The memory keeper

GW hands

“How do you keep the memory of a country, the place that birthed you, that imprinted itself on your bones and brain?”

By Gosia Wozniacka

Last summer, fall and winter, I watched them come. People from Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.  Crossing, swimming, floating, pushing on across land and water to escape. Toward Europe, a safe place to anchor.

Their images and words filled my computer screen, inhabited my body. I was angry at Europeans who protested their arrival. Angry at friends and acquaintances who likened them to terrorists. Suddenly I felt the anxiety and uncertainty of my family’s own departure and arrival.

28 years ago, my parents, younger brother and I left Poland, a country in eastern Europe, seeking refuge. I was eleven, it was 1988. We were not escaping war, but a broken communist nation with food rations, no private enterprise and militia pacifying striking workers. The Berlin Wall stood 400 kilometers west, imposing, unimpaired. No one could then imagine that countries in the Eastern Bloc, the Soviet Union’s so-called satellites, would change so rapidly, so soon.

My parents were desperate to give us a better life. We left in a cramped, rust-eaten Fiat, squeezed in between comforters and pots and pans. My parents didn’t even tell my grandparents we would not be coming back, for fear someone would stop us. At the borders, they lied to the guards who threw our belongings to the curb in search of trafficked people and goods.
GW shadow

“How do you preserve images, words, scents?”

We set up a large, ugly ridge tent on a camping ground in Paris. My brother and I spent days in nondescript offices alongside other children, white, brown and black, eating apple butter from vending machines while our mothers and fathers asked for asylum. After two years in France, my parents decided to begin again. They sought to go to the United States, where job prospects were better. Catholic Charities sponsored the four of us: we were, for a second time, refugees, crossing the Atlantic toward a new life, each with only a leather suitcase.

So many years later, I knew well the work Europe’s new refugees would soon begin. Learning a new language. Figuring out the intricacies of another culture. Missing home. Translating and re-translating school work. Finding a job in a place where your education, experience or social status do not count. Surviving the first few years while pretending to family back home that you have gained more than enough. Fitting in. Blending in. Building again.

But there was something else these new migrants didn’t know, had no way of knowing yet. One day, many years from now, they and their children would face a different challenge.

How do you keep the memory of a country, the place that birthed you, that imprinted itself on your bones and brain? How to preserve images, words, scents? And should you? And is it useless, because after so many years your country has no scent and you do not love her anymore. And what was it that you once loved? What was it that you could not carry, but yearned to maintain?
GW woman

“We were not escaping war, but a broken communist nation with food rations, no private enterprise and militia pacifying striking workers.”

This I could tell them: Do not mistake the memory of a country, of a language, with patriotic pride. It isn’t the love of flags, of national heroes or bloodied history. Look and listen for scraps of certain light, reflections of dreams, ephemeral syllables that long ago formed and shaped your ability to imagine and to speak. The undersoil of you.

This I could tell them: It is — it will be — a great pain when your own language retreats into you, becomes an intruder. When you discover it occasionally, with surprise, while sitting down for a quiet moment. Fontanna, you think, water fountain. Mouth the word, taste it. Krople, water drops. Woda, water. These words are still inside, forming, shaping, minuscule eggs in the ovaries of the brain. They may be your first thoughts in weeks in a language that once was your own, that once was fully your own. But maybe you dream in it, and you don’t even know? No, you dream without language. Ever since you have moved countries you have always dreamt without language.

I have tried to find it again, the sights, the language. You will, too. You’ll rifle and nose, sometimes in a fury. You’ll return often once the political situation has stabilized, bringing back suitcases full of food and books. You’ll photograph fleeting things: fields, trees, your grandmother’s hands. It won’t be enough. And yet, if you do not try, if you are not conscious of it, your life could deflate. People get bent out of shape from losing what they cannot name, from letting go of this language of themselves. They hang without bottom, reaching for alcohol, drugs, razor blades. Or they turn angry, abusers, terrorists, jihadists, thugs. Forgetting cannot easily replace a scaffolding collapsed.

Nearly three decades after I left my country, a peace. It arrived when I ceded: there is loss and more loss will come. I am not who I was. I do not fully fit in my own country, nor in my adopted one. I switch languages, I switch worlds, I am a beat behind. I leave people on continents with warm plates on tables, with children to be born and old people to be cared for. I had to make a choice. About the place I live, the people I love. This, all this, is harder than living out your language, your country, stationary, straightforward, rooted. You — migrant, refugee, immigrant, newcomer — are everything else: in motion, active, porous, open wide. Your heart can crack, but it can also build new tissue.


