Not too long ago, I walked into my office and found a picture of my family on my desk. This may not seem unusual. After all, many people have framed pictures of their loved ones, especially on their desks. Pictures of my family, however, have a different home. They’re perched on a shelf, facing me, three feet away from my desk, and I often look up admiringly and find family members staring back.
“What are you up to now?” I imagine them asking.
“The usual: trying to get out of my own way,” I might silently respond. (It’s this thing we have.)
Still, discovering the picture of my Polish family on my desk was unusual. For starters, it wasn’t just any picture. It was a copy of a black and white photo taken in the late ’40s of my mother—who was about 10 at the time—her three older brothers and sister, and her own mother, who sat so properly, knees together, her hands clutching an old purse.
The photograph was taken by the two huts that they lived in just outside of the walls of a British-run orphanage for Polish orphans in Tanzania, Africa. My family had lived in Tanzania, in fact, for nearly eight years, along with hundreds of other misplaced Polish children from World War II. This picture is one of the most cherished images from my family’s past, a serene yet firm reminder of how far they had traveled from their home in Eastern Poland and, also, how much they had endured and lost in the aftermath of Soviet Communist leader Joseph Stalin.
But something else was unsettling. The glass in the mahogany picture frame was broken, cracked in a dozen or more places, and the photo itself had escaped the confines of the actual frame and was resting on top of it. Upon noticing this, my eyes found the shelf from which it came then suspiciously glared back at the desk. How, I wondered, attempting to do the math, did the framed picture sail high off its perch, slide onto my desk, break open and set its occupant free?
“Well,” I mused, “the cleaning crew—they must have knocked it over …”
“Yeah,” I answered myself, “but how the heck could they knock it over when the shelf sits more than seven feet above the floor?”
“Good point!” I nodded and immediately concluded what I would normally conclude in situations like this: That the whole incident must be a sign from God.
Now, when I say “God,” I’m saying “Universe” or any sort of related serendipitous Quantum yumminess. A divine GPS if you will. Or, in John Lennon speak, that cool thing that links us all together as “one” and really digs communicating with us through an unlimited spiritual calling plan. (There are even rollover minutes—try it.)
“How, I wondered, attempting to do the math, did the framed picture sail high off its perch, slide onto my desk, break open and set its occupant free?”
This wouldn’t be the first time I thought I was getting a sign. I get them a lot actually. Sometimes—and this happens too often for it to be a coincidence—street lamps go out above me. I also keep catching the numbers 11:11 on clocks. (I’m certain it means something good, but have yet to unravel the mystery of those two occurrences.) And, I suspect that, sometimes, I’m being given a sign via bumper stickers. They’re never silly “signs” like “Beam Me Up, Jesus.” I manage to spot bumper stickers with different messages: “Life is Good” or “A Better World Is Possible” or “Blossom Right Where You Are Planted.” Of course, I couldn’t help but chuckle, look up, and say thanks, when I spotted “Don’t Worry About A Thing” on the back of gray Ford pick-up truck on the very day that I was—you guessed it—worrying about everything. Then, there’s this whole business of me wondering if the powers that be might be talking to me through the personal revelations some individuals—mostly celebrities—offer when I am interviewing them. But that story is best saved for another time, preferably when people ready to issue me prescription meds aren’t actually reading this.
So yes, finding the family photograph oddly out of place—or in place, in the divine scheme of things—must to be a sign because, not even an hour before I found it, I was sweating my Polish ass off in Bikram yoga class silently asking for—wait for it—a sign.
(Really, I’m not nuts. Just spiritually curious.)
Specifically, I had asked for a sign on what I needed to pay attention to. Judging by what I just barged in on—the picture taking a vacation on my desk, all the broken glass, grandma and the clan eyeing me—the answer had to be … “my family.”
