The Europe Everyone Forgets About: The Cost of War and Assimilation on My Eastern European Culture

Fun fact time, readers. Did you know that my real last name isn’t actually Walker? It turns out I’m not the hallmark example of British heritage with my very English last name. It’s actually Walkowiak. Spelled with two Ws, but pronounced like a v. Walk-O-vi-ak. Most resources that I’ve found claim that it’s a Polish last name, meaning those who came from Walkow (a village and former battleground) in Poland. It’s not like that helps me a great deal, however. It could have come from Poland, Lithuania, Croatia, or any forgotten Eastern European country, and I wouldn’t have known the difference.

As contrary an opinion as this may be, both sides of my family spent a very long time pretending that they weren’t European. On the few rare occasions where I can question my dad about my grandparent’s childhoods and my great grandparents — the people who actually chose to immigrate here, who I never got the chance to meet — he’ll tell me about how his childhood was a rougher around the edges version of white suburbia (involving vandalizing drug dealer’s vans and getting arrested in 4th grade, but you’ll have to question him about that yourself), how my grandfather prided himself in being a member of the predominantly Nordic-looking golf club, how my grandmother watched her mother make traditional Croatian dishes but never learned them herself. I’ll hear the story of how my great grandfather changed our name to Walker to distance himself from his family back in Eastern Europe, or maybe to avoid discrimination, but that we’ll really never know which is which. My mother’s side of the family is a completely different story. We’ve been living in America far too long to maintain the vestiges of our cultural heritage, our Irish and Welsh ancestry more of a family myth until I finally took a DNA test a few years ago. How is it that the most that I’m learning about my cultural heritage comes from my own spit in a bottle?

What other culture could we have originated from that would have made them happier, I wonder? If they had gotten trapped in the lie of white American culture sooner, where you trade in your cultural heritage for a white picket fence? If they were one of those few privileged families in the “elite sect”, whose lineages spread back to the earliest areas of white settlement in the 1600s? What difference does it make? Either way, we’re immigrants. We landed in a foreign country that wasn’t ours. We might as well have kept our traditions, our food, our languages, our stories. I can read fairytales, listen to the languages, and look at old family photos, but it doesn’t feel the same. I was shocked to find out that my great-grandparents still spoke in their traditional Slavic and Croatian tongues. I only learned today that my father and his grandmother would attend a Yugoslavian church where the opening mass was recited in those very same languages.

Where was this culture my whole life? The short answer is that my family clearly wasn’t proud of their heritage. They boxed it all away and became the best poster child ~white~ Americans that they could, and now, 3 generations later, I’m left with the pieces they threw away and am the only one who seems to care about uncovering them. The only stories that I know about these people are fragments, like the tale of how my grandmother as a child received a pet rabbit for Easter that was eaten at Thanksgiving. It’s just one of those silly family stories that reek of stereotypes regarding Eastern European culture. So much of my family heritage feels like it’s riddled with empty holes. My great-grandmother on my paternal grandfather’s side died incredibly young from a brain aneurysm when my grandfather was only 16. No one knows her family’s history or where she’s from entirely, her culture and people completely lost over the course of fewer than 80 years. She’s just one of many empty spaces on the map that no one can fill, or has bothered to.

I suppose a part of me can understand why they felt they needed to hide all of this away. Being an immigrant in America is often linked to experiencing hate and discrimination, a fact that sadly persists to this day. But the fact that I don’t even know where half of my family comes from, why they left, or even who they were, often makes me feel incomplete. I often find myself envying those who managed to make a move here with their cultures better intact, regardless of how irrational or nearsighted a thought like that may be. It feels like they will always have a piece of themselves and their family history that I will never be able to reclaim for myself fully. Anything beyond my mother’s family’s time in America, or often my father’s family in general, and it’s like there’s nothing to be spoken of. It’s like we didn’t even exist in the world before coming here.

If my post this week sounds a bit drearier and (shudder) more personal than normal, then I do apologize, dear readers: I try to keep these pieces light and full of factoids that I find interesting more than anything else. However, my blog posts are all supposed to revolve around how history from the past is reflected in our lives in the present, and up until now, I did not have the courage to hold that mirror up to part of my own family history. Stories like mine reflect a common component of being an immigrant in any country: the feeling of needing to sacrifice the uniqueness and individuality that comes from being from another country to fit the mold of other’s expectations. Everyone who has experienced this has undergone it in different ways, so I don’t wish to use this piece as a way to conflate my experiences to others or unfairly generalize all immigrant experiences into one master outline. Instead, I want to look into the history of my own family and the circumstances that created such a hostile environment for them in America: and, perhaps, how everyone taking the time to understand their cultural heritage better may help us all accept true diversity.

