Wilczewski on Holmgren, 'Warsaw Is My Country: The Story of Krystyna Bierzynska, 1928-1945' and Urbikas, 'My Sister’s Mother: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Stalin’s Siberia'
Beth Holmgren. Warsaw Is My Country: The Story of Krystyna Bierzynska, 1928-1945. Brighton: Academic Studies Press, 2018. 130 pp. $21.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-61811-759-5.Donna Solecka Urbikas. My Sister’s Mother: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Stalin’s Siberia. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2016. xiv + 302 pp. $26.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-299-30850-6.
Reviewed by Michal Wilczewski (University of Illinois - Chicago)
Published on H-Poland (December, 2019)
Commissioned by Anna Muller (University of Michigan - Dearborn)
The two excellent books under review tell the stories of remarkable women, whose resiliency, tenacity, and sometimes sheer luck allowed them to survive some of the darkest moments of the twentieth century. The first, Beth Holmgren’s Warsaw Is My Country: The Story of Krystyna Bierzyńska, 1928-1945, tells the story of a young Jewish girl growing up on the Aryan side during Nazi occupation and her transformation into a fighter in the Warsaw Uprising. The second, Donna Solecka Urbikas’s My Sister’s Mother: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Stalin’s Siberia, is the harrowing account of the author’s mother and sister, who were deportees to Siberia and elsewhere. Together, these books are shining examples of what can result when difficult and deeply troubling personal histories are placed into the hands of skillful and careful storytellers.
At the heart of Warsaw Is My Country is the story of Krystyna Bierzyńska, a teenage girl from an assimilated, well-to-do Jewish family in Warsaw, who during Nazi occupation transformed and matured into a street-wise partisan fighter. Composed, in part, from interviews that Holmgren conducted with Bierzyńska in 2014 and 2015 and a wealth of secondary historical literature, the short volume is a masterful crafting of Bierzyńska’s most formative years grounded in a broader wartime context. In eleven brisk but thorough chapters, Holmgren takes us through Bierzyńska’s beloved Warsaw and recreates for readers the teenage girl’s world from the bottom up. Before the war, the young Krystyna was a naïve girl, sheltered by her family from the growing anti-Semitism that Jews frequently experienced in interwar Poland. But by the war’s end, after facing the loss of most of her family and living a conspiratorial life on the Aryan side, she was a weathered combatant in the Home Army and a ruthless Polish patriot who learned to navigate a frequently cruel and unpredictable world. Holmgren’s telling of her protagonist’s tale brings to light and personalizes stories of Polish and Jewish Varsovians’ survival and resistance and is a graceful elegy for the Warsaw of Bierzyńska’s youth. A captivating and moving coming of age story, Warsaw Is My Country traces the intersections of Polish and Jewish histories of the Second World War through the eyes of a young, real life heroine.
Equally moving is the story that Solecka Urbikas tells us about her mother, Janina, and her half-sister, Mira (though she prefers to refer to Mira simply as her sister), who were deported to Siberia at the beginning of the Second World War. Written in the genre of creative nonfiction, the book is based on interviews the author conducted over many decades with her mother, sister, and father, Wawrzyniec (one of the few Polish Army officers not killed in the Katyń Massacre). The chapters transcend chronological time, flowing instead between Janina’s and Mira’s experiences in exile and the author’s own self-reflections on motherhood, her sometimes tumultuous upbringing, and what it meant to grow up as a Polish American. Exiled in 1940 to Siberia from their home in Grodno, in what is now present-day Belarus, Janina and Mira survived the bitter Siberian cold, multiple disease outbreaks, enormous violence, and near starvation thanks to Janina’s ingenuity and perseverance. Like many expellees, the pair was also moved from the Soviet Union to the Middle East, India, and eventually Britain, where the author was born before her family moved to the United States. But more than just being a biographical account of her family’s experiences in exile during the Second World War, My Sister’s Mother is an introspective look into the author’s own coming to terms with her family history. Delving deeply into her own personal struggles, Solecka Urbikas chronicles what it was like trying to grow up with a mother and sister whose lives were so irrevocably changed by war. Somewhat jealous of the “mysterious closeness” her sister shared with her mother as exemplified in the book’s fitting title, Solecka Urbikas explains that often she felt as a bit of an outsider in her own family, especially as her mother reminded her of her privileged life in the United States (p. 5). My Sister’s Mother is a breathtakingly beautiful story of survival and the reaches of a mother’s love, but it is also a painful reminder of the legacies of trauma and their effect on family dynamics decades after.
Warsaw Is My Country and My Sister’s Mother are important contributions to Eastern European women’s experiences during the Second World War and complement the growing historiographical literature on the topic. As biographies, they are in some ways more versatile than traditional historical monographs, capable of being used and appreciated in many settings, both in and out of the academy. But perhaps their most important contribution is that they are an immortalization of the lives and a world that feel so distant and foreign to us now. As the generation of survivors passes, we will grow increasingly more reliant on books like these to give us insight into the events they chronicle. The memories they recount and the feelings they share will become the stuff of history and future historians’ precious sources. Both Holmgren and Solecka Urbikas tell us that their protagonists were reluctant to share their stories, but I am grateful that they toiled through intense personal trauma to do so. Both books are highly detailed, emotionally compelling, and hauntingly human. They deserve, and are sure to enjoy, a wide readership.
. Notable works of Eastern European women’s experiences in World War II include Katherine R. Jolluck, Exile and Identity: Polish Women in the Soviet Union during World War II (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002); Nancy M. Wingfield and Maria Bucur, eds., Gender and War in Twentieth-Century Eastern Europe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006); and Jelena Batinić, Women and Yugoslav Partisans: A History of World War II Resistance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
Citation: Michal Wilczewski. Review of Holmgren, Beth, Warsaw Is My Country: The Story of Krystyna Bierzynska, 1928-1945 and Urbikas, Donna Solecka, My Sister’s Mother: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Stalin’s Siberia. H-Poland, H-Net Reviews. December, 2019.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.