Sylwia Urbanska

Professor Alvarez

English 110

8 March 2012

From Generation to Generation


Poland is a country in Europe located to the East of Germany and to the West of Russia.  This location has not been without the influence on its history and in the 20th Century it happened to be a very painful one.  In 1919, as aftermath of the WWI, Poland has gained independence after over 100 years of occupation by Russia, Germany and Austria.  Short 14 years later, in 1933 Hitler wins the elections and vigorously puts his plans into action to conquer the world.  He makes several territorial demands towards Austria, Czechoslovakia and other European countries threatening with the war if they were not met.  He succeeded with a peaceful invasion until the demands were directed at Poland in 1939.  Poland, and polish people take a huge pride in this fact, was the first country that has resisted Hitler’s demands, getting ready for being attacked.  Hitler didn’t let Poland and the world wait long for his response and so on September 1st 1939, the WWII begins with the invasion of Nazis on polish territory.

On November 10th 1939, my mother, Cecylia Urbanska was born.  At this time, Poland has already succumbed to the aggressor and was forced to underground combat.  Officially Poland seized to exist on October 16th of that year and polish were an occupied nation for the next 6 years.  At the brake of the war my grandparents were living in a historical building of impressive architecture on a first floor.  This is an insignificant and yet very important piece of information, maybe crucial to me coming to existence some 34 years later.  Because Nazis were fond of high standard living, they were moving into building like such, but because first floor is not that attractive after all, they let my grandparents stay there in a role of janitors.  And so, according to the adage saying that the darkest place is under the lighthouse, my grandparents and all their four children survived the war –  very uncommon grace of luck. 

My mother doesn’t remember much of the war for obvious reasons, she was just born when it started.  But she does have a memory of being afraid and of a constant danger around her.  She mentioned to me many times before and repeated in the interview: “I don’t remember much from the war, but I remember that I was scared of aircrafts.  I would always run and hide”(Cecylia Urbanska).  She could not comprehend the gravity of the situation, but the emotion of fear ever present during the war, has influenced her as well.  The historical background is not without importance here.  My mother’s parents weren’t faced with dilemma’s like: what school to choose for their offspring, what extra curricular activities would best suit their temperament, what family outings would help strengthen the bond.  Her parents’ main concern was how not to be killed.  A day that ended with the whole family being at home and alive was a day worth celebrating. 

Partly because of that and partly because this was the mentality carried over from previous generations, my grandparents were not involved in their children’s’ educational development.  Not during the war and not afterwards either.  My mother doesn’t have many recollections about her parents taking interest in her scholar life, in fact she knows that her father’s only attention to her was a disparaging one: “They [her parents] were not interested in us that much.  My father kept telling me that I’m stupid.  It was because I was very small, underdeveloped I guess, playing with dolls”(CU).  In today’s reality that would be categorized as an emotional or verbal abuse but back then, this obvious disconnection between a parent and a child was a common phenomenon. 

The message that Cecylia has received from her mother wasn’t as belittling as the one conveyed by her father but in terms of education it wasn’t encouraging either: “My mother kept saying that for woman, GED is good enough, she doesn’t need more.  She just needs a good husband and he has to work and support the family”(CU).  This is why Cecylia has not reached higher in educational endeavor then high school diploma.  Moreover, she wasn’t really thinking about her future, she wasn’t dreaming of a special career and she wasn’t planning on becoming someone of particular importance.  After all, she’s been told repeatedly that her intellectual abilities are not of high value and she’s been told that for a woman the highest ambition is to get married to a good man.  She recalled: “Somehow University was not in my consciousness.  It never occurred to me that this might be a possibility for me”(CU).  To give a justice to Cecylia’s mother, she herself finished only primary school and hasn’t been pushed in any other direction then getting married to a “good man.”  This way of thinking was a heritage then carried from mother to daughter without critical verification. 

Cecylia’s father was apparently well educated but she doesn’t know much about his history.  He was educated in a prewar, that is before WWII, system which was very different but also my mother never cared to ask anyone who could know about her father.  He died when she was 14 years old and for her this was the end of his story in her life.  Her recollection of him is rather cold and depersonalized.

