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Group gives voice to Polish war survivors Legacy Project gathers, preserves refugees' stories

When English escapes her, Jozefa Kawalek Solecki switches to Polish, searching for the words to describe what happened to her after the German and Russian invasions of Poland 70 years ago.

To explain it all takes hours.

On a February morning in 1940, the 15-year-old Solecki began a trip a Siberian work camp with others from the nearby towns and villages. They were loaded into cattle cars and had no idea where they were going.

People broke out in song.

Sitting on the couch in her Cheektowaga living room one recent afternoon, Solecki began to sing the lilting, hopeful hymn.

"Nie przyjdzie na mnie zadna straszna trwoga . . ."

It means, "No terrible fear shall come to me."

She remembers voices joining others from one car to the next, until the song about trusting the Lord could be heard coming from all the cars that lined the tracks.

In Siberia, her baby nephew died of malnutrition. Her father disappeared. Solecki spent a decade traveling to Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran, India, Tanzania, South Africa, Scotland, and England, finally arriving in Buffalo at age 27.

"I don't wish anybody to go through that hell," she said in Polish-accented English.

Her story is painful to tell, as are the stories of the thousands of other Polish refugees who came to Buffalo to start their lives over after the war. Now there is an effort under way to collect stories from people like Solecki and commemorate their experiences in a local museum. So far, Solecki and about 10 others have offered to contribute stories.

A group made up of children of war survivors founded the Polish Legacy Project with the goal of interviewing people from Buffalo's aging Polish community, once one of the most populous in the country. Their jumping-off point was a collection of mementos and photos that was started two decades ago in an East Side community center. Now the Legacy Project has a 12-person board of directors; an application for nonprofit status in the works; plans for a "virtual" Web site museum at www.PolishLegacyBuffalo.com, and perhaps, a building, a book and a documentary.

The group's new effort begins next weekend, with a conference called "Poland to Buffalo Through WWII: Untold Stories Come Alive." The event will take place Saturday at the WNED Studios, 140 Lower Terrace, and next Sunday in Corpus Christi Church, 199 Clark St., and Dom Polski, 1081 Broadway.

Legacy Project founder Andrew Golebiowski said he believes the war is part of what makes this community unique.

"This refugee immigration story should be in this mosaic, which has had a few empty tiles in it until now," said Golebiowski, who worked on a Polish community documentary for local public television and now works at Channel 2 as a photographer and editor. "The challenge is getting people to think this is important . . . Now they're getting older and dying. I feel this sense of urgency to get the firsthand accounts."

Golebiowski hopes 400 will attend the conference, but he expects 200.

"Because we're Polish and we're pessimistic," he said with a smile.

Golebiowski believes that cultural tendencies to keep quiet, be modest and avoid complaining help explain why few people know about the non-Jewish Poles' stories about World War II.

The other reasons are varied and complex. The story of the Holocaust and the deaths of millions of Jews took precedence. Refugees focused on starting their lives over. There was a language barrier. The stories hurt and seem farfetched. Some refuse to talk.

One woman told Golebiowski a neighbor didn't believe she had been in Siberia.

"So after that, I gave up telling my story," she said.

>'A wonderful education'

Estimates place the number of non-Jewish Poles who died in the war between 2 million and 3 million, many in concentration camps or summary executions.

After the war, thousands of survivors emigrated to the United States.

While there are no formal counts, Golebiowski estimates a few thousand refugees settled in Buffalo. Often they came because of family connections. Sponsorships from churches and community organizations helped, too.

Golebiowski doesn't know who sponsored his late father, who found work as a welder at the Ford plant. As a corporal in the Polish Army, Golebiowski's father was captured by the Germans. As the war was ending, He managed to escape, get to England and rejoin the Polish army in exile.

Golebiowski's mother, Helena, 77, survived the war in a village, once deciding to leave the family's underground shelter just before a bomb dropped.

"I kind of lived it my whole life. That's all my parents talked about was the war," Golebiowski said. "I think I got a wonderful education from my parents -- about the world, about the history about the language."