But what about my family, specifically, was I supposed to pay attention to? The obvious came to mind. Years ago, I had encouraged my Uncle, John Migut, to write down some of his experiences about what the family had been through during WW II. When he did, I found myself the recipient of many revealing pages that chronicled their unique experience. It’s an epic tale, to say the least. Watered down here, it reads something like this: Polish family of eight is held at gunpoint by Russian soldiers in the winter of 1940—only to get uprooted from their country, shoved into boxcars, sent to Siberia with thousands of other Poles and thrust into slave labor for two years. Upon release, they wander as refugees on a long journey to warmer lands south, brutally losing two family members (my grandfather and aunt) to illness and malnutrition until finally receiving aid from the Polish Army in Uzbekistan and, later, the International Relief Organization, which arranges for the family, along with thousands of other Poles, to live in a British-run orphanage in Tanzania.
Was I being nudged to write about this event again? I had known about the family history ever since I was a child. In fact, I have been attempting to bring it to life in book or screenplay form for years because not only does it illuminate the atrocities Stalin inflicted on many millions of Poles, not to mention his own people, but because it was a story filled with hope in the most dire of circumstances.
But after receiving my uncle’s detailed accounts, I realized that, somehow, I had become part of the story. I was now in a position of not only having to unravel my family’s tale but also to attempt to understand how that tale directly related to me and affected me in the here and now. Quite frankly, it made me feel like a more neurotic Alex Haley with a mission to carry out. But how? The last few years had left me feeling befuddled, constantly asking myself: “Who Am I—really?” I took long, hard looks at myself and my life, and wondered how a first-generation Pole could find his place in the world, or make his mark. I contemplated the idea of “home:” What is it? Where is it? Do I have it?
Yes, I’d morphed into a burned-out mess of a human who, well, couldn’t stop asking for signs from “God.” But, I asked for a sign and a sign I got. I was supposed to put my attention on my family and, perhaps, specifically, their time in Africa. But what part of their time there? And what message would I find?
The only way I’d really know was to go back—to Tanzania. And the best way to do that was to sift through what my uncle had written—again. There had to be something there.
So, during several reflective rainy days in the last month of 2009, I did the appropriate thing—reflect—until I stumbled upon an event in my uncle’s writing that took place in 1948, which piqued my interest and sent my imagination spinning. As I read the passages, I found them unfolding like an Old World fairy tale because, really … only a delicious sprinkle of serendipity could have pointed me to this exact moment in history.
A Christmas in Africa
If there was one day that officially marked the beginning of the holiday season for the hundreds of Polish children living in the orphanage in Tanzania, it had to be Dec. 6—St. Nicholas Day. For, on that morning, they were certain to receive a sign on whether they were being “good” or if they needed to behave “better” before Christmas arrived. If they were good, they would find a piece of wrapped candy underneath their pillows. And if they had been misbehaving—a small stick.
They were also one of the only families there that survived that long journey—from Poland to Siberia to Uzbekistan to Persia, and then to Port Mombasa on the southeast coast of Kenya.
Inevitably, John Migut typically found himself the recipient of the latter.
It wasn’t that John was a bad kid. He just simply loved to have fun—even if that meant causing a bit of harmless mischief along the way. One time, in fact, when his mother, Jadwiga, suspected that John and his older brother Stanley had been smoking, she stood her two teenage boys in front of her and, with a furious waggle of her index finger, demanded: “Let me smell your breath—right now!”
She gripped John’s chin in her hand as if she were plucking an apple. She forced his mouth open, her eyes widening suspiciously. Nothing. She moved onto Stanley. But even before he could release a full breath, she quickly smacked him across his head. “I’ll deal with you later,” she warned.
When she was gone, Stanley turned to John only to find his brother in hysterics. “Hey, what gives?” he moaned, rubbing the back of his head. “You had a cigarette, too. Why was I the only one that got caught?”
John tried to contain himself. “Dummy!” He wiped the tears of laughter spilling from his eyes. “You exhaled, I inhaled!”
