Krystyna Buckiewicz, 1922 - 2013
In Polish, the word for Grandma is Babcia. My Babcia was a tough old broad, always ready to cut you a new one if you did something she didn’t like. I never realized what made her a tough old broad until she passed away.
I knew she had a war story, I just didn’t know what a doozy it was. My dad had a document she had typed up many, many years ago, and passed around photocopies at her funeral so that we’d all know the woman we were saying goodbye to. I digitized it so that the story would live on. So, here it is, in its entirety.
My name is Krystyna Buckiewicz, maiden name Turek. I was born in 1922 in Lwow, a city located in the southeastern part of Poland. My mother was attending the University in Lwow, and my father was a Captain in the Army. I have a brother, Jurek, who is 3 years younger. We spent our childhood in the city of Lwow, which is very beautiful.
My father was later transferred to Buczacz, a small, peaceful and friendly town, and it was there that I attended school. My younger brother went back to Lwow to attend a military school for young boys. I remember those years as happy and carefree. Unfortunately, this all changed in 1939 when Germany attacked Poland in September. While the war did not last long, it completely destroyed our country. We were extremely patriotic, and couldn’t believe that we would lose. To make things worse, on September 17th 1939, Russian troops entered Poland. They bombed bridges and railways to prevent people escaping. Poland was divided - the west side occupied by Germans and the east side by Russia.
My father, together with thousands of military personnel, escaped to Romania, where he was taken prisoner and sent to an Oflag camp located in the town of Kassel in Germany.
My mother, brother and myself had to leave our home because it was a military building. Because of this, we lost almost all of our belongings. We moved to the home of a friend. After chaotic weeks of occupation, we had to adjust to the rules of communism, ie: registering with the Communist authorities etc. We were all afraid - even of each other - and many men were arrested without charge or trial.
Furthermore, we heard rumours that the Russians had begun deporting people. On April 3rd 1940 this happened to us as well as to most of the people in our town. In our case at 2 o’clock in the morning, two Russian soldiers, accompanied by two militia, came to our house they informed us that, for personal safety, we were being deported to Siberia. I will remember one of them said, with sarcasm, “Over there you can build your own Poland.” It was a great shock to us, and I remember I cried.
My mother, however, was very brave and tried to take as many belongings with us as possible. Meanwhile, the 4 ‘intruders’ just helped themselves to everything they could lay their hands on!
We were taken by horse-driven cart to the railway station when we were packed into cattle wagons, along with many of our friends. There were about 100 people, mostly women and children, per wagon - with a hole in the floor for toilet purposes. The train was guarded by NKVD the most dreaded Communist secret police. During the journey we were given hot water and barley soup once daily. After 2 horrible weeks we arrived at the northern city of Novosibirsk, which lies beyond the Ural mountains. There we were herded into a common ‘bath house’ - our first opportunity in 2 weeks to cleanse ourselves.
We continued our journey and after a few days arrived at a little village on the steps of Kazakhstan called Krasnyj Kazakhstan. We were expected to work on a pig farm (sawhoz) which was totally government owned. This village was inhabited by Kazakhs, Germans, Ukrainians, and Russians. Years before, they also had been deported as we now were.
I remember the first night. We stayed in a small hut belonging to a family of Kazaks. They were interested in us because to them we were very “different” to say the least. On the other hand, we felt somewhat afraid of them. In the next few days we were allocated places in which to live. These were primitive mud huts. To the surprise of everyone, our first job was to build an orchard! We thought “an orchard in Siberia?”
Thanks. When it first happened and I was expressing grief all over myspace, it blew my mind how many people knew Melissa. She was a pretty unforgettable person, that’s for sure.
5 years ago today was one of the worst days of my life.
I was goofing off online in the wee hours of the morning, procrastinating some school project or another, and I came across a post from one of my high school friends.”RIP Melissa.” I read it, then scrolled past it, then scrolled back up. Next to it was a photo of my life partner through high school. My best friend.
