overabundance of hard, endless work for both the men and the women, whether in the mill or at home, and there was a material filthiness, and overweening harshness to life that the pajama-people of the twenty-first century would find repellent and probably unsustainable.
But they never complained. They were safe, productive, and happy, sure that they were making better lives for themselves in the new country that they’d come to love and had adopted as their own. There was warmth, stability, and affection. And stories. Helen’s (multiple) runaway marriages. Steve’s wooden leg and the dog that bit it one day, getting the surprise of its life. Grandma’s fractured English, and how she’d send the young Mr. She down to the numbers guy on Carson Street with the daily number for the racket. The bars. The drunks. The joy. The heartbreak. And the hermaphrodite dwarf.
Lost in the mists of time, though, is exactly why Caryl, Aniela, and Helenia came to the United States in the first place. Perhaps, like so many of the time, they came to work and make a better life for themselves. Perhaps they were fleeing war and dislocation on the home front. Perhaps they had other reasons. It’s hard to know. Complexities abound when you’re researching family history. I’ve always thought those in the ‘Smith’ or ‘Jones’ families must have it particularly hard, but there are other unique challenges to overcome when your relatives have names like ‘Zbozny’ and ‘Skczrypek’ and never talked much about their lives before America. It’s so much easier on my own side of the family, where my maiden name–although uncommon and prone to misspelling–is at least a lot more regular and discoverable–for me, anyway. I guess that’s my British privilege speaking.
Given Grandma’s linguistic proclivities, I’ve always wondered if the Rosyjskie diabły played a part in the family’s flight, as they have, for so long, and so often among the people of that region of the world. (Book recommendation: Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia. It’s almost 700 pages, and breathtaking in its scope and cinematic prose. Somewhere about page 70 on my first-time through, I raised my head to breathe, and said to a friend, “this book has given me more insight into why Russia is such a basket-case of a country than anything else I’ve ever read, seen, or heard.” There’s an audiobook available, and my second-time through, I went in that direction on a trip halfway around the world and back. It was just as good listening to it as it was reading it.)
I’ve been very fortunate in my own life. But I’ve known many who were not so. I’ve known of quite a few who fell afoul–through no fault of their own–of Rosyjskie diabły and lived (or didn’t) to tell the tale. Many of the stories are appalling and grotesque. The heartbreak comes afterward, when there’s time for it.
One of the more repeatable stories: Many years ago, I worked with a Hungarian woman, from a fairly well-off, and old-money Budapest family. When the Soviets moved into and occupied Hungary in the late stages of, and years after, World War II, they came after my friend and her family, threw them out of their home, and a troop of Russian officers established themselves as in charge. The parents ‘disappeared’ and my friend (who was in her early teens) and her younger sister remained.
It was a convivial evening pursuit by the Russian officers to force my friend and her sister to drink enough alcohol to get them roaring drunk, and then require them to dance on the dining room tables while raucous music was played. I’ll leave it to your imagination to envision what happened next.
My friend used to say that she and her sister prayed for the Nazis to come back. Because, compared to the Russians, the Germans were “gentlemen.” Now, I know–and she knew also–that that isn’t true either, but still.
There seems to be an increasing number of op-ed pieces, articles, posts, and commentaries these days suggesting that–“Oh, well, the Russians aren’t so bad. Why, they’re the same color as ‘us,’ (unlike the evil ChiComs) and–under Putin–Christianity is almost OK again, so let’s not worry too much about this. Anyway, the Crimeans probably appreciate the fact that the Russians took them over, and the Ukrainians would likely enjoy being Russian anyway, and why should we get involved in a conflict halfway around the world that doesn’t affect us, so let’s just not get too wound up about it. Que sera, sera. Or, as the Russians might say, ‘Чему быть, того не миновать.‘ Crumbs. Good thing Doris Day didn’t have to get her tongue around that. I don’t think it would scan, anyway.)
We on the Right, who are on the side of remembering history so we don’t have to repeat too many of its less-savory aspects, shouldn’t start selectively forgetting it now, just because doing so scratches our itch for ‘no more war,’ or ‘I’m all right, Jack.‘ and its collateral implication. (FTR, I don’t want a war either. And certainly not one of Putin’s choosing. And certainly not one led by the fools who botched Afghanistan and Iraq, and into which we are backing ourselves through weakness and incompetence while we pretend to unparalleled unity with our wobbly Western “allies.”)
We need to keep, top of mind–at all times–while watching our backs, the wisdom, and the caution, of a barrel-shaped Polish grandma:
Or, at the very least, we should pay heed to John McCain’s (yes, I know…) trenchant observation in response to George W. Bush’s encomium to his friend Vlad. Bush said, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul.” When asked his own opinion of Putin, McCain replied, “I looked into his eyes and I saw three things: a ‘K,’ a ‘G,’ and a ‘B.'”
It is those three things, and the fact that many seem to have forgotten Putin’s relationship to them that has so much of the West rattled and uncomfortable, as they watch their leaders swanning around, appearing to be attempting to set up frameworks for negotiating in good faith with a man they believe to be an evil, conscienceless, untrustworthy, power-hungry, despot and killer.
I don’t know if war will come, or to whom it will come if it does, or what–if any–our role and those of our Western allies is to be. All I know is that I’d like to think that our position on the matter, and the actions we take relative to it, whatever that position and those actions are, come from strength.
I don’t think anything we do comes from strength anymore. Not with Biden. Not with Macron. Not with BoJo. Not with Scholz. Not with anyone else in charge on “our side” that I can think of. Justin Trudeau? Please.
I do think I know what grandma would have thought of those waffling, backpedaling, and talking out of both sides of their mouths as they pretend that we can reason–and dance–in something like good faith with the latest incarnation of the Russian Bear:
Nie ma rozum.
These people “have no minds.”
God bless the wisdom of Polish grandmas everywhere, their humanity, their bravery, their journeys, and the peaceful and safe world that they made for those who came after them, a world where the only devils in their lives were the ones that lived inside them forever, and ones which, for the sake of others, they mostly kept to themselves:
And God help us all, that a fool such as Kamala Harris** was sent to Europe to manage our “response” to what we’ve already turned, even if only preemptively, into such a clown show.
**I actually heard her, a few days ago, speaking to the Europeans and speechifying that “it is our unity that is our strength.” Wait. What? This from a woman, an administration, and a party that has preached for years that “it is our diversity that is our strength.” Kamala, honey: If unity is what brings strength, then how about you and yours start advocating for it stateside as well?Published in