Saturday, April 30, 2016

U. of Wisconsin Publishes My Sister's Mother: A Memoir of War, Exile and Stallin's Siberia by Donna Solecka Urbikas

It too becoming a mother myself with all its selfless transformations to even begin to understand my mother. I cam to realize that the turning point in her life, that fateful day of her arrest and deportation in the winter of 1940, became my fate and had directed the course of my life and that of my children, as her parenting affected me more than I cared to admit. Though I didn't recognize it then, I was writing my mother's and sister's story in an attempt to capture their mysterious closeness, to become a part of it, to satisfy a longing that seemed to never be quieted in my mind...

I was fascinated with the title of this book, not being able to comprehend the background that might cause such a choice. Yet, when reading the book it becomes so clearly the perfect name to document the story. Urbikas, the author, writes of a part of her mother's and sister's lives that she never knew. At first she was a little jealous of their close connection. Later it led to a curiosity that could not be curtailed and she began the research necessary to write this extraordinary book. 

My Sister's Mother falls into the memoir genre; however, it turns out to be much is a family saga that starts in one part of the world, moving into another one where, tragically, the family creates an environment so close to what they had once owned, that readers immediately realize how much they missed their homeland, where they would have returned if possible.

My Sister's Mother:
A Memoir of War, Exile, and Stalin's Siberia

"My mother," my sister continued, "was a hero."I reeled back from the comfortable embrace of our mutual recollections and thought to myself, what do you mean my mother? Wasn't she our mother?

By Donna Solecka Urbikas

Advanced Readers Copy

Mira was the first daughter of Janina Slarzynska during her first marriage. Donna was born through another marriage and at that time her step-sister and mother were so close that Donna recognized the difference.

The Preface sets up the story:

This book is a nonfiction account of my family's experiences in pre-World War I Poland and during the years prior to and during World War II in Poland and the Soviet Union, the Middle East, India, and Britain, as well as the Unites State following World War II.
Before the fall of Societ-style Communism in Poland in 1989 and in the Soviet Union in 1990, the atrocities committed by the Soviets in the prisoner-of-war camps such as those that my father, a Polish Arms officer, witnessed or in the labor camps to which my mother and half-sister had been deported, were essentially unknown. It was my aim to bring those events to light when I first began writing their story in English in 1985...

Obviously there was much research and, as possible, interviews. Janina had always told stories of the past, so much so that  Donna sometimes didn't pay attention...until she was older and realized that she had begun listening and wanting to know more...Earlier discussions, from Donna and others, at first, were too naive and her lack of knowledge agitated her mother... Then,  by the time she was interviewing her mother, her mental faculties were oftentimes lost and/or too traumatic for her to respond. 

She included a time when her mother had initiated the discussion as she often did...  "Oh, nothing. It's nothing," she replied. She sounded nonchalant, but I recognized that she was waiting for an invitation to go on with her story.
"Now Mother, if you're going to say something, then finish telling us," my sister insisted. My sister, who by then was about thirty, always seemed to say the right thing in this mysteriously quiet, confident manner. I admired her composure, her coiffed hair styled nearly into a French twist, her impeccably tailored clothes.
"Well, I was just thinking about that time I had to go dig potatoes in Siberia," my mother began. "Do you remember, Mireczko?" she asked, using an endearing form of my sister's name.
I noticed my mother was poking at her portion of potatoes on her plate with a fork. My sister nodded knowingly toward her. Then they both fell silent as I waited for the rest of the story that I had heard dozens of times before, but nevertheless wanted to hear again. In spit of all the repetition, I was easily engaged by my mother's storytelling. She could make any mundane story come to life with her lulling voice, timely pauses, and expressive face. My father and I stared at her, waiting to hear more.
The conversation we were having reminded me of similar ones my parents often had with their friends. One time, my parents invited several new American friends to our Wisconsin farm during one of our vacations there, and as usual the conversation turned to the War.
"Why couldn't you just fight them or refuse to go? asked one guest naively.
"Wasn't Poland a free country then?" asked another.
My mother grew very grave, narrowing her full, arched eye brows and wrinkling her forehead, making herself look old and anguished. I sat still, bracing myself for an outburst and anticipating the embarrassment I expected to feel in front of out new guests.
"Free? Do you think you know what freedom is?" she asked, her voice rising. "I know what freedom really is, because I know what it's not!"

Poland had had a very brief period as a free country... How much more devastating it must have seemed to to have had freedom, only to lose it again!
How tragic it would be to have other countries come in and claim their property and everything they had worked for... Yes it has happened to others, but each story is unique... Picturing Janina trying to chop wood in the cold forest of Siberia, just putting in time until she could return and make sure her daughter was still alright, cannot easily be forgotten.

We find the youngest daughter having and enjoying that freedom in America, while the past is still haunting her mother and even her sister who, when, parties were held to match her with a husband, had refused to marry any of them... If you love solving mysteries, I think you might be able to imagine why Donna became determined to find out more about her sister's mother and, in turn, find out more about herself... I think she has succeeded in her desire!

A side note was interesting as the author mentions she was among the first who began to use creative nonfiction before it was formally accepted and now in the book, it allows an emotional connection of the family to be established as the saga moves forward.

Historical war novel fans should definitely check this out. Obviously, those from Poland, especially who came to America, will want to take this opportunity to initiate memories from their past. Whether similar or not, this is a memorable story documenting a family's trials and losses as they faced those invaders who came to conquer, not caring about any of those who were affected, in so many different and varied ways. The emotional impact of this story will leave you in deep thought which will not easily leave you. Be prepared.


The trip to the railway station was short. With the rising sun, the icy horizon emerged in the distance. The old black steam locomotive stood waiting for its reluctant passengers, spewing out white vapor in short bursts. The engine snorted like a race horse at the starting gate, and its billing white fog engulfed the train's engineers in a cloud that seemed to levitate them. For a brief moment, Janina thought of trying to escape in the commotion of the transfer to the train, but there beside her was Mira clinging to her hand... People choked back tears. Shouts and laments echoed through the cramped boxcars: "Ojczyno, Moja Ojczyzna (Country, my country." And then, almost as if by command, people broke into a chorus of...
The singing soon died out and only the occasional wail of the locomotive's whistle broke the silence and the children's cries. Mira joined in the sobbing as she cuddled at Janina's side. The farther they rode away from Poland, the heavier the mood became among the deportees....

Donna Solecka Urbikas was born in Coventry, England, and immigrated with her parents and sister to Chicago in 1952. After careers as a high school science teacher and environmental engineer, she is now a writer, realtor, and community volunteer. She lives in Chicago with her husband.

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