 I know he was educated and intelligent too, but I have no idea [what his educational level was].  When he died I was 14 and I remember looking at him lying in the sarcophagus and he was a total stranger to me.  I didn’t feel anything at all.(CU) 

Looking at Cecylia’s educational path, she was just a doleful extension of family tradition.  A fate to be fulfilled by a woman.  What has always felt like a burden to me, was the fact that my mother hasn’t never had any passion of her own, but was always preoccupied with me and my sister.  Her success was only if we succeeded, our failures were her failures.  Remember another adage: “shared success is a double success and shared sorrow is half sorrow”?  That one didn’t apply here.  My sorrows doubled up by the pain in my mother’s eyes.  Today, however I understand the origin of her functioning.  She has never been given any encouragement to follow her own interests to develop them, to put them to use.  Her talents were never recognized or even noticed.  It is quite possible that she has never received any compliment from her parents.

No, those were the times, you shouldn’t tell nice things because you don’t want the child to be vain, it was different way of upbringing you know.  My mother never told me she loves me.  I asked her once when I was older, when I had you both already why she never told us, she loves us, she answered that it’s obvious after all that parents love their children.(CU) 

As a result, she herself has never appreciated her own talents, has never valued her abilities and never recognized her potential skills.  Her choice of high school was determined by her friends’ choice, and so was her first and second jobs.  At her second job, as a bookkeeper she was working for 27 years until retirement. 

Nevertheless, she there were subjects, she was good at.

I was good at physical education and arts.  I could paint really well.  And also, in polish I was doing quite alright.  You see, my essays were not that long and my sentences not that sophisticated but my grammar and spelling were always flawless.  I really was confident about that always.(CU) 

What a shame she has never thought of becoming a proofreader.  What a shame she has never bought easel, brushes and paint and made this a hobby in spare time.  What a shame she never cared to organize a spare time for herself.  Ironically, she said her subject of struggle was math and yet, she was working as a bookkeeper for most part of her career life.  She laughed when I asked about that: “Well, you had your kind of adder you know and you don’t need fractions, algorithms and all this nonsense”(CU).  “I guess, you don’t” I replied amused and thought to myself that she was one of the most respected employees, known for her flawless work and reliability.  She was so popular in fact that on her namesday, a holiday celebrated in a catholic culture instead of birthday, she had to be driven home by a taxi and our small apartment was turning into a flower shop.

In the light of the above I can be very proud of my mother.  Yes, she surrendered to her educational fate with little resistance.  Yes, she was looking up to her husband for financial wealth.  Yes, she gave little guidance to her daughters in terms of self-realization and yes, the withholding compliments to prevent vanity in her daughters prevailed in her view of parental caretaking.  However, she has directed her two daughters and through that established a new tradition for our family, on to a new path in terms of education, ambition and dreams.  I can strongly confirm that she has never mentioned to her daughters about getting married to a “good man.”  Quite in contrary, she was always stressing the importance of independence that can be reached through higher education.  She has instilled the drive for reaching further and higher then she has herself.  She has always stressed to them the need to their own person in their own right.  In result, her older daughter became a dentist, her younger daughter received MA and is further pursuing higher educational levels.  They both have a strong sense of independence and a confidence in their womanhood.  When asked about her expectations towards her daughters, Cecylia replied.

I am lucky with this.  I think you both are doing well, you’re both smart and you’re both good, loving daughters.  I only wanted you to be happy and I think having your own money is the most important thing.  This is what I wanted you to always remember.  As they say: can you count, count on yourself.  I like that you are strong and have your own mind.  Maybe sometimes even too much of it.(CU)


How important is education is the life of an individual and in the existence of a nation? Why has Stalin targeted intellectuals in his conquest of Ukraine in early 30s of previous century? “Eighty percent of Ukrainian intellectuals were shot” (Margolis, Eric). Why did Hitler consider intellectuals among other groups as “unfit” for the Nazi’s program? “In addition to Jews, the camp’s prisoners included members of other groups Hitler considered unfit for the new Germany, including artists, intellectuals, Gypsies, the physically and mentally handicapped and homosexuals” (history).