So, it was no surprise that, weeks after receiving yet another darn stick underneath his pillow, teenage John decided to meet with Stanley outside of the family hut and convince his older brother to do something he suspected might not go over well with their mother—set out on a mission that would take them beyond the confines of the orphanage and deep into the African jungle.
“Why?” Stanley shrugged, suddenly turning pale at the thought.
“Because we’re going to cut down some Christmas trees,” John shot back with glee. “We’ll give three to the church and we’ll keep one for the family.”
Stanley looked confused. “Cut down trees? With what?”
John reached into the long pouch attached to the belt holding up his tan safari shorts and proudly revealed a bright shiny machete used for cutting down banana leaves. “With this! What else?”
Stanley wasn’t moved. “But …”
John playfully held up the machete. There was no turning back now.
As the two brothers ventured forth, they walked past the orphanage without anybody suspecting anything afoul. And why would they? After all, John and his brother were some of the best altar boys in the camp’s Catholic Church. They even helped build the thing with the other kids and their priest. Besides, the Miguts were different. They were able to live outside of the camp in huts because their mother worked for the orphanage … and they were the only family unit there that survived that long journey—from Poland to Siberia to Uzbekistan to Persia, and then to Port Mombasa on the southeast coast of Kenya. All the other kids lost their families. They were orphans who didn’t know anything about “home” anymore. Not that John and his family knew anything about that either but thank God they still had each other.
John shook off his thoughts and wondered for a moment if their older brother and sister Joe and Jasia, would spot them, but they were probably at the general store where Jasia worked. And younger sister, Bernice? No doubt running around and playing with her friends.
They had nothing to worry about now, a feeling that forced John to grin widely more out of twisted irony than anything else, considering all that had happened to them. He still fought off nightmares of being stuffed like sardines in the boxcars heading to Siberia and there were times when the vivid memories of the family desperately roaming the countryside for months after their release were just too much to bear. Well, they may have lost their father and their older sister, Mary, and maybe even their way, thanks to what the Russians did to them and so many other Poles, but John was certain of one thing: Nobody was ever going to crush his spirit. Ever!
The lush Tanzanian jungles and wide-open plains are a paradise brimming with life. John was always fascinated by what he discovered there—more bugs than they ever had in Poland, that was for certain, and all those colorful birds, hissing snakes and wild monkeys. There was always something to ogle. Of course, the girls were bewitched over the colorful, fragrant flowers, but John … well, he’d rather climb a banana tree and grab a bundle of fruit and share it with his pals.
“Dummy!” he wiped the tears of laughter spilling from his eyes. “You exhaled, I inhaled!”
He knew his way around these parts all right, and he even knew when to—and not to—look at the Swahili tribes living near the orphanage. He’d often spot the tribal warriors in the distance, looking mighty and powerful and all decorated, each one carrying a certain ceremonial spear. They were men. And they always meant business.
John prided himself on being able to rely on his instincts, and he was doing that now, as he and Stanley made their way along the dirt path in the thick forest brush just beyond a neighboring Masai village near the town of Arusha.
“I’m tired,” Stanley groaned, trailing behind. “When are we going to find these stupid pine trees?”
John suddenly stopped in his tracks, forcing Stanley to collide into him. “Hush,” he shot back, his eyes joyfully venturing upward. “We’re here!”
Stanley followed John’s gaze all the way up several regal pines in near proximity. “Boy … they sure are tall!”
“Not for me,” John cracked and immediately dashed off and began climbing. He was about 15 feet off the ground on one tree, his strong legs wrapped around the trunk, when he looked down and smiled broadly. “Stay there, brother. I’m going to find us the best tree tops ever!”
“Well, hurry up,” Stanley complained. “If mother finds out we’re here, she’s going to kill us.”
“Fool!” John laughed. “Live a little!”
He climbed 10 feet higher, tightly gripping the thick branches along the way, thinking, “You know, I can climb just as good as any monkey.”
