We’ll Always Have Poland

Poland Family

Last Sunday we were blessed to host a party of sorts. What started as my attempt repay the “Poland daughters” who took me out to dinner for my birthday last fall  turned into a mini-World Youth Day reunion, with many of the teens and a couple of the adults from our trip to Krakow a year ago.

We visited, prayed together, and shared a meal: grilled kielbasa and pierogies, pasta and sauce and salad, cookies and root beer floats. We shared our favorite memories and laughed and laughed. We talked about future plans—many of my Poland daughters are starting college this year. And I think we all longed to go back to visit the Motherland.

The next morning I thought I should re-share the post I wrote after the pilgrimage—only to realize I never wrote a recap. I thought about doing a standard Top-10 list, but no matter how I counted or grouped things together, I had too much to share.

So I’ll keep this to three moments that stand out to me above the others. Continue reading

Book Break: Valerian Pączek: Priest, Soldier, Quiet Hero

My first visit to the University of Mary Bookstore, a slim little volume caught my eye, perhaps because I was hungry. The book was titled Valerian Pączek: Priest, Soldier, Quiet Hero by William C. Sherman and John Guerrero and is pictured to the right. In proper Polish, the good Father’s name is rendered Walerian Pączek (pronounced va-LAIR-yan POWN-chek, though it appears his Plains parishioners may have said it “paycheck”) and his last name is the singular form of pączki, those stout, fruit- or custard-filled pastries Poles and others enjoy on Fat Tuesday.

I received the book for Christmas and finished it last night. At just 88 pages, it is a quick read, and worth every moment — if for no other reason than to imagine this Polish hero serving as a parish priest in rural North Dakota and recognizing that most of the time, we have no idea what people have been through in their lives.

Fr. Pączek was born in 1909 in East Prussia, a region of Poland which at that time was under German control. He grew up speaking Polish and accentless German, became a Catholic Pallotine priest, joined the Polish Army, served in the British Army after World War II, then moved to the States, ultimately to become a parish priest at historically German and Czech parishes North Dakota. He was quiet about himself and his experiences in the War, so most people had little idea that their Polish pastor:

  • Served in the Polish Home Army (the underground military resistance to the Nazis) under the code-name Germen, providing for the spiritual needs of fighters and refugees with secret Masses and moving intelligence, communications, and large sums of money under the noses of the Germans, even to the Polish government in exile in London.
  • Personally forged documents for Jewish families using the identities of recently deceased Poles gleaned from the growing cemeteries around Warsaw to help them avoid detection by the Nazis. (One of the most compelling scenes in the book is a chance meeting between Fr. Pączek and a Jewish man who escaped to the States from Poland. The Jewish man shows Father his forged documents, and Fr. Pączek rewrites the information on a sheet of paper to show the handwriting is an exact match.)
  • Narrowly escaped death at least six times, was an excellent marksman and carried a handgun during (and after) the war, and was decorated by both the Polish and British armies and recognized by the U.S. Army as well.
  • Was a marked man by the Polish Communist Government after the War — and as a result, spoke little about his service and often destroyed correspondence about it to avoid endangering friends and family still in Eastern Europe (and himself).
  • Spoke several languages and earned multiple degrees, including a doctorate in canon law, which he completed via correspondence to scholars across Europe while serving in parishes in North Dakota.
  • Was known and welcomed by name, rank, and code-name by Pope John Paul II and greeted as Fr. Colonel Pączek by the Swiss Guards when he visited the Vatican.
Juxtapose these facts against this blog post from a former parishioner of Fr. Pączek’s, who recalls going to the Polish priest for Confession because he was more lenient than the other priests in terms of penance, and the words “quiet hero” seem particularly apt. Only at the end of his life did the parishioners who remember him really begin to know him.
The book is clearly a labor of love. Sections of it read like a draft, raising as many questions as they answer — and since so little was known about his life before Fr. Pączek’s death and he was not inclined to make it easy for people to sort out his past, many of those questions and controversies will not be answered this side of heaven. But all told, it is a compelling portrait of a man who shouldered the burdens of war and carried them with quiet dignity all the days of his life.

Headed to the Motherland!

This time tomorrow, Gabe and I will be winding our way through security lines at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, preparing to embark on a pilgrimage to Poland to join Pope Francis and millions of other Catholics from around the world for World Youth Day. This will be Gabe’s first flight, first international trip, and first World Youth Day; for me, it’s my second overseas trip (Iceland being the first), one of my two or three longest flights (Iceland and Hawaii), and my second World Youth Day (2002 in Toronto with Pope John Paul II).

