One Star Away. Imogena Salva

“Kiedy dzisiejszy świat wykrzykuje hasła takie jak „równość”, „integracja” i „sprawiedliwość”, wielką obrazą jest to, że świat nigdy nie zwrócił się osprawiedliwość dla kraju, który poniósł najwięcej strat i zniszczeń podczas wojny. Polska ucierpiała z powodu odmowy bycia sojusznikiem Związku Radzieckiego i Niemiec, dwóch krajów z planami eksterminacji i unicestwienia. To niesprawiedliwe, że Wielka Brytania i Ameryka nie włączyłytego fragmentu historii do swoich podręczników i ukryły prawdę. Badając ten temat, natknęłam się na tysiące stron odtajnionych dokumentów z 2012 roku, ujawniających, jak Franklin D. Roosevelt i Winston Churchill zatuszowali dowody dotyczące zbrodni katyńskiej, w której ponad 22 tysiące polskich oficerów wojskowych i intelektualistów zostało zamordowanych przez NKWD i wrzuconych do masowych grobów. Chociaż ludobójstwo zostało prawnie wyodrębnione jako nowy rodzaj międzynarodowej zbrodni przez Konwencję o Ludobójstwie z 1948 r., do chwili obecnej żaden rząd nigdy nie oskarżył Związku Radzieckiego o żadne zbrodnie wojenne, a rząd rosyjski nigdy nie przeprosił za swoją ludobójczą działalność na Polakach. Polacy nie otrzymali żadnej rekompensaty od swojego wschodniego agresora. Mam nadzieję, że One Star Away pomoże uporządkować historię dotyczącą stalinowskiego terroru i uznać krew i łzy moich rodaków. Tak ważnej części historii nie można pogrzebać.”

Powyższy akapit jest częścią artykułu napisanego przez Imogenę Salva na temat jej nowej książki pt. „One Star Away”. Książka jest pięk- ną,trzymającą w napięciu lekturą o trudach ludzkiego życia podczas wysiedlenia Polaków na Syberię i ich dalszych losach w Indiach. Książka napisana jest na faktach autentycznych przekazanych autorce przez jej mamę, Ziutę Nowicki, która była jednym z dzieci dotkniętych tragedią II Wojny Światowej. Mieliśmy okazję porozmawiać z Panią Imogeną na temat jej najnowszej książki.

Głos Polonii: What inspired you to write this story?

Imogena Salva: I was inspired by the stories my mother told me of her childhood. The fact that she and her family lived through an unimaginable nightmare during WWII, has never ceased to amaze me. As a child, I felt sorrow for their sufferings, but I also felt a sense of pride in my family’s history. I was haunted by the courage, resilience and sacrifices they endured. I re- alized how important faith was in their lives. Unfortunately, their sto- ry was quite common among Poles. Historians estimate the number

 of Poles who were sent to Siberia during WWII to be around 1.7 mil- lion. I was astonished to learn in life that this piece of history, which was so personal to me, is so foreign to the multitudes. Discussions with seemingly well versed, educated people commonly revealed igno- rance or lack of knowledge of these atrocities of WWII. As horrific as the Jewish Holocaust was, why is that the main focus of WWII. Why was the murder of so many more millions of individuals under Stalin not even mentioned? I felt inspired to put to pen my mother’s story and not let it fade away into the shadows of history. I finally was also inspired by “The Good Maharaja” who personally invited hundreds of Polish children to India under his protective care. Through this book I want to immortalize his example of courage and compassion.

GP: Why did you choose to write this book as a novel rather than a documentary or memoire?

IS: There are a handful of marvel- ous books written on this subject, but they are written as history books which I believe limits the au- dience. I hoped a novel would be more relatable and reach a larger reader base. As Iwrote, my goal was for the reader to become invested in the character’s lives; understand- ing their thoughts and feelings, fears and hopes in this dark period of history. The novel is arecreation of the true stories of my mother’s childhood and the outline for the book easily fell into place based on the many stories she shared of Poland, Siberia, and India. It felt like the most natural approach to recall her story as a novel weaving history into each chapter, describ- ing settings and real-life events. I believe a novel allows the reader to connect with the characters on an intimate level, cheering victo- ries and sharing fears and desires. This format also allows the author to introduce history in a kinder, more gentle way than a history book filled where the focus is stark facts and figures. I hope readers will be inspired to learn beyond the novel and research the plight of the Poles in Siberia after reading this book. I think the storytelling format stays with the reader, often touching their hearts in an unex- pected way. If One Star Away can stir the reader to feel compassion for our fellow man, I will consider my book a success.

GP: Who do you feel is your target audience and why?

