301: Settling the Score
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This is one of those stories where something big and heartwarming and idealistic that somebody wants is just going to get torn apart. Just driven straight into the ground. And it begins, as these kind of stories often do, with an idea that was planted in somebody's head when they were a child.
Back when she was a little girl, Erin Einhorn was told this family legend, and, as some legends go, it was kind of a spectacular one. When Erin was a girl, she used to beg her mom to talk about it.
I love the story. Because I, of course, was born in suburban Detroit, where my life was really boring. And she had this really dramatic story, of this incredible survival.
The story went like this. Erin's grandfather and grandmother were on their way to work one morning in Poland, and were rounded up by the Nazis, and they're put on the train to Auschwitz. So they are on this train.
So my grandfather sees a way to escape from this train, like an open window. And he turns to his wife, Sura Leah Rosenblum, and he pleads with her to jump with him from the train. My grandmother's about 21, 22 years old and she's just terrified. And she refuses to go.
To jump from the moving train. The train is moving?
It's at moving train. And the story is that it's a window. I'm not sure what that means, if there was a window, why other people didn't jump. If you apply some questions to the story, it doesn't necessarily hold up. But I never did apply questions to the story particularly. Because it was this incredible story.
So there's a train, and there's a window. And my grandfather wants to jump. And he wants his wife to come with him, and she refuses. And he goes by himself. And he leaps from the train, as the story goes, in a hail of bullets from the Nazi guards. And he is wounded in the leg. He's bleeding from the leg.
So the history goes like this. He takes the yellow armband with the Star of David that the Nazis made all the Jews wear. This is pretty much a symbol of everything that had gone wrong for his people. And he removes it from his arm, and he wraps it around his leg, as a bandage. And then he runs back to his town, Bedzin, to find his daughter. Who is Erin's mother, who was then just a baby. Who they had left with an elderly relative before they went off to work in the morning.
Then he goes with her to the home of a woman he knew. And the woman's name is Honorata Skowronski. And he begs her to take care of his child, and he promises her all kinds of things, and riches and he'll take care of her for the rest of his life. And he asks her if she'll hide my mother among her other children. She had a number of children. And she agreed.
And then he's ultimately captured again. And ends up back at Auschwitz and then Buchenwald. And he comes back after the war, and somehow is able to find my mother again. I mean, his wife is gone. His parents are gone. His brothers are gone. His sister's gone. Their spouses, their children, his cousins, his friends, everybody. But the one person, the one thing, really, he still has from that life is this child, my mother.
Because of this woman, this hero, who risked her life. Poland actually had the death penalty for saving a Jew.
Now one confusing thing about this incredible story, as far as Erin was concerned, was the fact that nobody in her family liked to talk about it. Nobody saw this woman as a hero.
I mean, my mother was really flip about the whole thing. She would say, "Well, she only did it for the money," or something. Which I didn't particularly believe. The truth is, we didn't really discuss any of this. My mother just hated to talk about it. The whole story really bored her. I think she just didn't-- she came to the United States at the age of nine, as this kind of big-nosed, red-haired Jewish girl who spoke Swedish. Because they had actually lived in Sweden after the war for four years.
So she was this really, really odd kid, and she really didn't fit in. And I think she just wanted the whole thing behind her.
But I mean, to me, it was this important-- it was a story that I would tell that I thought kind of made my mother special, you know. There was this woman, out there, or her family anyway, there was this part, this important part of my mother's story.
And I actually really wanted to connect my mother with that part of her past. Even though she wasn't really particularly interested in it. I wanted to see what would happen. Or just thought, maybe if I could find this family my mother would show an interest, she would be moved by it in some way.
So Erin moved to Poland for a year to figure this out. To have an adventure. She's 27. And what she finds is so much more complicated than what she expected. And so different than what she expected.
From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, "Settling the Score." Our program today in two acts. And the two stories in our show today have so much in common, but actually, saying what they have in common right now, actually telling you what are the things they have in common is going to spoil what is going to happen in the stories, as they unfold.
So, for now, I'm just going to say that in both stories there are people, there are these this mysterious, unfolding conflicts where it's not even clear for a while, for a long while, what the conflicts are about. And there are other similarities to them, key similarities, yet to be revealed. Stay with us.
Act One: One Good Deed
Act One, "One Good Deed." So Erin Einhorn, the woman with the amazing family legend that nobody in her family likes to talk about, she heads off to Poland.
And basically what she has in her hand is an address. Of this building that her grandfather owned before the war in Bedzin. She knows that after the war, one thing that her grandfather did to thank the woman who saved her mother's life, Honorata Skowronski, is that he told her to move in there, into this building, rent free.
Erin figured that Honorata was probably dead, it was so long ago. But that somebody there might remember Honorata's family, have some idea of where the people had gone to.
So Erin's living in Poland, she's learning some Polish. And one day she takes some friends with her, partly to help with the translation, to the town of Bedzin, to try to find this address. And when she gets there, she's completely surprised. First of all, she had sort of pictured the town like it would be the town in Fiddler on the Roof, with cows and goats and thatched roofs and all. A village, basically.
