Poland History Project
Interview with my Polish grandfather
Research Paper on History of Poland
The person that I interviewed for this project was my grandfather. In order to make this project as close to real sociological research as possible, I conducted this research over the course of several sessions with a tape recorder, in order to be able to go back over all of his answers. Since my grandfather speaks only Polish, the interview questions I asked, and all of the stories they elicited and which he told, were in that language and have been translated as accurately as possible by myself for the purpose of this interview. All of the quotations from the interview are direct from the tapes, rather than memory.
My grandfather was born in Poland, in 1939. The town, which is fairly near both Lodz and Warsaw, was war-torn from his very earliest memories. Most of his early childhood was spent not really at home, because the family was constantly having to hide, first from the Germans, and then from the Russians. In 1933, Poles in Germany had been streaming across the border to Poland , but just a few years later, Jews and others the Nazis found undesirable were hiding in the woods, like my grandfather's family, to avoid the Nazis. 1941, the Jews were expelled from Jerzow and sent to a ghetto in nearby Warsaw, from which many or all were eventually sent on to concentration camps. While my grandfather was too young to remember friends of his own being caught up in this sweep, his parents, when he was growing up, often told stories, and he recalled especially his mother and grandmother speaking in hushed voices of atrocities committed against women by the Nazis, which he later understood to be crimes of a sexual nature, though of course he was too young to comprehend that at the time. Here, it is clear that even from early childhood, gender and gender relations were part of the war experience that was central to my grandfather's understanding of life. Even though the war took place when he was very young, he says he never forgot the feelings of fear he experienced, and had nightmares all his life about hiding in holes dug in the forest, as he had had to do as a child.
Relationship With Parents
My grandfather's father was killed in World War II, as the Russians were pushing back the German front. (He was an officer in the Polish army, and once the war began, he never came home.) My grandfather grew up, as a result, without him, and says that he felt this influenced his view of women in general forever, since he grew up mostly around women and as a result felt very comfortable around them and to some extent less comfortable around men. Growing up, my grandfather was expected to be the "man of the house," but since he was also living in a village with his extended family, such as aunts and uncles related to both his mother's and father's sides, he did not have many of the traditionally male responsibilities at an early age. He says that at times he felt spoiled by his mother and was even made fun of by his schoolmates for being "tied to his mother's apron strings," or too much of what we in America might call a "mama's boy," and often preferred the company of girls to that of boys in the school yard, which he attributes to having grown up more around women than men. Family life was generally important to those in his village, and this fits in with what scholars of gender and family studies have to say about the period: despite the government's focus on the country as a whole as opposed to smaller family units, old habits died hard.
He spoke at great length about missing his father and of, when he was a small child, dreaming about following in his footsteps in the army. At this point in the interview, I did not ask any questions, but instead just listened as he spoke. He was quite eloquent when talking about his feeling, as a child and adolescent, that the best way to connect with his father was to join the military: a traditionally male profession that was closed to other members of his family by virtue of their gender. He felt he could carry on the tradition, but his mother convinced him not to do so because she was afraid he would get killed, just as her husband (his father) had.
My grandfather spoke in depth about his schooling, particularly about the differences in schooling between genders in his village. He went to school through about the equivalent of the tenth grade in the American system, and said that most boys in his village did the same thing, although the school itself was affected by the ravages of being part of a communist country, and things like literature that had little to do with the government's ideals was sparse (although there was some at this point, unlike earlier in the period of communist power ). The girls, however, were a totally different story. Many attended school sporadically, or left to work at factories or whatever jobs they could find. He said that there seemed to be a much greater focus on education for young men than for young women. Although a few studious young women did go as far through school as he did, and some even a bit further, most did not, and this was considered normal and desirable He described this as not being because of notions of the woman keeping the house or having her place in the home so much as because the women themselves seemed to be making the choice to not make education a priority. This brings up interesting questions for which, of course, my grandfather could not be privy to the answers. Were these young women being told at home that they did not need to finish school? What were their own expectations for their lives under the new Communist regime? While we cannot entirely have answers to these questions, it is interesting to note that my grandmother, who was growing up around the same time, was one of the young women who left school early: however, she did so to take care of an ailing relative and younger siblings, not because she wanted to go to work or felt that education was unimportant, so it is likely that she was not typical of the time period.