I scrolled away again.
Nah, couldn’t be her. Her birthday was yesterday, she couldn’t be dead. I figured I was just making stuff up in my tiredness. I hadn’t seen her in a while, sure, but obviously this was a fake.
I scrolled back up.
I stared at the picture. No. Why would he post such a thing? I commented underneath, accusing him of lying. He quickly wrote back “Amanda, I’m so sorry. Melissa died this morning.”
I scrolled away.
I started choking. I couldn’t look at the words, because dammit, if I didn’t read the words then they didn’t exist. But it was too late. I scrolled back up and wrote: “How?”
He replied: “Cocaine.”
I knew she loved the stuff. We’d all tried to talk her out of using it. She had been staying away from it. But for her birthday, I suppose, she decided to celebrate a bit too hard.
For the rest of the night I sat, scrolling through the words in my memory. Rip. Melissa. I remembered the last time we spoke, it was a few weeks prior. I was at a bar that we had gone to, once, and had a hilarious, crazy night that we talked about constantly. I called her from the bathroom to tell her I was thinking of her. Just a quick chat. I meant to call her on her birthday, but had forgotten, what with school and such. She was never into birthdays, so I figured it didn’t matter.
Hindsight. That bastard is always 20/20, isn’t it?
The next day I drove to Brampton for a memorial of sorts. Someone had organized a gathering at Chinguacousy Park. When I showed up, people were just scattered; some hugging, some standing glossy-eyed in silence. I didn’t quite know what to do, so I sat on the grass by myself - I didn’t feel like talking to anyone, but I felt like being in the presence of people who were in a similar emotional state.
Soon, a movement started. Someone pulled out a guitar. Someone else pulled out some drums. We all clamoured together into a heap on the bandstand stage. And soon we turned into a big, sobbing, singing mass. It seemed the best way to get the grief monster off our chests. Then, someone pulled out some candles. People pulled out their lighters. And slowly, people got up and planted those candles in the ground, spelling out Melissa’s nickname: Mo.
And it helped. Seeing her name burning through the high September grasses, it was almost cathartic. And it made no sense then, and it still makes no sense now, but who needs to make sense of sadness?
Which is why, every year for the past 5 years, we gather, make music, and light up the grass in Ching park. To remember the girl who was, the girl who could have been, and to remember that if you want to make a damned phone call, you just do it, because you never know when you won’t be able to anymore.
To say it’s overwhelming is an understatement.
The Richardson wildfire ripped through Northern Alberta, burning up a chunk of forest the size of one-and-a-half Prince Edward Islands. A handful of days after the fire ripped through and here I am standing right smack dab in the middle of it. Blackened trees stretch as far as the eye can see, like big black smokestacks jutting out from the blackened earth, ready to fall with one wrong nudge. The smell of campfire creeps through the sky, latching onto our clothes, our hair, everything.
Firefighters have been here for weeks just buried in this blackness, constantly scanning their eyes over the ground, looking for a sign that the ground underneath is burning.
Because, oh hey, it is burning.
Sometimes it’s up to 2 metres underground. By the end of the day, I’m even spotting them. Hotspots, as they’re called. The ash pattern is different in one spot on the ground. Or you just feel the heat radiating through your boot. I’ll point out what I think is a hotspot burning in the forest. The firefighters come over and punch their hands into the ground. If it is, in fact, a hotspot, they rip their hand out, shake off the heat, and call for water.
All in a day’s work, right?
I wasn’t even supposed to be here.
I was supposed to be in Cold Lake, Alberta, testing gun systems on helicopters with the Canadian Military. But when that story fell through the day before I left to head westwards, I had to find something to fill that gap. I was still scratching my head when I got off the plane in Edmonton and wondered aloud “Why is it so foggy around here?”
A lady turned to me with a raised eyebrow: “That’s from the fires.”
