In recent weeks, news of the migrant crisis – whether in the Middle East, on Greek coastlines or elsewhere in Europe – has been pushed to the sidelines by disasters, both political and climactic, in the United States. But the reality of the refugee crisis is with us still: after the Trump administration announced its intention to do away with a program instigated after the last earthquake in Haiti, which prevents Haitians from being deported, thousands of migrants came streaming across the Canada-U.S. border, into makeshift camps in Quebec.
Many of us have migrants among our not-so-distant ancestors. Current events make those early travelers’ experiences relevant. We should recognize that their counterparts are making landfall on the Greek island of Lesbos, or breaking through the underbrush of an apple orchard in Hemingford, Que.
Among the early classics of Canadian literature are “settlement” books – diaries and guides by newcomers for the next wave of migrants – like Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush. The first English-language Jewish-Canadian novels to gain a wide audience were Henry Kreisel’s 1948 The Rich Man and Adele Wiseman’s 1956 Governor General’s Award-winning The Sacrifice, both of which tell immigrant stories. Kreisel came to Canada in wartime as an interned “enemy alien.” Wiseman was born in Winnipeg, but her parents left eastern Europe in the wake of pogroms. This history informs her narrative of newcomers to Canada’s prairies in The Sacrifice.
Kasia Jaronczyk’s collection of stories, titled Lemons, is a contemporary addition to the tradition of Canadian writing that straddles European and North American experience. She begins with a careful portrayal of young girls’ lives in communist Poland. Jaronczyk often leaves the details about specific places and times ambiguous, but the reader gets a sense of a decaying empire, an end time, when people’s lives are unpredictable at best: children play at the edge of unfinished housing projects; fathers disappear on prolonged work trips; families break up as the adventurous ones make their way west toward the relative unknown.
Poles have been leaving their country in waves for many years, as part of a phenomenon that predates the communist and Second World War eras. A newly established museum at the Baltic port of Gdynia is focused on this outmigration. The museum is housed in a refurbished building that once was the departure terminal for thousands boarding such hardworking ships as the Batory, the Pulaski and the Pilsudski.
The Emigration Museum in Gdynia is a part of a surprisingly large number of museums dedicated to migration around the world. Canada has its Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax. Italy tops the list with as many as 12 institutions devoted to its departed citizens. The Japanese have one in Yokohama. And South Africa has one in Cape Town.
Part of the Polish Emigration Museum’s mandate is to develop an “Emigrant’s Archive,” a library of videotaped interviews in which departees present their reasons for leaving and their experiences in their new homelands. Jaronczyk’s stories are a literary alternative to such oral tales. In them, she offers no overt or didactic claims about lives divided by an ocean. But as her characters’ lives progress, it’s this divide that increasingly guides and complicates who they are.
‘the lives left behind in Poland are raw and on edge’
The first stories in the collection are told through the eyes of girls who don’t understand the migrants’ stories that surround them. Only in a few instances does Jaronczyk allow her narrative an omniscient point of view that paints a more complete picture:
“Basia’s father is at the Warsaw Airport. He is being interviewed before being allowed to board the plane for New York City.
“Sign here, says the public security official. You will return to the Polish People’s Republic, when your visa expires.
“Basia’s father takes the pen, signs it. Then he walks towards the gate and doesn’t look back.”
Jaronczyk resists the easy outcome of a happy departure. North American life is not a prescription for escaping late-communist ennui, and in a later story called Muse, the grown-up Basia finds her transplanted home a challenging puzzle in its own right: “Basia … didn’t know Edmonton that well. She left the house rarely, to the doctor or the bookstore.”
As the stories proceed, lives and families divided by an ocean take on a cluttered, unpredictable character. Visits from one side of the Atlantic to the other are too rare to overcome emotional distances, and too short to solve family entanglements over property and unfulfilled responsibilities. In this, the Polish Emigration Museum sets a different tone – there the accent is on “connecting stories,” on drawing a fairly happy circle around the far-flung communities that have left over the past century.
In Lemons, the lives left behind in Poland are raw and on edge. It’s the old world that presses its images on the reader. The Palace of Culture and Science, a Soviet-style skyscraper built on the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto, haunts the collection’s concluding story. Like the city itself, it sends an ambiguous message, at once appealing and troubling, to one of Jaronczyk’s characters. The building filling the skyline looks almost “beautiful, with its edges dissolving like a watercolour into the misty rain, the awnings of the market stalls around it like colourful stacks of banknotes.”
Lemons is a compelling and up-to-date portrait of migration between a quickly changing eastern Europe and the Polish Diaspora across the ocean.
Norman Ravvin is a writer and teacher in Montreal.