June 29 and 30, 2001
Took time to relax, read, and think. I brought a biography with me, The Man of the Century, The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II by Jonathan Kwitny. I’m reading this big book for a lot of reasons. First of all, I’m 100% Polish American, second generation in this country. My grandparents all came from Poland during WWI. I never paid much attention to my ethnic roots in my childhood, I just remember that it took a lot of practice in kindergarten to learn how to spell my 10 letter last name. It didn’t hit me that my family was “different” until the day I saw a public service commercial on TV about tolerance. It was one of those 1950’s cute cartoon presentation with a catchy jingle. Its message was people needed to get along and it didn’t matter where you were from or the color of your skin or even if your name ended in “ski”. WHAT? My last name ended in “ski.” What did that mean? As I got older I learned a painful reality as I was barraged with Polish jokes that seemed to make one point, I was part of a nationality made up of stupid people.
But then Karol Jozef Wojtyla of Poland became pope. He wrote, he could speak many languages, and he brought down communism in Eastern Europe. He skied, hiked and, like me, love the outdoors. He became my hero.
I went to Poland because of him. I spent a week traveling alone wanting to take everything in and really know what it meant to be Polish. I explored, riding trains through the northern part of Poland. I had a conversation with two college students as we exchanged the names of Polish dishes. (My mom is a great ethnic cook.) I ended up on another train drinking beer with some happy natives and trying to follow along with the Polish folk songs they were singing at the top of their lungs. I arrived in Gdansk the site of The Polish Solidarity Movement and bought lovely amber jewelry to always remember how proud I was that day.
I went back to Warsaw and met my aunt at a great hotel. (See my February 28, 2018 post “Hard Beginnings in Warsaw”.) We took a bus tour of southern Poland and saw many of the places where John Paul had lived
I am no longer loyal to just one religion because I now I respect all spiritual paths. But I am still Polish with a renewed pride in my roots because of John Paul II and the stubborn strength of my ancestors. My life outlook allows me to see the lessons in all things. The jokes about Polish people I heard as a child now cause me to hesitate when I feel the need to make fun of someone because of their religious beliefs or social status or their cultural viewpoints. I know what it is like to be misunderstood and labeled for being different.
The greatest gift Karol Jozef Wojtyla gave me were the first words of the speech he gave when he became pope. “Be not afraid.” I carry these three words on this trip just as I will carry them through the rest of my life.