There once was a pretty girl named Jadviga who lived in Poland during the turn of the 20th century. She was the first born of four children. Her mother died at an early age, and so for a while, Jadviga helped care for her younger siblings. Her father eventually remarried. As a teenager, she enjoyed going to school during the winter months, but when the weather turned warmer, she along with other girls, worked in fields across the border in Germany. Her job was about a day’s journey from home, so Jadviga lived in Germany during that part of the year. She learned how to speak German and worked hard to earn money for herself and her family.
However, the situation there was not good. Workers were often mistreated, but she did not want to burden her father with another mouth to feed when she was capable of supporting herself. She dreamed of a better life, thanks to her aunts who lived in Pittsburg. They wrote Jadviga about opportunities for women in America. She wanted to go. She told her friends at work about it, and four of them plotted and planned with Jadviga to set sail for the land of promise. Her father sadly supported her decision to leave because he loved her and wanted more for her. A few months later at the age of 17, Jadviga found herself on the deck of a ship approaching Ellis Island. She and her girlfriends looked at Lady Liberty with hopeful hearts. They had done it! There was no turning back now. She’d spent most of her savings on her one-way ticket here. Hopefully, her documentation would be sufficient for entry.
Between 1886 and 1924, nearly 14 million immigrants entered the United States through New York. Jadviga was one of them. She made it through the checkpoint at Ellis Island, showing satisfactory proof of her ability to take care of herself, along with the addresses of her relatives in Pittsburg. She would start her new life there. Jadviga’s leap of faith proved to be the right decision. She found work that was more to her liking. To assimilate into Pittsburg society, Jadviga thought it best to change her name. She chose something short and sweet – Edna. There were a good many people in Pittsburg at that time, who had moved from eastern Europe to work, including other Poles. As of 1910, Pittsburgh had become the eighth largest city in the United States, and 26 percent of its population was foreign-born. Edna arrived in 1911.
Within five years, she met and married a Ukrainian man named Onek. He worked at one of the steel mills there. After they were married, Onek and Edna decided they did not want to raise a family in the city. He and his brother had friends who farmed in eastern Ohio, so they moved in that direction to look for land. The families settled near each other outside of Zanesville, Ohio. Edna and Onek had seven children – four boys and three girls. Their fourth child, Helen, is my grandmother.
I remember Edna. Our lives overlapped by eight years. She spoke English, but with a strong Polish accent. It was hard for me to understand what she was saying, but I did give her credit for keeping a few toys handy. When visiting her home, I always went for her Etch A Sketch, at which point my attention diverted from the adults’ conversation to twisting knobs. I wish I could go back in time and talk to her. Imagine the stories she could tell!
I was sad when I learned that she was never able to return to Poland to visit her family for fear of the political situation there. She worried that if she went back to visit her family, she might not be able to return to her husband and children. Poland was certainly no place to be during World Wars I and II, and after WWII, the Soviet Union instituted a Communist government there. Ironically, Edna passed away shortly before the collapse of the Communist party in 1989.
My great grandmother’s story makes me think about neighboring refugees living in Owensboro and how they are unable to visit the family they’ve left behind. A few years ago, I felt called to volunteer at our local International Center. That led to an interim position there, during which I learned about the resettlement process for refugees moving to our city. A refugee is a person who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. He or she is unable to return to their country, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
Are you familiar with the sequel to the Christmas story? It’s about Joseph, Mary, and Jesus living as refugees in Egypt (Matthew 2:13-23). After the three wise men presented Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, they were warned in a dream not to tell King Herod the whereabouts of the child because Herod intended to kill Jesus. The king considered Jesus a threat to his throne. An angel of the Lord then appeared to Joseph and said, “Get up and take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt.”
Christmas is the perfect time of year to reach out to our neighbors. If you know of someone who will be away from family this Christmas, I encourage you to reach out to them in some way this holiday season. I now volunteer for The Welcome Project, an Owensboro faith-based nonprofit that helps groups from local churches welcome the refugees coming to our town. For more information, see twpowb.org.
This Christmas will be special for my family and me. Earlier this year, my husband Kevin and I had the opportunity to go to Poland and meet some of my extended family. To my knowledge, I am the first of Edna’s descendants to see her homeland. It was a dream come true for me. My grandma Helen was equally excited, and told me, “If only my mother were here to witness this!” It was a wonderful trip. Our relatives were terrific tour guides. We meandered through the medieval city of Kraków, visited the somber site of Auschwitz-Birkenau (former Nazi concentration and extermination camp), and walked through the artistic undergrounds of the incredible Wieliczka Salt Mine.
Kevin and I aren’t Owensboro natives. As you might guess, I grew up in Ohio, and Kevin is from Greenville, South Carolina. Kevin’s work brought us here in 2011. We love living here – the only difficult part is being a good distance away from our families. However, we are grateful for people who make us feel at home in Owensboro, and for the ability to travel to Ohio and South Carolina several times a year. We don’t take that luxury for granted.