Stanley: Shorewood woman’s 12-year odyssey as refugee ended in U.S.
By Brian Stanley Life of Brianfirstname.lastname@example.org February 23, 2013 7:22PM
Janine (left) and Anatol 'Tony' Rychalski (right) in their residence Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013, in Shorewood. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 25, 2013 6:08AM
Though I sometimes wish I traveled more, I’m also glad I have the option not to.
“I saw a lot of the world, yes, but not as a tourist,” Janine Rychalski told me last week. We were waiting before I interviewed her husband Tony, who engineered the Picasso sculpture in Chicago. Besides being an artist and expert engineer, Tony enjoys cooking, so we had to kill some time before the French toast finished.
He apologized the available baquettes were not as authentic as he would’ve liked, but I repeat in print what I told him then with utter sincerity — I never have had an interview subject offer a better breakfast in my career.
(Toast that doesn’t need syrup for sweetness remains impressive even if the previous champ was a cop saying, “There’s an extra doughnut if you want one ...”)
But this column is about Janine, who spent 12 years being shifted from continent to continent as a refugee from war and politics.
In 1940, Janine was 8 years old when she was forced from Poland with her mother, aunt and younger brother. She spent the next two-and-a-half years in a labor camp in the Soviet Union.
When the Russians entered World War II, Poles who were willing to fight could earn their families’ release, but Janine’s father already had been buried in a mass grave.
“The communist officer took pity on my mother. He told her, ‘I don’t know why I should help you, but you remind me of my mother,’ ” Janine recalled. Janine’s family was put on the list for transfers and sent to Iran, which then was Persia.
On one hand, education in the camps was a challenge for the children who had to write lessons on their knees while sitting on bricks. But their grammar and high school classes were being taught by displaced university professors.
After two years in Persia, the Polish girl spent two in Lebanon where she attended a high school for international refugees before being moved again to England.
Many people describe their adolescence as a rough, crowded and uncertain time. Janine can claim that literally.
But in January of 1952, Janine’s family learned they’d be able to join another aunt who lived in New Bedford, Mass.
“Crossing the Atlantic was the worst. I swear they literally scrapped the ship we came on after that trip,” Janine said. “But our family had $8. We were very rich on that boat.”
Janine made it through the voyage envisioning the Statue of Liberty, but instead her welcome to the New World was seeing several feet of snow covering the Boston docks.
“But my aunt who lived here had sent our papers to New York, so all four of us were behind bars for 24 hours until it got straightened out,” Janine said.
After being homeless for a dozen years, one night only made a difference to some of the refugees.
“My mother was crying her eyes out, but my aunt laughed. She thought it was the funniest thing that ever happened,” Janine said.
Her brother also made the best of their delay and held a cultural exchange with an Asian man who was being detained. While they didn’t share a common language, both were able to spend the night playing chess before the family was released to their new country.
It seemed a shame to end Janine’s tale, but breakfast was waiting. So trust that many years later I observed that young refugee girl found what seems to be a sweet ending.
Even without syrup.