The next day, after spending 12 hours chasing Grizzly bears through the foothills of the Rocky mountains, I got to work. I found a team flying over the wildfires, doing aerial mapping of the hotpspots burning below. While driving the 9 hours from Hinton to Fort McMurray, I made over a dozen phone calls and set the wheels in motion. By the time we arrived in the north, it was set. Just 28 hours later we met up with the crew at the Fort McMurray airport. Suddenly it’s 4:00 a.m and we’re flying in the far north, taking heat scans to see where the earth is still burning.
Even from up in the air, we could see the blackness below.
We flew, and flew, and flew, and it just never stopped. Some trees survived, I was told, because they were a different species. Or they lucked out, and the wind changed before the flames could take hold. I knew I wanted to be down there, on the ground. I woke up my Ontario team two timezones ahead of us, and got them to get us in with the Alberta Government.
And that’s how, the next morning, we are up and at ‘em with Canada’s top firefighters.
We start our trek bright and early, at 5:00 a.m. Because we’re in Fort McMurray, Alberta, the sun is already shining bright, egging us on to get our butts in gear. And no matter how tired me and my crew are, when we show up at the camp site about 100 km north of nowhere, we know we can’t complain.
The firefighters are divvied up by province. Alberta firefighters have their tents in one area, Ontario firefighters are off in another. We sit through the safety briefing, listening as the guys get their orders, splitting up sections of the forest for their massive scavenger hunt of the day.
I say guys; they’re kids, mostly. The ones I talk to - Tony, Baywatch, Neil - they’re all 19, 20 years old. But they’re all excited to show us around, to show us what they do. And we’re excited to see what they do. We join the convoy of firefighters and head even further North into the blackness.
That’s how I find myself in the middle of the Boreal forest, a chainsaw roaring to the left of me, trees falling to my right, sweating in my standard-issue coveralls in the mid-summer heat, trying to lug a wide angle lens and a Radio Shack’s worth of batteries without letting anything touch anything burned; all while trying to do my job by asking the right questions of the right people and getting the right footage I need to build my story.
All in a day’s work… right?
It took us 26 hours of shooting over 2 days to get this story, and trust me when I say it was an experience I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
To watch the finished product, click this, this link, right here, to check it out.
The car that was supposed to be waiting for us at the Windhoek airport wasn’t there.
This isn’t usually a problem. We’re not exactly fancypants who are used to having cars and drivers available to escort us around. But we’re in a country, on a continent, that’s completely foreign to us, and we don’t know where we’re going, and we’re trying our best not to get screwed over.
The arrivals terminal is about the size of an elementary school gymnasium and almost as chaotic. At one end of the room is a mass of men, waving their arms frantically, saying TAXI! TAXI! MISS! I AM TAXI!, and it’s like playing a game of dodgeball trying to avoid their advances as we try and figure out what to do. We find an airport information attendant who speaks English. “Those men over there, can we trust them?”
She looks at us with an eyebrow raised.
“You should pay no more than $28 US Dollars to get into town. Don’t worry, they’re nice boys.”
I’m not sure I believe her, but we have to get into town somehow - the airport is in the middle of the Namibian desert, 40 kilometers away from the nearest town.
We turn towards the mass of desperate taxi drivers and they start flailing even more. We start laughing and stare at the crowd, trying to figure out who to choose. Finally one young guy bursts through the crowd and grabs our arms. “You ladies need taxi?” he grins. “28 dollars!”
“Ok, let’s go.”
He drags us out, as the other taxi drivers scream after us. “Miss! Miss! My car is closer than his! My car is nicer!” We just burst out laughing and go with our chosen guy, whose car is actually at the back of the lot. As he throws our stuff into the cab, he is shouting at the other drivers, and while I don’t speak Setswana, I’m pretty sure he was saying “HAHA FUCK YOU GUYS I WIN!”
The cab takes off towards Windhoek. Our driver, Roderick, excited about his victory, blares a Mariah Carey CD and encourages us to sing along. We wind through the desert, glued to the windows in awe as the sun sets behind the Namibian sand dunes.