But, in fact, the building is in a real city. On a street with shoe stores and a sidewalk cafe. And it turns out to be a three story building, like a townhouse, broken up into five or six apartments. With iron balconies.
But it's really rundown. Actually, one of the balconies is kind of twisted and almost falling off. We go in and the stairs are cracked, there are marble stairs that are cracked and there's actually graffiti on the wall. It smells bad. It's a little squalid.
So we went up the first set of stairs on the left, and knocked on the first door. And we had this name Skowronski. And so one of my friends asked this woman who answered the door, "Is Skowronski here?" or something. And the woman-- from my perspective, I can't really speak Polish. But I see the woman nod and point toward the sky. And I'm like, oh, they're dead.
And my friend laughs and he's like, "No, they live upstairs." So all of a sudden now, we're like, oh my god, they're here. And actually, I mean, various things happen, but essentially the next thing I know I'm standing face to face with this old man, with tired blue eyes, who once called my mother his sister.
And I had this photograph that my mother had given me, right before I went to Poland. It was my mother at about maybe four or five years old. Just this little kid, and she looked like she had been crying maybe. Her eyes were kind of puffy. And her father's in this picture with her, looking very serious.
And then there's this woman, this stern looking woman. And my mother never really knew who this woman was, actually. She thought it might have been Honorata Skowronski. She wasn't entirely sure. But I had this picture.
And I handed it to this guy, and he just starts. He stares at the picture. He says, [SPEAKING POLISH]. "That's my mother." And I pointed at the child in the photo and I said, [SPEAKING POLISH]. "That's my mother."
And the guy just started to cry. I mean, tears running down his face and he just took me in his arms and he says, "She was my sister." He invites us in and he just starts telling us this story about-- she used to follow him around. He was her favorite. He used to change her diapers. He used to make her pancakes. He used to milk the goat so that she would have fresh milk. And when the guards would-- or the SS would march in the street, or the Gestapo-- he would hide her in a dresser drawer. Because she was just this child.
And then one day, she basically vanished. I mean, her father comes for her at the end of the war. And he never, ever sees her again. She lived there for three years. They were really close.
And, in a way, this is exactly what you had pictured might happen, right? If everything would go wonderfully.
Yeah, it was like a dream come true. You know, it was one of those moments where everything is just resolved and everything's perfect. It was more than-- and he's just, "You have to bring your mother to me. I really, I want to see her before I die. You'll bring her." His mother, it turns out, had been passed away in 1995.
But he says, "Bring your mother. We'll take her to my mother's grave, and she'll know that her daughter had come back." He used the word daughter. I mean, it was all kind of a shock.
We got his phone number, and I said, "Look, you know, can I come back? And we can sit down and talk." And he said, "Sure, no problem." And we made arrangements to meet again in a couple of weeks.
When she goes back, it's a big deal. The man's whole family is there. His wife, a bunch of grown kids and grandkids. They serve cake and coffee. Erin's roommate Manda comes, to help translate.
And so actually, that next meeting was actually really just wonderful. Just to get all these stories and just hear what they'd heard. Their half of this story that I'd heard. But it turns out that, actually, as much as I was excited about going back and finding this family, it turns out that they had really been excited about the possibility that I was coming back.
Because it turned out there was this whole back story that I hadn't anticipated having to do with this house that had been my family's property. My translator-- actually Honorata's son is named Wieslaw Skowronski. So I really want to talk to him, and hear what he remembers. But his wife and his daughter start talking to my translator. I'm mean, just really, really rapidly. I am begging her to translate.
We're actually arguing. I'm like, "Manda, translate!" And she says "It's hard! It's complicated!" And every time she tried to stop them, they would just keep going. And increasingly adamant. Just over and over and over again. And I would say, "What's going on?" And she said, "Well, it has to do with the house. I think that they want your mother to sign some document?"
This pretty much, right here, is where Erin's entire dream is going to play out like some heartwarming A&E special, this is where that dream starts to fall apart. And in this second meeting, Erin can't even the story straight of what family wants, and what's gone wrong with the house that they need fixed. And what they are even talking about. All she can tell, from the urgency of their voices and their expressions, is that it is really, really important to them.
It takes several more meetings, over the course of months, to get the whole thing straight.
Well, it turns out that my grandfather had to given Honorata Skowronski permission to live in his house, as the manager, but not to sell the place basically. It was the only right she didn't have. And she had the power to collect the rent from tenants. There were, I think, eight or 10 apartment buildings. And she could collect the rent from the tenants. She had to pay the taxes. And she could keep whatever was leftover.
And that arrangement worked perfectly fine until 1995, when Honorata Skowronski died. And then the tenants stopped paying. They said, you are not the owner, we don't have to pay you. And so they went, her son and his wife, went to the municipality for support. And said, you know, help us force these renters to pay. And the town said, well, let me see the deed, and they look at the deed. And there's this name, Friedrich, on the deed.
And they're like, who's Friedrich? And they're like, well, you know, there was this Jew and he had a daughter and we saved the daughter. But it fly. And so, meanwhile, they still have to pay the taxes. They have to pay the taxes, they have to pay the utility bills. But they can't collect rent from the tenants. The tenants are living there for free.
