Author: Donna Solecka Urbikas

Publisher: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2016

ISBN: 9780299308506

There are plenty of reasons to recommend this tribute to the author’s Polish mother and half-sister who were sent to Siberian labor camps long before the author was born. First and foremost, it is deeply personal oral history, almost a confession on the part of the mother after years of silence. It is about her will to survive and to save her child. Second, it is a double-memoir, published by the “advantaged” other daughter, who was born in the United States. The horrific treatment her mother and sister endured in 1940-1942 affected her like second-hand smoke, but worse, because it was psychologically damaging to the entire family. It’s therefore a meditation on parents who sometimes fall short, but still are loved. It probes gently into mental health. It questions faith.

The effect of landscape is an important theme. The descriptions of life in Siberia are mostly brutal but sometimes lyrical and moving. The Polish victims’ forced journey after release, through Central Asia and the exotic Middle East and India, and then to Coventry, England, was dramatic and worth a separate novel if the author so chooses. Of course this book is politically timely, because the villains are Russians, and the story is not solely about war, exile, and torture, but about prolonged migration, loss of homeland, and uneasy resettlement in a democratic nation.

In late 1939, Germany and the Russia agreed to divide up Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Romania, and Poland into their Nazi and Soviet “spheres of influence.” Poland was caught in the middle of these rising powers. Polish mathematicians, working with France and Britain, had contributed to breaking the Enigma code, but Polish troops were poorly prepared for combat. On September 1, Germany invaded Poland from the west and began a massacre of civilians. On September 17, the Red Army invaded from the east, intending to cross Poland to fight the Germans. The commander-in-chief of the Polish forces expressed their position, saying: “With the Germans we run the risk of losing our liberty. With the Russians we will lose our soul.” MY SISTER’S MOTHER represents the manifestation of that fear. Polish men were rounded up and either executed or drafted into the fighting. Polish women became refugees, pushed out of their homes without their belongings or food, and sent to Russia’s remote work camps. Their children went with them and many did not live very long under extreme conditions.  

Donna Solecka Urbikas has introduced her work as a long-delayed family history based on interviews with her mother Janina, half-sister Mira, and her own father, Wawrzyniec, who was one of the few hundred surviving Polish Army officers. She supported their memories by reviewing documents, documentaries, oral histories and autobiographies, and by consulting experts on the complexities of Polish history, geography, and ethnicity. She has woven what she learned into a “novelistic” narrative, aka “creative nonfiction.”  In doing so, she wrestled with the purpose and proprieties of personal writing. In my opinion, she has triumphed over the pitfalls of memoir, while constructing a beautiful family story that is a valid perspective on world events. She’s a model for other writers who wish to share their experience as one strand in an endless braid of relationships. Psychologists will appreciate this author’s way of stepping back to consider the origins of emotional as well as physical personality.

My personal relationship to the Soleckas’ story is geographical and social; these people could have been my neighbors when they moved from Chicago to their Wisconsin farm in the 1950s. Decades earlier, the first wave of Polish immigrants had quietly populated pockets of our farmland and built their notable Polish Catholic churches. This second Polish “wave” at the end of WWII was better off economically, and politically astute. Most wanted to assimilate. People badly damaged couldn’t. This was not understood. The atrocities the Russians committed were not exposed until 1989, four years after this author decided to share her family’s experience of modern history.