Gosia Wozniacka: “I had to make a choice. About the place I live, the people I love.”

This year, after visiting Poland, my country, still my country, I flew back. To Oregon, North America, where I now live, another country of my own. I camped in Mount Hood wilderness, walking around the volcano covered in greyish veils. I sat with friends in my garden, eating fat raspberries from the bush outside my bedroom window, in awe of the community of people I have found. I biked along Portland’s buttes, at sunset watching deer ramble out of the forest to browse. Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams floated above the clouds.

At the fish ladders of a dam on the Columbia River, salmon and lamprey slid past the current, repeating an ancient migration rite. Landscape, animals, plants and people have bound me to this land. They are my vocabulary, the new language I am building, the slivers of light and sound I hold. I am, like these fish, imprinted with the early years’ magnetic field, the tattoo of a far-away birth. The salmon and I travel to the ocean, but do not forget the way toward home stream.

Gosia Wozniacka is a writer, news reporter, photographer and observer of the world. She has traveled across the continents, but has also found happiness in being still and enjoying the people and geography in front of her. 

Editor’s note: The opportunity to meet aspiring journalists who were not only talented but also wonderful human beings is what I enjoyed most during the years I spent as The Oregonian’s newsroom recruiter. Gosia Wozniacka was among the cream of the crop — a UC Berkeley graduate student who was fluent in four languages (Polish, French, English and Spanish), had a love of international reporting, an interest in immigration policy and a gentle, gracious personality. It was my privilege to recruit her to Portland, where she became an award-winning reporter and later wrote for the Associated Press.
Tomorrow: Michael Granberry, America: still ‘the beautiful’?

23 thoughts on “The memory keeper

  1. You are such a beautiful writer. I feel like a refugee within my own life. I think of it often, how I am absolutely nothing like who I was in my twenties, thirties or forties. Those are foreign places, and I struggle to remind myself to stay in the here and now. We do live in a beautiful place and I get out in it every day, and I do not take it for granted. Man…I need to read something like this every day. Thanks, Gosia! I think you’re in the right place.

  2. Gosia – what an informative and revealing narrative! I think that the loss of familiar anchors for those that immigrate, regardless of where they land, has to be terribly difficult. Thank you!

  3. Gosia,
    It’s so rare to hear the true costs of displacement, of the involuntary loss of identity and home, described with neither nostalgia nor apology. And even more brutally honest to utter the truth that, sometimes, addicts, abusers, criminals, and terrorists are borne from the steep prices of this loss. Thank you for writing this important essay.

    • thank you Angie! yes sometimes I think policy makers focus on the immediate – safety, shelter, food, a job – but don’t consider long term what it means for people to be displaced and taken out of their homes. I think for first and even second generation immigrants/refugees raised in an insular immigrant culture, this loss of something they often cannot even name, coupled with a certain approach to how immigrants should be and behave in their new home, can have some brutal consequences.. Portland in January sounds great!!!!

  4. Gosia,

    We met briefly at The Oregonian many years ago, and I think I heard bits of your story from others, including George. It’s good to read it here. My Ukrainian family came to American similarly in the 1950s, and though I’m the son of immigrants, I have always thought about how to preserve that which they brought with them. We’ve done so with food and recipes that our grandmother brought with her, but the language will die with our parents. I am forever grateful for their willingess to go through the awkward transition to give us a chance at a better life. I just hope we can honor them with that.

    • thank you Tim! It is so nice to hear from you. I know to your family it means so much that you recognize the transition and the difficulties they went through. And that you want to honor their tradition. It is always a balance, you must live your life where you are, but the recognition of their path is so important. All the best to you and your parents, Gosia

  5. Your words touched me, Gosia. I was born in America to generations of Americans (I could be a Daughter of the American Revolution if I completed the paperwork) except on my father’s side, whose father illegally entered the US from France. I am more intrigued by that side of my heritage, keeping my birth name when I married. Sadly, I’ve been told any records of that side of my family were lost in the war, and the mystery remains.

    I see the faces of so many people fleeing their homes for a chance of a better life, and I am unable to fathom what that must be like for both the elders and the children. I see the exhaustion in their eyes and their few belongings in bags. I have seen too many bodies pulled from the sea, a risk less serious than choosing to stay behind. And I hear the rhetoric of Trump, wanting to build walls and deny human lives what our ancestors sought and were granted.

