One Year On: The Passing of an Era

My grandmother died this time last year, and I was asked by my father to write the eulogy for her funeral. The result was the following, which I’ve already shared with friends, but on this one year anniversary, I think some of you may also enjoy reading about her life.

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My earliest memory of Babcia Hala was her rose garden in her home in Los Angeles. I remember the fragrant greenery, smelling slightly of dust and heat, and the brightly coloured roses surrounding the periphery. They were probably pink and yellow roses, as those were her favourite colours. Even here in Vancouver, she had filled these wooden half barrels, which mum and dad had bought some time ago from a defunct distillery, with rose bushes that she tended to with a fervour bordering on the religious in its precision and regularity. They were beautiful, those roses.

We’d go to her little café, which was attached to a gym, and enjoy the sweet tang of purple or pink frozen yogurt.

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She had, for lack of a better word, an adventurous life. Born in Lodz in 1922, I saw a sepia toned photo of her when she was but a baby, with her mother and biological father, and her sister, Wanda. Everyone looks very serious, as you had to be in photos from the roaring twenties.

She’d married young, in her early twenties, to Dad’s father, code-named ‘Krystyn’, real name Stefan Jan. He smuggled arms into Warsaw during the war. I’m not sure exactly how they met, but seeing as Marek is so much like his grandfather, I’d like to think that they met in a store: she didn’t think much of Stefan Jan at first but he persisted and took her out and they bonded over dinner, with the waiter hovering in the background in silent encouragement.

They were married in May of 1943, likely with the best that wartime Warsaw had to offer. I am sure that vodka and herring were on the menu, her favourite foods. Maybe also rouladen, one of the few dishes that she liked to make. Perhaps she learned how to make that from her mother when back in Lodz. Perhaps that was Stefan Jan’s favourite dish and she learned to make it for him.

She became pregnant in the summer, in July of 1943. They must have celebrated life that July, knowing that there was the possibility of death in the near future. The Warsaw Uprising was to start, on August 1, the following year. For those of you who are not too familiar with the specifics of the Second World War, The Warsaw Uprising (Polish: powstanie warszawskie) was a major World War II operation by the Polish resistance Home Army (Polish: Armia Krajowa) to liberate Warsaw from Nazi Germany. The rebellion was timed to coincide with the Soviet Union’s Red Army approaching the eastern suburbs of the city and the retreat of German forces. However, the Soviet advance stopped short, enabling the Germans to regroup and demolish the city while defeating the Polish resistance, which fought for 63 days with little outside support. The Uprising was the largest single military effort taken by any European resistance movement of World War II.

It was Halina’s birthday on September 21. She was pregnant, likely terrified of the street skirmishes that likely preceded the Warsaw Uprising the following year, the rattle of machine gun fire, some of which Stefan Jan had smuggled into Warsaw with his unit of the Armia Krajowa. I lived three blocks away from the Church of St. Alexander’s at the Three Crosses, where Stefan Jan and his unit hid the guns smuggled into Warsaw.

September 21. Stefan Jan took Halina out for her birthday, he wanted to honour his new bride’s special day. In something akin to a Hollywood movie, the following transpired:

Stefan Jan’s sister’s husband was jealous of Stefan Jan, who was set to inherit the family mill as the eldest son. He knew that Stefan Jan was part of the partisan army fighting the Nazi invasion of Poland, and knew that Stefan Jan was going to be taking Halina out for her birthday. So this nameless dog of an informer told the Nazi’s of Stefan Jan’s identity, what he did, and where he was going to be on that particular day. This puts me to mind that Stefan Jan must of have been in hiding and must have been known to the Nazi’s, and was taking a great risk in taking Halina out.

The Nazi’s ambushed the couple. Friends were able to buy Babcia’s freedom, but not Stefan Jan’s. He was probably tortured, likely by the SS, and was executed and thrown into a mass grave at the Fox’s Den, Lisie Jamy, a forested area about an hour outside of Warsaw. A family member and a friend snuck into the area in the middle of the night to dig out his body and give it a proper burial. Once Stefan Jan’s best friend and unit leader found out whom the informer was, he had the informer executed. Stefan Jan’s best friend became Dad’s godfather. Stefan Jan was only 25 years old.

