Beginning in 1949, after narrowly surviving WW II in Europe, my parents Marta and Stefan Orzechowski and I spent fifteen arduous years in exile in Argentina—starting from zero. Meanwhile, Poland, our country, was under the vicious heel of Soviet-imposed Communism.
In spite of our limited resources under the tyranny and chaos of Juan D. Peron’s presidency, after several years, we proudly built a one-bedroom concrete-block house, a ”box.” My parents and I built it with our very own hands (with the help of an amateur roofer) in Barrio Roca—on a scarcely populated, low-priced grassy field northeast of greater Buenos Aires. Horses roamed around. All the streets were dirt. Most dwellings around us: bamboo and mud shacks. Unknown to us, the area was prone to flooding that would, for years to come, damage our primitive electrical resources and our possessions. Despite it all, my parents created our own tranquil world.
I slept in the dining room on a cot. We utilized army metal ammunition boxes—those we had used for our belongings on the immigrants’ steamship Cordoba sailing from Europe—as side tables, stands, and seats. Gingerly, my father painted them pink to mask their camouflage finish. A friend built an outdoor bathroom/shed out of wood planks and installed a septic tank for us. Our water source was a hand-pump well. We pumped the water for the bathroom every few days, via a hose, to a large tank container that served the sink and the toilet. A pleasant scent of fresh wood permeated the facility. During the cold months, we washed ourselves in a tin basin in the kitchen, with kettle-heated water.
My father had been an accountant in the city of Lodz (Poland) before the war, and a reconnaissance army captain during the war. Now, in 1954, while still bound by language barrier, he worked as a foreman in a Bakelite comb factory. He travelled four hours to and from his job, located in the Capital, riding on overcrowded buses. He was forty-nine and, as usual, bursting with energy, celebrating our smallest accomplishments. I attended my senior year in a public high school one hour away from home by long-distance trolleys.
My mother, a reserved and unpretentious woman of delicate nature, stayed home fulfilling her duties as a housewife and tending to our vegetable garden.
Sometimes during placid indigo nights, with the familiar chorus of cicadas around us, my parents and I would sit in our garden to chat and ponder. In the pale glow of the moon, both pain and sunshine unfolded on their faces—I knew then that deep inside they fought adversity with all their strength, with hope for the future, and out of love for me . . . .
Silver Wedding Anniversary
One hot summer evening at the start of 1954, Mr. Kinderman’s French horn let out a steady stream of saliva that dribbled on our cement kitchen floor at Barrio Roca. The staccato rhythm of an Argentinean tango, “La Cumparsita” bombarded the room. We were rehearsing for my parents’ silver wedding anniversary to take place at our home in mid-February. Mr. Kinderman, a Polish acquaintance, had lent me his accordion and had been giving me lessons. When we finished practicing, he apologized for the saliva and kissed my mother’s hand.
In his sixties, short and plump, Mr. Kinderman’s thick silver hair, regular features, and a pair of fierce whiskers gave him a distinguished “historical” look. He’d come, teach me, stay for supper, and share endless war anecdotes with us. He seemed to live in a world of cannon balls and armored knights—coming back to Earth for only brief visits. He was born during the Partitions of Poland and took part in World War I as a band conductor in Marshal Pilsudski’s Legjony. Polish down to his bone marrow, he bore a German name typical to western Poland. He had emigrated from Poland to Argentina twenty years before us, during the inter-war era.
The time came to prepare for the anniversary. My mother and I cooked for two days on two single kerosene-pumped burners we called primus. Her midnight eyes shone while her petite figure zoomed around the kitchen, and her lips sang one old love song after another. She wore a white embroidered apron on top of a sandy blouse and a brown skirt with a slit in the back. The skirt fit around the contour of her hips, revealing her perfectly shaped legs. Every time Father went through the kitchen, he tasted one of her dishes and pinched her in the most embarrassing places. With a smile, Mother smacked him once or twice across his uncivil hand—their eyes drawn to each other.
We prepared various Polish dishes. The most painstaking to cook were pigs’ feet in aspic, an appetizer. After boiling them, the pink-hoofed little monsters had to be scraped to the bone then the meat chopped and returned to the pot. Whole peppercorns, sliced carrots, parsley roots, leeks, and celery gave color and taste to the otherwise amorphous gray mass. We allowed the soup to boil for half an hour more, cooled it then placed it in the cooler to consolidate. The next day, the trembling gelatinous feet were ready to eat with horseradish and lemon juice or vinegar. My delight!
We fashioned other appetizers: herring in sour cream or with sliced onions, and the traditional Polish kanapki, or canapés: rye bread triangles piled with shavings of cheese, hard-boiled egg, tomato, onion, pickle, radish, and at the top a sprinkle of chopped dill—a rainbow palette. We also had cold cuts made by Mr. Kinderman, among them kaszanka, or blood sausage, a Polish favorite.
For dinner we cooked bigos, a stew of fresh cabbage, homemade sauerkraut, sausage, and meat. As it simmered, an obnoxious odor filled the house. We prepared chicken to be served with buckwheat and beets, and we arranged my two favorite vegetable dishes: grated raw carrots with sugar and raisins, and cooked cauliflower with melted butter and breadcrumbs.
