Learning to resist

Basia Jaworska’s family tale of WWII resistance, and why it’s important today

Basia Jaworska will share her exploration into both of her parents wartime experiences during WWII in Poland. — Courtesy Olivia Larson

Teresa (Pekacka) Jaworska woke at dawn on Sept. 1, 1939, to a tapping on her bedroom window in the town of Bialobrzegi, Poland, 35 miles south of Warsaw.

“Her cousin was waking her up to tell her that the German Army had invaded Poland

that night,” Basia Jaworska Silva, Teresa’s daughter, said last week at her Vineyard Haven home.

The tapping on her window changed the life of the 15-year-old Polish schoolgirl forever, and in unimagined ways, as it did the larger world of which she knew little. Within days, Bialobrzegi (current population 7,300) was under the Nazi boot, where it would remain, chafing and resistant, for nearly a decade. That resistance, implacable and continuous, practiced by a schoolgirl and her nation, has been a source of wonder and witness to Ms. Jaworska for most of her adult life.

“Schools were closed; everything was taken from the people. The Nazis saw them as slave labor to fuel the war machine,” Ms. Silva said.

The most brutish of German and Polish nationals ran everyday life and fueled resistance. “My mother told me about a day she was walking behind one of the town’s most notorious abusers,” Ms. Silva said.

“I looked at his broad flat back, and wanted to plunge a knife in it,” Teresa would tell her daughter.

Teresa instead did something else. At 18, she slipped out of her town and went to Warsaw, found the resistance, and took the oath. She spent the rest of the war ferrying messages and weapons around the city, and nursing wounded resistance fighters. “They trained her as a nurse, and she learned her way around the city, delivering messages and guns,” Ms. Silva said.

Teresa Jaworska is 93 now, and resides at the Windemere Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Oak Bluffs. The fog of time often obscures her memories, but lifts now and then to provide details of a remarkable life as a teenage resistance fighter, a prisoner of war, and a woman without a country, whose diaspora eventually landed her in America more than a decade after the tapping on her bedroom window.

Ms. Silva has spoken with her mom and her dad countless times over the decades about their experiences, and what compelled them to take extraordinarily dangerous actions in the name of principle. She has interviewed others who were on the World War II Polish scene, researched Poland’s history, and knows why her mom was willing to risk death by sniper fire, battle, and Nazi checkpoints in Warsaw for years. She also knows why her dad, when freed from a Soviet Siberian gulag, joined a Polish army unit that fought and helped beat the Nazis in Italy, clearing the way for Allied forces to apply the vise that ultimately choked the Nazis.

Teresa and Zbigniew Jaworska met after the war in England, where both had enrolled in college. They settled in New Jersey, raised four children, and in 1997 joined their daughter Basia on this Island. Mr. Jaworska died in 2007.

Basia Silva was the anointed storykeeper in the family. No wonder, then, that she was attracted to Maynard Silva, the Island’s preeminent bluesman and storyteller, to whom she was married before Mr. Silva’s death in 2008.

“Really, I was self-appointed to keep the story of my family and their country,” Ms. Silva recalled. She’s studied her parents’ story of willingness, duty, and hope for decades, turning it over and over in her hands. She will share the story, “Surviving the Madmen’s War: There’s Nothing So Bad Out of Which Good Can’t Come,” with Island residents on Saturday, Jan. 6, at 7 pm at the West Tisbury library.

We know that stories of truth and hope, of resistance to evil and commitment to the greater good, are timeless. Their witness applies without regard for details or circumstance. Ms. Silva has considered writing a book, a graphic novel, or a screenplay about the family epic, but recently decided that this is the time for the telling of the madmen’s tale, and the obscure everyday people who fought them.

And her parents’ story seems to have a link to American angst these days, and brings back a comment made by top Republican strategist Steve Schmidt during the 2016 presidential race: ”Nazism did not rise because it was strong. It rose because democracy was weak.”

“I believe that politically, we’re in need of the wisdom of warriors, whatever the form or structure of the message. My father had a saying, ‘Never take food or freedom for granted,’” she said.

“That was the culture of Poland, which has always been occupied by someone, and which has always resisted occupiers. My parents accepted that this was their generation’s turn to resist. We don’t have that tradition in our country. And we never thought anyone like Donald Trump could be elected president of our country to threaten the democratic process,” Ms. Silva said.

“It’s not just an American phenomenon, and there are examples of people all over the world putting their lives on the line to resist [authoritarianism]. Bassem Youssef [the Egyptian Jon Stewart], Nigerian singer Fela Kuti, punk rockers Pussy Riot in Russia; the list goes on and on. And it is not beyond us. We can make the difference. We need to learn that resistance is effective. It works, keeps them from seizing our power. Eventually it will topple them. It does take just a few people. That’s probably why the U.S. Marines teach that a Marine’s first duty is to his brother, the man next to him. That bond of brotherhood kept the people in the resistance going,” Ms. Silva said.