How I Embraced The Strength (and Grace) of My Polish Grandmother by Greg Archer
Growing up in Chicago, I always knew that my maternal Polish grandmother, Jadwiga Wilk Migut, was a very strong woman. She died before I was born in the 1960s, but she was often talked about during holiday gatherings where my large Polish clan gathered around dinner tables that, technically, could only seat eight people. How 14 people managed to eat around such a thing was perhaps one of the first miracles I ever experienced.
At one gathering—I must have been six or seven years old—my Uncle John passed a platter of potato pierogi slathered in melted butter and topped with fried onions that my mother, Bernice, prepared. Jadwiga was mentioned.
“Oh, she was a strong one—that woman!” my Uncle John mused. “You wouldn’t want to cross her. One stern look from her and she could make you wet your pants.”
Everybody laughed. I was intrigued. Pierogi kept circulating.
“Oh Bronia—kohana—remember how mamma always made these so perfect?” my aunt said dreamily as she slid five pierogi on a plate already full of stuffed cabbage, Polish ham, pickled pigs feet and pea salad.
“Do I remember? I helped her make hundreds of pierogi in Africa.”
Africa? My Polish family lived in Africa? How was that even possible?
The question stayed with me until high school, when I officially began piecing together my Polish family’s odyssey during the 1940s. I always knew that there was a strong chance I would write about what happened to my family, and how my Polish grandmother managed to keep everybody alive during uncertain times, but I was clueless about how that path would present itself or the emotional toll deeply exploring one’s ancestry would take.
Flashfoward 30 years. I am in my mid-forties, living in Northern California as a successful journalist and magazine editor, and looking for signs from the Universe to tell me what to do with my life. (When in Northern California … always ask for a “sign.”) I got plenty of signs that I should further unravel my family’s story but I resisted acting upon them for many years. Looking back, I must have intuitively felt that by actually doing it, I would unearth a bevy of uncomfortable feelings—mine, theirs, ours. But the signs persisted (blinking street lamps, curiously aligned numbers on digital clocks, meeting people randomly who were Polish or had my grandmother’s name; walking into a room and finding broken picture frames of my family there).
Let’s face it: When God gives you a sign to do something, you pretty much have to do it. It’s not as if you can take your SIGN FROM GOD back to WalMart and exchange it for one that is so much more convenient for you.
So, I followed the clues. I conducted extensive interviews with my family and within a few years’ time, all the puzzle pieces fit together. I sat there looking at the entire picture of their life, its profound significance, and how my family’s journey—and that of so many other Poles—was nearly swept under the rug of history.
In early February of 1940, Joseph Stalin’s military soldiers (the NKVD) stormed into my Polish family’s farmhouse outside of Tarnopol (then Poland; now Ukraine), rounded up Jadwiga and her husband Jacenty, and their six children (Mary, Janina, Joe, Stanley, John, Bernice), placed them on sleds and carted them off to boxcars at a nearby train station. They were packed into a crowded car and deported to the bitter depths of Siberia, where they endured life in a slave labor camp for 18 months—my grandfather and eldest aunt were forced to cut down trees in the forest with other workers. Conditions were abysmal.
Nearly 1 million Poles were deported to Russian slave labor between 1940 and the summer of 1941, but the American history books in school never mentioned it. Understanding what I do now, I sense that it was due to the fact that Stalin became America’s ally to defeat Hitler—Hitler’s attack on Russia in the summer of 1941 broke Germany and Russia’s non-aggression pact, which was signed in the fall of 1939, thereby solidifying their efforts to invade Poland; Hitler from the west, Stalin from the east. The consensus must have been: “Stalin helped us win the war—let’s not get into that other thing he did to the Polish people.”
Curiously, Hitler’s attack on Russia in the summer of 1941 was a blessing in disguise. Suddenly, Stalin wanted to join the Allied Forces. But Britain stepped in. She drafted a treaty (The Sikorski–Mayski Agreement), which stipulated Stalin had to free the Polish citizens he deported—those that were still alive. Labor camps were liberated. My family, by some miracle, remained intact, and, like so many others, fled by foot (or by sneaking lifts in a boxcar on an occasional passing train—the irony!) south, toward Uzbekistan, where they hoped to meet the Polish Army-In-Exile and General Anders’ command.
Jadwiga’s strength was prevalent through all of this. Some lives were lost along the way. But the woman kept on; she believed that something bigger than herself was leading her and the family toward safety—in this case, out of Russia with tens of thousands of other Poles, and into Tehran, and then India, and eventually, to an orphanage for Polish children in one of Britain’s East African territories. It was there, in Tanzania, where my family finally found refuge from the turbulent storms.
Bringing all of the nuances of my family’s tale to life in the memoir “Grace Revealed,” felt destined. I knew my grandmother was strong in real life, however, her spirit must be quite strong wherever she is now. In a way, I sense Jadwiga has been guiding some of the events that have occurred since I began this ancestral trek and shared it with others.
You never really see it coming, but there are profound, life-altering gifts that arrive when you explore your lineage—the gift of wisdom; the gift of hope; the gift of grace.
You can meet our guest blogger, Greg Archer, at PolishFest June 1-3. Buy his book at