American society is now facing a crisis of higher education in light of overwhelming debt as aftermath of credit driven economical policy. The value and the need of education is being questioned. The examples of school drop outs turning into self made millionaires escalades the feelings of resentment in highly educated yet financially struggling individuals.  The challenges presented to the youth of economically advanced country is far beyond the matter of survival. Stalin and Hitler might thankfully be only a part of history lecture, but the dilemmas of cultures struggling to survive is far from extinct even on the American land.  These cultures, Native Americans are among them, turn to higher education in hope to preserve their cultural and social identity as well as improve their chances for financial advancement.

People in poverty and political and/or social oppression don’t question the value of higher education. They strive for it. In lack of it, it becomes a high value without argument. Intellectuals have always been a pillar of a national and cultural pride and main component of its preserve, progress and development. The legacy of nations identity is carried on in literature, art and political and economical systems, all of which require high levels of literacy with very few exceptions.

My mother is a war generation who knows the value of food, peace and education as a result of having faced the depravation of them. She has struggled to provide for me and my sister the best possible opportunity and perceived University’s education as a progress as compared to her life. My childhood wasn’t perfect by many standards but I am aware that I have been given much more then my mother has. I appreciate it. This is what matters most to me. My biggest quest now is to give my daughter more then I have received and in this way I can carry on my mother’s legacy: to give more then having been given.


Works Cited

Cecylia Urbanska and Ilana Orie, New York. Personal photograph by Sylwia Urbanska. 24 May 2012.

“Hope on the Rez.” youtube. TheCollegeFund, 27 Nov. 2007. Web. 24 May 2012

Margolis, Eric. Seven million died in the ‘forgotten’ holocaust. n.p. n.d. Web. 24 May 2012.

“Nazi Party.” history. A&E Television Networks, LLC, 2006. Web. 24 May 2012

Urbanska, Cecylia. Personal Interview. 3 Mar. 2012

“WWII Invasion of Poland, 70th Anniversary.” youtube. NTDTV, 28 Aug. 2009. Web. 24 May 2012   



Interview with my mother, Cecylia Urbanska:

 S. When and where you were b born?

C. What? Don’t you know that already?

S. Can you just pretend for a time being that I’m a stranger?

C. What do you need it for anyway? I don’t want to do it!

S. For my  English class and you care about my grades so you have to do it!

C. This is blackmailing!

S. Call it what you want, so when and where were you born?

C. Lodz, 1939, November 10th in case you forgot that too.

S.Thank you. What is your highest level of education?

C. My highest education level is GED, I graduated from a technical school for (knitting and leather goods treatment).

S. Do you remember your first day at school? Or the earliest memory you have?

C. No, I don’t remember much from my primary school. Only that  I was the smallest in school. I had a best friend, her name was Krysia Pakosz, she was also the smallest in the entire school. We were famous for that: the smallest couple. Krysia was the best student and I remember she was the only one not religious. Back then all schools were catholic schools, we had to pray every day at the beginning and the end, and she was the only one not praying, only standing to attention. 

S. And you? What kind of student were you?

C. I was never the best and never the worst. Just in the middle. And I was very anti-social. I was never a member of any organization and I never participated in anything if I didn’t have to. They were always making me a solo dancer because I was so light that they could throw me in the air with no problems but I didn’t enjoy it. Lolek was watching my performances. Lolek was very smart.

S. And your parents?

C. No, never I think. My father definitely not, my mom maybe sometimes. They were not interested in us that much. My father kept telling me that I’m stupid. It was because I was very small, underdeveloped I guess, playing with dolls with Lela till late into my teenage time. He didn’t think much of me.

I think I don’t know how I passed my GED exams if I was always loitering in the parks with Jadzia. And one more thing, I don’t rember much from the war, but I remember that I was scared of aircrafts. I would always run and hide and you know back then even after war there were a lot of them flying. One day I was walking around with my doll stroller, holding a big waffle in my hand when I heard plane coming. I run into the first gate and then I heard a woman calling me: girl, little girl, where can we buy such a waffle? I showed them the store and that’s how I met my another best friend, because this woman was her aunt and they were new to this area.  Her name was Krysia Wlodarczyk. She didn’t have mother, her aunt was raising her. 

