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WWII Polish Immigrant's Journey: A Childhood of Tragedy and Inspiration

 Theresa Sokolowski, a Wells High School graduate, was interviewed for the documentary "Santa Rosa: Odyssey in the Rhythm of Mariachi," about Polish refugees who spent several years in Mexico.
Theresa Sokolowski
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NILES — "Even now, I keep seeing those eggs," Theresa Sokolowski said as she fought back tears.

Sokolowski was 9 years old, living on her family's small farm in Beresteczko, Poland. It was 4 a.m. on Feb. 10, 1940. Soviet soldiers knocked on the door and told Sokolowski, her mother, stepfather, two brothers and sister they had 30 minutes to pack up, leave and get on a train to Siberia.

"The kids were crying and my mother [Josephine] decided to make breakfast — lots of scrambled eggs, which was unusual for us because we were poor," Sokolowski said. "There was a huge pile of eggs on the table, and she told us to eat, but not one of us sat down to that table. We never ate them.

 Theresa Sokolowski poses for a photo in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico. Sokolowski, who eventually came to Chicago and graduated from Wells High School, now lives in Niles.
Theresa Sokolowski poses for a photo in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico. Sokolowski, who eventually came to Chicago and graduated from Wells High School, now lives in Niles.
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Theresa Sokolowski

"Every time I'm hungry now, I still want those eggs."

Sokolowski's incredibly sad yet inspirational journey would take her to Siberia, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, India, San Francisco, Mexico and eventually Chicago, where she graduated from Wells High School, met her husband and raised two sons.

Her four years in Mexico, where she joined nearly 1,500 other Polish refugees, is the subject of the documentary — "Santa Rosa: Odyssey in the Rhythm of Mariachi" — which will be shown at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Copernicus Center, 5216 W. Lawrence Ave.

"It is logical that this should be a known story, but it isn't," said the film's producer, Slawomir Grunberg.

Survival of the fittest

There were no fences surrounding the Ust-Zaruba camp in Siberia where Sokolowski and her family were sent.

"Where would you run? Into the forest and get eaten by wolves?" Sokolowski said. "Many people would go to the forest, and they would never return. There was nowhere to go."

In their year in Siberia, Sokolowski and her family — who were banished to the camp because they were considered patriotic Poles unlikely to accept the annexation of their lands into the Soviet Union — survived on one piece of dark bread per day and a broth filled with cockroaches. "We threw the cockroaches out and ate the soup," she said.

Sokolowski said "people from the city would never survive," but her rural roots and her mother's determination to live saved them. In the two months of Siberian summer, they would sneak out in the early morning hours to pick berries and fish for eels in a nearby brook.

"My mother always kept us busy," she said.

In 1941, when Germany invaded the USSR, the Soviets released the Polish Siberian prisoners in an effort to create a Polish army that would fight against the Nazis. Poland and the Soviet Union agreed to have the refugees — including Sokolowski's family — transferred to Uzbekistan and eventually Pakistan and Persia (present-day Iran). Persia was then controlled by Great Britain, which could provide better weapons for the budding Polish army.

Life for Sokolowski's family did not improve as they traveled penniless, on foot and on trains, to warmer climates. In Uzbekistan, they were forced to kill a stray dog with an ax and knife, eating the flesh and making a soup from it. The children would seek handouts at restaurants, begging for pita bread.

"The smell of pita bread was fantastic when you were hungry," Sokolowski said.

As time passed, Sokolowski was split up from her family: her stepfather, John, and older brother, Eugene, joined the army; her mother and older sister stayed in Uzbekistan, while Sokolowski and her youngest brother, Zdzislaw, were sent to an orphanage in Persia.

Sokolowski said her mother strictly instructed her to take care of Zdzislaw in Persia, but the 7-year-old boy soon became sick with diarrhea, was taken to a local hospital and died.

"I had visited him in the hospital when he was alive, and no one had told me he died until a little boy in the village said something," she said. "They buried him without telling me."

When the Red Cross eventually reunited Sokolowski with her sister and mother in Tehran, Josephine knew Zdzislaw had died, but never brought it up with Sokolowski.

