The Life and Times of Barbara Kowal

May 28, 2012
By Anonymous

I interviewed my aunt, Barbara Kowal. Barbara is the eldest of three children. Barbara was born on August 15, 1953 in the small village of D?bica, Poland. She was born only eight years after the end of World War II. She spent all of her childhood during the Cold War. Even though she had gone through extremely tough times throughout her childhood, she never failed to be a kid. She was always able to find a way to be happy with what she had. The following words are her story. (Note: The interview was conducted in Polish and has been translated into English.)

When I was a child, Poland was a very poor country. It was only a few years after World War II has ended and Poland suffered a lot because of the war. Germany and the Soviet Union caused the most damage to the country. Almost everyone who lived in Poland at that time was very poor. When I was a child, I did not have toys or anything. I played outside with anything that I found. These were items that I believe kids today wouldn’t even think about using. I picked flowers in the summer and made little crowns out of them. In the winter, I would also go sledding or skiing with sleds and skis that my dad made for me. I always went with my friends. We didn’t have televisions, radios, or anything like that. Some of us didn’t even have electricity at all, and because of this situation, other people and I always spent most of our free time playing outside with either family or friends. I always made up games that I could play with friends. I also loved to read a lot. Since there wasn’t a lot of money, I always had to borrow books in order to read. That was all I had as a child, but it made me happy and grateful for what I had.

When I went to school, I had to walk two miles to the next town over to get to my elementary school and high school. I went to elementary school, which in Poland is called szko?a podstawowa, for seven years. After that, I went to a four year high school, which was called liceum. A typical school day for me was I got up, got dressed and ready, and then I would walk two miles to the nearest bus stop. No matter what kind of weather was outside, I always walked, even during the really cold winters. When I walked the two miles and got to the bus stop, I took the bus to school. After the school day was over, I would take the same bus back to the same bus stop, and I would walk the same two miles back home. After high school, I finished two years of college.

I worked a lot when I was a child because it was necessary in order for my family and I to get by. When I was a child I worked a lot on my family farm. I did jobs that you would find on any typical farm. I helped water plants. I helped to get rid of dead or destroyed crops. I helped feed the animals on the farm. I helped bringing in cows from the field. Also on this farm, we always made our own butter. In fact most of the food that we ate came from the farm. Because of all the help I gave on the farm, I was able to help my mom out in the kitchen with dinner, and I was able to cook full dinners by the time I was in 5th grade.

My home life was different. At home, my family did not have a lot of money. We were not able to afford new toys or things that we wanted. It was not only my family. Other families were also in this situation. Everytime I got a present, I never took it for granted. I was happy to get a new dress pencil case, pen, or an eraser. If you had a calculator that could add, subtract, multiply, and divide, you were the coolest person there was. It makes me sad to even think about how kids react when they got a phone, but in the wrong color. I then remind myself of how I was grateful for everything the I recieved. Even though I was in this situation, the atmosphere of the house was amazing. Everyone was always helping each other out. Everyone always played with each other. If my friends and I ever became bored, we would always make up some game. No matter what it was, we were always entertained. My family also talked with each other a lot. Whether it was a good thing, a bad thing, or anything. Even though our financial situation wasn’t the best, there was always happines inside the house.

During the Cold War, people in Poland and all over Europe weren’t really able to get ahold of the new and upcoming things at that time. Due to the financial and political situation we were in, we were not really able to have a lot of access to the outside world. However, we were not completely cut off. One particular woman that young women and I looked up to was the well-known Brigitte Bardot. Every girl, even I, all wanted to be like her. We imitated everything about her. We always had the same hairstyle as her, the same makeup as her. We would always color our eyes the way she did. We always dyed our hair the way Brigitte Bardot did. We even dressed like her. We always wore short dresses that our parents did not like at all. However, to me and to other girls, this behavior was important to us. Almost every single girl in Poland wanted to be just like Brigitte Bardot.

As I mentioned before, I lived in Poland during the Cold War. Times were difficult because Poland was rebuilding from the aftermath of World War II. Even though it was written that Poland is a free country, it wasn’t completely free. Poland was under influence and control from many countries, but mostly the Soviet Union. Poland was under many restrictions. In schools, kids were forced to learn Russian. I guess I could say that Poland was in the middle of many political conflicts between different European countries. I still remember one moment that I will remember for the rest of my life. I believe the year was 1968. Strikes were starting to occur in Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union didn’t like this, so they sent in troops by aircraft to intervene. Those aircrafts, when they were on their way to Czechoslovakia, happened to fly right over my village. When this happened, everyone became frightened. People thought there was going to be another world war. Fortunately, that did not occur, but that memory will be with me forever. On December 13, 1981, martial law was implemented into the country.

There was one main reason why I decided to move to America: family. After I got married, I had five children. All five of my children decided to move to America when they grew up. My husband and I decided to stay in Poland, and we started getting a little lonely without our kids, but when I heard that my eldest daughter was getting married in New York, I knew right then that I had to come to New York so I could be there for my daughter’s most important day of her life. After the wedding, I decided to stay. My eldest daughter helped get all the citizenship and immigration forms filled out and sent in. After all that, I finally became a legal resident of the United States, and I moved to Chicago.

When I first came to Chicago, which was only about seven years ago, I was overwhelmed. I knew that Chicago was a really big city. So when I came from my small village in Poland where all the houses were cramped together and there wasn’t a lot of open space, Chicago was a whole new place for me. Everything was so much bigger and much more spread out. There were also a lot more forests here than what there were in Poland. I noticed that Chicago was culturally diverse, whereas in Poland, you didn’t see a lot of people of different ethnicities. When I came here, I looked at every street corner and saw a new person each day. The houses here were much more spread out than the houses in Poland. Even though Poland has changed a lot up until now, I compared Chicago to what my village was like when I was a child. Even though Chicago was completely different from my old lifestyle, I knew that I was going to enjoy living in the city of Chicago.


As of today, Barbara currently resides in Chicago, IL. Her five children are all living independently. Her eldest daughter resides in New York with a husband and a son. All of her other children still reside in either Chicago or the surrounding suburbs. She spends a lot of time with both of her sisters. She loves to spend time with her children, grandchildren, nephews, and nieces. Even though she has only lived in Chicago for about seven years, she says it feels like she has lived here for a much longer time. Barbara believes that she will spend the rest of her life in Chicago.
*Interviewee has asked for her actual name to be kept private, so the name has been changed.

The author's comments:
This oral history was originally conducted in Polish. But it has been translated to English and was written down in a narrative form. I hope that people will learn what life was like during the Cold War in Europe from the point of view of someone who lived during that time.

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