The best stories, of course, are the stories of real people and real life. Many times, as the saying goes, “stranger than fiction.”
It is the reason that books and movies based on real people and real events have such impact. “Unbroken” would not have had near the impact if the main character and his sufferings were fictional.
Every person you meet has multitudes of stories hidden within their lives.
Sometimes we have the privilege of hearing the stories or at least snippets of them. Most, even those of close friends and relatives, often go untold.
Anna Kolajeski was born a poor farmer’s daughter in Poland during the 1920s. She was a teenager when the Germans invaded Poland. She and other teens were taken from their homes and families.
They were brought to a farm to work for the Germans. The girls huddled together at night sleeping in the hayloft of the barn. They were hungry, cold and scared. When fall arrived, apples well to the ground from the tree on the farm. The girls’ mouths watered at the thought of eating the fresh fruit, but they didn’t dare. “The apples are for the horses,” their captors informed them. To be caught with one in your pocket would mean extreme punishment.
When I met Anna, she was in her seventies. She still had a bit of her eastern European accent left, even though she’d lived in America for over 50 years. Unlike many Americans who celebrate the heritage they carry from their country of origin, Anna would have none of it. “I’m not Polish,” she would insist. “I am an American, just like you.”
I know bits and pieces of Anna’s stories because she would stray into those memories from time to time as we visited together in her apartment. She seldom would share much detail about those times if asked directly. “You don’t want to hear about that,” she’d say. “That was a long time ago.”
I learned from her that the Germans abandoned the farm one day, leaving their slave laborers behind. When a train came through full of American soldiers beckoning to them to hop onboard, Anna took the risk, even though she knew no English. The kindness of these Americans convinced her to leave Europe behind and travel to her new home.
Eventually, Anna married. The couple never had children, but had a long and happy marriage. They planned for their retirement with hopes of traveling to new places and dancing into old age together.
It never happened. Anna’s husband died of a sudden heart attack the year they planned to begin their retirement. Anna lived alone for another twenty years. She wouldn’t travel by herself, and few would volunteer to be her traveling companion, which limited the fulfillment of her dreams.
Anna provided me with a glimpse into many things through her stories. A glimpse into the events of World War II from a totally personal and nonhistorical viewpoint, which I will never forget. But also other perspectives. I saw the regret of putting off dreams for the future, never to see them realized. Mostly, I learned how to be a friend to someone desperately lonely and yet, fiercely independent. Pain had taught Anna a lifelong lesson. She would not put herself in a place of vulnerability or obligation to anyone.
Eventually, Anna’s life came to an end. She made no provisions for a funeral or memorial service. She didn’t think anyone would come and didn’t want to “waste” the money.
She was wrong, of course. Her court-appointed guardian put an ad in the local paper and invited friends and acquaintances of Anna to meet together in a community room at the eldercare facility where Anna had lived her last months. A small group of people gathered and shared memories and tears. Her guardian shared a small box of Anna’s personal possessions, which included the passport she carried her into America so many years ago.
Anna had shared her maiden name with me and her social security number so that I could assist her with some issues she was dealing with during our friendship. When I saw the passport, I immediately realized that the last name on the passport was not the maiden name she had given me. I asked her guardian about it, but she didn’t have an answer to the puzzle. With the knowledge I had of Anna’s life, I used the Internet to search for an answer to this puzzling piece of information.
It is amazing what you can find on the Internet if you know where to look. I was able to find the passenger list for Anna’s passage under the name on the passport. This provided a new puzzle. Anna had come to the U.S. as a married woman. She and her husband also had a daughter traveling with them. This was a total shock to me.
Anna had told me of her first few months in Minnesota, living as a housekeeper for a bachelor farmer in Hibbing, Minnesota. She told me about moving to Duluth to work as a waitress and how she had met her husband. Never once did she mention coming to the U.S. with a husband. Yet, the documents were all there, including a record of their divorce a few years after her arrival in Minnesota. Only my imagination is left to fill in the blanks.
Share Your Stories
Anna is gone, and her stories with her. I feel privileged to have known her and been entrusted with the limited stories she allowed to seep through into our conversations. But I grieve that so many stories of a precious individual have been lost.
A few years ago a business owner contacted me looking for a writer to help him write his life story for his children. Unfortunately, his wife thought it was a foolish endeavor and he never went forward with the project. It made me so sad.
My paternal grandmother took the time in her retirement years to record her life story and have it printed for us. It is a treasure, not only for her family but local historical societies and libraries as well. Our stories give perspectives to life and events that are different from anyone else, even different from our own family members.
What are your stories? What are the stories that surround you in the lives of people you know and meet?
As Toby Mac says, we shouldn’t be afraid to share our stories. You never know who may receive a key insight from your experience. And, oh, the gems we can learn from the stories of others.