"She didn't hug me, she didn't grab me," Sokolowski said as her sparkling blue eyes began to tear up. "I always feel guilty that my mother never forgave me. I never asked her for forgiveness, and we never talked about it.

"This moment I live through always."

A trip to Mexico

While in Persia in 1943, Sokolowski, her mother and sister were among the 1,500-or-so Poles who were invited to live in Mexico, which offered assistance to refugees.

From Persia, they traveled to Bombay, India, where they took an American warship, the USS Hermitage, on a two-month trip to San Francisco. Despite being under constant threat of torpedo attack from Japanese submarines, Sokolowski said she lived like a queen on the Hermitage.

"We had orange juice, fruit, meat and everything," she said.

Sokolowski also became a messenger of sorts between the U.S. soldiers and the young Polish women, taking "love letters" between the two parties, who were forbidden from more contact. One of the soldiers gave Sokolowski a small ivory elephant, which she still keeps in the living room of her Niles home.

"He brings me luck, and I've cherished it my whole life," Sokolowski said of the pachyderm.

Sokolowski, her mother and sister were in San Francisco for two weeks, then took a train to the city of Leon in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, about 250 miles northwest of Mexico City. Their living accommodations were an abandoned ranch called "Santa Rosa," where Sokolowski also attended school, learned Spanish and was wooed by several potential Mexican husbands.

"But I wasn't interested in any of them," Sokolowski said. She noted that her sister was swept off her feet and married a Mexican man, and they had three sons while remaining in Mexico.

Sokolowski was fascinated by a woman who worked as a bank teller, and was determined to have the same occupation as her first job.

That's exactly what happened after the Polish National Alliance found Sokolowski and her mother a place to live in Wicker Park in 1947, and Sokolowski became a teller at Manufacturers Bank while attending Wells High School.

At a Polish dance, Sokolowski met her husband, Ted, an engineer and architect who died 16 years ago and was a survivor of Auschwitz. The couple were married in 1953, and lived in Humboldt Park before moving to Niles, where they raised Sokolowski's sons, Mark, 53, and Robert, 51.

Sokolowski never spoke of her childhood experiences until Mark broached the subject while in grammar school, when he was asked to do an assignment on his family tree. Inevitably, the question of why he had first cousins living in Mexico was asked.

"It was an eyes-opening moment," said Mark, a Loyola University and Northwestern graduate who works as a project manager in external affairs Downtown at AT&T. "The saga of Poland's refugees was just plain ignored. My mom and her family's story is probably incomprehensible to many today."

Many of the Polish refugees ended up in Chicago, where they formed in 1960 the group "Klub Polakow 'Santa Rosa.'" The club, which started with about 80 active members and congregated occasionally, is now down to about 20 and will have its last meeting Sept. 13.

"We stuck together," said Ted Pieczko, 80, a retired accountant who graduated from Holy Trinity High School in West Town. "But now, so many people have already died out, and we're getting to be a very small group, so we decided to dissolve the club."

Pieczko said most of the Polish refugees find it "unpleasant" to discuss their pasts, but despite being evicted from Poland when he was 6½, he feels a strong tie to his native country.

Sokolowski said she has felt a similar pull and wanted to tell her story before she dies.

"When you reach a certain age, and you know you're going to go away, this is a life history I can still talk about," she said.

Sokolowski's birthplace, Beresteczko, is now part of Ukraine. Her farm was bulldozed decades ago to create a kibbutz-like dwelling. When she contacted the Ukrainian government about potential reparations for losing her family's land, she said they told her that land never existed.

She has vivid memories of her traumatic past: the pile of eggs, the Siberian cold, her brother's death, even the smell of the slaughtered dog cooking, which for years prevented her from purchasing a pooch until her children begged her for one.

In the end, though, Sokolowski said she has been blessed to live in Chicago, knowing her life represents the spirit of survival.

"I think there are no words to describe the happiness that I found," she said.

"Santa Rosa: Odyssey in the Rhythm of Mariachi" will be shown at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Copernicus Center, 5216 W. Lawrence Ave. Admission is free.