Born at the start of "The War to End All Wars," the man from Szamotuly (Sha-moe-too-we) grew up in a land where it was common for foreign armies to roam and rule. The right to self-determination, though restored to Poland for the first time in well over a century in 1918, lasted a mere 21 years, and it was during this difficult, but relatively peaceful time in Poland, that Boleslaw grew into manhood.
After completing mandatory schooling to the 6th grade, Boleslaw enrolled in a trade school to learn the art of horticulture. The promise of a new era of peace and self-rule filled the hearts of young Poles. The young man from Szamotuly was no exception, and he lived his life with great anticipation of the future, completely unaware of the devastation that awaited him and his country.
There were rumors going around Poland that summer of ‘39, and, at the still young age of 24, Boleslaw was conscripted into the Polish Army, trained in the art of war for a mere three weeks, and sent out with hundreds of other brave men to help defend a major Polish city.
The horror of what he saw was beyond words--slaughter all around him as the powerful German Army rolled over his position seemingly at will. With 90% of his regiment dead and he himself riddled with 3 bullet wounds, Boleslaw lay there bleeding, expecting at any moment to be finished off with a bayonet.
As he lay there for what seemed to be an eternity, words that every young Pole memorized came to mind and he was strangely comforted:
“He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge … You will not fear the terror of night nor the arrow that flies by day … A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you … If you make the most high your dwelling …then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways …”Moments later, in the midst of all the chaos, Boleslaw heard a gentle voice. As he looked up he suddenly became aware of an innovative hiding place nearby and found safety in the midst of certain death, just as the mysterious voice had told him. When the heat of the battle was over he was taken prisoner, and, like many of the other Polish soldiers, was put to work on German farms near the Baltic Sea.
Though nothing like the infamous concentration camps, the living conditions were nonetheless inhumane. In addition to the cruelty of their captors, Boleslaw and the other Polish prisoners contended with starvation, malnutrition, disease, lice, worms, dysentery, and frostbite, not to mention 6 years of hard labor. Someone seemed to die of something all the time, the least of which was a bullet to the head execution style.
When the war was over, the man from Szamotuly and the other Polish survivors had no home to call their own. Many of their loved ones were dead and their country once again ravaged and ruled by a foreign power. For 5 years after the war, the Polish Soldiers were reassembled under British command and put to work in the reconstruction efforts. When their contribution was no longer needed, they were given a free pass to anywhere in the world, and Boleslaw chose to go to Chicago.
Now, at the age of 36 and living in yet another foreign land, the life Boleslaw once knew and enjoyed in Szamotuly seemed a very distant memory. Outside of Warsaw, Chicago held the largest contingent of Poles in the world and everyone was eager to help their fellow Poles transition to the new world. Though he himself was fluent in Polish, German, French and Russian, he knew nothing of the English language or American ways, and would need all the help he could get.
He had a new life ahead and, once again filled with hope, went about making the best of it. Though he was an expert gardener by both training and experience, Boleslaw was content to live out his days as a janitor, leaving the beauty of the work of his hands for only his friends and family to enjoy. He married a lovely young Polish woman fluent in both Polish and English, who was herself the daughter of an immigrant family, and had 3 children.
I’m one of those children, and a few weeks ago on Christmas Eve I said farewell to my father. On more than one occasion he told me that he never thought he would live past the age of 24--let alone 93--but yet here he was. He never quite mastered English, in fact, it was terrible, and right up to his death still looked and acted like someone who “just got off the boat.”
Being that he was only a janitor and didn’t care about the Chicago Cubs or the Rolling Stones, there was a time in my youth when I was actually ashamed of who he was and where he came from. There was also a time in my spiritual youth when I even doubted his own personal trust in Christ simply because he didn’t use evangelical terminology. I’ve come to see things very differently over the years, especially since the day it dawned on me that the Holy Spirit speaks perfect Polish and is quite capable of clearly communicating with my father even if I am unable.
Three days before he died, our entire family gathered and spent a very special afternoon together. Though he was weak, he had enough energy to thrill the kids with a few of their favorite antics. Their most favorite was when he’d throw both of his arms up in the air and yell “Hooray!” There was just something about his strong Polish accent, his youthful enthusiasm, and the movement of his arms that made it so much fun for the grandkids to watch.
When we said good-bye that day, I put him down for a nap and we spent several minutes silently looking each other in the eyes. As I looked at him and he at me with eyes fixed, I saw no panic or fear, what I saw was a man completely at peace and ready to die.
On the day he did die I was back in Pennsylvania, but my sister tells me that he was lying in bed, completely unaware that anyone was with him, with his arms resting at his side, his mouth wide open, and his eyes fixated on the ceiling above. Suddenly, she said, without saying a word he threw both of his arms up into the air, not once but twice and died not long after. As my sister reflected on what she saw, she said it almost seemed like he was staring into heaven itself, giving one last “Hooray" in eager anticipation of the new home he was seeing right in front of him. I think she's right--I think that's exactly what he was seeing!
I will deeply miss the man from Szamotuly. This summer my son and I are planning to travel to the very land that my father knew as a young man......wish I would have done that a whole lot sooner.
[Postscript Note: I forgot to mention when I first posted this that my son and a handful of other cadets at the US Air Force Academy are being sent to Poland over Spring Break to interact with and learn from members of the Polish military as part of their Academy training -- I can't tell you how thrilled I am that my son has the opportunity to learn firsthand about his grandfather's heritage]