So poor Halina was left pregnant and widowed at the age of 22. Her family was back in Lodz. Halina remained in Warsaw and lived through the Warsaw Uprising. Although the exact number of casualties of the Uprising remains unknown, it is estimated that about 16,000 members of the Polish resistance were killed. In addition, between 150,000 and 200,000 Polish civilians died, mostly from mass executions. Jews being harboured by Poles were exposed by German house-to-house clearances and mass evictions of entire neighbourhoods. During the urban combat approximately 25% of Warsaw’s buildings were destroyed. Following the surrender of Polish forces, German troops systematically levelled another 35% of the city block by block.

Halina lived through the horrors of listening to the city be levelled around her. She likely had Nazi soldiers invade her home on Mokotowska. I can’t imagine what must have been going through her head. Guilt at going out for her birthday, rage at Stefan Jan’s sister and that side of the family, profound sadness at losing her love, and elation that she was pregnant with his child.

She gave birth to my dad, Stefan, in her apartment on Mokotowska. I’m not sure how long she stayed there but it can’t have been too long as she returned to Lodz and stayed with her parents. They helped raise Stefan. As I understand it, she kept trying to make a living for her and her son. She worked for the Red Cross after the war ended; she tried to set up a hat shop, but the Communists discouraged enterprise and entrepreneurship so she had to close shop. She obviously had cared about fashion from an early age given the penchant for haberdashery.

Eventually, she escaped from Poland in 1959, to Vienna. Dad eventually escaped from Poland and joined her there in 1966. With blood money from a payout from the Polish government for his father’s death, Stefan bought Babcia a sapphire and diamond ring in Vienna, something Stefan Jan had not been able to do. It looks like an ocean wave, and I now wear it and think of Babcia, and of my oh so very young grandfather. I firmly believe they are together again.

She moved to Barcelona in 1962, for a year, then to Geneva from 1963 to 1964, before returning back to Vienna. She moved to the United States late in 1969, to Los Angeles. She married an American, Obermeier, moved to Grand Rapids, Wisconsin, and promptly divorced him in year because she didn’t want to be his house maid. She never stood crap from people.

She moved back to Los Angeles in 1971. She met Herman Langinger, a record studio executive, and they became good friends for many years, until his death in the early 80’s. She accompanied Herman on some of his travels, including to Japan and South Korea. In an era when people really didn’t travel all that much because travel was a luxury, by the age of 60, Babcia had already lived in or visited over 8 countries.

Los Angeles was her joy, a highlight in her life. Being a glamorous creature, she was attracted to the glamour and glitz of Hollywood. She loved watching movies, reading the gossip columns about the escapades of the rich and famous, dressing like a movie star, and partying like one too. In writing this, I somehow think that perhaps she was attracted to the happy endings that one finds in so many Hollywood movies, because her own life had not been so easy, but she always persisted, survived, and made damn well sure she had a good time of it.

I really did not know this Halina. My Babcia was a post-stroke Babcia, a bit more tame, a bit more conservative, and bit more reserved. She still loved her vodka and herring, and dressing nicely, but no longer glamorously. One thing that she always did was take care of her appearance. I saw her last on Boxing Day, just some weeks ago. She still did not have a wrinkle on her face; I have some wrinkles sneaking up around my eyes already but am doing my damnedest to take a page out of her book and slather on eye creams, moisturizers, and sunscreen.

The past few years have not been easy for her or for us. She was diagnosed with dementia around 2005. I won’t talk too much about what that did to her as the Babcia of the past few years was not the Halina of Europe and America, nor the Babcia of my formative years in Vancouver.

The only blessing in her long illness was that when I did have a chance to speak with her on her good days, she often was back in the Poland of her youth, enjoying herself thoroughly. I hope her dreams were of these good times. I made sure to tell her that I loved at every chance I could, and to always make sure I kissed her or patted her hand, so that she could at least feel the warmth of a human touch, even if she could not express herself.

I was just in Hawaii for a friend’s wedding. Mum phoned me on Tuesday morning to tell me that Babcia had died. I was so glad for Babcia, that she was no longer suffering and living a shell of an existence at the brink of life and death. I am so sorry and sad for Dad, who has lost a pillar in his life with the passing of Babcia. But as I was lying on the beach, looking at the golden sand, and azure warm water, graceful palms swaying gently in the Pacific breeze, and the murmur of a thousand people laughing, conversing, and living, I realized that this was exactly what Babcia was about and had loved: laughter, friendship, family, the warmth of the sun, and the soothing sound of the ocean, a drink in one hand, good food ready for the next.

I saw shooting star drop out of the sky and dive into the horizon on Monday night, and I would like to think that was her way of telling me, all is well, enjoy life, love, and live.2011-08-14 13.26.02

R.I.P. Halina Obermeier 1922 – 2014

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