Do you volunteer to basically get your mom to sign a paper for them? What do you do?
I was like, yeah, sure. Yeah. I'll look into it. Later on I would actually discover that it's, frankly, not anywhere close to as simple as they though that it was.
In fact, the lengths that Erin has to go through to clear up this bit of business for them are breathtaking, even by the standards of nations that used to be behind the Iron Curtain. We're going to dwell here on them at some length, because for any of us who have actually been caught up in some months long bureaucratic run around with an HMO, or the phone company, or our own federal government, it is heartening to know that there are still places in the world that make these kinds of problems with American bureaucracy seem minuscule.
Yes, no matter how badly we can botch things up here in America sometimes, and God knows we can do it pretty badly sometimes, we can always console ourselves with the thought that things can be much worse. There is still, in this world, a special standard of bureaucratic horribleness known everywhere by the phrase "Former Soviet ally."
So I went to the Consulate and I asked for advice. And they said, well, actually we don't give out advice. They give you lists of lawyers who speak English. So I went to a lawyer, and actually his advice was very complicated, so I went to another lawyer. And then that lawyer had completely different advice. So I went to a third lawyer, and, in any event, they all basically agree on one thing. And that is that, in fact, my mother couldn't sign anything, and I couldn't sign anything, and even if my grandfather were alive, he couldn't sign anything because, in fact, none of us own the property.
The property is owned by Israel and Zizsla Friedrich, who are my great grandparents. And so what I needed to do before I could do anything at all to help the Skowronski's with their property problem, was to inherit the house from my great grandparents. But the first hurdle for that is before you can even begin an inheritance procedure, you have to file a death certificate with a register of wills. But I didn't have a death certificate, because they died in the Holocaust.
So I went to Auschwitz. But, of course, Auschwitz had no records of my great grandparents having been there. I don't even know if they were there. I know they didn't survive. And, even if they had survived, they would be like, 130.
So they still needed you to prove that they were dead, even though if they were alive they'd be 130 years old?
So I figure, well, OK, at least let me prove how old they are. So let me try and find their birth certificates. But I go to the Bedzin records for that time period, and there's no records of my family at all. Meaning that they probably weren't in Bedzin at that time. They must have been in a smaller village.
So I basically spend six months driving around to villages that I know have the surname Friedrich in them. And I would pull up these giant genealogy books that have birth, marriage, and death records. And they are these big, dusty, yellow books. And I turn the pages in search of my great-grandparents. And, actually, my friend translating the marriage record of my great-great-uncle, had a reference to a town called [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. So I go to [UNINTELLIGIBLE] and I actually find my great-grandfather's birth certificate.
So I get this record. And then I give it to my lawyer and he's like, "Well, OK, what about your great-grandmother?" And actually, I still have no idea where she was born, so I don't have that record. I said, OK, I can prove that she gave birth in 1895. And they're like, OK, well, we'll see. But in any event-- so first we apply to get their death certificate, which ultimately takes three and a half years, to get a death certificate.
But to make the inheritance procedures move forward, she needs documentation on each and every one of her great-grandfather's heirs, all of whom have a potential claim on the building.
I'm not the only heir. My great-grandparents had eight children, four of whom died in the war, four of whom survived, including my grandfather. And three of his siblings who moved to the United States before the war. And of those three siblings, one had four children, two had two children, all of their children had children, and there were great-great-grandchildren, and something like 50 heirs that I could count living at the time.
So for every heir that we were going to declare in the process, and ultimately we ended up choosing a representative from each branch of the family, we had to prove the entire chain between us and my great-grandparents. So for me alone, I had to have my grandfather's birth and death record, my mother's birth, marriage, and death record, to prove why her name had changed from Friedrich to Einhorn. And then every record that came from the United States had to be sent to a Polish Consulate. And not just any Polish Consulate, because different Polish Consulates are responsible for different American states.
So my birth certificate in Detroit, had to go to the consulate in Chicago. While my grandfather's death certificate from Atlanta had to go to the consulate in Washington. And meanwhile, this whole process is going on, I've now spent-- well I paid $2,000 to my lawyer, I spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars on these documents, ordering the documents, all this time. But every time I go to the Skowronski's, they're still having problems. Because they still can't collect the rent, they still have to pay the taxes, they still have all these problems.
And so I'm showing up and they say, "So, hey, what's going on the property?" And I said, "Well, you know, it's going to take a long time." But they become increasingly frustrated with me.
And do they feel like you're trying to steal the property from them?
I think that they just think that I'm not trying hard enough. They don't understand why they're still having these problems, two years after they met me. And there was a couple of incidents where they started to yell at me, and they'd say-- we were actually arguing over who owned the house. They insisted my grandfather owned the house. And I would say, "No, it's my great-grandfather, that's why it's so complicated." And they'd say,"No, your grandfather owned it, and he gave it to our mother." And I'd say, "No, look it says on the deed, Israel Friedrich, he is my great-grandfather." And they would say, "No, your grandfather owned it."
