From Poznań to Hyde Park: Four Generations Through One Bracelet
My matrilineal family is very proud of our Polish heritage. We cherish photos and heirlooms, and love passing down stories of the past. For me, the memento closest to my heart is a hammered silver bangle worn not only by my mother, but my great grandmother too. Like my mother, and my great grandmother before me, I never take it off. It tells the story of four generations, from pre-War Poland to current day Chicago, with many stops in between. I hope you enjoy it's story too.
Gen. 1: Ania Woitkowiak
My great grandmother or, as we call her, Babunia Ania, was born on May 11, 1920 to a prominent family in Poznań, Poland. She was only nineteen when WWII started, yet by the time it ended she was married with three young children and a legacy to her name. Though her father died in Poznań’s Fort VII concentration camp, and she herself had had two close calls with the Gestapo, she and her family ran an underground business where they created fake documentation for around twenty Jewish people, and successfully helped them flee Poland to safety. In fact, forty years later on the steps of Montmartre, she was recognized and thanked by one of the people she had helped.
I don’t know when Babunia started wearing the bracelet. I think it may have been a wedding present. But I do know she never took it off. In fact, the bracelet became somewhat of a prophetic device–whenever it fell off, without fail, it meant that something terrible was about to happen. Luckily the bracelet is tight fitting, even around my notoriously tiny wrists, and has not fallen off on me.
I remember she used to call me her “little fish” (kochana ryba). She was witty, intelligent, and spoke five languages. Though I was young when Babunia passed, she is one of my biggest heroes. I think about her every day.
Gen. 2: Bozena Lewandowska
My grandmother, Bibi, was born in the middle of WWII, in July 1943. As a baby she was sickly, and Polish doctors refused to treat her, as they thought she would die inevitably; that it would be a waste of medicine. Her grandmother miraculously nursed her back to health using what Bibi describes as “grandma medicine.” She grew up in the midst of Stalinist influence; however, it was in wealth. Her father–Babunia’s husband–owned a transit company, which the socialist government allowed them to keep privately owned. The government knew that their bureaucracy would slow the efficiency of transport and distribution.
By all means, Bibi and her three sisters lived a glamorous life. They would have lavish parties where they danced on tables and played illegally obtained American records. They were private-school educated. Her sisters trained in conservatories, and one even became a ballerina in the national company. Bibi was different though. She couldn’t sing or dance as well as her sisters could, so she spent most of her time helping her dad in the garage, working on cars. She claims she could probably build a car from scratch. When she graduated high school, she got married and went on to study law. In her last semester she fell pregnant with my mother and decided to stop, as she knew she had the qualifications to work as a law secretary already.
When my mother was ten, Bibi took her on a round-the-world flight trip. However, when they went to get off their flight at Jakarta, they were stopped and detained at the airport because they had Eastern Bloc passports. Bibi’s younger sister Ania was living in Adelaide, Australia, working as a physical therapist, so they forfeited their tickets and decided to spend their holiday in Australia instead.
While they were in Australia, the Solidarność–"Solidarity"–movement led by Lech Wałęsa reached a critical point. Babunia phoned to tell them to remain in Australia until the Polish government lifted martial law. However, by the time martial law was lifted, Bibi and my mother had been in Australia for months, and my mother had already started school. The rest is history.
Life in Australia was much harder than in Poland. Bibi had virtually no money, spoke virtually no English, and her only support system was her sister. She worked as a maid both in Adelaide, and later on Mount Tamborine, where she moved with her sister several years later. Eventually her sister opened a Polish restaurant and gallery, and Bibi began to work there too.
Bibi has since moved to the Gold Coast and lives on the beach. Over the summer–their winter–she comes to New York to visit us, and in August spends her time in her family’s old lake cottage an hour outside of Poznań.
Gen. 3: Monika McLennan
I’ll preface this section by saying that I could literally write a dissertation on my mum. She’s so cool. Here’s a picture of her and my sister with Ai Weiwei if you don’t want to take my word.
Babunia passed her bracelet down to my mum as a good luck wish for a swim meet. Mondo, as we lovingly call her, thrived in Australia. She was an excellent student and an avid learner of languages. In fact, she and my dad met at a camp for the Queensland’s top French students while they were in high school. After she graduated high school, she did a gap year in Japan. She fell in love with Japanese language and culture, and subsequently majored in East Asian studies in uni. After getting her degree, she moved to Tokyo to take graduate classes at Seikei University while working at the Australian embassy. She stayed there until she got married to my dad three years later.
Her and my dad lived in Sydney after they got married, but soon moved to New York for my dad’s work. My siblings and I were all born in New York, but again, my dad’s job called, and we moved to London in 2003.
Shortly after moving to London, my mum remembers waking up in a panic, Babunia’s bracelet suddenly gone from her wrist. When she found it on the floor near her bed, she knew something was wrong–this bracelet does not come off without effort. My mum called Bibi to check that everything was okay in Australia. It was then she learned that Babunia had just been hospitalized, and the prognosis wasn’t good.
My mother adored her grandmother. They always had a special bond, especially after she received the bracelet. So, she took the first flight she could find to Brisbane, and rushed to see her beloved Babunia in the hospital.
The way she describes the visit is eerie. Apparently, Babunia had been in a vegetative state for the past week, but when my mum entered the room, Babunia called out for her “Monia.” My mum said she didn’t leave Babunia’s bedside until she took her last breath. Her head was on Babunia’s chest, and she said she felt Babunia’s soul leaving her body. I remember being seven or eight and going to the funeral. Her ashes were laid next to her husband’s, covered in pink carnations–her favorite flowers.
Gen. 4: Emilia McLennan
We lived in London for six years. I was in seventh grade when we moved back to New York, and the adjustment was hard. But I soon fell into a pattern. Like my mum, I had a talent for languages and sports. I was running cross country, and taking both Latin and Chinese. My mother passed the bracelet to me when I was sixteen. I was about to go on a three week trip to China with my school, and she wanted me to have the same strength that Babunia passed on to her. I don’t cry a lot, but I did at this. My whole life I had associated that bracelet with my mum. Now that she had given it to me, her oldest child, I felt like I was officially part of my family’s legacy.
I’ve changed my path a lot since I’ve gotten to college. My life has changed its path too. There have been more hurdles than I can count, but as they increased so did the love and support I received from my family. Maybe my resilience was built into Babunia’s bracelet.
Now that I’ve finally declared a major, I’ve locked myself into Russian and East European studies. It felt natural. Every day I wear four generations of family history; four generations of strong, amazing women who have shaped my life in so many different ways.
I haven’t yet figured out what I’m going to add to my family's legacy. But I know that whatever it is, it’ll make them proud. From my mother, to my grandmother, to Babunia herself.
Feature image and all other images via the author.