The history of Poland, homeland of my mother’s family since the 1500’s, tore through that unfortunate nation during the 20th Century. The beginning of the Second World War saw both Nazi and Russian invasions as the realm was shredded. In 1945, the eventual Russian “liberation” of this war-torn nation led to the ultimate nadir during the Communist takeover, which was finally broken in 1989.
An unknown number of my family members – all Jewish – died in the concentration camps and many mass executions during the nightmare. Family lore puts the number at more than six hundred murdered souls. Before the First World War, four of my mother’s family had emigrated and settled in the United States. Also before World 1, my grandmother and grandfather, as well as several of my grandmother’s brothers, along with my two uncles and my mother emigrated to Vienna, Austria. Some few, including my grandparents, mother, and both uncles made it to the United States by 1942. Two other relatives ended up in the United Kingdom, four to Australia, one to China, three to the Netherlands, and three to Israel during the beginnings of the War.
By the end of WWII, all of them – including five concentration camp survivors were able to contact each other throughout the world.
Then, in 1945, the Russians closed Poland, and we were unable to search for awhile. However, even Communists need funds to run a nation, so Stalin decreed war survivors could connect with relatives throughout the world and ask for food, money, necessities, tools, clothing, and “appropriate gifts, but no jewelry”. The survivors were officially warned “gossip” – i.e. truth – about their political restrictions would lead to immediate execution and their family’s land would be confiscated.
Several relatives, who had been hidden during the Second World War by Christian neighbors, came to light. Two who were educated and had liberal outlooks perished under the Communists. Some others walked through a living hell during the nights to reach Western Europe and its seaports and ended up in Israel or Australia. Several may have come to the United States. But we have never able to find them because their names were changed. All in all, our family’s WWII survivor generation count was up to a dozen.
As soon as the Communist decree went out, my grandmother the Polish survivors were able to touch base. She and my grandfather did indeed send most of what was asked for, but drew the line at a tractor. The “supply choo-choo” as my grandfather named it, continued into the 1970’s,
In Poland, all mail to the United States and from here, was, of course censored.
Desperate for news, and aware the Polish relatives were in the same mind, Oma Feld started to reminisce in her letters and packages about the childhood days of the family. She complained long, often, and bitterly about American food: the “tasteless mushrooms” for sale in the United States, the lack of “decent” smoked salmon, “kielbasa and other divine sausages which are worse than tasteless, which is an obscenity!” she groused. She offered to send money if “these foods, especially large 5-6 inch diameter heavenly mushrooms” were sent to her.
Her “complaints” to Poland were not censored by the Russians. Oma’s sister sent a letter to the United States which started off with “I hear what you are saying, dear sister. Let’s try to rectify this. But do send not stop sending money for us to purchase the supplies.”
Soon a thriving exchange of Polish food and American money became established on a broad basis between other families. This system is called capitalism. Capitalism and its connecting greed will eventually destroy Communism.
One afternoon, while visiting during the summer, I was sent from my grandparents’ store to pick up the mail, and there was a package from Poland. I brought it to her, and she immediately opened it. There was a beautifully decorated Polish wildflowers enameled box, eight inches by four inches by four inches high.
Opa Feld was brought into the office. Both were excited. The two of them began to laugh with delight.
I wondered what was in it, but was told we would have to wait until after dinner and the ensuing quilt deliveries to clients that evening.
Finally, the work day ended, and we went home.
We sat around the dining room table, found a key taped to the bottom, and the box was unlocked.
It was full of shriveled, dried mushrooms, each about three inches in diameter.
“There are no stems!” I shouted, as I picked them up and smelled them. “Oh, they smell so good!”
Both grandparents laughed merrily, then told me to sit down and watch.
Carefully Oma and Opa began to break open the dried mushrooms.
I gasped in amazement. “Aren’t you going to cook them? Those pieces are so small!”
Both Opa and Oma smiled at me, and put their fingers to their mouths. Tiny pieces remained there.
To my total amazement, each mushroom had a small three inch by two inch strip of crumpled paper in it. There were about fifty such. The paper had been placed into the fresh mushrooms, which were then permitted to dry and shrivel.
My grandparents carefully smoothed out the paper wrinkles and began to read messages written in tiny print for which they had to use a magnifying glass.
News of the family and their fortunate or unfortunate status had been smuggled past the Russian censors! A letter from my grandmother’s sister was opened. She said she had brought a “similar box” to the post office as a treat because “The Communists are really changing this nation for the better, and they deserve a reward.”
Opa snorted. “I hope the monsters enjoyed their mushrooms!”
The three of us joined hands and danced around the dining room table, singing and kicking our heels in the polka step. Then we all had a sip of wine and toasted the mushroom family.
Until the 1970’s the mushrooms were a regular gift from Poland, and enabled my grandparents to keep in touch with the family. They, in turn notified the other survivors throughout the world.
When I visited the Australia in 2006 for the New Year’s celebration, Polish Mushrooms were part of the many dishes. A toast was always made to the mushroom family.
Oma Feld often said, when discussing this important part of her life – in Polish – a phrase similar to “Ya gotta do what ya gotta do!”