And we just do this. I mean, we did this for a year, basically. Arguing over who owned the house on the deed.
It's during these months where she is arguing with the Skowronski's, and driving around to records offices in these tiny villages, Erin has an entire second line of detective work that she's doing. She has a stack of letters, and other documents, and she's getting these translated from German and Polish and Yiddish and Swedish and Hebrew. And as she does this, a whole other version of the family history-- these two family histories, I guess-- slowly begins to emerge.
And it is not a pretty history. It is not in a heroic Polish woman, and a grateful father now in America. Erin found out that there was a reason the two families had not been in contact for years. It was more than they had just fallen out of touch. One of the first letters that Erin reads is from May 22, 1962. Nearly two decades after the end of the war.
And this was actually a handwritten letter, in Polish, from Honorata Skowronski to my grandfather. The letter starts out, "Dear Mr. Friedrich, I am writing to you after such a long time because we haven't been corresponding. Because you are a man of honor. I have been waiting for your letter, and maybe you have been waiting for mine. Now I'm writing to you that I am sorry. You may be angry at me, because of the letters I wrote to you. I also was offended because of the way you wrote to me, but let's forget about that. I was happy to have someone abroad, and I felt that you were my brother. And you are so cold to me. I don't want much. All I want is us to live in peace, because life is so short. We should be kind to each other.
Mr Friedrich, let's forget about it. I'm just curious how you are doing? Is Arentka married? Does she have family? Is she doing all right? Are you in good health? How is your family? Are you still close with your brothers and your sister?
Regarding the house, Mr. Friedrich, I will write everything about it. There are eight tenants, and they pay 40 zloty each per month, with all the utilities. If you don't believe that I am able to manage your property, you can ask anybody or the municipality. I have just carried out a renovation but the money goes to municipality, so I have nothing left. At least the house is kept in order, and is well-maintained.
Mr. Friedrich, maybe you could come see your property? You could see its condition. I would be very happy to see you here with Arentka. I would like to see my daughter. I would be very honored to see her. And if you cannot come to Poland, maybe I could visit you and then I could see how the world looks.
Maybe I will write some more in the next letter. Best regards to you, to Arentka, and to your family. Skowronski."
That letter just is so full of intrigue of what were they fighting about?
Right, you say, well-- I had some idea that there had been a conflict there. The comments my mother would make, like, "Oh, she only did it for the money." And there was also a family story, my mother had said, about how Honorata had once asked my grandfather to send her a Chevrolet. He was in Detroit, I guess. That's where Chevrolets come from.
I knew there was something there, but, then I had more letters translated.
There was one from January, 1959, that her grandfather wrote to a lawyer in Poland, apparently concerned about what was going on at his house. He tells the lawyer that he's just found out that Skowronski doesn't pay the taxes in the building, and got into debt, because the city seized some factory buildings that were part of the property. Quote, "All of this happened without my knowledge, so I hope you can clear this up."
Then, about six months later, July 17, 1959, he gets a letter from somebody in Bedzin, probably a neighbor. Erin can't actually tell, because the name is illegible.
It's four pages of single spaced, typed, really dense. It's an absolute screed. Dated July 17, 1959 in Bedzin, and addressed to my grandfather on Cloverlawn Street in Detroit. "Dear sir," the writer of the letter addresses him. "I don't like prying into other people's affairs, especially as I have some disagreements with Skowronski, caused by her. Hoping that this letter will remain absolutely confidential, I don't want any other disagreements with such a rude person as Skowronski, I find it necessary to inform you about the situation, because I wouldn't like you to lose your house. These are the facts.
One, Skowronski administrates your property in a very robbing way. She scrounges all that she can out of the house without investing anything. She doesn't maintain it well, doesn't care about renovations, even doesn't want to have it removed from the municipal funds. That is why the house is untidy and rundown. Anyway, she doesn't seem to know what order is, and she started growing pigs in the cellar.
Worse, Skowronski doesn't pay the taxes as well. And she doesn't pay the municipality money she collects from the occupants for water, et cetera. Skowronski doesn't have time and goodwill to take care of the house. She deals with trading, and is out all the time. She has constant problems with police and cases at the court. Recently, she had a very serious case for abusing her children. She may even go to prison for a long time. And then the house will be abandoned completely."
So, as you're reading this letter. what are you thinking?
I'm thinking, no wonder he was freaking out. No wonder he was angry. No wonder he wrote her a presumably nasty letter which would have prompted a nasty fight, which would have caused her, several years later, to have to write that apology. And to plead for forgiveness and try to get in his-- "Mr. Friedrich, I consider you my brother. I want to see my daughter." She feels badly that they'd had this fight.
And when you're reading this, do you feel like she's probably in the wrong?
I think both sides clearly had a legitimate position. Even if-- you know what? So she was raising pigs in the cellar. But she saved my mother's life. And I think probably if Mrs. Skowronski was writing to him, and asking him to send her things, that's probably because she had the perception of America that many people do. That it's this nation of wealth. And my grandfather had been wealthy before the war, so he is this rich Jew in America. And why is he giving her grief about this house? Why doesn't he just pay the? Debts
And, of course, he was very poor, very struggling in the United States. He had had epilepsy from being beaten on the head in Auschwitz. And though he was a tool and die maker, and should have been doing well, he would have epileptic seizures on the floor of auto plants. And then would be promptly fired, several decades before the ADA.
