I will take a break in posting pictures of my most recent trip to Poland to tell you a bit about my previous (and first) trip, and one of the extraordinary people who was on that trip, my cousin Sonja. Sonja is the first cousin of my mother (in Poland I’d call her ciocia, “aunt.”) Sonja’s mother and my mother’s Mom were sisters. But why am I telling you about Sonja today? Well, sadly, Sonja passed away this past Thursday, December 8th, 2011, on a Catholic Holy Day, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, after a brief but intense battle with cancer. Sonja was only 74. She is very much missed.
Sonja’s children, all six of them, are my second cousins. They are all roughly the same ages as me and my siblings, and when we were younger, we spent many a good time together, first as children playing, and then later as older children and young adults, camping, playing, drinking beer, playing games, and telling stories. Some of my best memories are from times spent with Sonja and her family. They have been, and continue to be, a part of our family. We are Polish. We know what “family” really means!
But this post is about Sonja on our trip to Poland, and I’ve culled through the thousands of photos I took in Poland to find these pictures that each have Sonja in them in some way, and each tell a bit of the story of that wonderful trip. You can see the pictures here: http://poland.leonkonieczny.com/Albums/Sonja/.
Let me set the stage of our trip…… I heard about this upcoming tour to Poland through my sister, Mary…it was being organized and led by a friend of hers, Chris. So I decided I just had to go. And i sent the brochure to my Mom’s cousin Pat, who also lives here in Florida (and Pat and Sonja are also first cousins). At first, Pat said “thanks but no thanks.” And then one day, she had a conversation with Sonja. Now, I didn’t really know about “the two of them” before this, but as I’ve later learned, they were more like sisters than cousins. Quite a lot of trouble–but in a good sense. And before I knew it, Pat and Sonja were joining me on the trip to Poland. Wow, I was overjoyed and amazed. Now, they will tell you that they went along to keep me in line and out of trouble….and I will tell you that I went to keep them in line and out of trouble…but you will never find out the whole truth about our amazing trip because we did make that famous pledge to each other….”what happens in Poland stays in Poland.” And to this day I cannot violate that. You’ll just have to wonder about what all went on there…. but I’ll tell you this, it was an amazing trip!
By the way, I suppose you’re wondering why the title of this blog starts out with “S. + P.”….well, I’ll tell you in a bit. But I will say that “moja kuzynka Sonja” can be translated as “my cousin Sonja.” I’m sure my Polish friends will correct my grammar if needed….
So on August 31st, 2010, I flew to Chicago, and there I met up with Sonja and Pat (and briefly saw Sonja’s daughters, my second cousins). And before you knew it, we were on the plane and on our way to Poland. To Poland! A dream of mine. And going with some relatives. How can life get any better, I wondered? Well, it did!
And for the next two weeks, we trekked through Poland. But it was shortly into our trip that we (Pat, Sonja, and I) had a most amazing experience. You see, I had earlier in the year made a connection with a “long lost” cousin, a relative of ours, in the Gdansk area. And we were going to be in Gdansk. So, to make a long story short (at least a bit shorter), after an evening of “relaxing” with a few beers in a local Beer Garden, Sonja, Pat, and I returned to our hotel to find our Polish cousins waiting for us. It was a most amazing experience. And so if you look at the pictures, you will see some taken at the hotel in Gdansk with our cousins Alicja, Ludwika, Bartek, Paulina, and Wojtek. Of course if you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know much more about these people, as i visited them again this past summer…. But this story today and these pictures are about Sonja and our trip to Poland in 2010….
Our meeting with our relatives in Gdansk was monumental, and it precipitated my most recent trip, but the trip in 2010 was in itself quite an amazing journey. We ventured to many points in Poland and got to see great sights in Gdansk, Mazuria, Malbork, Warszawa, Rzeszow, Sandomierz, Zakopane, Krakow, and Wroclaw, among others. And at night, we had a lot of fun as well. So I will tell one or two stories here, and you can fill in the blanks, because “what happens in Poland stays in Poland.” I can’t say much more.
In Krakow, we’d had a long day. In the first half of the day, quite a few of us toured the salt mines at Wieliczka Salt Mine, including Sonja. There was a lot of walking, but it was mostly downhill. Sonja had her wheelchair and, as was customary for most of our trip, Dennis did the lion’s share of pushing it, but others also took turns. It was quite a sight, to see these mines. And then in the afternoon, Sonja and many of our group went to Auschwitz, the German Concentration camp, built on Polish soil, where the German Nazis a million or more of Jews. Sonja and the rest came back from that excursion and were quite somber. But later in the evening, while unwinding, I was sent out not once, but twice, on a “piwo run”…I had to get some beer for them. You see, most of my fellow travelers, including Sonja and Pat, were playing cards and drinking beer–unwinding after a very emotional day.
And you can also see our picutres from Zakopane, from up in the mountains. Yes, we had a few piwa there too. And quite a wonderful time. The memories of our amazing trip, our amazing journey, are as fresh in my mind as the day those event happened. We laughed, we ate, we toured, we walked, and we enjoyed–we enjoyed Poland, the land of our ancestors. The trip was, for me, made all the more special and memorable because of Sonja and Pat–there was something special about traveling with family. And that continues to live on in my mind, even to this day.
So Sonja passed away this week. It was not unexpected, but then again, it was not expected nore wanted quite this soon. She found she had cancer early this fall and put up a good fight. She had a great life, but live is always too short, and hers was way too short–yet, we don’t always get to choose. She leaves behind 6 wonderful children, my second cousins (Robin, Debbie, Sue, Billy, Timmy, and Scott, in no particular order), about a dozen or so grandchildren, and a fairly new great-grandhchild. But on her trip to Poland, and in her life, Sonja demonstrated that Polish trait that shows how important family is. So I grieve for the loss, but take comfort in the wonderful life she led and in the legacy she left. I’ll miss her–we’ll all miss her–but we won’t forget her. Which brings me to the next point….
So I promised to tell you about the S. + P. If you go to Poland, or even to some old cemeteries in the USA where a lot of Polish people were buried years ago, you’ll see something like S. + P. and the name. So what does that mean? I stands for Świętej Pamięci, “Holy Remembrance.” And why am I speaking in Polish now? Well, when we met our Gdansk cousins, after a bit, Sonja found that she suddenly remembered how to speak in Polish. And she was able to speak to our Polish cousins in Polish. And in her last days, she spoke to one of her sons in Polish, too. When he asked her why, she said she was getting ready to speak to our Polish relatives in heaven, and I’m sure she is doing just that right now…. And so, in “American,” Rest in Peace dear cousin Sonja. You are remembered….
P.S. to Sonja… I am studying Polish, so watch out when I get up there! 🙂 And maybe then…. what “stayed in Poland” may just get let out!