I am in my kitchen making gołumpke. For those who do not know the word, gołumpke is stuffed cabbage and is pronounced gwoomp-key. There are 33 letters in the Polish alphabet, and the 2nd “L” ( ł ) is pronounced as a W. This information is courtesy of my late father-in-law, Broneslaus, known as Brownie, who grew up in a Polish-speaking family in a Russian-speaking neighborhood. He was a hard man who met some tough times, but a piece of brightness in his heart showed through when he talked about his Polish heritage.
I pretty much make gołumpke the way Brownie did. It is a long process. As I prepare and assemble ingredients, I think of my husband’s grandparents’ immigration from Poland – now Belarus and Lithuania – with almost no money, a few friends and family members, and an understanding of hard work. I think of how the grandmother asked her son to write to old-country family each Sunday. Along with their news, they sent money and light supplies – bandages, aspirin, small items they could easily find and buy here, impossible to find in that part of Europe. I think of the extension and continuation of their connection. It wasn’t always easy; this was a time when the borders frequently changed, a time of Cold War between us and them. Brownie wrote to them in Polish, German, or Russian – whatever the country happened to be at the time. He kept the connection.
Back in my own day, I frequently traveled on business, and between “big trips,” I’d often visit my company’s corporate offices. There was a large Polish population in the office, and most of them were wonderfully warm, friendly, and welcoming. Wanda was middle-aged, married, reliable, and dependable while I, on the other hand, was young and perhaps a bit too fond of clothes shopping and festivities. We were very different from each other, but, we found a friendship. And, while it was clear that she enjoyed my lunchtime company and laughter, she surely must have had misgivings when she learned I was planning to marry a young man of Polish descent. I suppose it was an effort to instill some understanding of Polish heritage when she invited me to her house for dinner. As she gave me step-by-step instructions on making gołumpke, she emphasized over and over that the guest at table must be comfortable, must not bite into anything hard or chewy. Shaving the rib of each cabbage leaf such that the leaf was totally flat before it was rolled up with a meat and rice mix helped ensure this. We dined on a complete and delicious meal of gołumpke with green beans, and I fell in love with this simple food with the laborious preparation.
That evening she told me she had grown up in World War II’s Poland, the daughter of a Polish army officer. Eventually the entire family was arrested and sent to Auschwitz. “Just a short time, not long” she said almost apologetically, and I knew she was thinking of others who had been there longer or, perhaps, not very long at all.
She introduced me to her sister who lived in the upstairs apartment. “She does not speak much,” Wanda said. While in Auschwitz for that “short time,” her sister had been chosen by Josef Mengele to undergo sterilization. There was no benefit of anesthesia. She survived, but she didn’t talk much after that. Wanda spoke gently of her and to her.
As I work to shave the rib of each cabbage leaf and assemble ingredients, I think of them, and I feel a connection to kind and gentle people I have not seen in decades. I try to remember that evil does not always destroy the spirit. Kind Wanda who invited me to her house to teach me how to bring a part of my future husband’s heritage to our life. Silent sister who suffered in her body and her soul – and nevertheless came to meet a stranger, her sister’s guest. I think of Brownie and his parents whom I did not know. There is a piece of them I understand as I mix the foods that make a meal, part of which is always to be shared with a friend.
I celebrate Wanda, her sister, and the best parts of Brownie’s life as I mix the meat and rice, par-cook the cabbage, shave the ribs as smoothly as I can, place them in a baking dish with tomato and bacon. I always serve them with green beans. I am connected.