When he arrived near the top of the pine, he stationed himself securely on a wide protruding branch. He grabbed his machete and began slicing into the bark on the main trunk, figuring once the treetop was cut it would stand about five, maybe six feet tall. Boy, were all of the other altar boys back at church going to think he was something. And he was—look at what he was doing!
John kept at it, closing one eye from time to time to avoid the flying bark. Finally, he could feel the treetop crack and give way. “Hey Stanley,” John shouted, looking down. “Move away—she’s about to come!”
Stanley’s hands were over his forehead to avoid the streams of blinding sunlight. “What?” But it was too late. The pine was already sailing down toward him like a torpedo. John chuckled wildly—Stanley barely escaped being whacked by the thing.
Time to move on. He hurried down the tree at breakneck speed, and when he was on the ground again, patted his brother on the shoulder, then moved on to another tree. “One down,” he announced, “three more to go.” He repeated the routine with the other trees nearby, and he was finished and safely back on the ground again, he snatched two trees at their bases, firmly instructed Stanley to do the same with the others, and off they went.
“We had better hurry,” Stanley warned, ominously. “We have to get back soon.”
John’s eyes rolled in frustration. “Nonsense. We’ll be fine.” But sensing his brother could be right, a shortcut might be in order. All they needed to do was cross a nearby creek and they would be closer to the main road, which led back to the orphanage. “Follow me,” John urged, veering off the path.
Minutes later, they arrived at the creek. John immediately flung off his shoes, tied the shoelaces together and tossed the shoes over one of the trees. Stanley did the same. The shin-deep creek sported a robust current but the brothers held a steady pace as they made their way across, carrying one tree at a time over their shoulders.
“Look how easy it is,” John proudly announced after they’d crossed for the second time. Breathless, he and Stanley flung the trees onto the bank. “We’ll be home in no time at all.”
But John could not have been more wrong.
Suddenly six members of the Masai tribe had appeared out of the brush. Glaring at the brothers with the fierce intensity hunters typically apply to their prey, the Masais tightened their grips on their spears. Then a tall, thin fellow stepped forward—the leader. He glanced the four treetops, immediately frowned and studied John and Stanley with stern admonition.
John swallowed hard. Oh boy—he knew that look! And sadly, he knew what typically followed it.
You Play, You Pay
As John quickly sized up the new arrivals, his mind feverishly searched for clues on how to escape the mess he and Stanley suddenly found themselves in. They were often told about the Masai tribes and the family had seen them near the town of Arusha. But John had never come this close to them. The men were adorned in rich red cloth draped from their shoulders and John was sure he could see their shwatzas hanging out. They wore colorful decorative beads and wild tribal jewelry around their necks, and all of them had very black skin and long red hair, some tied up on the back of their heads. Of course, John immediately noticed that all the warriors in their presence had machetes, too, and pretty big clubs.“Hell, they could really beat the living crap out of us with those things,” he silently fretted.
The leader’s eyes locked onto the pines again. The Masai must be angry with them for taking their trees.
“We’re going to die over your stupid idea!” Stanley growled under his breath.
“Hush!” John shot back, trying to concentrate. He noticed that the leader was wearing a necklace made out of coins so he uttered something about that in Swahili but it was futile. The Masais were an entirely different African tribe. They didn’t understand a word.
Suddenly, the leader raised a hand and pointed to the trees on the ground. Not wanting to upset the man, John nudged the tree closer to him. “Take it,” he said. The leader shook his head and calmly pointed to something on the pine.
“Oh,” Stanley sighed, the lightbulb suddenly shining bright above his head. “They want our shoes.”
“I know what they want, brother!” John shot back. “C’mon—let’s just give it to them and be free of this mess!”
The brothers handed over their shoes in silence but the leader didn’t even blink. Then he began stroking the necklace of coins hanging around his neck before holding up one of the coins. Money. Now they wanted money!
