industry thoughts from Clarteza

09 March
Mag Retelewski

This is personal: I Live My Grandmother’s Dream

I live my grandmother’s dream every day. I live it with pride, with honor, and with gratitude.

My grandmother, Anna, was Estonian. Her parents were transplanted from their native Estonia to Crimea. At the age of two, my grandmother lost her mother, then her father died just seven years later, and she was left to be raised by her much older brother.

Then the war started. At fifteen years old, my grandmother was taken from the streets by the Germans and put in a concentration camp in Buchenwald, Germany. She had to work in a quarry. It was brutally difficult and painful work. They were building roads but people were dying. (Apparently to this day the “road” exits and is referred to as “the road of death”.) She was determined to get out. With her blonde, blue-eyed “Scandinavian” looks and her incredible intelligence, she quickly learned German and convinced a garbage man that the soldiers must have made a mistake.

She ran for 2 days and collapsed in a field. She was found by a woman who took her in and generously cared for her. My grandmother was starving, but the woman knew she had to start eating slowly. She saved her life. They lived together this way for a while. What a twist of fate: on one hand she was captured by a German SS-man; yet on the other hand, she was saved by a generous and open-hearted German woman.

But then, just as the woman took care of her, eventually, my grandmother took care of this woman. The woman grew older, and despite having children, my grandmother was the only one by her side. She cared for her deeply, almost like a child for a parent. On her death bed, this woman told my grandmother she could have her home or anything she needed to help her go forward in Germany. But at her death, my grandmother decided to move on. With her generous inheritance she was ready to start a new life.

She began working for the American Army in Germany. She remembered this as the best time of her life: she was happy, ate well, was dressed beautifully and even got to sing for President Eisenhower. She said it was the best time of her life. This is also when she met her soon-to-be husband, a Polish man, Theodor.

The work she did for the Army entitled her the opportunity to move to America. This was her dream, and she was ready to emigrate with her newly married husband and a small daughter. She got her papers ready for this next phase of her life. Tragically, though, her husband fell ill with tuberculosis and those plans were shattered.

In a pivotal moment of her life, her husband, insisted they move the family to Poland. She knew no Polish, and had never been to Poland. But she followed his direction; she loved him. They settled down in Poland, leaving her dream to simmer in her mind. She continued to dream of America though. She saw herself living and flourishing there; she had picked up the language when working for the American Army.

When she moved to Poland, she spent her entire inheritance on the medical treatment for her husband. She was not happy and was not treated well by his family.

On his death bed, however, Theodor closed the door to her possibilities. Unfortunately, out of agony and resentment, he ripped all the emigration papers and said that she’s to stay in Poland. He was fearful for her life. He requested that she marry his friend Stanislaw, a Polish farmer. He knew, that for my grandmother Anna, being alone in a foreign country with a child would be extremely difficult.  At twenty-seven, she married my grandfather, her second husband.

She was financially broke, because she spent all their money on medication and doctors for her first husband. She learned to love her new husband “Stasiu” and was glad her daughter was treated like his. My grandfather was a good man.

But her life in Poland continued to be difficult; the people were not very open-minded at the time and she was often teased for being Russian (even though she was Estonian; never mind that!). She held on to her dream of going to America; meanwhile, she stayed in Poland and had four more daughters. She loved her big family!

I was lucky enough to be raised by her. She loved children. She spoke four languages beautifully and sometimes when she forgot she spoke a different language! I learned that as a young woman she did get a chance to travel a bit and see other countries. This is how, as a child, I became curious about other cultures and languages. I knew then, that I will study and live abroad. I didn’t know how and where but I just knew.

She died when I was 16. She lived too short. I wish I asked her more questions about herself and her incredible life. She rarely spoke about her story. As a matter of fact, my family has been piecing the story together for years. After many years, I heard from family members and her friends some of what she went through. Recently, I’ve learned that when she was alive, someone wanted to write a book about her. That’s a book I’d love to read. I may not know her whole story, every detail of her adventures, but I remember the tender love she had for me and the way she played with me as a child. She was very warm and loving. She made me more well-rounded by “exposing” me to cultures through her stories. I think about how much she had to say, how much she had seen and experienced; but I think she kept it quite a bit to herself, because it must have been painful.

When I was 21, I received a scholarship to an American college, just a few years after she passed away. I know that she helped me get here. She was a very resourceful, open-minded, empathetic and strong woman, and she instilled those values in me.

Now I call Chicago my home. I have been incredibly lucky. I was able to get an amazing education here, build a beautiful family, and for the last few years, manage my own company, Clarteza. From time to time, I think of her and wonder what she would say to me, knowing where I landed. And I wonder, if it wasn’t for that one moment, when her emigration papers were spitefully destroyed, if she would still be with us today, in America. Who would she have been? What amazing things would she have accomplished?

I can only imagine, having seen what her life has helped me to accomplish.