I come from a large family that I have never met.
My parents moved to Canada before I was born, leaving behind everyone. In Canada they knew nobody. My grandfather had 6 brothers, and 7 sisters. Most of them got married and had children. In Poland, we count our extended relations a lot more closely than they do in other places. My father’s cousin is my aunt, my ciocia, she is also my Godmother and her children are my cousins. My cousin’s baby daughter is as much my niece as much as any potential future niblings from my sister.
Growing up disconnected from all that, I felt the lack of family in my life. I was obsessed with having a sibling. I secretly wanted it to be a boy so that someone could continue the “Bula” line in Canada. When my sister was born, I made the decision then that I would keep some form of my name forever. For my father. The hilarious part is my dad has never cared. When I mentioned it to him once, he was confused about why that would matter.
But to me, being a Bula was a point of pride. Feeling disconnected from my family physically like that meant that I clung to the part of me that did connect us. The family history. I don’t know that my parents understood how much I craved all the family stories they told me. How I adhered every detail they told me to memory because this right here were the puzzle pieces to where I came from and who I was.
I always find it hilarious that my parents think I don’t care about family. If only they knew.
It starts with the name. My last name is Bula but it wasn’t always, once it was Bulla, though to be fair even that one realistically went through variations, but since my family history always starts with my great-grandfather, for me it starts with Bulla.
He changed it to Buła in celebration, when Silesia fought back against the Germans in WW1 to become officially a part of Poland. He wanted his name to sound more obviously Polish in fulfilment of his life-long goal. You see my grandfather, Ignacy Buła published and distributed pamphlets about the Polish – Silesian identity during a time when it was occupied by Germany. Had he been caught, things would have ended badly for our family, but instead, his material helped influence what became the Silesian revolution.
Several years ago, my parents received a package in the mail. Inside was a published version of a dissertation written by a priest in Poland. His PhD Thesis on why my great-grandfather should be canonized as a saint.
Then world war two happened and those of my grandfather’s brothers who were over the age of 16 faced a terrifying prospect: being drafted into the Nazi army by occupying Germans. Those that were at risk had to hide to hide away, but one was not lucky enough to escape unnoticed. He was faced with a choice: join the army, or spend the war in a concentration camp. He spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner in Auschwitz. Faced with a test that the Pope himself failed, my great-uncle chose what was right.
Some family history was more along the lines of legend. My grandmother’s maiden name was Pardon. The story goes that her ancestor was a soldier in Napoleon’s army, as many young Polish men were in that time. During the war, he was injured. When the officials asked for his name, he didn’t quite hear what they said and so he asked for clarification: “pardon?” So from then on all his paperwork had him listed as Mr. Pardon.
I had the chance to meet her mother, my great-grandmother Helena, before she died. My grandmother was a stunning woman who was actually a ballerina. Her husband, my grandfather, should have been a singer, but when the time came for him to choose a career he was assigned to work as a minor and later a mine architect. By the time people were once again allowed to choose their own careers, it was too late and a great talent was lost. My father still talks about how he wished he had recordings of his father singing.
He died when I was two years old, but he always lived large in my mind. When I was born my parent’s first words to me was “Andrzej” (like Andre). I was supposed to be named Julia, but after that, they named me Ania. I used to daydream that my grandfather was out there looking out for me. Back when I still believed in god, I truly believed that he was my guardian angel. Giving that up, and giving up the idea that I would ever get the chance to meet him was one of the hardest things about losing my faith.
I come by my activism honestly. When my father was a young man, teaching at the University of Silesia, he started a branch of Solidarność at the university. An anti-communist movement in communist occupied Poland. The same one that Lech Walesa was a part of. He led that branch for some time, until he found out from a reliable source that he had been black listed. He stepped down as leader and rapidly accepted a position at a Canadian university. They let him go, but his new wife, my mother, had to stay behind.
I went to my first protest in high school, to protest the Iraq war. I remember my parents being worried that I would do something to get myself arrested. I pointed out that at least my government wasn’t the type to kill me, unlike when they were protesting.
It is one of the ways that the communists kept people from defecting, by forcing their families to stay behind. It was six months before she managed to get out of Poland to join him. My parents were so happy to be together again, that nine months later I was born.
As a new mom and not speaking any of the language, my mother went through law school for the second time in her life. She used to tell me stories about writing essays with her textbooks open in front of her, along with a Polish-to-English Dictionary and another dictionary. Imagine that? University is difficult enough, but imagine having to go through it all over again, except this time later in life, in a new country, with a new baby, and not even speaking the language. She’s run a successful law practice for several years now.