At the end of a year of living in Poland

 

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Albina posing with original Orange Alternative Wroclaw Dwarf images at the Konspira Restaurant near Plac Solny. Photo by Ben M. Angel

About a year ago (well, it will be a year on June 15, 2016), I brought my family from Belarus to Wrocław in western Poland. The move was as well-coordinated as anything resembling a flight of refugees from potential Russian aggression might appear. However, we were coming to this city well ahead of any urgent need, as migrants, or at least my wife and kids were. She held a karta polaka, and could confer residency on our kids, while I held onto an American passport in its last year of validity.

I could say we had high expectations, coming to this city. It was a growth center for this country with lots of foreign businesses looking at it for investment. Jobs seemed to be plentiful. The Cultural Capital of Europe baton was on its way here, meaning that my kids would not be stuck with a provincial mental picture misshaping their thoughts and lives. There were things to do, and many people to meet. At least five capitals were a short distance away, should the decision be made to travel to any one of them – all of which were within the so-called Shengen Zone, a border-less collection of different states. There would be no visa hassles to face down.

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Silesian Summer: A change of seasons (Albina Angel’s First Day of School in Poland)

Albina walks confidently beside mother on the way to school on Sept. 1. Photo by Ben M. Angel

Albina walks confidently beside mother on the way to school on Sept. 1. Photo by Ben M. Angel

Almost a month has passed since school has started, but I figured I would be remiss in not mentioning something about the end of our Silesian summer. After all, the change of seasons marks a further step toward settling my family safely in the cosmopolitan Polish city of Wrocław.

Our reality is, thankfully, far different from that of the desperate souls fleeing the unadulterated evil of the so-called Caliphate straddling the border regions between Syria and Iraq. The culture here is not that foreign to us, even though we’re still regarded as immigrants from “Poland B” to some who live here. Compared to the Syrian refugees who might first appear at the train and bus station any day now, we’re welcome, even despite our varying degrees of incomplete command of the Polish language (mine being the worst). Naturally, out of all of us, our daughter Albina is the one that is most rapidly overcoming that obstacle to life in Poland. Although kids generally have a distinct natural advantage in learning new languages, part of the reason for this improvement clearly stems from the fact that she has successfully enrolled in school here.

Although I remember being surprised by the fact that I was being taken to school on my first day of Kindergarten more than four decades ago, well, a kid’s first day of school should be something special. In Russia, they call the day of the first bell the “Day of Knowledge,” a celebration of learning that introduces children to their teachers and prepares them for the work ahead. In places like Belarus, they are fully dressed up in suits and uniform dresses, and they bring flowers as a token of respect and affection.

Here in Poland, the rules are similar. You have the first day ceremony, usually on or around Sept. 1, and kids meet their teachers in black-and-white dress. No classes are held the first day. Instead, teachers introduce themselves to their students and to all the parents, and with the information conveyed that day, the event becomes an opportunity for the parents to take an important first step to becoming deeply involved in their education.

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Remembering a Baku tiger

Kot Kota on April 25, 2006, just a day after being rescued. Photo by Ben M. Angel

Kot Kota on April 25, 2006, just a day after being rescued. Photo by Ben M. Angel

In the middle of April 2006, my boss and I strolled back from the Hyatt Regency in Baku, Azerbaijan. I was barely a month in the country, but we already established a lunchtime routine where we’d go have a sandwich and a cappuccino by the hotel pool, then walk back to work in the nearby Natavan Building. As the springtime sun heated up, we both noticed the number of stray cats starting to pick up. One stray in particular caught his attention, jumping around as if he’d been trained to do tricks.

“This one has a lot of energy,” he said. “You really should pick this one up.”

“I don’t know,” I responded. “I like cats, but I think he would tie me down. If I got assigned outside of Baku, I couldn’t take care of him.”

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Silesian Summer: Visiting a grave in Kołobrzeg

Zenon Bernatowicz. Photo from family album held by his niece Irena Szadura

Zenon Bernatowicz. Photo from family album held by his niece Irena Szadura

No record exists today that shows how Polish Red Army mortar man Zenon Bernatowicz felt as he woke up on the last morning before he was fatally wounded, Tuesday, March 13, 1945. Nothing tells of whether he was stoic, angry, sad, or frightened just before he was shot up in the fighting within the outer German defenses of Kolberg, a city that briefly harbored some 85,000 evacuating German civilians and 3,000 garrison troops. All we know is that he was badly injured in the forested resort area called Maikuhle (or Załęże, in Polish), where the fanatical Volkssturm, a German civilian militia raised at the behest of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebels, fought intensely.

During the weekend before Zenon was shot, his unit, the 2nd Battalion 16th Infantry Regiment, a part of the 6th Polish Infantry Division of the Red Army assigned to envelope and attack the city from the west, had joined forces with the 1st battalion along the Baltic Sea coast. They had met stiff resistance from the Volkssturm among the gravestones within the city’s cemetery.  No doubt that the shooting match against the volunteer defenders, composed of Germans, both local and displaced from elsewhere in Pomerania, seemed ghoulish to him. Still, the Polish Red Army units were making significant progress against these poorly trained irregulars on Mar. 13 in front of the Kleist redoubt. Indeed, by the time the Soviets took the Kolberg, quickly rechristened by its Polish name of Kołobrzeg, 60 percent of the city’s civilian German fighters would be killed and more than 80 percent of their homes and businesses destroyed.

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Silesian Summer: The Move to Wrocław

I guess it’s safe to say I’m something of a procrastinator. After a 17-month post-Sochi Olympics slump in writing, during which a nearby country was invaded and paid work came and went, it took a writing contest to get me back on the computer. Not even my family moving from the Eurasian side of the new “Iron Curtain” in Belarus to western Poland had been so successful.

Marina and the kids back in Belarus. Photo by Ben M. Angel

Marina and the kids back in Belarus. Photo by Ben M. Angel

So, it’s been awhile and I have a lot of new observations. Some of them I might now write about as my personal hopes quietly fade of ever visiting a Russia governed by sane leadership again in my lifetime. Indeed, we are here in Lower Silesia today, now, rather than waiting for something drastic to happen back in Minsk, in part because of the nagging sense that we’d have better success in settling in Poland as immigrants rather than as refugees.

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Stumbling upon Hedgehog in the Fog

Albina at the kitchen window with her copy of "Yozhik v tumane." Photo by Ben M. Angel

Albina at the kitchen window with her copy of “Yozhik v tumane.” Photo by Ben M. Angel

My daughter and I, and shortly after, her mom, sat down in the first minutes of the televised Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Olympics, and watched the dream sequence of the little girl who, before falling asleep, had been reading about the “alfavit,” or the Russian ABCs. From ancient monks to helicopters and other traces of Russian greatness left upon the world, artistically stylized images went past on the screen. When the seventh letter arrived, both Albina and I were surprised, as the selection of a Russian image for the Russian letter “Ё” or “Yo” was revealed as “Yozhik v tumanye,” or “Hedgehog in the fog.”   Continue reading

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The wisdom of not outgrowing Santa Claus

Marina and Albina decorating the tree. Photo by Ben M. Angel

Marina and Albina decorating the tree. Photo by Ben M. Angel

One thing that makes Belarus unique among former Soviet countries is that, having such a large amount of its post World War II population Catholic, it maintains Western Christmas as a holiday. This doesn’t occur in Ukraine or further east in Russia and Central Asia, where Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) is a direct replacement for Santa Claus. In this country, as a result, both the Western traditions of gift-giving on Jesus’ birthday, and the former Soviet traditions of gift-giving to celebrate the New Year, are followed. Continue reading

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