Interestingly, at this period in the Soviet Union (of which the area where they lived was functionally a part at this time, although Poland was still technically a sovereign nation), women were actually given all the same rights as men under communism. Nevertheless, while women were working at all different sorts of jobs, the equality that was supposedly such a hallmark of communist society actually did not differ from capitalist society , and in the case of education (at least anecdotally as told by my grandparents) was less likely to provide equal education for the two genders.
Relationship with Opposite Gender Before Marriage
My grandfather told many stories about the relationships between the genders, especially when they were teenagers, in his village. He said that there were not many cultural events, due to the overarching reach of the government. In his parents time, he mused, there would have been religious events, dances, shops, and many other ways to meet someone, but in his day there were many fewer. One of them was government sponsored youth events that were filled with propaganda, meant to convert young people into communist party faithful. He did not attend many of these events, but did remember that they often featured better or at least more interesting food than he was getting at home, and so he did remember going to one at the age of nineteen. This is where he met my grandmother for the first time, although she was only twelve and he was originally friends with her older brother, who had brought her along because he was being forced to babysit. Since the village was fairly small and had relatively few young people, the two of them kept running into each other, but it was many years before they would see each other in any kind of romantic light, because of the age difference between them.
History. He said that there was a feeling of change in the air-the older generation felt that a large change had taken place with the advent of communism, and social mores were different. Where once young people would mix in very supervised ways at religious events, for example, now their mixing was less supervised, and he perceived that while social mores still decried out of wedlock pregnancy and sexual promiscuity, there was a sense of freedom that had not been present in his parents' generation. He seemed to chalk this up to the difference in influences: there was no more religious influence, since religion was no longer a part of the culture, and the government did not effectively police morality, even if it tried to do so to a limited degree. Obviously this was a time of great change in gender relations as they had to do specifically with sexuality, and this was in part to do with the corresponding change in the government, which affected people's day to day lives greatly. According to a 1937 article, contraception and abortion were available to women, and this primary source material gives a clue as to some of the reason that sexual mores could functionally relax: the consequences for sexual behavior were not necessarily life changing for either partner.
At this point, in the interests in learning more about the intersection of changing gender roles and sexual mores at this point in history, it would have been instructive to have been interviewing someone other than my grandfather for the simple reason that a non-family member might have been able to be more open about sexuality in this time period, or been able to be more comfortable speaking about this topic in a less personal way. Because I was speaking to someone who still sees me as a child, some of my distance as a researcher was unfortunately removed, and this topic was not something he was comfortable exploring as much as would have been helpful.
As my grandfather and grandmother got older, they saw more of each other and both began to have feelings for the other. The two of them characterized their attraction and falling in love as mutual, and my grandfather laughed as he described my grandmother as the aggressor in their courtship, saying many times that she had pursued him, which he blamed on communist philosophy, using a word that best translates in English to "new-fangled." He said that the Soviets had put ideas in her head that she should go after him instead of waiting for him to come to her. While he was joking, this was very instructive: it clearly shows that my grandfather is of a generation that was in transition, from a more traditional view of women's roles to what might be considered a more modern or feminist one.
The regime itself had, if not a traditionally feminist view, at least one that took into account the importance of women, especially since one of the concerns of the regime was falling population and decreasing birth rate. Here, my grandfather's jokes expressed the tension between the old way of viewing things and a newer, more communist, but also more feminist perspective. While it was my grandfather who proposed marriage, speaking first with my grandmother's parents as was traditional, he spoke with her first and told me he was not at all certain of her answer. When he proposed, he recalled doing so as something of a business proposition: sitting down beforehand, and planning how he would lay out his future prospects, explaining to her why it would make sense financially and otherwise for them to get married, as well as romantically and emotionally. Here, consciously or not, my grandfather was setting the tone for their future marriage, in which they would be partners and equal in all things: again, both a feminist ideal and one that was meant to be one of the underlying tenets of the communist ideal.