    George described you as “a gentle, gracious personality” and I see that in your words. Thank you for sharing yourself here like this.

    • thank you Lynn. The ancestor on your father’s side who entered the US from France sounds mysterious. A story to build a novel around! It amazes me that in the U.S. all of us have these immigrant yarns woven into our families — that to me is a unifying factor, a common heritage of migration, so to speak. I hope that future waves of immigrants and refugees are welcomed just as those in the past. That welcome is what makes the loss all immigrants must face a little easier to carry.

  6. Malgorzata, Margaret, Gosia : girl of many pens, quadrille notebook, writes like an angel. What does it mean to call another place “home?”

    • Thanks! About calling a place “home”…. maybe it is about finding some elements — be it people, places, animals, objects — that become anchors in your life, and also being able to recognize and reconcile with the loss.

  7. Thank you for sharing your story and giving us a glimpse of what it means to give up home, an identity, a language in hopes of a better future. I see the faces of the refugees and I so want to help them, but I also want to know their stories – not just how to help them with their basic needs but how does one manage/overcome the sense of loss when everything around you is changing?

    • thank you Nike! From my own experience, two things help to overcome loss… time, and feeling welcome in the new place where you have come to live. With those two things, a person can move forward to find new anchors.

  8. Thank you for an illuminating, sensitive and personal story. I hear many immigration stories from the past as a volunteer at the Genealogical Forum of Oregon and we all wonder what it was like to leave home for the unknown, especially knowing you would not see your family again. So many genealogists want to travel back to their roots that there are now travel agencies arranging heritage tours to see the “old country.” I’m glad your parents made their decision and that you are here to write, and I’m glad my grandmother left Germany in 1906 so I could be here to read your writing.

  9. thank you April! The work you do is important to many people. And it’s great that those who want to look for their roots can now travel and try to find them. I am glad we could “meet” in this essay and in this place called Oregon!

  10. Gosia, my story is a mirror image. We came to the US via a 2 year stay in Germany. I’m in Chicago now. Can’t describe the feelings this article conjured for me…. I’ve often felt lost, like I have no true home country. Seems, I’ve been viewed as a stranger here and when in Poland. I like your positive view of two homes much better.

    Agata K.

    • Agata – thank you, dzięki! So many of us have a similar journey and face similar losses. I try to find something good about the situation. which is not always easy. And I definitely make a lot of trips back to Poland! So glad we were able to connect through this story!!

  11. Your focus on preserving language is so insightful, Gosia. I am Japanese and my wife is Chinese. I can tell you that one of the biggest differences between the two immigrant populations is that the Chinese do a far better job of preserving their language and culture even while claiming their right to American citizenship. The Japanese tend to assimilate all too quickly. In our household we are trying our best to preserve our languages with our daughters, but it is a step uphill climb.

    • Many immigrant populations that go the extra mile to preserve their culture also often slip into becoming too insular. I think being open to all cultures is probably a better way to be.

  12. Gosia, you have expressed all the thoughts I have ever wanted to say about the angst of being an immigrant! This is so beautiful – “It is — it will be — a great pain when your own language retreats into you, becomes an intruder. ” For me it wasn’t language (in India, the country of my origin, English is the first language for many people) but culture becomes an intruder – one’s accent, body language, the way conversing by interrupting, by saying “sorry” instead of “excuse me” a strange diet that precludes attending a barbecue. In the early days of Oregon the extra melanin in my skin prompted this question – “So when are you going back home?”

    What has been even more challenging is that I don’t relate much to the Indian mainstream either – I would rather attend a book reading by Arundhati Roy or Junot Diaz than an Indian dance program. I would rather see a film from Uruguay then a Hindi blockbuster and btw while the music of Slum Dog Millionaire was fabulous, I’m so done with Bollywood dancing. So basically, that makes me an outsider among the Indian diaspora as well. The good thing with time, though, is that the nostalgia eventually fades away. It also helps that the world is flat now as Thomas Friedman put it. With Social media, skype and cell phones, Africa, or Asia or Europe is only a click away. And America has changed. At the Portland VegFest I found more rabid vegans among white people than among Indians – some of whom now even eat steak a major taboo. One of the benefits about not belonging anywhere is you are forced to go deep inside yourself to seek that part that has no labels – Indian, Hindu, black, white, Polish speaking, writer, scientist…

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