John sighed in frustration and quickly began digging into his shorts’ pocket for some shillings. It occurred to him that Stanley was about to hand over everything he had, so he turned to his brother and in Polish told him not to give the leader everything—only a few shillings. After all, John reasoned, they had spent a great deal of their time washing out dirty glass bottles back at the orphanage, earning about 10 cents per bottle. They may have gotten caught barging in on Masai territory, but that didn’t mean they had to hand over all of their earnings.
Stanley nodded upon John’s request and the two brothers gave the Masai leader just a few shiny shillings. The Masais turned their backs to them and huddled together to consult.
“They’re going to rip off our heads next!” Stanley insisted.
“Fool! Don’t give them any ideas!” John shot back.
Suddenly, the leader spun around and faced them. That’s it, John thought. They were cooked. But, to John’s surprise, the man gently motioned with his right hand, telling them to … “go, go.”
John’s heart leaped into his throat. He quickly grabbed the two trees, Stanley following similar suit, and they ran off, scared stiff, shaken to the core, pale … and without shoes.
Jadwiga Migut took one look at her barefoot sons and lost it. “Psi krew! (dog’s blood!)” she screamed. “Cholera jasna! (lightening strikes!)”
John moved the pine treetop closer to her. “Ma—look!” he held up a hand, trying to distract her attention from the fact that he and Stanley had basically just bartered for their lives with two pairs of shoes and a couple of shillings.
She wasn’t having any of it. The only place they could be spared punishment now was to hide on Mt. Kilimanjaro. Well, maybe he’d luck out. Maybe she’d smack Stanley first.
Jadwiga dramatically cradled her cheeks with her hands in the shock of it all and looked up to the heavens.
“We donated three trees to the church,” John explained. When in doubt, he thought, throw God into the mess.
“The church!” she huffed. “We’re poor. We have no money! Is the church going to buy you new shoes?”
“Well, didn’t they give a girl a new dress once?” Stanley chimed in.
Jadwiga shot her son a look and gently smacked the back of his neck. “Quiet!”
John stood the tree up tall. “See—this one … it’s for us!”
Jadwiga sighed deeply as she contemplated her two sons for a moment.
“She’s either going to blow, or tell us to go,” John silently decided.
A few moments later, her hands flew up in the air in defeat. “Fine! But remember—no decorating until Christmas Eve. It’s tradition and that’s all we have now.”
John and Stanley exchanged looks. “We’ll put it in your hut,” John told his mother as he picked up the tree.
“No!” Jadwiga stopped him, the corners of her mouth rising a bit. “Go ahead and … put it in the boys’ hut.”
John was grinning ear to ear. Well, miracles do happen.
When Christmas Eve arrived, John gathered Stanley, Joe, Jasia and Bernice and their mother into the boys’ hut so they all could decorate. Bernice, the youngest, paired up with Jasia and the two sisters adorned the tree with the garland they made out of paper and straw. Jadwiga and Stanley gently placed several homemade cookies made by some of the women in orphanage onto a few tree branches while Joe started loading it with some shiny wrapped candy.
John inhaled, soaking up the strong scent of the pine in the hut. “Just like last year,” he thought. And, just like last year, as soon as everybody was gone, he would wait until Joe and Stanley were sound asleep, swipe some of that candy off the tree, then place the empty wrappings back on it so that it appeared as if the candy was actually still there. He’d probably get another stick under his pillow for that, but he didn’t care. It was all for fun.
They were almost finished decorating when Jasia began singing “Silent Night” in Polish. “Silent Night, Holy Night …”
For a moment, John recalled the very same thing happening back on their farm in Poland, but he couldn’t be certain if he was just imagining it. It was so long ago now.
Bernice quickly joined in, then Joe, then Stanley. Jadwiga placed another homemade ornament onto the tree and sighed deeply, suddenly lost in thought. John imagined she was asking: “How much longer are we going to be here? How much longer?” He knew that she missed their father and Mary, whom they lost back in Uzbekistan, but God wasn’t going to bring them back now. At least the family was together.