For me, it as also very much a journey to the Motherland. My mom is a Polish Catholic farm girl whose grandparents immigrated from Poland in the first half of the 20th century: the Galubenskis and Koczwaras. The Thorp clan is so diverse in its various bloodlines that Polish has always been the nationality I’ve identified most strongly with: it’s the only foreign language I’ve heard older relatives speak, the one ethnic cuisine I’ve had older relatives cook and serve, the language I studied in college, and the only poetry I’ve ever taken the time to translate myself. Poland’s history is deep, beautiful, tragic, and heroic. And even now, remarkably Catholic.

I am blessed to make this trip with a number of friends from here in Minnesota, and especially with Gabe, whose faith as a teen almost certainly surpasses my own. It is my hope that this trip deepens my own conversion and his, so we can be the men God has called us to be with courage, joy, and zeal.

I’m sure I’ll post much more on this trip when we return. Pray for us and for our family and friends while we’re away, and know of our prayers for you! St. John Paul II, St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Faustina Kowalska — all you great Polish saints and all you holy men and women — pray for us!

Book Break: Holy Week by Jerzy Andrzejewski

Somewhere along the line these past few years I picked up an English translation of the short novel Holy Week by Polish author Jerzy Andrzejewski. I bought it knowing almost nothing about the book or the author, because I used to study Polish in college, as a tribute to my maternal roots, and because Polish literature can be hard to come by. Andrzejewski is perhaps best know for his novel Ashes and Diamonds, which was turned into a well-known Polish film of the same name by Andrzej Wajda, who has also made a film version of Holy Week. I saw the movie version of Ashes and Diamonds in college and liked it, so I took a chance on the book.

The novel tells the story on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the tragic burning of the ghetto and elimination of Warsaw’s Jews during the days leading up to Easter of 1943 — from the perspective of a handful of Poles whose lives are variously entangled with each other’s and with a young Jewish woman trying to evade the Nazis and their Polish informers.

It has stood on my shelf for a at least two Holy Weeks now, until this past Tuesday, when I took it up on a whim. It is a short novel — just 125 pages — with four chapters covering each day from Tuesday to Good Friday. I took this as a sign and read it a chapter a day, finishing the book’s final chapter this morning.

This is a provocative book that reads a bit like watching a play. The Polish characters reflect the range of Polish responses to the uprising and “liquidation” of the Jewish inhabitants. Most display some level of antisemitism, ranging from mealy-mouthed rationalization of the it’s-complicated variety to thankfulness that the hated Nazis are nevertheless solving the Poles’ “Jewish problem” for them. Only three adult characters avoid being painted with this brush: 
  • Devout Catholic wife and expecting mother Anna, whose unquestioning morality enables her to help her husband’s Jewish friend even as her faith in God and her husband begins to waver;
  • Idealistic and aggressive Julek, who insists upon doing what he little he can to aid the Jewish uprising and points out others’ equivocations: “I know perfectly well what it means to suit one’s anti-Semitism to one’s tastes. We merely find the so-called methods distasteful. The point is there shouldn’t be any methods in the first place!”; and
  • Well-to-do landlord Zamojski, who at least avoids aiding the the anti-Semites, but who may himself be concealing his Jewish heritage.
The juxtaposition of Irena’s struggle to survive and the ever-present cloud of smoke and sounds of gunfire and explosions from the ghetto against the backdrop of Polish Christians enjoying spring and preparing for the Easter holiday as best they can lends the novel an almost surreal atmosphere. The story was written and published quickly and courageously in 1945, and was not popular among Poles, whose nerves were too raw and wounds were too fresh, and who found the various expressions of racism and nationalism rang uncomfortably true. Even today, this book pricks the conscience, making the reader reevaluate how he or she perceives others and wishes to be perceived — and what circumstances might limit their charity on behalf of a neighbor who is unlike themselves.
The book reads like an English translation from the original Polish — certain expressions do not ring true to American ears, but make sense in the Polish context — and the story will end too abruptly (and without sufficient resolution) for some tastes. Still, it is a quick and thought-provoking read. If you are interested, it is available through the Great River Regional Library in St. Michael, or you can borrow my copy.

Thanksgiving Reflections

Above: Trevor’s turkey art project…or, “the cursed Indian,” as he calls it.