Communist marriages were indeed meant to be partnerships, and my grandparents' marriage was not an exception. From day one, my grandfather said, they worked together in every sense. Both took jobs in a factory not far from the town in which they lived. While Soviet newspapers from the era of my grandparents' early marriage discussed the women's plight of running the house after a long day at work, according to later scholars, my grandfather took pride in never putting my grandmother in that position While both considered themselves good workers, they also both tried to split the duties of the household evenly This made my grandfather fairly uncommon among his friends, and he recalled to me his being raised in a household of women, saying that he was used to sharing what other's called "women's work." "To me," he said, "it's all just work to be done. The government told us it didn't matter who did it, and it didn't matter to me either." Here again, the ideas of gender equality intersect with political ideas of the equality of all people. The communist education and even indoctrination my grandfather received was effective on some level in terms of making him a sort of proto-feminist: long before he knew the term, he was a proponent of gender equality.
My grandparents had two children, my mother and aunt. My grandfather laughingly brought back up that he always lives in houses full of women, but also spoke movingly about his desire, never fulfilled, for a son. While American primary sources from the time period say that the allowances of money per child were high , in order to encourage large families and high birth rates, my grandfather recalls the opposite, and says that by the time he and my grandmother were ready to have children, the allowances were quite low. This is backed up by secondary sources, specifically scholarly articles written studying policy in the 1960s, which say that the popular perception, especially in America, was often incorrect. (It is instructive to remember that while the Polish government and the Soviet government were not one and the same at this point, they were much alike through the 1950s, and, with the exception of the dissolution of collective farming and some increased freedom of the press, Poland remained a communist country in the mold of the Soviet Union for the vast majority of the period of which my grandfather spoke in our interview. In terms of gender relations and social mores, as well as social policy the two countries were very similar.)
As my mother and her sister got older, my grandfather pushed them toward higher education and challenging pursuits, regardless of gender, feeling honestly that gender had nothing to do with success. When I asked whether or not he considered himself a feminist because of this belief, his mouth dropped open and he laughed-he replied that he was nothing of the kind, merely someone who knew that people were people and did not believe in wasting a good brain. He said he wanted his children, whatever gender they were, to do better than he and his wife had done, and knew that education was key.
Throughout their marriage, both my grandparents worked full time. Around 1980, the government of Poland changed and the workers were allowed to organize into unions: a huge change, which my grandfather was very proud of. He spoke at length about voting in that election and waiting up late at night listening to the poll returns coming back on the radio. Throughout his life, working was something in which my grandfather saw the genders as equal: both worked, and both shared in the benefits, a key communist idea . The same was true of the work that came with parenting, and both my mother and aunt remember that they were raised pretty equally by both of their parents, which was not necessarily true of all of their peers. My grandfather spoke very proudly about raising his daughters to believe that they could have any career and that they could grow up to do anything, and that they should never consider themselves inferior because of gender, whether in an educational setting or in one to do with work.
While he and my grandmother were not yet ready to take the plunge and move to the United States of America, they started thinking about it because of the idea of a country built from its inception on equality for everyone, where they could have better economic opportunities and build more of a life for themselves in their middle and old age, and for their children and grandchildren as well. Many Polish people were thinking the same, and coming to the United States in droves.
Making the Move
Finally, in 1992, my grandparents decided that they were ready to move to the United States. Like hundreds of thousands of immigrants before them (many of whom came illegally, on tourist visas , though this was not the route my grandparents took), they came to New York City and settled in neighborhoods where many people who spoke their language and who lived in a culture similar to theirs also lived. Since they moved later in life, the culture shock they experienced was different from what they might have felt when they were younger, and perhaps stronger in some ways. They had support systems in place in the form of relatives already in the states, but they still had to deal with New York City's different and much greater and faster pace of life. My grandfather remembered being dizzied by the number of options for everything, from restaurants to eat in to products to buy at the grocery store. After the general deprivation he had lived with as a child in war-torn Poland and, even after Poland was not as badly off, in his adult life, he was amazed.
Differences in Gender Roles
I asked my grandfather about some of the differences he had noticed between gender roles in Poland and in New York today. He said that he is constantly surprised by things he sees on television, rather than what is going on around him. In his mind, the women of today seem to be, in a way, the extension of the communist ideal he learned as a child: they are equal citizens. When he sees the walking down Wall Street, for example, on one of the long daily walks he takes with my grandmother, he is unfazed. But what he sees on television surprises and distresses him.
