I’ve never been a huge fan of Thanksgiving Day toasts. The important thing about the holiday, to me, has always been just being together. And eating lots of turkey.
But I happened into an experience today that puts all of our lives here in America in perspective. It happened in an unexpected place. My backyard.
I got into a conversation, as I sometimes do, with my next-door neighbor. I don’t want to get into too many personal details. It’s enough to say that he’s in his mid-seventies and Polish.
Today he had a lot on his mind. Speaking from the second floor porch of his three-decker, he started to tell me about his last visit to Poland. Maybe two or three decades ago. He arrived at night and arose early the next morning to go for a walk. He walked by the Vistula River near which he was born. He passed the infamous spot of the Warsaw Ghetto. And finally he made his way into the very same pew in the very same church where as a small boy he had received his first communion. Of course, that had been prior to the division of Poland, prior to its invasion by the Nazis, and prior to the whole circuitous course of events that eventually brought him to Poplar Street in Roslindale.
He sat there in that pew, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the moment, when a priest came by and asked him a simple question, “What happened?”
The way my neighbor tells the story, everything came out.
He recounted his memories of receiving communion in that seat. Then he told how he had watched the Nazis demolish the house his aunt lived in and replace it with a 16-foot wall to be topped off with barbed wire. Inside the wall, the Nazis would put the Jews, an area that would become known to history as the Warsaw Ghetto. Later his mother would find ways to bring food and supplies into the city for Poles and Jews. When the husband of a local Jewish woman was executed, his mother told his family that they would be her family. She hid them for the remainder of the war.
He spoke of the largely forgotten revolt of Warsaw in 1944. As a young, nimble teen, he could fit through narrow cracks in basements and bring ammunition to partisans. There, they struggled as Stalin ordered his army to remain safely on the other side of the Vistula until the Nazis mopped up anyone who might cause them trouble once they took over.
With the tragic defeat, the Nazis took his family by train to Essen, to work camps. His father and sister toiled as slave laborers in the train terminal. He worked to survive as well. There was more, some of it jumbled. Friends murdered. Names of those who collaborated.
What a way to spend your teenage years.
Finally, the Americans came, a group of African-American soldiers, who brought them to safety behind the lines.
When you see the three-family homes that line many of Boston’s streets, you don’t know the stories that live behind the walls. There are the images that hint at things – the red and black Albanian flag on Belgrade Ave., the state banner of Poland paired with the American flag, a gold star on a home. But you never really know.
In this one story from my neighbor on Thanksgiving Day, I got a sense of everything we have to be grateful for to live in this country.