And if all this weren't complicated enough, Erin discovered that Honorata Skowronski had been awarded a medal from Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. A medal that nobody in Erin's family knew about. The medal's called the Righteous Among the Nation's medal. And it's given to non-Jews who risked their own lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Because of the medal, Honorata also got a pension from a Jewish organization in her old age.
But the most interesting thing in Honorata's Yad Vashem file, and the most helpful thing in piecing together the past, was a statement that she wrote, typed in polish, dated September 7, 1983, that laid out more clearly and systematically than anything else, point by point, how Honorata viewed what had happened between the two families over the years. Erin reads.
"This case concerns the help I gave to the Jewish child under the German occupation in Poland. During the German occupation, I lived Dombrowa Gornicza, Parkowa Street. Mr. Friedrich, and his one and a half year old daughter, Arenna, lived in Bedzin, [UNINTELLIGIBLE] Street, number 20, and his wife was taken away to the ghetto.
In July of the same year, I took his daughter, Arenna. I prepared a birth certificate for Arenna, with my family's surname. I carried the child on my own back from the border while escaping from Dombrowa to [? Myehov ?]. And so, as not to let the people know that she was Jewish, I used to change the color of her hair. In November, 1945, Mr. Friedrich came back to get Arenna. She was five years old, and I gave her back to him in the presence of two witnesses. She was crying very loud. She didn't know her father, and she was more attached to me than to her father. She was crying and calling me, "Mommy, take me home with you."
We made a photo of me, Mr. Friedrich, and the child as a souvenir when I was giving the child to Mr. Friedrich. I don't have this picture now because I've lost it. When they were about to depart, Mr. Friedrich promised to pay me back and told me that until the end of my life I would be all right and he would never forget about me. And all I got was the picture of Arenna in Sweden as a six-year-old child.
This was for all I did during the occupation. For hiding and taking care of the child. This is a very short summary of my taking care of Arenna.
I used to correspond with Mr. Friedrich until 1950, but Mr. Friedrich hasn't responded until now. Right now I am in a grave situation, paralyzed, and I can't walk. All I want is to live until the moment when Mr. Friedrich will thank me. The Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw has all of my data, but I need to have all of the confirmation from Mr. Friedrich that I kept his daughter during the occupation."
At points during that letter, she seems so bitter. "This is all I got."
Yeah, and my family's version of events is that, in fact, they had plied her with gifts. That they had sent her all kinds of things and that she always wanted more. And as far as they're concerned, my grandfather blew them off, completely neglected them, completely mistreated their mother. She died wishing he would come back, wishing her daughter would come back, resenting my grandfather.
But hearing the story about your mom crying when her dad shows up at the end of the war, and she's got to leave the Polish family, it seems clear from that that they really loved your mom.
I think they probably did, and I'm sure-- I know for sure that she cried, because that was her memory. She remembered having cried when her father came. And I'm sure it was emotional for them. I mean, I don't think-- Wieslaw Skowronski's tears the day I met him, in May of 2001, were unfakeable. I mean, they were sincere. And not just that day. Every time I would go back there, his wife would be going on about the house, and there would be this moment where suddenly he would seem removed from the conversation. And he would be looking at a photograph, and he would start to cry.
It's just so interesting in the light of all of this, that your mom, and everybody else in your family, decided that the Skowronski's were just in it for the money. Do you know what I mean? It seems like from everything that you're finding that actually the Skowronski's were very sweet with her, and that she loved them. And it seems like in a way, the most convenient thing for everyone to believe for her to move on with her life, for her to believe and for your grandfather believe, was just that this Polish family had just done it for the money. You know, to wipe out any fondness she had for them.
Yeah. I mean, I think-- maybe it was a convenience. There's no way it was just for the money. She just didn't want to confront all that. And her coping mechanism, it's a very popular coping mechanism, is denial. And that's what she did. That was why she told me her story as it wasn't a big deal. She specifically told me, "I had an easy to childhood. I was lucky. I was always loved." And it was easy for her to kind of blow off how traumatic it must have been to be torn from place to place.
Which is why years later she's watching baby Jessica on television being ripped away from her adoptive parents, and the whole country is upset over how traumatic it was to watch this little girl, this two year old, being taken from the only parents she'd known. And my mother's flipping off the TV in disgust and saying, "Ugh. That kid'll be fine. The same thing happened to me."
Erin's hope, of course, had been that by going to Poland, by doing all these things, she was going to reawaken some feelings in her mom about her own past, and about what happened during the war, and what happened with the Skowronski's. And then, just as Erin was beginning this process of meeting with the Skowronski's, right after that first visit with Wieslaw, her mom dies. Cancer
For whatever reason, I just couldn't break this news to them. Because Wieslaw had been so excited about seeing my mother again, after all these years. I mean, she had been essentially dead to him. He didn't know where she was, she had vanished. She was gone for his life for 50-som years and then, in early May, I show up and say, "She's alive. She's 59 years old. She's great."
