Over the years, I’ve had a number of students who immigrated to the United States after World War II. Most all of them have incredible, sobering stories to tell about struggling to survive during the war, stories often more personal and poignant than we read in history books. Many of these students have never written their stories before attending my class. When I read what they’ve written, I feel so grateful they’ve decided share their experiences with future generations, who can only be proud to learn they have such courageous forebears. What would happen to these stories if they did not write them? Maria Romanski, enrolled in my class this year. She is a delightful woman, a beautiful Polish immigrant with thick silver hair and brilliant blue eyes. Her riveting story about her childhood in Poland after the Nazi invasion will touch you through and through. Read on to see what I mean.

December 1939
by Maria Romanski 

It was a bitter cold, bleak and depressing month. We had no heat in the apartment and not much food. Money was scarce. We had no Christmas tree that year, but Mother managed to prepare our traditional Wigilia meal for Christmas Eve. Before sitting down to our meal, we wished each other a blessed Christmas and wished for the war to end so Dad would come home. That is all we wished for.  The meal consisted of pickled herring, potatoes, mushroom soup, fish, sauerkraut and mushrooms, and noodles with poppy seed. For desert we had cooked dried fruit compote. The portions were small but we upheld the tradition. There were no presents and none expected because we knew our situation.

To add to the depression, Mom ran a high fever during the night and had to stay in bed the next day. I was terribly frightened because I had never seen her ill.  On Christmas Day, my brother and I went to church by ourselves. After Mass there was a program for the children prepared by the Red Cross. Each child received a present, including me. I took the package home for my mom. As it turned out, it contained a pair of ladies pajamas. Mom could certainly use them. We spent the day quietly and talked about food and toys we would have when war ended. Mom had not heard from Dad since we left Zegrze.* She did not know whether he was dead or alive.

I remember Mom telling us to have faith there would be happier times in the future and to just keep praying, which we did. I distinctly remember the words in our prayer: “Oh Lord, please help Daddy to come back safely to us.” Of course, this was in Polish: “Boziu dopomóż aby Tatuś szczęśliwie powrócił do nas.” Although I was just a child, life became very real and I realized the dangers of war. All through the war years, Mom received two small packages, one with raisins and one with almonds from Portugal. There was no sender, but Mom hoped they came from Dad to let her know he was alive. Dad could not write because if the Germans intercepted the mail and found out that Dad was out of the country, we would be killed. During that time Dad fought with the French Army and later he was in the Polish Army under British Command. He and thousands of Polish soldiers fought with the Allied forces abroad.

There was constant anxiety about food, safety and survival. Mom had to travel across town to her place of employment. Years went by.  We lived in the same one-bedroom, or I should say one- bedroom and a tiny room off the kitchen that was given to my grandfather because he was old and needed privacy. In the evenings and during the nights we lived in constant fear of German planes flying over Warsaw and bombing. We prayed that none of the bombs fell on our building. We were lucky. We survived, mainly because the German Air Force headquarters was right next door to us.  Life was tough and it got worse as time moved along. My brother and I did not really have a childhood. The constant concern for survival and safety was always with us. Would Mother come safely home from work? Would there be bombings during the night? And if so, would we survive, or would our building be destroyed and we’d all die?

Mother worked all day, but she spent evenings with us. She always asked how our day was. She was a very loving person, religious and a great disciplinarian. She had a gift of not raising her voice, but at the same time we listened. Of course, she had help from Aunt Lusia and to a certain extent from our grandfather, who was very religious and stern. Because of that we watched ourselves.  He spent many hours a day in church and went for a walk every day, but he always managed to be around when my brother Kazik and I were home.

On the morning of January 13, 1943, Mother started out for work as usual, riding the trolley. When she arrived at her destination in the Praga district, the street was closed off.  Everyone was ordered off the trolley. Hundreds of people were already standing on the snow-covered street, surrounded by German soldiers with their weapons drawn. Mother had no choice. She found herself pushed towards the crowd. These street closures and arrests were common during the German occupation. Mother, realizing the danger could only think of one thing: to let my aunt know what had happened. Standing right in front of a shop window, she wrote a telephone number and her name on a piece of paper and pressed the paper against the window, trying to attract the clerk’s attention inside the shop. The number was to a friend’s home. We did not have a phone. These friends helped many military wives who lived in Zegrze before the war. Their home was like a refuge for all displaced military wives. It was a center for information in case of any problems.