S. Do you remember who you wanted to become when you were a child? Any dreams?

C. Absolutely not. Never. After my primary school, I went to school where my friends were going. I wanted to work as soon as possible to have my own money. You know, nobody was talking to me, nobody was trying to direct me somewhere. I know my father had a lot of friends who had positions but my father was just not there for us. I never had anyone talking to me about my future plans, dreams or possibilities. I was never thinking about it. My mom kept saying that for woman, GED is good enough, she doesn’t need more. She just needs a good husband and he has to work and support the family.

S. Do you think, if you had higher education, you life would be better?

C. I think maybe yes, but then I had no support and no motivation, I just wanted to make my own money and be independent. Somehow  university was not in my consciousness. It never occurred to me that this might be a possibility for me. I started work right after high school, it was at Nowotki 100, it was me, Jadzia and Krysia. And then we started to earn money. At first I was giving my salary to my mom, but soon it was some argument or something, I don’t remember but she said: ok, you keep your money and cook and do all for yourself. So I ate a lot of candy for the first half of the month and then money was finished and for the second month my mom was feeling sorry for me and was giving me some food.

S. At which subject you were the best?

C.Arts and Physical education.

S. And biggest problems?

C .Oh My Gosh: Math, it was a nightmare. Lolek was helping me a lot.

S. What? So how come you ended up being a bookkeeper? And how did you end up at this job anyway?

C. Well, you had your sort of adder, you don’t need fractions and all this nonsense. And how I got there? Again, a friend from school took me there. First I was working with Jadzia and Krysia at a factory, you know, in our profession. But then Krysia and me went with Teresa, only Jadzia stayed there.

S. And she was working there all her life?

C.Yes, that’s how it was back then.

S. What about polish?

C. Well, my essays were not very long, and sentences not that sophisticated but my spelling and grammar was perfect. I didn’t really study that hard. I didn’t like school that much.

S. Do you know the educational level of your parents?

C. My mom had a primary school, my father no, I don’t know. I know he was educated but it was the prewar time and different system and I don’t know. I know he was educated and intelligent too, but I have no idea. He would never talk to us really. When he died I was 14 and I remember looking at him lying in the sarcophagus and he was a total stranger to me. I didn’t feel anything at all.

S. So how come you had ambitions for your daughters to be educated?

C. The main thing I want for you that you be independent. This is the main thing? This was the most important thing for me. You have to be able to take care of yourself.

S. But set for us to graduate from college, haven’t you?

C. Me? What? No, never! Of course, parents want their kids to reach further then them, I wanted you to be better off then me, but I was never pressuring for college or so.

S. ?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!

C.No, what? where did you come up with this idea? I was never trying to choose a profession for you and never tell you want to do and how far to go.

S.I grew up knowing! that I HAVE TO GO TO COLLEGE!

C. That’s silly, I never told you anything about it.



S.Ok, anyway, let’s continue: Who was your educational role model?

C. Lolek I guess, he was very smart. I don’t know, maybe I was underdeveloped? I remember one summer, we were spending by our family in the country.  My mom was resting in the hammock and me and Mirek were playing, and we came up with idea to compete who will climb the tree higher. So, I climbed and climbed and climbed and then the branch broke and I fell flat on my back. I remember my head was hurting me, I think I blacked out for a moment but I couldn’t move for a good while, but then when I did I had to pretend that I’m fine because I would’ve got spanked, you know: it was my fault I climbed. Yep, that was your grandma alright.

S.Have you ever given a thought about my education, like choice of school or other activities?

C. Not at all. In communism there were no private schools at all. You just went to the nearest school, I was working you were at school. And you were always doing good. I never had to worry about your school, your grades were good, you never wanted any help anyway. Your sister yes. I was doing homework with her at the beginning. But you were totally independent, and you never wanted any help, or so it seemed to me.

S.Thanks for adding the last one! If you could relive your life, would you go to college?

C. Yes, absolutely. But wait. Only if back then. Nowadays, I don’t know.

S. What do you mean?

C. You know. Back then, you could get educated and get a job and so, but now it’s just everything towards your own business anyway, so who cares? Now you have no security anyway, so now I don’t know. But back then yes.

S.What expectations do you have for me?

C. What kind of expectations can I have anyway? I think you’re smart and one day you’ll find your way of living but it’s hard to see you like this, always struggling and I’m tired of helping you too, I mean you know, I prefer to know that you’re ok.


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