Last week, while I was back in North Carolina over Christmas break, my grandfather turned 80.
Now, you may think this is a fairly normal event, and that’s because it is. As I get older, my grandfather gets older at the exact same rate, so at some point it would make sense that he would turn 80. However, this is PAPA (as he is affectionately known to everyone) who we’re talking about. This is the Papa that attended roughly every game I’ve ever played in, at every level I’ve ever played, for every second that I played—and has done so for every grandchild that he has. This is the Papa whose devotion to his family is beyond incredible, and seems to have no limit to how far he will go for his loved ones. I think 80 sounds old. Could Papa be OLD? Unbelievable.
Now for some background, Papa has an incredibly cool life story. He was born in Plociczno-Tartak, a little village in northeastern Poland, sometime in November 1935 (though his birthday is in January because his parents wanted him to be drafted later, so they waited until 1936 to register his birth). He lived under Nazi occupation from 1939-1944, until his family was forced to flee into Germany to avoid the advancing Soviet army (his father was a leader in the Ukrainian War of Independence from 1917-1921, and would have been executed by any Soviet forces). He spent a summer working on a farm in East Prussia, before the Germans sent his family to a camp in Austria. After the war, his family slowly made their way to England and then New York and lived there until Papa, who hated New York, ran away to Cleveland at age 15. His family soon followed. In Cleveland, Papa met my Gramma, got an engineering degree, became an All-American soccer player, and did a ton of other awesome stuff I don’t have time to talk about.
I knew all this. I’ve talked with Papa about his life before—he’s one of my biggest heroes. However, on his 80th birthday (and with the sudden realization that he could one day be OLD), I pulled up google maps and for the first time asked him to not only tell me his story, but to show me as well.
This was an entirely new experience. With a little help (but not a lot—Papa is an engineer and knows his google), Papa was able to show me the house he grew up in Plociczno, and the well they got water from, and the school he learned to read in. And the more images we saw, the more Papa’s memories emerged. Plociczno was on a direct supply line between Berlin and Moscow, and Papa showed me the railroad tracks where German supply trains would pass by on their way to the Eastern front, often accidentally dropping ammunition on the way. He described with glee how he and his brothers would put the fallen ammunition back on the tracks, so the next train would set it off and “scare the hell” out of whatever German conductor was unfortunate enough to run over it.
Papa showed me the railroad station in Vienna where he had his first experience with Americans, as his family huddled in a cattle car (the same ones you see in holocaust documentaries) while American bombers destroyed the station, blowing up the cars on the tracks to the left and right of his but by the grace of God sparing his own.
Papa showed me Kremsmuenster, the camp in Austria where he and his mother spent five years while his brothers and father worked in nearby Linz. He showed me the spot near the river Danube, where he would sit with his father and make fun of the Russians on the other side. After the war, the US and Soviet Union split up Austria along the Danube, and Papa was fortunate enough to be on the US side, where the Russians couldn’t touch him or his father the Ukrainian rebel.
Papa even showed me Corsham, the little village in England where he learned to speak English after the war. If he rode his bike with his friends in one direction he could explore the ancient Roman town of Bath, if he went the other he could play among the stones of the giant henge of Avebury, older than even Stonehenge.
As I listened to Papa’s stories, I was struck by a couple different thoughts. First, I thought about how much Papa’s incredible devotion to family makes sense, now put into the context that family was the only thing he had for so long. Second, I thought about how fortunate I am to live in the time that I do, in the country that I do, with the family that I have. I thought about how thankful I was that I had Papa, who endured so much so that I didn’t have to. Third, I thought about how wonderful technology can be, allowing my 80-year old grandfather to share with me his memories as a child living under Nazi occupation—even showing me the buildings and railroads—without leaving his living room. That would have been impossible even 10 years ago.
And finally, I thought about the wonderful opportunity that I have with the Mitchell scholarship, because from my home base in Ireland, I can go to all of those places that Papa can’t. I can go to Plociczno, and Kremsmuenster, and Corsham. I can see the house where he was born, and walk along the railroad tracks where he scared Germans, and sit along the Danube where he used to sit with his father. And I can send him pictures—which we both agreed was pretty awesome.
I’ve already traveled a bit during my Mitchell year. I went for a whole month around Europe before the semester started. I’ve traveled a good deal around the UK, and took a trip to Iceland as well. But I just checked, and there are $25 flights from Dublin to Warsaw, $10 trains from Warsaw to Suwalski, and 15 minute car rides from Suwalski to Plociczno. I’ll post pictures in my next blog!!