IS: My target audience is very broad. During the process of writ- ing, I didn’t have a particular audi- ence in mind but the more I wrote, I realized how important it is to me that my own children know and understand this history – not just the stories of their grandmother and her family but of all the Poles who suffered at the hands of the Russians. These thoughts quick- ly expanded. It is imperative to pass down this history for future generations of Polish Americans, specifically those whose ancestors had been scattered to all the cor- ners of the world after losing their territory in WWII. I would dare to say that this story is of paramount importance for everyone who seeks truth and to expand their knowl- edge about the plight of Poles from the Eastern Borderlands or Kresy. I think that this book is a good read for anyone who is interested in learning about WWII and by read- ing it one will discover what West- ern textbooks fail to mention.

GP: Because this is not your own personal story, but the story of your mother and her family, what kind of research did you do to be accurate in your story telling?

Imogena writing the book. Photo contributed

IS: Although I did not personally live through my mother’s experi- ences, her WWII odyssey was very much a part of me. The stories of her childhood were told and re- told to me a hundred times. As years passed, my mother patiently answered my budding questions. Some evenings, we poured through albums looking at pictures. Mom filled in details from the photos discussing friends, teachers, plac- es and activities.

It was a wonderful visual of putting puzzle pieces together. Sometimes pictures would spark a song or dance and she’d teach those to me, right there in our living room. So, I have to say this is really the foundation of this book and how the first seeds of inspiration were planted.

There was also a great deal of travel, toil and study that was done before the first word was ever put to pen. Besides all my mother’s stories I grew up with, I interviewed my mother’s older siblings numerous times. I read several books about this subject and interviewed the books’ authors. I traveled all over Europe to interview the survivors or “Sybiracy”. I traveled throughout my life to reunions of “Jamnagarczycy”, those Poles who had spent 5-7 years in the Balachadi camp in India. We are, until the present moment, one family.

And finally, I traveled with my mother to India in 2018 and met the Maharaja’s family and interviewed his children. While there, I not only immersed myself in the Gujarati culture, but as well as in the experiences of those Polish children who survived the hellish nightmare of Bolshevik communism in the “Inhuman Land” and reached India, which became their “Promised Land”.

Author’s mother Ziuta Nowicka in Gudżarat, India. Photo contributed

Throughout my life, my mother unknowingly gave me the foundation to write One Star Away. We spent many happy hours in the kitchen as I learned to cook Polish foods. She instilled my love of Polish traditions and culture. She taught loyalty to family and country and an abiding love of God and the importance of faith. She made sure I understood these were the ways of our family long before me, long before her. It was what connected me to the past, to the family I never had the opportunity to meet who had come and gone before me. And she taught me never to forget who I was and where I came from. Her guidance reminds me to be generous in time, love and patience in giv ing these gifts to future generations.

GP: The story starts with your mother having a discussion with the Shah of Iran. How much of this novel is fact and how much is fiction?

IS: My mother was one of the Shah’s nurses where he was treated for cancer in New York hospital. I was 15 years old in 1979 and distinctly remember my mother returning home from her night shift at the Cornell Medical Center. She was ecstatic and recounted how thrilled she was to have the honor of tending to Mohammah Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran who had been so generous to Poles who were escaping Soviet Russia. Thanks to him in a sense, my mother and roughly 120,000 thousand Poles were saved from Soviet GEHENNA.

To answer the question, yes, the book is definitely based on true events of my mother’s life. My editor and I took a bit of artistic license in creating dialogue and in moment-to-moment events, but the whole of the book retells her story.

GP: Your mother’s story is remarkable. Was this something she talked about as you were growing up or did she keep her past mostly to herself? As an adult, looking back on your childhood, do you think your mother’s wartime experiences shaped the way she parented you and your sister? In what ways?

IS: Yes, she did talk about her life and I was blessed she was willing to tell the stories of her youth with honesty and in a matter-offact manner. She took the role of family historian, passing down stories to the next generation. She never sought pity, but I do remember complaining of walking to and from school – a mile each way and having to take a subway. My mother looked at me and raised an eyebrow. She said, “At least you’re not walking over dead bodies.” The look she gave me reminded me I should be grateful even for things I saw as hardships. Lesson learned, my sister and I never took anything for granted. Although she freely shared her stories with her family, she held the past as private family matters. She rarely shared the atrocities of her childhood with friends and coworkers but rather focused on the present moment. Now that the book is published and has a growing reader base, I am touched by the comments of readers who have known my mother. I often hear they had no clue she had such a difficult childhood, how strong and resilient she was her entire life., and that they never noticed any clues or signs to her childhood sufferings. I know we all love our mothers, but I must say, I am very proud of this remarkable woman and these reader’s comments are very moving. I believe my mother’s experiences affected aspects of her style of parenting. She taught us children to be grateful for whatever we have in life. She was clear in that she always expected my sister and me to do our best – in school, activities and chores. She was a strict disciplinarian who did not tolerate laziness or waste and had little time for excuses.