When he moved to the United States, one of the things my grandfather was most excited about was the idea of a truly free media, with non-government sponsored entertainment. He avidly began to watch television, but is shocked and appalled at some of what Americans consider entertainment. Here, as opposed to in real life, he saw things that denigrated and demeaned women, and this was considered funny or even sexy and exciting. In Poland, women had been considered equal citizens and, as in the USSR, even been made a priority because they were the future mothers of the citizens of the republic-the people who would teach the youngest communists how to be good future citizens. Even when women were, in reality, working for relatively low wages (lower than those of men) , they were respected and taught to respect themselves. In my grandfather's eyes, which are unacculturated to America's more sexualized way of viewing women, American women did not show the same respect for themselves. Instead, they were using their sexuality, rather than their brains to get ahead.
In Communist society, women's value was twofold, according to my grandfather: one of the two values was that they could and did work just as hard as men did, and at mostly the same jobs. However, women also had another value to the country, as the mothers of the children. While this did not always work out well for women in practice (since they were often stuck with child-rearing responsibilities as well as working full days.) They were, however, treated with respect by the government. To say that this respect always translated to how they were treated in their individual homes would be naïve and would be to ignore a very real and endemic problem of domestic violence, but since the topic was not something personal to this interview or to my family it does not have a place in this particular study.
Nevertheless, in terms of the government (and thus of the media, since the government was the only or the major controller of the media for the entire time my grandfather lived in Poland), women were respected. In America, according to my grandfather, despite the women he read of in the news doing wonderful things, such as running companies and running for office (which, for all the outward respect, were positions less available in Russia), what he saw on television was the grossest disrespect to women. When I tried to explain that some women see their own sexuality differently and court a sexualized image as a form of empowerment, it was very difficult for him to understand: in his culture, sexuality is something to be gotten away from because it points up the differences between men and women, which are inherently bad because they lead to inequality. All people, under communism, should be equal, and equal, to those who learned the word as my grandfather did, means "the same".
My Grandfather and Women's Issues
Having completed the interview about my grandfather's life per se, I wanted next to explore his positions on some gender and women's studies issues. I began by reminding him of his insistence that he had always treated my grandmother as an equal partner and his learning throughout his life that women should be equal, as well as his experience growing up in a house full of women. I then asked if he considered himself a feminist-not an easy concept to translate into Polish! He replied that he did not, and I asked him why. He said that the women he understood to be feminists were making too much of an issue of the fact that they were women, and it would be better if they just went about their business without gender being an issue. I found this perspective to be extremely interesting, and, like many of my grandfather's perspectives, I think it has a lot to do with the way he was raised. (Interestingly, women in Poland overwhelmingly also do not identify themselves as feminists. )
Because he was interested in my questions, I continued to press, asking about some other hot button issues in today's women and gender studies scholarly discussions. Some, such as body image issues, he did not have much of a perspective on (in part, perhaps, because media distortion of body image is not something that he grew up understanding, since his climate was not as media saturated as America today.)
Abortion, however, was an issue on which he had a definite opinion. He considers himself pro-choice in theory, because he thinks the government should have no say in what people do with their bodies, but expressed deep issues with the idea that any woman would choose abortion, since personally and morally, he is deeply against them. This dichotomy, he told me, is something he has struggled with from the time he was young (since abortion was allowed in communist Poland, and, in fact, in all of the Eastern bloc countries except Bulgaria.) This struggle has been renewed as the issue has been in the news, particularly in the last election. While he did not vote, his coworkers at the leather store where he works part time were often debating the issue, and he told me he finally decided it was best to keep silent rather than to speak up and air his deeply conflicted ideas.
All in all, doing this assignment allowed me to learn a lot not just about my grandfather but about the time and place in which he was raised. I was especially interested in the extent to which it turned out the government of his home country and the affect it had on culture had influenced his social beliefs and his views of women and gender relations. This is certainly one aspect of communist culture that I had never considered before, and even my grandfather admitted to me that he had never sat and thought about his own views on these issues in this way, either, admitting with a laugh that there might have been some positives to his old life after all. Ultimately, the intersection of my grandfather's individual life with women's issues and gendered issues in general has provided interesting insight into his unique time and place in world history.
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