John reached for his mother. Jadwiga looked down and tightly squeezed his hand. She wasn’t a very affectionate person and he knew that only the holidays could make her more sentimental.
Sighing heavily, Jadwiga took a deep breath and began to sing … “… All is calm, all is bright … round yon Virgin Mother and Child …”
A few hours later, just before dusk, everybody gathered outside. Jadwiga and the girls were busy cooking the Christmas Eve meal in various pots on the family’s brick oven. It was a mouthwatering meatless feast consisting of pierogis, sauerkraut, fish, borscht and more. Jasia and Bernice dashed back and forth carrying food from their mother to the girls’ hut.
But the very moment Jasia passed with a dish full of hot steaming pierogis, John’s stomach growled. He was starving. But they’d all have to wait to eat until the first star appeared in the sky. It was tradition, after all. When they spotted the first star, that was the sign that they could go in and feast on the meal their mother whipped up.
So John kept his eyes glued to the darkening sky, but suddenly little Bernice rushed by him and triumphantly shot her arm up into the air. “Look—I see it!” she shouted. “There it is!” John’s eyes followed her arm and sure enough, there it was—the faintest twinkle of a Christmas star.
Joe and Stanley arrived at their side. “Ma!” Jasia called out, quickly joining her siblings. “Hurry!”
Moments later, Jadwiga frantically dashed out of the hut with a rag and wiped off the borscht that spilled onto her hands. She rushed to stand by the children and gazed up into the sky searching for the star beyond the powdery orange-blue sunset. “Ah yes,” she sighed, her eyes sparkling. “Beautiful.”
The entire family stood there, transfixed, and watched as the star grew brighter … and brighter … and brighter.
They must have been there 10 minutes or so, lost in the wonder of it all, when John, stomach still growling, finally turned to his mother and said, “Is it time?”
For some reason it made Jadwiga chuckle. She nodded, kept her eyes on the star and said, “Yes, it’s time.”
John was the first to rush back toward the hut but something made him stop in his tracks. He let the others pass by him before turning around. His mother was still mesmerized by the star above.
He slowly walked over, stood beside her in silence and studied her face. Her eyes were so seriously slammed shut that, for a moment, he wondered if she was crying. “She’s praying really hard,” he quickly realized, “and probably wishing for something, too. Home. A real home … somewhere back in Poland or maybe America where her sister now lives. She’s praying for … home!”
“You making a wish?” he finally asked her.
Jadwiga wiped away a tear and nodded. Then she gazed back at the hut, somehow warmed by the sound of her healthy children laughing inside.
“You going to tell me what the wish is?”
Jadwiga shook her head. “No,” she said, peering down at her son, locking onto his eyes.
If forced John to smile nervously. “What?”
She held his chin in her hand. “Have faith. Our wishes will come true,” she told him. “Some day … some day.”
Signs Of The Times
About a week after I had read about the family’s Christmas in Africa, I sat up in bed one morning and wondered if I had truly comprehended the meaning of the tale. Did it have something to do with strong family ties? Or, was I supposed to be reminded that even after surviving the bleakest experiences, you can indeed endure anything and create a happy life—no matter what your current life circumstances are?
Maybe it was a little of both, and more, but I felt drawn to give my mother a call. I wanted to hear her voice. I wanted to bond. Besides, I had to tell her that I was coming home for the holidays.
When I reached for my iPhone and woke it up from its sleep, I found something interesting staring back at me. Another picture. I had taken it with my iPhone camera weeks ago—when I had been given an answer to something no doubt—and the phone must have been in “camera roll” mode the night before. The photograph was of a stop sign I’d discovered. Above the word stop, somebody had written the word “Don’t.” Underneath the word stop, was the word “Believin’.”
My heart skipped a beat.