I just couldn't show up again, in July, when I got back to Poland, and say "Yeah, actually, no. Unfortunately she's died." I just couldn't do it. I ended up telling him several months later, after preparing him by breaking the news that she had cancer. Then she was getting worse, and it was getting bad. Just so it wouldn't be so shocking.
When I finally tell them that my mother has died in, I think, October of 2001, they're kind of sad. And they're like, "Oh, I'm sorry." And then a few minutes pass, and then they're like, "OK, so what's going on with the house?" My heart just sank. You know? Is it just you think I'm here to do what my grandfather should have done and that's it for you?
Suddenly you were actually involved in the same relationship with them that your grandfather had been.
We ended up, I think, in a lot of ways, reliving the same thing. I think my grandfather, in some ways, may have been hurt by these letters he'd gotten from Honorata Skowronski asking for things. And he was, after a while, he says, "Stop asking me for things. I'm grateful for all that you did, but I can only do so much." And I think I started feeling the exact same way.
Without this family, I don't exist. So my very existence is thanks to them, or thanks to Honorata Skowronski. But after awhile, I'm like, "Look, I'm trying. I'm doing what I can. I'm trying to help you, but I can only do so much."
Should I have offered to pay their taxes? And how long does this debt last? So, she saves a life. Now, saving a life is multi-generational heroism, you know? If I have children or my brother has children, that we have children, our family lives on. So maybe the gratitude should be a multi-generational gratitude. But now it's 2005-- actually, Wieslaw passed away in 2002, a year after I met him.
This is the man you first met when you got there, yeah.
So he has passed away. My mother has passed away. My grandfather is gone. Honorata is gone. And now the person who's asking me to help them is the second wife of the son of the woman who saved my mother.
Just last year, in 2004, the family became so impatient with Erin, that they filed their own claim, under Polish squatter's law, saying they'd lived there for 30 years and they should get the building. Which led to other complications. The building is actually a duplex, and the owners of the other half of the building are a family in Israel. And they do not want to give up the building to the squatters, and they'd been trying to get Erin to take their side of things, and fight this Skowronski's.
Which means that people have been angry with Erin for years now about this building, and, whichever way that it works out, whoever ends up owning the building, somebody is still going to be mad at Erin.
So you go to Poland thinking you are going to have this sweet and nostalgic rejoining with these people, and you find yourself to be their reluctant, absentee, resented landlord.
I certainly end up stepping into a role I hadn't anticipated. You know, I kind of thought, in a lot of ways, that the history was this book. And I was reaching up to a high shelf and fishing this book off the shelf. And I would bring the book home, and show it to my friends and family and say look, isn't it beautiful? I never anticipated that the characters in the book lived on and that, in fact, the book was all beat up and that the book actually had resentments and feelings and--
In fact, that you were going to be in the book, fighting it out with them.
I'm certainly a conflicted character. And not necessarily as a heroine. I'm actually stepping into the role, in many ways, of the villain.
Erin Einhorn, she's a reporter for the New York Daily News, and she has written a book about her experience with the house and the Skowronski's. It's just come out. It's called The Pages in Between.
[MUSIC - "EVERYTHING I OWN" BY KEN BOOTHE]
Coming up, a man gets a chance to settle a 17-year-old score with help of the Chicago police. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.
Act Two: The Things That Money Can Buy
It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, "Settling the Score." We have two stories today, and each one is about somebody in a situation where one things leads to another without them exactly sure where it is going. And they're forced to figure out some kind of past, which has been lost. And, in the end, you get to the question, can money solve certain kinds of problems? Especially big emotional things that have been brewing for years.
We've arrived at act two of our program, Act Two, "The Things that Money Can Buy." Beau O'Reilly, who as been on our program a bunch of times, he tells the story.
A warning to listeners, before it begins, that at some point in this story Beau is going to refer to a way that people hide contraband, in their body cavities, and then remove it from said body cavities. But he's going to use words more explicit than the words that I'm using right now. OK, so you are pre-warned, if you find that shocking.
When Beau's story begins, he is flying back from overseas, from Germany.
And as we come into O'Hare, they say over the loudspeaker, whatever, the intercom, "Would Richard O'Reilly"-- which is my real name-- "Would Mr. O'Reilly, would you please stay in your seat when we land." Now I realize that when they say, stay in your seat when you land, don't do it. Just get up and leave with everybody else. Because it's not good news. They're not there to help you probably.
So we land. And I sit in my seat. And everybody else gets off. And I'm the only person in this whole plane. And then an official looking airport person comes up to me, with the stewardess, and says "Would you just please come to the front of the plane?" And now I'm asking, is there something wrong? Has something happened?
And I'm walking with a cane. And this cane I've gotten in Germany, because I've hurt my back. And I got this cane in Germany. And it's a little nondescript, wooden cane. Except that it has a bullet on the end of it. And so the point of this cane is this bullet. And apparently that's a very normal period between the wars where they made canes and they stuck these bullets on the end. And it's a certain cane that they all have.
