Three years ago, after my mother died, I discovered a time capsule locked in the chickenhouse on our old homestead near Nebish, Minnesota. Some of my siblings wanted to burn what to them appeared to be trash. My two oldest sisters and I rescued the treasure and brought it to my house.
Most biographical writers spend years researching their topic. Over the past few years I’ve spent countless hours reading, sorting, scanning, and transcribing thousands of pages that span 1822 to 1984. My great-grandparents were born in the 1860s and were an important influence in my mother’s life. My goal is to write a series of memoirs illuminating our famiy’s experience from 1920 forward , titled “Chickenhouse Chronicles” with relevant subtitles. Perhaps it’s too ambitious a goal, but I believe our story needs to be told.
Sadly, our family has a history of mental illness. About a year ago when I began to form a plan on how to approach this project, I realized I needed to acquire some knowledge of human behavior so autumn 2012 I attended Bemidji State University’s Intro to Psychology. This semester, Spring 2013, I am studying Abnormal Behavior. One fascinating thing I’ve learned is that environment—family life, social contacts, socioeconomic status, etc, constitutes 50% of the reason for vulnerability to mental disorders—genetic makeup influences the other 50%, with myriad variables, such as stressors and positive and negative reinforcers interacting to produce who we are.
My blog goal is to post a letter each week and place it in context of the narrative I am working on.
One of the first documents I read was my grandmother’s 1939 diary. This entry piqued my curiosity:
Saturday, August 26, 1939: “A frightful shock this a.m. in the air mail, mailed by Bar [my mother, Barbara] from Poland enclosing a letter from a young Polish Engineer asking us for permission to marry Bar—apparently immediately. We are simply stunned. We don’t know what to do—of course our inclination would be to cable to wait until xmas. Think of her beautiful talent being stored away in Poland, the tension spot of the world and apparently he owns the very oil fields Hitler wants.”
As children, we grew up listening to our mother’s tales about her music studies in Europe and how she escaped Poland on the eve of the 1939 Nazi invasion. Several of the old letters in the chickenhouse are written in French and confirm those stories. One letter is from Poland. I had it translated and discovered that it is a marriage proposal from the Polish Engineer my grandmother spoke of in her diary.
Front page of primary source document:
The translation reads:
(Kristaw is apparently a nickname or derivative of Zdzisław. [sic] is translator comment meaning, “as written.”)
After I read the letter, I needed to know who this man was who had written this love-letter/marriage proposal to 19 year old Barbara. Today I received my answer in this email message from a lady who does research work for me:
“Thanks for sending the scan of the original letter a couple of days ago. That helped immensely to read his handwriting. I had long been curious why the letterhead read “Z. Konopka, Engineer” (Inz. stands for the title of engineer.) It turns out that the name of the man your mother was engaged to was Zdzisław Konopka. He was a major in the Polish army, born August 14 or 15, 1895, near Antoniow (southern Poland.) His father’s name was Bartłomieja (Bartholomew).
Sadly it appears that he was murdered in the Katyn massacre (mass killing of Polish military and citizens by Stalin’s regime). He likely was killed in mid-late Sept. 1939, which would account for your mom’s immense sadness during this time. Zdzisław’s name appears on numerous lists of those killed in the Katyn massacre.”
The proposal letter was probably the last time my mother heard from her fiancé. She returned to New York City on September 24, 1939, aboard SS American Farmer.
In November, 1939 she recieved a letter from a former school friend living in France–a dark foreshadow. An excerpt reads, “I myself think the war will last about 3 years, a grim thought—I hope I’m wrong. I read last night the White Paper issued about Nazi cruelty in the concentration camps. It made me feel quite ill. If they treat their own nationals like that, what will they do to the prisoners of war? The sooner the Nazi element is wiped out the better for everyone.Do write again soon, my dear I shall be interested in how long this takes to reach you. About three weeks I imagine. Lots of Love, Ann”
Ann alludes to the “White Paper” a French Government communique, detailing Nazi cruelty the autumn of 1939. And she mentions prisoners of war. Did my mother communicate with Ann that autumn of 1939. Did Ann tell my mother that Kristaw had been captured by the Russian Army? Is it possible that my mother tried to contact her fiancé, Kristaw, after he was captured? (Ann, my mother, and a Polish girl, Eva Barabaka, had been close friends at the Music Conservatory in Brussels during 1937, 38, 39. My mother had been staying at Eva’s parents dacha in Poland.)
Further information I discovered indicates Kristaw may have been murdered as late as May, 1940. In the National Archives Katyn Forest Massacre Documentary, witnesses speak of letters from family members found on corpses.
My researcher also discovered that, “[Zdzisław Konopka’s] two brothers who were Jesuits, [and] sister who was nun at convent of St.Claire Jesuits – died in captivity.”