Mother knew the clerk that worked in the shop, and since he was allowed to remain inside, this was her only hope. Although quite frightened and scared what might happen to him, the clerk copied down Mom’s information and ever so slightly nodded his head. Mother had no way of knowing whether he would be able to make the call or also be arrested on that day. It was her only hope that Aunt Lusia would get the message.

After standing in the bitter cold for about an hour, all the people were divided into groups, and no one knew the reason for this mass arrest or what was going to happen. It was an everyday occurrence, just the location was unknown. Even kids like myself knew and fully realized the danger of a potential street closure, arrest, and the possibility of never being able to return home. All these things flashed through Mother’s mind. After all, she had lived in this constant fear for four years. The questions in her mind were would she be released later, or would she be shipped to a labor camp? Or…would she be executed on the spot or at a later date?

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I’ve spent much of the last few days working on PowerPoint presentations I will be delivering at the Jamboree Writers Conference, sponsored by the Southern California Genealogical Society. The largest annual genealogy conference in Southern California, Jamboree will be held at the Burbank Marriott Hotel the weekend of June 8. If you’re into genealogy, it’s a must-attend event, one that attracts thousands of people to hear top-notch speakers from all over the country. Learn more about Jamboree here.

This year SCGS will be staging a Family History Writers Conference on Thursday, June 7, for those who want to learn how to turn their genealogy data into a family narrative. I think the conference organizers have done a superb job gathering speakers to cover all facets of putting together a family history, covering the process from organization to publication. I will be giving four presentations throughout the day on various aspects of family and personal history writing. You can also hear Steve Luxenberg, associate editor at the Washington Post and author of Annie’s Ghosts: Journey into a Family Secret; Tom Underhill, owner of a family history publishing company–and publisher of nearly all of my students’ family histories; Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, guru in all things related to genealogy and author of numerous books; author of Lisa Alzo, author of nine books and hundreds of articles related to genealogy.

If you want to know more about the conference and the topics these speakers will be addressing, go here. It’s not too late to register.



Going out to dinner. Are there any more magical words in the English language…especially for women? There’s little that compares with the pleasure of scanning a crisp menu, choosing exactly what appeals to you, having someone else cook and serve it to you–and then clean up afterward. We used to do it less than we do now, when restaurants of all kinds are packed with families nearly every night of the week. With so many mothers working these days, eating out has become more common, a necessity, in some cases, so Mom can juggle multiple roles and still keep her sanity.

But eating out was a rare occurrence during my childhood. My parents were always pinching their pennies. Dining out was a luxury, no matter how ordinary the restaurant, and those glorious rare occasions still shimmer in my memory. It was always on a Friday, Dad’s pay day, when my parents felt a little flush. I remember the excitement of getting cleaned up after school and eagerly waiting Dad’s arrival, when we’d pile into our one car, usually a Ford or  Chevy, and head to Don’s Chili, The Memory House, or Cinco de Mayo’s, three of our favorites. What a treat. I tasted my first crunchy taco at Cinco de Mayo’s in Inglewood and still remember listening to “It’s Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” playing on the jukebox at Don’s Chili in Fullerton. What simple memories stay with us through the years.

Of course, all this serves as a lead in for the delicious story that follows, written by Judy Clifford, a new student this term. Judy recounts with exquisite detail the special occasions her parents treated her and her sister to unforgettable evenings at Chez Cary, then one of Orange County’s landmark posh eating establishments. Reading about the culinary experience Judy so beautifully describes makes me want to use words like eating establishment, and culinary, and posh. You’ll seeRead on with pleasure, and “Bon Apetit!”

