Meet Aniela. She was born in Poland in 1924 and was 15 when WWII started. When the war ended in 1945, Aniela had lost her family and many friends. Her hometown was bombed so badly that she had nowhere to live. Nothing was left. Although I am not sure of the circumstances, Aniela ended up in Germany after the war. The only places still standing were the concentration camps and prisoner of war camps. After the war, the camps were used as displaced persons camps – and that was exactly what Aniela was.

Aniela met her future husband in the camp. He had a similar story to hers. Marko was from Yugoslavia. Whether they knew a common language or got by with their native tongues, they started a relationship. They married in the DP camp. Ironically, a place that many tried to flee was becoming a place to flock. A place of horror was becoming a home to so many. Aniela and Marko had a daughter while living in the DP Camp Seedorf. They named her Dragica.

I looked it up online and found that the camp was as I would have expected it. The families were given basic food and clothing but both were of poor quality. Their rations of food were half of the calorie intake for the average person. Many families shared one room, using only blankets to divide them for privacy. I don’t even want to think about how unsanitary DP camps were. Diseases were commonplace.

Being a wife and mother myself, I can’t imagine what it was like for Aniela. Their families, friends, homes, possessions, even their surroundings were gone. Yet, here she was, making a life out of nothing. She had a little girl to raise – a glimmer of hope in so much darkness. The new family lived like this for 3 ½ years. How do you raise a child, an innocent child, with no understanding of war or danger or death in an environment like that? Aniela and Marko must have asked that question themselves.

When Dragica was 3 ½, they boarded a ship to the United States. A church in Chicago sponsored them, although I am not sure if they needed to contribute anything themselves. How incredibly hard it must have been to leave the comfort of the DP camp and come to a foreign country. They traveled to a place where they did not speak the language, where they knew no one but each other, where they had only the promise of a job and better life. Could you imagine how bad it had to be to pack up your few belongings and take that leap of faith? What if it didn’t work out? What else did they have to lose?

The family left Bremerhaven, Germany on December 20, 1951. I know how hard it is to travel with a 3 year old for a week while we stayed in clean hotels. Our traveling with the kids always included new toys and lots of entertainment for them. What did Dragica do on the ship? More importantly, what did Aniela do? I’m sure she was terribly worried about what life was going to be like for them. How did she keep her spirits up for Dragica? Whose idea was this anyway? Could you imagine if your husband told you that you were leaving your new homeland, as messed up as it was, and starting over in another country? I would have had a hard time being supportive of that idea. Aniela was a very strong woman.

They traveled to Ellis Island – some of the last immigrants through there before it closed in 1954. The family spent that Christmas and New Year’s crossing the Atlantic. I wonder if they celebrated with the others on the ship. Did everyone share the food they brought along or did the ship provide a holiday meal? Did someone play music? Did they all keep to themselves? Did they have a small gift for their daughter? Maybe because of the war in Europe, they saw the holiday as just another day. Aniela and Marko were Orthodox. Traditionally, they celebrated Christmas on January 7th. It is hard to say what they did that year.

They arrived in New York on January 2, 1952. I looked up the weather for that time and place on the Farmer’s Almanac Weather History. It was unseasonably warm – high of 50 with fog and rain. At least it wasn’t the snow and cold I imagined. Even so, it was not a beautiful day. They headed to Chicago shortly thereafter via train, where they would live out the rest of their lives.

Aniela and Marko had two more children in Chicago. Marko worked hard and bought a 3 flat on the north side of the city. Pictures of them show them smiling, visiting the Lincoln Park Zoo and picnicking. It looked like they achieved the American Dream. Sadly, the people who knew them said they fought like cats and dogs. Dragica eloped at 20, refusing the traditional wedding of the Orthodox. I’m sure it broke her parents’ hearts a little.

Aniela died less than 20 years after she got to Chicago at 46. She must have been the glue to hold her family together. Shortly after her mother’s death, Dragica’s marriage ended. Aniela’s son joined a gang and quietly slipped away from the family. Marko passed a few years after that. Aniela’s youngest daughter was only 13 at the time of her father’s death and lived with her sister for a few years before heading out on her own.

Aniela and Marko are buried in separate graves a few rows from each other. Their three children have since passed on, too. The chapter on their family is closed.

I wonder if Aniela could see down the road to their life in Chicago, would she have gotten on that ship? Personally, I am glad she did.

Dragica was my mother-in-law.

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