A Pilgrimage of Faith and Family Ancestry in Krakow, Poland
My mom hesitated when the bus pulled up abruptly, passengers visibly filling the aisle. “Let’s wait for the next,” she called out nervously as I had already taken my first step to board. This was already the “next bus” and it was evident that everyone was trying to get back to Krakow at the end of the holiday weekend in Europe.
We paid the driver our zloty and shimmied into place for the hour drive back to the city. Quickly, I learned the art of hanging on, planting my feet firmly the full width of the aisle and latching on death-grip style to the overhead luggage rack. With every sharp curve along the tree-lined country road, I lost balance, my left hip only narrowly missing jabbing into a nun seated neatly beside me. When I was able to catch my mom’s eyes, we just shook heads softly— this highway surf session was crazy.
Crazy it may have been, but packed like cattle into this bus in Poland also felt utterly authentic. And on this pilgrimage of sorts to explore my Polish roots on my father’s paternal side, a bit of authenticity is what I craved— along with pierogis, of course.
While my great-grandfather, Anton was from Warsaw, my great-grandmother, Katarzyna (Katherine) hailed from somewhere relatively close to the Krakow countryside we were driving through (back then, Galicia).
Anton arrived at Ellis Island on September 10, 1901 with $5 in his pocket. In 1903 he met and married Katherine in Chicago. Katherine gave birth to Josephine and George from 1903-1905, but around 1906 left with her two children, pregnant with the third and returned to Europe. Leon was born in Galicia and later in 1914, my grandfather, Anthony debuted when Katherine and the kids returned to the US.
My father shared with me his boyhood memories of his grandmother, Katherine during his trip to Spain. I was disillusioned to find out that to her young grandson, she was not a loving, doting grandmother and trips to her home were void of the warmth and nurture that my dad’s mother had provided my siblings and I.
Still, I was completely fascinated that this woman would make that long, hard journey by ship all the way back to Europe. I imagine that after landing in America, not many dared to go back to their homeland, and as such never reunited with their families again.
I couldn’t help feel a connection to Katherine, as I too, had moved my life across the ocean to a new continent. In imagining putting down more permanent roots in Europe, my thoughts continually questioned whether it was the right thing— and would I be happy— having a family without my own nearby to watch them grow. So did Katherine miss hers— in a time when her mother’s image and voice were not a simple FaceTime call away?
The answers of why exactly she left the US are lost for now, but my own experience creating a life in a new country gives me some idea.
With time, the hills and curves became almost meditative. When my thoughts were no longer fixed on crashing upon the sweet sister beside me, I could reflect about my experience in Poland.
It is a trip that is no doubt marked by both the sadness of personal loss— the post break up tears that unleash with fury when mother and daughter reunite— but also an aching hurt for humanity in a land historically invaded, battered and beaten.
We chose to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau just after I was fresh off seeing Schindler’s List for the first time. (Clearly my timing to view the film was not well thought out in the healing stages of a break up.) The film’s haunting scenes were felt with every step at the concentration camp. Silent and somber, our tour group took in the stories, faces, and horrific atrocities done to Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, priests, and Polish intellectuals. The Polish people have suffered.
By the time our tour was ending, the early May sunshine was beginning to brighten the gloomy day, but even as I shed my jacket, my thoughts drifted to the prisoners and their immense suffering, made worse by the frigid winters they endured in this Hell on Earth.
After an evening indulging in Jewish cuisine in Kazimierz, Krakow’s Jewish Quarter, we awoke to a day that would lift our spirits.
What surely stood out during our time in Poland was the strong faith of the Polish people. We saw this on our first day during our tour of the Wieliczka Salt Mine. This mine, the oldest functioning in the world, produced table salt from the 13th century until 2007. Of the nearly 300 kilometers of corridors in this city below the surface, we only saw about 1% of its majesty. We felt deep respect for the miners who risked their lives daily in the mine’s dark depths. Our attention, though peaked upon entering the cathedrals and shrines excavated delicately in salt. The massive chandeliers, and artistic religious statues, were all amazingly created by miners with no artistic background— a beautiful testament to their Godly devotion and appreciation for their work in the mine.
Sunday morning we took the tram outside of the city center for mass at the Shrine of Divine Mercy. We spent some prayerful moments in its chapel afterwards where the miraculous image of Merciful Jesus and the tomb of St. Faustina are found. This well-known image of Christ with beams of red and white light illuminating from His heart bears the the inscription, “Jesu Ufam Tobie,” or “Jesus I Trust in You.”
St. Faustina canonized in 2000 by Pope John Paul II, was a Polish nun in the 1930s who recored the revelations she received about God’s mercy in a 600 page diary. This message is to A) ask for His mercy through prayer and repentance, B) be merciful by extending love and forgiveness to others, and C) completely trust in Jesus.
We pressed our lips to the encased relics of St. Faustina and offered her our prayer intentions.
There was no other man to strengthen this faith and bring hope to a people suffering post World War II and through Soviet occupation than a man from Wadowice named Karol Wojtyla. who in 1978 became Pope John Paul II. (I was studying in Spain at the time and just happened to be traveling in Rome during his funeral in 2005.)
As a world leader, he is recognized in helping to end Communism in Poland and Europe and improve relations between the Catholic Church and other faiths.
The Polish people’s love for their pope, later made saint buzzed throughout Krakow, but most certainly in the town an hour outside the city where he grew up.
Most impressive in Wadowice was walking through the church where Saint Pope John Paull II was baptized and touring his family home made papal museum.
My mom and I managed to jump onto the last tour of the day, and although in Polish, was easy to follow thanks to the detailed descriptions on wall plaques translated to English.
Our tour spanned the length of the Holy Father’s life depicting artifacts, photographs, and film. We loved seeing the pictures of him in his youth hiking in the mountains and skiing— and later in the same mountains dressed in his white papal gown. Some sections of the museum were covered in his words, many of which spoke deeply to me.
“Christ taught us to forgive. Many times and in many ways, he spoke about forgiveness. Forgiveness is a grace that has to be considered with profound humility and gratitude. It is a mystery of the human heart, which one can hardly talk too much about…”
John Paul II, October 21, 2981
And here, balancing through the bumps and turns of Polish roads, grieving personally, I reflected on the power, necessity, and grace of forgiveness— and the gratitude owed to my mother for flying all the way to Poland to share this experience with me.
“Poland is a unique mother. Her history is not easy, particularly in the last few centuries. She is a mother who has suffered a great deal, and suffers still. Therefore she has the right to special love… Perhaps we sometimes envy the French, the Germans, or the Americans that their names are not connected to such costs of history. That their freedom comes easily, whereas our Polish freedom costs us so much… Let us not desire a Poland that would cost us nothing.”
Pope John Paul II