Person: Janina Pasik
Drink: Coffee brewed at her home outside Warsaw, Poland
As I sat on a train to Warsaw, I had no idea what I would find when I arrived.
Since we met for coffee in November, Piotr Pasik (Cup 17) and I have become good friends and when he found out I was going to be in Europe, he insisted I swing through Warsaw to visit him at his grandmother’s house. After two weeks of being in big cities surrounded by typical tourists attractions a chance to get off the beaten path sounded wonderful so I rearranged my itinerary so I could stop by for a visit.
Piotr and his cousin picked me up from the train station and we drove 40 minutes to Nowe Miasto—a town of 2,500 where a five minute walk gets you from one side of town to the other.
When we arrived, Piotr’s grandma, Janina, welcomed me with a a big kiss on thecheek and a hug like only an experienced babcia (grandma) can give. She didn’t speak English, but the twinkle in her eye and the way she kept smiling as she enthusiastically clasped my arm told me everything I needed to know—she was excited I had come for a visit.
After dropping my bags in the living room, Piotr’s cousin got me a glass of water a while his grandma and his aunt finished preparing a lunch that made an American Thanksgiving look weak: tomato noodle soup, salad, cabbage with sausage, stuffed chicken, fried chicken, meatballs, pickled veggies and homemade desert. Everything was delicious—and I did in fact try everything because—because when an adorable Polish grandma offers you food—no matter how full you are—it’s impossible to say no.
Once lunch was finished, Piotr took me for a tour around Nowe Miasto and explained the town’s history and culture. It was fascinating to see Poland from a native’s perspective and get a feel for what life was like for Piotr’s family.
As the sun was setting we returned to the house and Janina insisted she cook us something for dinner and before I knew it, I was once again sitting at a table filled full of food. I told Janina two crepes would suffice, but she insisted I needed three. Polish grandma’s are tough salesmen. When dinner was finished, we remained sitting around the table so we could talk.
Piotr had explained my project to his grandmother and she agreed to share her stories with me, which Piotr could translate. The night was getting late so I decided to start with a direct question:
If you could give one piece of advice to young adults, what would it be?
I had no idea how the conversation would go, and realized I was holding my breath as Piotr took a moment to collect his thoughts and translate. Janina pondered the question for a moment before providing an answer I anxiously waited for Piotr to explain.
Be very friendly to others, do good things; help.
Janina is 86 years old, which means she was 18 when the Germans invaded Poland at the start of WWII. The invasion, which would last five years, spurred several rebellion movements, which Janina quickly joined. Her involvement duties varied, but a common task was to walk 12 kilometers to a hidden location in the woods where she would pick up bottles containing messages that would be delivered to the hospital. She never knew what the messages said, or why they were being delivered to the hospital, she was simply a messenger.
I asked if her parents knew about the behavior and she said yes, her father and cousin were also a part of the movement. When I asked her what would have happened had she been caught she paused for a solemn moment before taking her index finger and sliding it across her neck indicating a fate I didn’t need Piotr’s translation to understand.
As the German invasion intensified, Janina’s family was removed from their home and forced to move in with other family—seven people stuffed into a one-bedroom house while a war raged on in their backyard.
The family did their best to make the most of the situation until the Soviet’s helped liberate Poland in 1944 and the war ended in ‘45. A year later she met and married her husband, a young man that had spent nearly six years as a Polish prisoner of war. The young couple wanted to get as far away from the pain and destruction that was left once the war ended so they made a difficult move to the south of Poland where he worked in the mines and she worked as a clerk while they raised their children. A few years later, their daughter fell ill so Janina and her husband packed up their stuff and moved back to Nowe Miasto to be closer to family.
Although the war was over, Janine’s struggles were not—she still face life under the new communist regime, lived in a city trying to rebuild after great destruction, and sadly lost of her husband to cancer at age 55.
As we sat there at the kitchen table listening to Janina’s story while a small candle provided llight against the encroaching darkness of night, I was deeply moved. This wonderful old woman, not even five feet tall, had endured a life filled with continual hardship yet still had a twinkle in her eye and warmth in her smile.
When she asked Piotr is I had anymore questions, I had so many thoughts swirling through my head I couldn’t formulate a question. I could only have Piotr pass along the message that I was inspired by her incredible strength.
The following day I visited the Warsaw Uprising Museum to learn more about the many involved in the resistance. It is an incredible museum I appreciated even more after hearing Janina’s firsthand account. As I wandered through the pictures and artifacts representing the horror, suffering, and imprisonment of Poland’s past, I tried putting myself in her shoes, to imagine how she must have felt, but I couldn’t. The dire state of her adolescence was far beyond what I could grasp.
However I could understand why she gave me her initial advice:
Be friendly to others, do good, help.
When you’ve been through a situation so dark—you do what you can to bring light to others.