Stuff For Which I Am Thankful*: my beautiful bride; my astonishing children; two sets of happily married and loving parents (Busia and Dziadzi; Grandma and Grandpa Venjohn); a newly married sister and a new brother-in-law and nephew; my sister’s kids who double as godchildren for us…

* * * * *

A year ago on Thanksgiving, my sister was driving Jodi to the ER while my Mom and I finished dinner and greeted our other guests. I pulled each aside, and explained in a choked voice that we had intended to deliver the good news that we were expecting our fifth child, but that something wasn’t right, and Jodi was headed into the clinic to see a doctor. Was is ordinarily a favorite holiday for feasting and frivolity took a sudden turn: life became very real and close that afternoon, and our blessings, though numerous, seemed worth counting one by one.

It may seem odd to speak of the blessings that flowed from the loss of our little Jude, but there were many, and they began that very day, when the emotional tension reached a point that I called together everyone who was at our home — both sides of the family, adults and children alike — and asked them to pray for Jodi and our baby. We say Grace before every Thanksgiving feast, but this was something different, a deep and heartfelt prayer of petition, and I was moved by our loved ones and touched by God in that moment of profound peace.

In the year since, much has changed. For one, we were forced to take a serious look at our family and discern whether we were called to have another child. With Jude, we had been open to life, but since we had told the kids and had seen the joy in their faces at the prospect of another sibling, we needed to decide if a fifth child were something we would actively pursue — and talk with our doctors about the likelihood that we could lose another. The doctors’ answers were all positive; it didn’t take long to decide, and even less time to again learn we were expecting. On or about Dec. 14 we will welcome a fifth Thorplet — Samuel Firman or Lillian Clara, depending — and our house, our family, and our friends will rejoice. Join us, won’t you?

* * * * *
… all our other nieces, nephews, and godchildren; countless aunts, uncles, and cousins (including in-laws and outlaws; Polish and otherwise); our friends and family in Michigan, Minnesota, South Dakota, Colorado, on both coasts, and everywhere in between…

* * * * *

Today is also Brendan’s 14th birthday, and in his opinion, it doesn’t get better than turkey and ham, mashed potatoes and stuffing, a chocolate cake from his mom, and his own personal apple pie from his godmother, Aunt Brenda. I can’t talk about pregnancy, Thanksgiving, and Bren’s birthday without recalling this day 14 years ago. The following account originally appeared in The Pioneer daily newspaper on Tuesday, Dec. 2:
At long last, we have a son

Few mornings compare to Sundays in October, except perhaps the last Monday in November.
On November 24, 1997, at 9:59 a.m., Jodi and I gave birth [Blogger’s Note: In retrospect, my role was more coaching and cutting the cord] to our son, Brendan James. First he was a tiny patch of hair, dark and slick (“I can see the head,” I cried, and Jodi pushed) — then an immense, misshapen head, and then a baby, wriggling and purple, with blood in his hair. He was tiny and yet strangely huge above Jodi’s shrunken tummy, struggling to make verbal the light, the cold and that infernal bulb syringe moving quickly about his head, from cavity to cavity, removing excess fluids.
Though he did not find the words, he made his case, and gave the face a voice; he cried, and from his cheeks slowly out to each extremity, turned scarlet.
“You have a baby boy,” the doctor said when we forgot to check or ask.
Brendan James Thorp.
We learned a short while late that weighed nine pounds, nine ounces, and measured 21-and-a-half inches long. These measurements seem important, especially to women and more so to those who have given birth to babies nearly as big or bigger. The weight was a source of some pride for me — I weighed in at nine pounds, 15 ounces, so of course he talks after his old man.
As for length…well, it has conjured up old fishing analogies — “He’s a keeper,” I say, and a friend tells me he’d be legal even for a pike.
His head measured 38 centimeters — again, a source of pride, but when I heard this, I wondered who would ask about head circumference.
It was question number four from Jodi’s mom, just behind weight and length. [Blogger’s Note: And the unstated but essential, “Are mom and baby doing well?”]