Canard aux Petits Pois
by Judy Clifford 

Whenever my sister Lisa or I won an award in school, achieved a challenging goal, or celebrated a milestone birthday, my mother gussied us up and my father treated us to dinner at the Chez Carey restaurant on Main Street in Santa Ana.

Somehow the contrast between the bright Southern California sky and the dusky, romantic interior never failed to enchant me. As soon as I settled into the soft, red velvet booth, and placed my clumsy feet on the footstool, I became a princess, a role that clearly belonged to my older sister at home. Now, in this dreamy place, the Chez Careeeee, which was the French way of pronouncing it, the playing field was at last leveled.

Lisa had long blonde hair, even thicker and glossier than Marcia Brady’s. And that made her a royal figure, at least in my estimation. I sported a different hairstyle then.  It was called a pixie cut. I wasn’t quite sure what pixies had done or what they even were, but it was obvious that they had been very, very bad and had to be punished in order to regain whatever status they had once held.

Pixie cuts had become an instant hit when Twiggy, a young model from England, was photographed wearing the hairdo. She had long beautiful legs and short, stubby hair.

My parents decided the short, stubby hair would look super on me. It didn’t. I had none of Twiggy’s style, let alone her—well—maturity. She had bumps in places that actually seemed to cave in on me. I was only nine, after all. My short brown hair accentuated my cowlicks, and had led to one horrific incident in which a shop owner had called me “son.”   My parents called me “adorable,” and that meant that I was going to have the dreaded hairstyle for a very long time.

But the Chez Carey made all of my worries vanish. Even the air was glorious. It was filled with scents so varied I could hardly distinguish them. But I learned that garlic, brandy, and peppermint do mix, when they hang together, heavy and lush in the atmosphere of the most magnificent restaurant on earth.

“We can count on consistent service at the Chez Carey,” my father would say.  My mother would nod her perfectly coiffed blonde head, and beam up at him.

“I totally agree. And, the food is exquisite.” These were grown-up conversations, and I treasured being let into their secret world, because frankly, they left us out of it and stuck us with a baby sitter on Saturday nights.

One night, we went to celebrate my second-place finish in a piano contest. As I perched on my chair, my feet dangling and barely grazing the footstool beneath me, I waited in hushed wonder for the waiter to take our drink order. I knew the routine by heart.

“Would you care for anything to drink?” he asked, with his pad of paper and pen brandished and ready for action.

My mother said,  “Yes, I think we will. I’ll have a martini, dry with an olive.”

“Certainly,” the waiter responded as he scratched something quickly on his pad.  Then, he turned to us kids and asked, “And, Mademoiselles, for you?”

Together, Lisa and I chanted, “May I have a Shirley Temple, please?” There was no straying from the script. This was the correct way to order. No other wording was allowed.

Finally, the waiter turned his attention to my father, who ordered an “Old Fashioned,” or something that sounded like that, because I never had the guts to ask him the real name. If there was one thing I’d been taught, it was not to question authority.

The next part of the meal was my favorite. The waiter glided to our table and presented our menus to each of us with great flourish. I took a deep breath. I could almost taste the earthy scent of the leather embossed menu cover. As I opened the menu, I took my time to peruse it. My parents didn’t mind. They encouraged this. The food items were listed first in French, and then translated in English. The fun was in the learning. What could a “canard” possibly be? A duck. And yes, now I knew that “petits pois” meant plain old green peas.

As I inspected the menu, my parents engaged us in a game of  “Name that Tune.” The background music was just that: in the background. I don’t remember if it was live or not. And all of the songs were standards by Sinatra or Dean Martin. This was the most enjoyable time of the evening. My father smiled at my sister and me as though he were proud of everything we had done up to that moment. I sucked down my Shirley Temple as fast as I could, just so I get another round of the sticky-sweet maraschino cherries. My mother was her stunning self, laughing out loud, and charming each and every person with whom she had contact. She even had a smile for the people we saw on our way to visit “the little girl’s room,” as my father called it. And there seemed to be an easiness in the chatter among the four of us that didn’t always happen at home. Such was the magic of the Chez Carey restaurant.  Such is the magic of childhood memories.