When Golebiowski started working at Channel 2 five years ago, he helped produce his first story about a local survivor. It was the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, a rebellion to take back the city after five years of German occupation, and Golebiowski interviewed a man he knew had been involved in the revolt.

"After 63 days, we capitulated," said Zdzislaw "Jesse" Goralski, 84, a former West Seneca junior high German teacher.

Food and water were gone.

"We were living like rats," he said.

About 3,000 people died a day. Bodies lay in shallow graves created by the rubble.

"The smell was so bad, you had to close your nose to walk by," Goralski said.

A CNN documentary about the uprising included an old image showing the 19-year-old Goralski taking a pistol from his belt after the surrender. To see his young self after so many years was strange.

"You're happy, but at the same time, you have tears in your eyes, like I have now," he said. "It's hard to even talk about this."

Yet, fighting as he did and going to prison was "a blessing," compared to what others endured. He and the other guerrillas were treated with humane Geneva-convention guidelines that left him in better shape than some of the thin American GIs.

Because he had learned English as a young man, Goralski got a post-war job with the American Army. An officer who befriended him insisted he leave Germany for a new life in the United States. He chose to come to Buffalo because a friend had moved here.

>History all around

When he arrived, the city's tree-lined streets were as lovely as people had told him.

Goralski now lives in Texas with his wife, and he was pleased to discover that a family visit will coincide with next weekend's conference.

"I'll go there and tell my story if somebody wants to hear it," Goralski said.

Like Goralski, Julie Senko, another conference panelist, was among the Polish refugees looking for a new home. Her family was assigned to a city in the South. But when train headed for Buffalo was about to leave and had room, they boarded that one, instead.

"My father says, 'No problem. It doesn't matter where we go,' " Senko said. "We are very grateful."

Senko was living in eastern Poland when Hitler's army invaded. Her family and others were hiding in a field when the German soldiers found them.

"They were ready to execute us, but with the children crying and the mothers crying, somehow it softened the furor," she said.

Instead, the family was sent a concentration camp and then forced to work a German farm.

Senko met her late husband, Stanley, in Buffalo in about 1950. Stanley had spent the war in concentration camps, where a doctor experimented on him to see if he could revive someone so close to death.
But his Buffalo life was ordinary. He started a home remodeling business and built the family's brick house in Cheektowaga.

To their daughter, Regina Senko Hanchak, a professor of nursing at Erie Community College, it is stunning how people went on to lead such unassuming lives.

"People just don't realize that there's so much history around them," she said. "You may not know that person that's delivering your furniture or fixing your car may have had all these things happen to them."

>Connecting with the past

When Dick Solecki was a boy listening to his mother, he didn't know what parts of her story to believe.

The former member of the Cheektowaga Town Board considers himself a curious romantic, so after after he had found success in his career in real estate and ran Gov. George E. Pataki's local office, he traveled to see the places of her stories for himself.

On a visit to her family farm, which is in what is now Ukraine, he found a well his mother told him about that the people now living there didn't know existed.

Next, he went to the train depot from which his mother departed all those years ago. He sat by the tracks for an hour, trying to picture people in cattle cars, and then decided he would take a trip to Siberia, too.

He knew his first-class seat on a Russian train wasn't the same as the car without a toilet in which his mother rode, but he decided the desolate rural towns with horse and buggies and houses with thatched roofs must have been like what she saw.

It was a thrill to later go on another trip and see Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the same mountain his mother admired from a refugee camp as a teenager.

Solecki's journeys taught him something about himself and his mother. She is the stronger of the two.

"I couldn't probably survive a day," said Solecki, who gets claustrophobic on airplanes. "They made it for years."

As he talked, his mother sat next to him on the couch, listening and wiping at tears. She was proud of him. She wept to think that he could go all these places and there were no soldiers or wars to hurt him.

"I am happy for him that he can travel," she said, "and no one will stop him."

e-mail: mkearns@buffnews.com

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