Mother also made pyzy, typical Polish dumplings as old as Poland: she grated raw potatoes, mixed them with cooked mashed potatoes and flour into dough. She rolled the dough out, then cut it into patties and I placed ground meat on each patty and closed it, forming a ball around the filling. I then dropped them in boiling water. To be eaten with a sautéed golden onion coat.
Outside of Christmas and Easter celebrations, there hadn’t been so much food in our home. I was flabbergasted.
The day of the anniversary dinner, in her high heels and with an air of importance and elegance, Mother covered the table with a starched white tablecloth she had embroidered and decorated it with ferns and delicate wild pink-blooming vines. We expected the arrival of ten Polish guests from various parts of Buenos Aires and its suburbs. They came in the mid-afternoon summer heat on buses and trains. Most had been in transit for two hours.
My father, his towering presence in an impeccable shirt and tie, and sharply front-pleated trousers, seated our guests. They were ex-officers, who had fought with him against Hitler in the Italian Campaign, their wives, and the beloved army chaplain, Franciscan friar Justynian Maciaszek, who gave the blessing. He sat next to my father, his face, neck, and the circle of his shaved head dripping with sweat.
Father Maciaszek, the backbone and inspiration of our group of Polish immigrants on Argentina’s foreign soil, traveled long distances daily by trains, trolleys, subways, or buses to provide comfort to the sick or the disheartened. Summer’s scalding weather didn’t stop the vibrant man from his duties. Like millions of Poles, he had suffered horrors during the barbaric deportations to Russia by Stalin, in the course of World War II.
Following the blessing, my father offered a ceremonious toast to the health of our guests with a glass of sliwowica, Mother’s homemade plum liqueur, sparkling in its crystal carafe like an amaranth on fire. We ate our Polish dinner and for dessert we served my mother’s poppy seed roll and other delicacies with the requisite hot tea and lemon. Mr. Kinderman didn’t come, so I, alone on the accordion, played ancient Polish folk songs I’d heard my parents sing, as well as Argentinean tangos. Later we went outdoors to enjoy the sunset. The heat gave way to a soft evening breeze.
As our ruby sky turned to sapphire, stories, anecdotes, and songs flourished in the twilight of our profusely flowered garden. Laughter alternated with tears. Forgetting the harsh reality of everyday life for a few hours–poverty, physical labor, struggle with a foreign language, and the heartbreaking nostalgia for Poland–a small group of exiled Polish intelligentsia tried to relive the past through the memory of good, pre-war times. The quintessence of who they had been and who they still craved to be. Torn away from everything they once loved and possessed, decimated by war and the Gulag, survivors by faith and the mysterious ways of fate, they gathered on common ground to give each other fortitude, loyalty, and confidence.
In addition to being a jubilee for my parents’ silver wedding anniversary, the get-together was a celebration of life. Of the resilience we had developed in conquering the unknown. It brought our homeland to our humble house and garden in the suburbs of an alien Buenos Aires.
I became immersed in the adults’ overwhelming tribal longing; I liked them and admired them immensely. Though drawn into Argentinean culture through my schooling and friends, I retained a foreign soul. At the time, I didn’t realize that such duality would stay with me as long as I lived and lead me to diverging roads, dead ends, and a search for my national and individual identity.
Before leaving, a teary-eyed Father Maciaszek said, “Dear countrymen, you are my reason for living.” Traditionally embracing and kissing everyone on both cheeks, he added, “Today, on this solemn occasion, we rejoice Marta’s and Stefan’s deep love for each other and the triumph of life over death.” He paused to catch a breath and continued, “May God bless you and give you good health, peace, and faith in returning one day to a free Poland.”
We stopped him at the door and sang the lyrical ballad, “Uplywa szybko zycie; jak potok plynie czas. Za rok, za dzien, za chwile razem nie bedzie nas. . .” (How fast the time passes by; how quickly the moments fly. In a year, a day, or a minute, we won’t be together again).
Was that an omen? A few years later, Father Maciaszek died abruptly of cancer. But in the interim, he began to build a Polish church near the trolley station Martin Coronado. Later, the site blossomed into a Polish religious and cultural center, Maciaszkowo, in his honor.
Today, sixty-seven years later, I’m solidly in love with the wonderful country that has adopted me: America. But now and then, my heart still vibrates and echoes with the aromas of food, the music, the happiness, the pain, the strength, and the gnawing nostalgia of that anniversary day.
That evening, a unified spirit had risen like a triumphant, defiant giant—above the impoverished shacks and tall, feathery grasses, above the dirt roads, mud, and the flood-menacing Reconquista River waters of Barrio Roca. Most of all, it rose above the desolate, exiled mortals; orphans who had gathered in our flower garden for a special occasion. Although thousands of miles away from Europe, that spirit embodied Poland, my Poland—the one I had lost.
The Poland all of us had lost since the brutal, annihilating invasion of the country by Hitler AND Stalin in September 1939.
Eduvigia (Junia) Ancaya is a nonfiction writer who has taken creative writing courses at USF and numerous courses at OLLI. She has published two nonfiction books honoring her parents’ saga during WW II : Struggle for Freedom: Marta’s Courage—A Memoir and Stefan’s Journey on the Road of Sorrows.
A native of Poland, who escaped Communist tyranny in 1946, she immigrated to the U.S. in 1963. She is a retired physician.