Re-establishing family ties in Warsaw

by Tristan Donaldson / Beacon Correspondent • April 9, 2015

WELL, Netherlands — I stepped out of the gate at the Bydgoszcz airport in Poland on Friday and immediately saw the sign with my mother’s maiden name: “BYSIEWICZ.” A small blonde woman dressed in pink pants and a denim jacket was holding it, while a man with a close-cropped beard towered beside her.

As I made my way over, the woman grabbed me and gave me four hard pecks on the cheek in true Polish fashion. 

“This is my mother, Gosia,” said the man. “She speaks no English. I speak only little.” I looked up at him. He was taller than I expected, near 6 1/2 feet, but I knew his piercing blue eyes from the Facebook photo.

“Then you must be Szymon!” I said ecstatically. “So good to see you!” He went for a handshake; I gave him a bear hug instead.

It had been 16 years since I had been in Poland, and now I had found my family again. This personal journey is one that many students at Emerson’s Kasteel Well program embark upon—reuniting with distant relatives or rekindling connections to their heritage. Now it was my turn.

Four months prior to this trip, I had been planning my three-month stay in Europe. In late December, my family received a Christmas card from our distant cousin in Poland, Tadeusz. He sent one every year, ever since we went to visit him in Warsaw back in 1999 when I was three years old. His letter gave me the crazy idea of going back to Poland for a weekend during my time abroad.

All my family had for contact was Tadeusz’s address on a tiny piece of paper, so I began searching the internet for some way to get in touch with him. After several hours, I at last found his grandson, Szymon, on Facebook. We corresponded over the next few months, preparing for my visit as the clock to Kasteel Well ticked down. 

The only family member from Poland I had ever met was Tadeusz, and that was 16 years ago. I spoke frequently with Szymon, but his English was limited, and so I had no idea what he was really like. The questions ran through my mind: Did I find the right people? Were they secretly mass murderers? Would they even know who I was?

I desperately wanted to know more about my family in Poland, but at the same time, I was worried that maybe I would not be able to connect with them. After all, there was the enormous language barrier between us. I spoke almost no Polish, and Szymon only knew his English from bad movies and videogames.

Either way, I knew I would be in for a memorable weekend.

That Sunday, my family brought me to Tadeusz’s house. He greeted me at the door with the customary four kisses.

Tadeusz was a small man of 76 years with a crooked leg and a constant twinkle in his eye. Eight of us crowded around a tiny table in his apartment, eating kielbasa and listening to Tchaikovsky, all while trying to figure out what the other was saying. 

When we finished lunch, Tadeusz told me that he had something to show me. He emerged from his study moments later with a black VCR tape, which he popped in his television set. On that ancient screen flicked an image of a large room filled with people. I saw Tadeusz and my grandfather speaking in Polish together; my aunts, my uncles, my cousins; my sisters Ava and Leyna; and of course, my parents.

It surprised me how different my parents looked. How had I forgotten that my mother had looked so beautiful? Could I even remember the last time I saw my father with hair? 

I stole a glance at Tadeusz. That twinkle in his eye was brighter than ever. He said something to me in Polish and pointed at the screen.

When I turned back, I saw what he meant.

There on the television was a little blonde boy playing with his toy dinosaurs. He climbed about the room, crawling on chairs and relatives, hardly understanding what everything was all about.

It was all so surreal and I was taken by surprise, but I understood. It did not matter that neither of us spoke the same tongue; the name Bysiewicz was language enough. I tried my best to keep down the tears.

As I sat there, dumbfounded, Szymon came over to me.

“Tristan?”

“Yes?”

“We stay for dinner.”

I could have kissed Szymon right then and there. Four times.