And so I'm walking with his cane, and there are two Chicago policemen there. And The policeman grab me on both arms, on either side, and they ask me to put my hands behind my back. And one of them takes the cane, and they put me against the wall, and they ask me where my weapon is. "Where is it?" And I say, "I don't have a weapon." And they search my body, they hand search my body.
And it turns out the weapon seems to be this cane. That this cane has been reported. And then they say, "You're under arrest." And they read me my Miranda rights. And I say, "What am I under arrest for?" And they say, "We don't know, there's a warrant for your arrest." And they handcuff me behind my back. There's a Chicago police station in O'Hare airport, sort of underneath O'Hare airport, which I never knew.
And they take me down in there and there's holding cells. It's pretty small. And I sit there for some period of time, maybe about an hour and a half, two hours or something. And then they come back in, it's a different cop, it's a bigger, older cop. And they say, we're going to take you into the city. They put me in the back seat of a squad car, they drive me into the city. And by now it's night time. It's dark. I think when we landed it was still day.
And they take me to a building, which turns out to be down in the Loop. And they take me out and they take me through a basement, and up a an escalator, elevator type of thing. And then they take me and they put me in this cell. And the cells there are these little boxes really. And there's a metal bed, with some sort of mat. And a toilet without a toilet seat, and that's it. There's nothing else in there. And I'm in there by myself.
Again I ask what I've been arrested for, and again they say, we don't know. I ask for my phone call, and they say you can make your phone call in a certain period of time. They leave me in there for a little while. And I'm sitting on the bed and the man in the cell next to me begins to shout and scream. And he sounds loud and big. He sounds like a big man. And no one comes when he shouts and screams. And he's screaming for the for the jailer to come, he wants him to come.
And so he starts to pound with both fists on the wall, that is my wall and his wall are the same wall. And it's like a drum, so there's this very big [POUNDING NOISES] sound going with it. And this screaming. This goes on for really a long time. Like, literally hours. And every once in a while, somebody comes in and yells at him. And he stops for a couple of beats, and then he continues.
And so I can't sleep, even if I want to sleep. And then the cell opens, and this young man comes in. And he's a newly arrested prisoner as well, as he quickly tells me. And he's already pretty high, which I know. I can tell that. And he tells me quickly, too. So we have a little discussion about what it's like to be high. And he sits down, and he says, "Well, do you want to do some? Because I got to do this before the morning." And I said, "Do some? No No, I don't want to."
And he takes this aluminum foil-- it's dope. I'm not sure what it is. I figured it was smack because of the way he acted. But I wasn't sure. And he has it up his ass. And he literally leans over and he pulls it out of his ass. And then he unwraps it and he takes it. And he very quickly gets really, really stoned. And very loquacious. And so he's talking, he's telling me mostly about the day, and the neighborhood and where he lives and what he can get and what he can't get when he's on the street. And what job he could get if he could just get over there and do it. He is mostly just rambling through.
And after the first, you know, 15 minutes of it, I'm done talking to him. So I pretend to sleep. And I lie on the top of the bed with my eyes closed, but he keeps talking. And periodically the man, who has stopped slamming, begins to slam again on the wall next to us. So that's the first night.
In the morning, a new jailer comes and says now I can make the phone call. So I go and I make the phone call and I reach a family member who says they'll reach somebody else who will reach a lawyer. That's all I know. And again, still, no one has given me an answer to what I had been arrested for.
The second night, I think the second night-- and this seems like the middle of the night, it seems like midnight, one o'clock in the morning, I really don't know what time is, they come and they got me. And they say, you have a visitor. And they take me to one of those rooms that you see in the prison movies where there's a glass thing and you to speak through a grate, and there's a little microphone that barely works. And there's things written on the inside the Plexiglas and scratched with pens or something.
And my sister-- one of my sisters-- is there. And she has this whole sheath of papers. So she holds up these papers so that I can see them, and it's from the state of Wisconsin. And my daughter's name is on the piece of paper. I have a daughter. This case is about my daughter. The state of Wisconsin is suing me for back child support. 17 years before. I think it's about $14,000 or something at this point.
And I see the paper, and I'm very surprised by it, because the history of it is that I lived with this woman, and we had a child. And we didn't have jobs. And if you are on welfare and food stamps and you're unmarried, the state of Wisconsin will bill the father in the form of child support. So when my daughter was three years old and she was living with me, I was called in to court. And I went in front of the judge, and I said, "I don't think I should have to be paying this money, because I am raising my child, and I'm paying for her care." And the judge said, "You're right. get out of here."
And I assumed, at that point, that had been stricken from the books. And I just walked out of the courtroom that day, I didn't pay any money, I didn't get arrested. I took the bus home. And I guess that that never got written down, there was some clerical error about it, because it was never changed in the system. The state of Wisconsin still thought I owed them this money, plus interest. And I never heard from them again until now.
And so this is 17 years later that this is now happening, from that court appearance. I'm sitting in the cell and my own past is catching up to me. Within a year of me going in front of the judge in Wisconsin, my daughter's mother really shifts direction, and she starts religion hopping is what I used to call it. Where she moves from one religion to another and she moves around a lot during this time. She keeps leaving, coming back and leaving and coming back.
