From Poland to Russia to India to England to America, Janina and her daughter Mira traveled during the grim years and aftermath of World War II, enduring the most extreme conditions of maltreatment, sickness, starvation, danger and near-death again and again. Donna (Danuta) Solecka Urbikas, Janina’s youngest child and Mira’s half-sister, born to a life of ease and possibility, has written their saga.
Daughter of Polish landowners whose clan was torn apart by the war, Janina and her five-year-old daughter were accused of “crimes” by the Soviet occupiers and shipped off to Siberia, where Janina would work in the forests. Paid slave wages, she managed to eke out survival, never neglecting Mira but often having to leave her alone for hours or days. Most children died in those circumstances. Miraculously, Mira lived, despite nearly constant hunger and thirst, lice, fevers and a bout of typhus. Janina too clung to life, working long hours at hard physical labor, foraging for foods, scavenging potatoes and tobacco to trade for shoes and dresses for her daughter, and preserving a suitcase full of valuable family documents. Fortuitously meeting a sympathetic Polish army officer, Wawrzyniec Solecki, who befriended Mira, Janina did not forget him.
Later, after both had landed up in the UK, they were married.
Life in the US for Janina and Wawrzyniec included humble employment, a farm in Wisconsin (chosen for its remoteness since both had the residual instinct to stay in the open, where bombs were least likely to be dropped), and the simplicity that reminded them of their childhoods in the homeland they loved but to which they would never return. There the author spent summers, only much later appreciating the charms of rural life that so attracted her parents. It took even longer for Urbikas to relate comfortably to Mira or to her mother, who seemed to favor Mira and sometimes berated her younger child: “Hey, American…look what you have…don’t be so spoiled.” Janina and Mira would often lapse into wartime memories, tell horrific stories. Mira used the term "human animals" to describe their captors. Janina sometimes indulged in chains of “what ifs” as she recalled and finally, in her seventies, fully recounted her life story.
The author gently contrasts her own upbringing with that of her sister, Mira, as if any two stories could have less in common. As her life progresses, faced with the impending deaths of Janina and Wawrzyniec, Mira’s increasing mental instability, her own cancer and that of her teenage son, she begins to understand better how terrors and deprivations would have scarred her mother and sister.
After the deaths of both parents, she comes to understand that in some way, for those who go through it, war never ends. The lines between her and her Polish-born family still run separate but are closer together now.
This important and gripping memoir adds to a little-known history of Polish civilian prisoners caught in the web of World War II by the unrelenting Soviet machine.