The Century that Destroyed Eastern Europe

Whether I look at my family's Eastern European heritage from the perspective of Poland, Lithuania, Croatia, or Yugoslavia, one trend remains constant: Eastern Europe was utterly demolished in the 20th century. Poland’s geographical layout had been changed countless times as they were shuffled from one country’s property to another’s: prior to the events of World War 1 and the proclamation of the Polish Republic in 1918, the country had disappeared off of the map entirely, split up between Austria, Russia, and Prussia during the Third Partition of 1795. The freedom that came with the republic was short-lived, however, as Nazi Germany rose to prominence and Poland was under foreign control once more after Hitler’s invasion in 1939 (Oleksiak). Most of Eastern Europe experienced a similar fate, as Nazi Germany at its peak extended from parts of Russia to the East down to Greece in the South. Warsaw was razed to the ground, and 5 million Polish citizens were murdered, many of the casualties the result of the Holocaust. Those with lighter hair and more Aryan features were often considered pure and worthy of being spared: those with darker hair, skin, or other distinct facial features ––like most members of my family today — were not (Hedmark).

From its brief freedom post-World War 2, Poland and much of Eastern Europe quickly fell under the control of the Soviet Union and were forced to adopt communism, losing much of its eastern territories and the geographic boundaries of the country being debated over once again. The near 100-year time span of invading external powers and war made Poland economically stagnant, their people subjected to frequent abuses of power and a complete lack of social freedom. Their post-war recovery was easily one of the longest in Europe. Even with my limited knowledge of my family’s heritage and the timeline of their immigration, it requires no stretch of the imagination to see why they left. My great uncle supposedly visited some of the villages in Poland from which some of our family members may have hailed. Many of them were still thatched roofs and dating back to pre-World War 2, still trapped in a time of economic stagnation and virtually no social mobility.

Immigrants in America: A Matter of Survival

While I don’t know much about the lives of my great grandparents upon reaching America, I can guess from my father’s childhood the sort of trajectory my family took when reconciling their foreign culture with that of America’s. Virtually nothing from our European heritage survived into my father’s generation, apart from his hands getting slapped by nuns every Sunday at Catholic school. He can tell me about listening to his grandparents speak in Slavic, or the traditional foods they cooked, but nothing about his parents speaking them, following their parent's traditions, or even sharing their stories. Many photos I see of my dad with his family as a child make them seem like the perfect cookie-cutter image of white Americana: if it weren’t for their darker hair and skin, they could have been the next classical American family 60’s show.

“Whiteness”, and the idea of identifying people by these constructs of race rather than ethnicity is an incredibly negative concept, especially when you take into account the fact that how “well” you fit the sliding scale of whiteness often contributes to how well you are treated in American society within your own racial and ethnic category. Ultimately, it doesn’t surprise me that our Eastern European heritage was something my family chose to hide for the sake of somehow landing a higher spot on this scale. Discrimination against people of Polish or Eastern European descent was rampant in the 19th and 20th centuries when social constructs of race were even more subdivided and the idea of “otherness” among people of European heritage was more prominent: a 1903 New England Magazine “decried the Poles’ ‘expressionless Slavic faces’ and ‘stunted figures’ as well as their inherent ‘ignorance’ and ‘propensity to violence’” (Kendzior). They were often fitted with Anglo-Saxon names by those who refused to learn the pronunciation of their true ones — something that I see within my own family — and Eastern European immigrants distancing themselves from what was deemed to be this “alienating” culture and take on the role of just another white American became a prominent pattern.

This is now what I see in my family today. With no ties to our culture or heritage, and no semblance that we were ever Eastern European to begin with, it’s clear that we sold ourselves to the system in order to escape persecution and distance ourselves from being an “other”. It’s a pattern repeated time and time again throughout America’s history of immigration, where so much cultural diversity and so many traditions have been lost over time for the sake of fitting this mold of being, this way of life that was so clearly built upon racism and discrimination, this need to create an “other” when there is none.

Evolving Past Cookie Cutters

My dad is often confused by my more recent fixation on our family’s heritage, as I’m often prodding him for more stories, more facts about our family history, and more answers about where we come from. To him, American is American, and his dissociation from his Eastern European heritage doesn’t seem to bother him nearly as much as it does me. Maybe I should take a page from his book and just stop caring so much about what I am or where I come from: after all, he knows more about our heritage than me, and has actually had the chance to visit parts of Eastern Europe for himself. Maybe he’s right in saying that there’s nothing about our culture worth going back for, that it’s better to just be invested in your own life in the here and now.

While there's definitely merit to the notion that one should keep themselves focused on the present — since I for one have always spent far too much time dwelling on the past — I can’t help but still find reasons to better understand the cultures and people that I come from, for my children and theirs to come if not for myself. We are reaching a point in American society where more and more of us are demanding that our cultural diversity be recognized, and not be generalized into broad racial or ethnic categories. The current debate regarding the state of immigrants in the United States has finally brought into question the term “assimilate”, and why that so often has been expected of American immigrants. By 2043, the United States is projected to be a majority-minority nation, and the ethnic diversity that entails requires each of us to be more accepting of the diverse, multiracial, and multicultural country that America always has been, rather than continuing to force it into submission by the ignorant belief of there being one right “American” way of life (Llopis). If we are striving towards a future where such diversity is celebrated, I want to graduate beyond my family’s old multigenerational fear of not being able to assimilate and undo some of the damage that forced assimilation has had on us. Don’t I owe it to myself and my future family members to fill those empty spaces and reclaim the heritage that we should have always been proud of? Because one day, I’ll be the only one left behind to recount the story of my father’s family, and I want more to share than these old photographs have to tell me.