My grandma, her stories, and the future of the world

As in many Polish families in the 90s, I grew up with my grandma living with us. She was a survivor – born in 1914, in the first year of her life her father was conscripted in the army. He went fighting and when he came back, he was physically ruined and never got better any more. Her mother, during the absence of her newly wedded husband, did her best to take care of her two small babies and what little posessions they had. (At many points they had none – the changing front had either one or the other side of the confict enter the villages and demand all the goods be given to the army.) Then came the second war, and my grandma, now the second of six children, lost two sisters and a brother. Then came communism with its empty shops and schizofrenic politics, my grandma being now wife to a man also traumatised by the war and new mum to my mum. (Just to be clear, to me it’s much more nuanced than just “empty shops and schizofrenic politics” – by force of the social changes communism brought to Poland I am in the place I am in life, but this is a subject for another blog post.) Throughout all this she never gave up striving for a better life, and she never gave up her integrity and her compassion – asking her parents to send her to school (which they did for a time, but then the money ran out and it was just the two boys who were afforded this luxury), organising local theatre groups in the years between the wars, engaging in solving conflicts between the Polish and Ukrainian communities, and then in the forties smuggling food, taking care of her youngest sister and bleeding her heart out seeing what was happening to the Jewish community in her town, trying to help them in whatever way she could. She never stopped trying to make the world a better place, never lost faith in the future. We can call it that – or it might have been a very strong moral backbone and huge amounts of self-discipline.

All these memories, passed down to my mother and to me (I spent my whole childhood listening to my grandma’s stories), come to me today, on the 80th anniversary of the start of the 2nd World War. A date such as this also makes me think about the future. There’s more and more people concerned about climate change – and more and more people who realise that it will be, or even already is, a hotbed of conflicts. It’s doubly painful – both our planet losing all its beauty, richness and diversity, drowning in toxic fumes and plastic – and the sure as hell impact this will have on our comfort, safety, and even survival. I’m one of those people who hope it’s not too late yet, and on this anniversary I would like to wish us all to have the moral backbone and self-discipline of my grandma.

And indeed, not only of my grandma – there have been so many people who were able to see the big picture and to whom we owe so much. Have you ever heard of Stéphane Hessel? He was a wonderful figure, a very important member of the French resistance during WW2. My mum, who heard a radio programme about him some time ago, told me an anecdote: after France fell to the Nazis, a desperate friend of his was saying that all is over and there is no hope any more… The animated Hessel replied, but not at all, we’re just starting to fight back!

For those of you who understand French, here’s a short interview with him, speaking of all these important things. Ecology! I find it very thought-provoking that a man in his 80s has such a clear vision of the situation – more so than people much younger than him.

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