I don’t think she was really hard on us, but I believe she wanted us to grow to be strong, independent, capable individuals who could handle whatever life had in store. We always knew mom loved us and would do anything for us. She created a loving home, one where we shared a close bond and always looked forward to family time. She modelled the behavior she desired in us and I have to say I always admired how she carried herself with confidence and poise. She taught us to help those in need. She made sure we had a Catholic upbringing, instilling the values of God, Honor and Fatherland and a strong work ethic.

I have tried and will continue on in my mission to pass the beauty of our Polish values to my children and grandchildren. Until the present day, in our home, we never leave food on our plates. Bread is sacred and food, clothing, and items people take for granted are treated with the dignity they deserve. I am not a follower of the “throw away” culture. I am so grateful to my mother that she reared us in these values that are being lost today.

GP: We often see war vets return from battle with a condition called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Do you think your mother suffered any permanent physical or mental issues due to her experiences? If so, how did that affect you growing up?

IS: It would be impossible to live through these horrors and not have permanent scars. As children, my sister and I were not aware of the silent pains she carried, so it didn’t really affect us. She did her best to live in the present. Besides tackling 3 jobs as a Registered Nurse, she was extremely involved in folk dancing and ballroom dancing. Whenever there was a crisis, she’d chuckle and say, “I’d rather be dancing.

”She was cool headed and as a child, I felt she could handle any situation. I do remember times when she was startled by knocking sounds, like someone pounding on the front door or a contract worker using a hammer. She’d jump, startle or wince then brush it off saying it was nothing. She did not reveal the truth until I was an adult. Knocking or banging sounds forever reminded her of the Bolsheviks banging on her front door that fateful night of her family’s deportation to Russia. The sound also triggered memories of neighbours building coffins in Siberia to keep hungry wolves away from the deceased.

She was able to work through these fears and recognise the sounds connected her with unpleasant memories like fearing someone might build a coffin for one of her family members at any time. She logically understood banging and knocking no longer meant she would be forcibly removed from her home or have the need of a coffin, but these scars remained and bothered her throughout her life. If other heartaches lived deep within her, she did not share them, but rather held them private and sacred deep within herself. I feel blessed that this is the extent of her day-to-day trauma. I realise many survivors suffered far worse traumatic echoes throughout their lives. I am in awe of the resilience and faith my mother relied upon to help her move forward in life.

Imogena and editor Joanna Pelszyńska. Photo contributed

GP: You and your mother traveled to India and met with the Maharajah’s family. What did you take away from this encounter? Do you think the spirit of compassion has continued in this royal family?

IS: The occasion was a reunion of the Polish children, who returned to the good land of the Maharajah. The royal family welcomed us with open arms. The eldest daughter of the Maharaja, Princess Hershad, who wrote the foreword, refers to us as their adopted family and this was evident in the warm welcomes of the family who throughout the generations have continued to encourage relationships with the survivors and their families. What I will remember most from these reunions is the peace and serenity on the faces of my mother and her schoolmates. India became their safe haven and something deep within each of them was triggered.

Tears of gratitude flowed easily as they walked through happy memories of safety, security and knowing they were wanted and welcomed. It was a beautiful thing to behold; these same emotions in each of the Polish children, long grown but allowing their inner child to relive the joy they experienced under the care of the Good Maharajah. The royal family was humbled at the outpouring of love from these, his adopted children, now scattered all over the world, returning to remember.

GP: As you’ve mentioned, this story is not well known. Is the Maharajah’s legacy kept alive today?

IS: Very much so. The Jam Saheb Digvijay Singhi Jadeja School in Warsaw was established to honor his legacy. After communism fell in 1989 and Poland became a fully independent state, a square in Warsaw was named after the Maharaja. Since 2012, a small park in the city’s south-western area of Ochota is called the Square of the Good Maharaja. A monument dedicated to the kind-hearted prince was also erected, and he was posthumously given the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland. As I mentioned, the Maharajah’s eldest daughter, Princess Hershad Kumari wrote the forward for the book. She and her family and staff have been most generous in their gifts of time, research and photographs. The Maharajah instilled in his family the belief that helping others is a privilege. Perhaps that is the most beautiful legacy he could have left them.

GP: Finally, a great novel is not possible without a great editor. Can you tell us how you and Joasia collaborated on the book?

IS: Behind every great novel, there is an indispesable and talented editor. It is so with One Star Away. When praying for an editor to jump on board with me, I was looking for someone with a positive, upbeat attitude that could take on the hardest job of creating a masterpiece from one person’s experience. Joasia has all the talent, from an eye for consistency to building subplots, adding chapters, subtracting others, experience for style and momentum, and doing all that with respecting the author’s voice and without drawing attention to herself. It’s like teaching, a thankless job because in most cases people think a book is solely the author’s creation. Completely not true. Joasia was equally invested in this project as I was, and I am eternally grateful!

Source: Głos Polonii w USA