Monday, April 30, 2012

With A Blink Of An Eye, Another year, Another Birthday

There comes a time in our lives we all eventually have to deal with aging. One good way to deal with it and accept aging is with humor and a positive attitude. So what if the aging process happens, it eventually hits everyone. One positive thing about getting older that it isn't my fault. How do I know that my youth is all spent? Well my get up and go has got up and went, but in spite of it all I am able to smile, when I think of all the places I have been and all the things I have accomplished.

My First Holy Communion.
I was born in the so called " Baby Boom", started as soon as WW ll ended. For those that think 60 is the new 40, good for you ! The 1960's created the youth movement, 1970's and 1980's were the yuppie years, finding the way to the corporate world. Today Boomers are in their 60's and once again a new shift in their lives. Boomers are now worrying about retirement. They are concerned whether or not politicians will cut Social Security and Medicare benefits. Now the oldest of the millions born from 1945 to 1964 are turning and are becoming senior citizens.

Yesterdays are over, I want to see, touch, and hear what I have lost. I'll smile and wipe my tears if I could go back in time. I never had the chance to say goodbye to my mother and father, never got to say I love you, I thought it would be tomorrow. Memories are locked in my mind of childhood past. Every year on my birthday my Godmother would send me a birthday card with $5.00. I never met my Godmother, just knew she immigrated to Chicago after WW ll. To a child in the 1950's that was a lot of money. Mother's day was always a corner away from my birthday, so I used part of my money to buy my mother a gift, an apron, lipstick, hankie and she would tell me I shouldn't be wasting my mother on her. I was proud that I was able to get something for her. Those birthday cards and money stopped coming when I was 16, never knew what happened to my Godmother, that was the last year I heard from her. On my 7th birthday I received my first Holy  Communion on my birthday, and fifty years later my grand daughter received her Communion on the same day. She looked beautiful and brought me back to that day fifty years ago.

Today I look back of what I have achieved so far, a husband of 43 years, a family I love, grand kids I  adore, friends who have proven themselves through the years by standing beside me through laughter and tears, and a career I enjoyed for over forty years. I came to the conclusion I am still as young as I  want to be, I may be older today than I have been before, but I am younger than I'll ever be again.

Friday, April 27, 2012

In Search of Family History

My mother ( right) photo from website.

There are so many questions I have about my parent's past life during WW ll in Poland and still looking for answers. Both my parents died young, my father Walerian Brejwo at the age of 68 died of a massive heart attack, my mother Katarzyna Meilnick was killed at the age of 55 by a drunken driver. When they died they took their memories with them. As a child I was protected from the cold careless world. I had turned my back on my history growing up for what was the past to someone like me who only had dreams of the future. I feel an unexplainable desire to learn and write about the foundation of my life. Today I read documents , look at old photos, conscious of the power of names, places, my roots. I now crave the past.

During my search, a facebook friend posted a website, A site with WW ll photos and videos of war time Poland. There are thousands of photos on this site of different cities in Poland during the war. These photos are priceless and show the tragedy and hardship of life during WW ll. Some photos were submitted to the collection by family members or friends, and then there are those photos that have no information at all. In my search of this website I came across a photo in the Lida section , the first  photo as I opened the page. I looked at the photo very closely and I knew the person in the photo, it was a photo of my mother sitting in the front row on the right with two other women and a group of children standing behind her. According to the web page the photo was taken approximately in 1941 so she must have been 26-27 years of age. I was stunned, tears of joy, and so elated that I came across this photo. I contacted the person who established this website and asked him if I can have a copy of the photo of my mother. He was a gentlemen and the very next day he Emailed me the photo. I do not have many photos of my mother in her younger years and cherish the ones I have. This photo is priceless. I do not know the history behind this photo but I will do my best to research it.

My mother was born in 1914 in Wilno, Lida area, she was left an orphan at the age of two. Her father died fighting WW l and her mother was killed during the war. During WW l , Lida was occupied by German troops. In 1919 the Red Army established Soviet power. On September 30, 1920 Poland and Soviet troops fought in and near Lida, the battle of Niemen. In 1927, there were twenty four factories in Lida. 1928 were rapid years of growth. Lida was an important garrison of the Polish Army. From June 1941 to July 1944, it was occupied by the German troops who killed almost 25,000 people. On September 18, 1943 the Jewish Community of Lida was rounded up and taken to Majdanek, where they were murdered. By September 1944, Lida was in the Grodno Region. This area in now known as Belarus.

I also received a letter from the International Tracing Service ( ITS) about my Uncle Jan Brejwo, my father's brother. I have never met my Uncle and my father never saw him again after 1947. According to the letter I received , he was held under German war captivity in Poland and put in Stalag Xl-B as a POW. He was imprisoned at Torun Poland in a fort that held Polish POW's that was converted to a Polish prison. The district was Grudziadz Poland and the location of a German concentration camp, a sub camp of Stutthof.

This has been a successful week in my searches. I  feel I need some kind of closure, there is a mystery that haunts me. So many people that endured and suffered during the war kept their memories to themselves and have died with them. The first generation of children are now searching to answers of the past. Those that are fortunate to have their parents living is a blessing. Then there are those like me that have a burning desire to  want to know . I will not stop, there isn't a day that I regret that I did not ask my parents questions or show interest of their past. Then on the other hand ,  they left the war time memories behind and started a new life all over again like so many. Their new struggles in a new country, America

Monday, April 16, 2012

My Father's Beacon Camera

My Father's Beacon Camera

Whenever I look back through old family photographs I get a little melancholy. As I go backwards in time I am also reminded how fortunate I am to still have my father's camera, a Beacon made by Whitehouse products in Brooklyn New York. The camera has a lens with metal bellows and takes 16 images on 127 film and has a leather carrying case made in the 1950's. My father encouraged my love of photography, telling the story behind the photograph.