We never counted fingers and toes — wouldn’t his hands and feet look odd if he had extra or too few? And wouldn’t we still love him with six toes?
I still have counted, and now that twinge of doubt and anxiety that is becoming all too familiar has me wondering if I should…
His feet look like miniature versions of adult feet, which is nothing profound, I know, except that they are not chubby little baby feet at all. They are long, with distinct arches and heels and large big toes. He has wide hands with long, thin fingers like his father (my dad says I was born with a man’s hands). My mother — his Busia (Polish for “grandmother,” and my mom is Polish) calls them Thorp
He is the first male child born to my generation of the Thorp clam that will carry the family name, and my father and I are proud.
The specs — length, weight, etc. — are important, of course, if for no other reason than we are conditioned to ask and to tell. The other things — his hands, his feet, his name — are important because these things have stayed the same.
Our son is changing before our eyes. He has been with us one week now, and each day he is new again. His head has assumed a more regular shape; his color has gone from pale purple to jaundiced yellow to a healthy reddish hue (when not crying — he still turns scarlet when he screams). He is more awake and alert each day, and each day he eats more, sleeps longer, and cries less.
It feels as though the bus will stop at 880 Maple tomorrow, and Christmas Eve I’ll be wrapping Grandpa Thorp’s old Winchester Model 94. After months, weeks, and days of watching, waiting and timing, we’re wishing time would stand still for a moment and let us enjoy our infant son.
Like my white-haired Dziadzi (Polish for “grandfather,” and my mother’s father, like all Galubenskis, is Polish) and my father, I find myself sitting still with Brendan warm on my lap, staring down at him — watching him yawn, cry, sleep and stare back at me. Will he be a wrestler? A scholar? A fireman? He grabs my fingers and squeezes, and I tell him he is strong. I hover over him like other me do, and I’m careful — he is the heaviest nine pounds I’ve ever carried, and no doctor will convince me he’s not delicate and doesn’t need my constant watchfulness and protection. And he shall have it.
If I ramble, it’s because I don’t know what to say — we’ve only just met, and already I’m in love.
We have a son.
* * * * *
…also, a snug house and steady job; our Schnauzer, Puck; our Catholic faith and Life in the Bubble
* * * * *
I never planned to be a father of five (or four, or six), but I am grateful for the call and the opportunity. And today, on this feast, I am grateful to live in a country where Jodi and I are free to make this choice. To be sure, there are many who think we should’ve stopped at two, or one (or even before we started); I have no doubt that I work with several, although thus far they’ve kept their opinion to themselves. I’m grateful for the surprise of gender, knowing that we can welcome whichever wee one emerges with no pressure from society or the State.
I was browsing an online exchange featuring a young soldier speaking out against the Occupy Wall Street protesters and a liberal columnist responding to him. The columnist, as I recall, claimed that liberals dream bigger than conservatives — that they dream of employment and fair wages and health care for everyone, regardless of background or ability. It’s noble sentiment — Christian, even, on some level — but I don’t believe it’s true that this liberal has bigger dreams than me. We have the same dreams, but very different methods of pursuing them. For example, if I could opt in or opt out of the various programs and initiatives designed to save and protect us, fine — I’m free to choose. 
“But,” someone will object, “if people can opt out of these programs , not enough people will participate, and the programs will fail!”
Exactly. If people don’t want help, get out of the way.

I’ve blogged about the pursuit of happiness before. I don’t want anyone to presume to know what’s best for me and my family. I don’t want to be forced into participating in programs or activities that don’t correspond to my values or my faith. And I don’t want to outsource my good life or my responsibilities to love my God, my neighbor, and my enemy. I want to learn to do these things myself. And today I’m thankful to live in a country where this is still possible, and a community full of great examples: people who live each day as both a blessing and a prayer.

The end is the same. But we get there through conversion, not coercion, so that people don’t resent doing right.

* * * * *

…home-brewed beer; books and music; laughter, tears, and prayers…shall I continue?

* * * * *

Finally — although Thanksgiving isn’t really about football — I am grateful that the Lions are a legitimate team playing a meaningful game this afternoon. I am concerned, however: if you watched the pregame for the Monday night showdown between the Vikings and the Packers, you know that if you took the very best attributes of every great quarterback in football history (including Bradshaw’s, not Brady’s, hair) and constructed a Super-Quarterback, you might begin to approach the greatness of Aaron Rogers. With Rogers and the Packers already predestined for the Superbowl, and Ndamukong Suh designated as the “dirtiest player in the league,” I think we’re going to see the NFL enforcing it’s new rule implemented just a couple of weeks ago. Brendan and his friends first noticed this during the Monday night game:

Happy birthday, kid, and happy Thanksgiving, all!

* * * * *

*A partial list in no specific order…