And in the course of that year, I also start going the opposite direction. Smoking a lot more pot than I had before, and drinking heavily. And one day I come home and my daughter's mother has taken my daughter. And left.
And at first I thought that that would change pretty quickly. I expected to hear from them over the next period of months. I didn't. I went further and further into lots of dope and lots of alcohol, and it wasn't until years later, after I had long stopped drinking and smoking pot, that I was able to really look at my own responsibility for it. That I had messed up. That I was responsible for someone and I didn't take care of her.
I didn't see here. I didn't help wit money. And then it was a long time, 12 years, which is impossible to ever make that right. Just too long. And finally my daughter contacted me when she was 14 or 15, and I saw how much I'd hurt her. There was no pretense about it. There's no "I'm sorry, let's make it right," because there's something that's completely been lost and broken. And the kid had no say about it.
And that begins a series of contacts then between my daughter and I. And it's often uncomfortable. She's a teenage girl, a suburban teenage girl. We don't know each other. It can be hard to find things to talk about. And as time goes on over this, I call her, she doesn't call me back. She calls me, I don't call her back right away. Things get put off. And there's still a lot of distance in the relationship.
That next morning, they bring me and what seems like probably about 60 other guys and they take us to now the big courthouse where we're all going to be tried. And there they bring you-- I think it's like four cells. So there's maybe 300 guys in these four cells. And I'm sitting on this bench, and these three older men come in. And everybody seems to know them, and they sort of spread out and give them the space. And they sit on this central bench. And one of them takes out a joint and lights it. And they pass this joint back and forth, and they sit there and smoke it. And nobody says anything. They just smoke this joint.
Then these two young men come up to where I'm sitting, and one of them says, "Give us some money. Give us your money. We want to get some. Give us your money." And I said, "Well, no. I'm not going to give you my money." And they said, "Well, you have some money in that jacket, right?" I say, "Yeah, actually I do. But it's my money. I'm going to probably need it." I'm keeping this, again, this quietness of tone, but, again, not looking him right in the eye. And he's like, "No, man, I'm telling you. Give me the money." And I say, "Well, I'm not going to."
So then a third guy comes, and the three of them are standing around me in the circle. And the first young man is doing most of the speaking. And he's insisting, "I'm going to take your jacket. I want your money." And then, across the way, one of the older man says "Hey. Pops. Pops." And I look up, and he's looking at me. And he says, "It's Pops, right?" And I say, "Yeah, yeah. Pops." And he says, "Yeah, that's just Pops. Leave him alone."
And the three young men sort of move away, and the guy says again, "Pops, you want some of this?" Some of this being the dope. To smoke. And I say, "No, no thank you."
And here I am, I'm in jail because of what I did, you know, 20 years ago and the year I was living 20 years ago. And I'm surrounded by these guys that I really recognize from that way of living. I was proud of that, I lived like them too. This is who I was, when I lost my daughter.
So I get taken into the courtroom and my lawyer says, "I think we can get you off. We certainly can get this reduced. You don't have to pay all of this money. So what is it that you want to do?" And I thought about it. And I said, "No, I think I know what I want to do. Which is that I want to make this right today. I want to pay this money." And the lawyer said, "No, come on, you don't have to do that. It's too much money. We can get you off of this."
And I thought about it. And it wasn't that I felt that by paying the money I would be then closer to my daughter. It wasn't that. It was, I'm wanting at this point, to make amends to my daughter in any way possible. Whatever is going to make her life easier, whatever I can do for her, now I'll do. I'm actually grateful for it, because it gives me a means. It give me a way, it gives me a clear, simple way.
So a deal is struck, right there in front of the judge, where if I can come up with a portion of the money right then, they'll release me and set up a monthly payment plan where I get to pay off the rest of it. And I do that. And I don't know if my daughter even knows that the money came from me. But I know that the money went to her.
Something then really did change between us. And what changed was me. I could talk to her more easily. I could show her the way I felt about her more easily. And because I responded with ease, she responded to that over time. She was then more easy with me. She was more able to just be easy with me. And when she really gets into difficulty, and has trouble, a few years later, she's able to reach out to me. And I'm able to reach back.
So this weird trip into the underworld has really actually been this weird gift to me. If it took being dragged off a plane, and handcuffed and held in a jail cell and being around people pulling heroin out of their asses and going to court. If it took all that to bring about some sort of resolution of something between me and my daughter, then it was worth it.
Playwrite and actor Beau O'Reilly. He is performing as the Lord of the Underworld in Euridice at the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. It opens the first week of October.
I carried the child on my own back from the border while escaping from Dombrowa to Miejov.
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week, with more stories of This American Life.
PRI, Public Radio International.
Next week, her on the podcast of This American Life.
Saving 500, 1,000 kids, 1,500 kids simply was not going to make a difference. We had to really think big.
Life inside a radical new experiment to eliminate urban poverty, that draws on new research about how kids develop and is implemented on a scale unlike any program ever undertaken, anywhere in this country. That's next week on your local public radio station and here on the podcast.