My father, Walerian Brejwo was a man with strong convictions, opinions and strength. He lived through WW II and learned that only through hard work and commitment you can reach your goals. During WW II a bomb dropped on the DP camp we were living  in Germany and he realized we have been saved, not by mere luck, but by the hand of God. He was a man devoted to his family. My father worked for everything he had. He set his site on something and worked for it. Everything was paid by cash, he did not own any credit cards or even have a checkbook. He took pleasure from simple things in life, he loved music and I remember the first radio and record player he brought. I must have heard that 78 LP vinyl record  " Good Night Irene" and "Tennessee Waltz" played a millions times , to the point my mother wished she named me Irene.

Growing up in New York I remember my father carrying his camera everywhere we went.  It was always hanging around his neck almost like it was part of him or a tie. I often find that having a photograph reminds me of how I felt at that certain time the photo was taken. Memories can be triggered by photos of places and people; it takes us back in time. Whenever my father pressed the shutter button, he was framing and stopping that second in time for the future to look back at the past. Life is a picture, as I page through the years, sometimes I shed some tears. So many faces I have known,  some have passed away and others have grown. A photograph is a memory to hold.

My Father, photo I took with his Beacon camera.
I have a great passion for photography, did I inherit the gene from my father? My camera comes with me everywhere I go and sometimes hangs around my neck. The Beacon camera is not worth much dollar value, but to me it's priceless. It was my father's, thirty years passed on  and a memory that  keeps him alive in my heart and will always cherish it. Sometimes it's hard to realize, when the photos are spread out before my eyes, with all the pictures my father took, our whole lives are in the old photo book. A photograph is a memory to hold of happy times and pleasant things, however new or old. It is a mirror that reflects our lives in the past.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The letter , coming to America

Example of an tenement Apartment
" An opening for a job and housing in the United States is available for you. Your job will be an unskilled worker. You must start to learn and speak English now. Your destination in the U.S.A. will be 257 East 10th Street, New York. This opportunity has been made possible to you by the combined efforts of the Protestant and Orthodox Church in America." A letter written to my parents from the Church World Service on June 5,1951. At the time my parents received this letter we were living in a DP camp Larger Kurhessen Kaserne in Hann Munden Germany. From here we were sent to Camp Wentorf , a regional Resettlement Processing Center and the last camp we lived in before we came to America.

WW II in Europe had come to an end in 1945 and an estimated 7 to 11 million displaced persons were still living in Europe. President Harry S. Truman called upon Congress to enact legislation that would allow some of the wartime refugees to enter the United States, thus became the Displaced Persons Act. The Act stipulated that only applicants who have been in resettlement camps would be eligible for American visas. The Act also insisted that all applicants must present guarantees by sponsors that housing and jobs would be waiting for them. Refugees admitted to the United States were also aided by voluntary social service agencies, accredited by the Displaced Person Commission. Most of these agencies were created by religious and ethnic groups. Among some of the relief organizations was the Church World Service , who sponsored my parents. By the end of 1952 more than 400,000 displaced persons were admitted to America. More than 70% were refugees from Eastern Europe. Many arrived on the shores of America with hope in their hearts and determination to make a better life for themselves and their children.

My parents had a hard time as newcomers to America, it's not easy to start a new life in an unfamiliar country. Most immigrants had to learn a new language and a new way of life. Jobs were often hard and mostly unskilled labor with low wages. Many moved into their own poor neighborhoods where they lived in crowded tenements.  My family , father, mother, three brothers and I came to America on November 11, 1951 . I don't remember the trip over since I was only two and half years old,  my older  brother has a good memory of the day we arrived. What I do remember is our first home in America  on East 10th Street on the  lower East side of New York.  The apartment was a  small four room railroad flat on the second floor. It had a small kitchen with a bathtub , one toilet with a overhead wooden tank and a pull chain to flush the toilet , a so call living room and two small bedrooms. We had very little furniture, a couple of beds, a crib, and a sofa. My parents life long possessions was one trunk that they brought over from Germany.We had a icebox that required blocks of ice to keep it chilled. I loved when the ice man would show up , he always gave me a chip of ice ,  I pretented it was ice cream. My mother washed the clothes in the bathtub by hand using a wash board  and hung the clothes out the kitchen window on a clothes line. To invite someone over you had to be creative, because of little money, food was scarce and lack of appiliances. The children played on the paved streets and people hung out on front stoops or fire escapes. The neighborhood  felt safe, parents really did not  worry about their children playing on the streets, there was always an adult keeping an eye on them. I was one of those kids, it gave me street sense and grew up faster than most pampered kids. You were lucky if you lived on the lower floors , they were walkups and no elevators. I remember going to the basement and watching my mother shoveling coal into the furnace of the building in order to  get a discount on the rent.

For over 150 years the Lower East Side of New York has been a haven for immigrants seeking a better life. Later many families improved the living conditions by moving from the Lower East Side to other areas. My parents moved to Greenpoint Brooklyn, a Polish community that still exsits today. There is now a museum on Orchard Street,  New York, called the Tenement Muesum, the lower East Side of New York will always be known for it's historical immagration.