HELENA ZMURKIEWICZ, FEBRUARY 11, 2006
Like so many Poles of her generation, Helena Zmurkiewicz is a combination of grit, resolve and humility. You must appreciate these traits especially in a woman who has survived countless horrific and harrowing experiences throughout eighty-one years of life.
The Visionalist crew interviewed Helena in the modest Eastpointe bungalow where she’s lived nearly forty years, raising her three children and emerging in stages from a housewife’s life into teaching and administrative success throughout Detroit.
Born in Wistowa, Poland in 1926, life started out well for Helena, whose parents had high expectations for their four children. Unfortunately, the watershed moment for so many Poles was September, 1939, when the Russian invasion of Poland. The subsequent war interrupted her education midway through high school, and she was taken with her parents to Kazakhstan, where her father was arrested by the Soviet high command and sentenced to 15 years at a labor camp. Her brother had by then been conscripted into the Russian army to fight the Nazis, and though Helena searched relentlessly for him in subsequent years, she never heard from him again. (She notes, understandably bitter, that even in the current ‘democratic’ Russia, war records are sealed, so she may never find out what happened to him.) Meanwhile, along with her two sisters and mother, she was taken by cattle car to a Russian collective farm where she worked for two years. During this time, her mother and father both died from typhoid fever, and she was hospitalized with the same illness. The Sikorski-Maisky Pact of August 17, 1941 freed most of the Polish being held in Russia, and Helena began an epic journey though Iran, Iraq and finally Palestine, where she completed her education, and received a teaching certificate.
Helena emigrated to the United States with her husband, whose mother was an American citizen, and settled in Hamtramck. After a successful career in the home, she returned to the workforce, teaching at a number of prestigious locations and maintaining a secretarial position at Hygrade for twenty-four years.
Among her most noted positions is as Executive Vice President of the Michigan chapter of the Polish American Congress. A great friend to the ‘Our Polish Story’ project, the P.A.C. is a National Umbrella Organization, representing at least 10 million Americans of Polish descent and origin. Its membership is comprised of fraternal, educational, veteran, religious, cultural, social, business, political organizations and individual membership. The Polish American community prides itself on its deeply rooted commitment to the values of family, faith, democracy, hard work and fulfillment of the American dream
Having lost her husband, Helena Zmurkiewicz now lives comfortably with her lovely cat Felix, who she claims, is ‘fully bi-lingual, Polish and English.’
A historical footnote: In 1939, the Soviet Union and the German Third Reich signed the infamous Molotov-Ribbentropp pact that effectively divided Poland between these two superpowers. Most Polish socialists were shocked that the Russians had entered into such a deal with the fascist Reich, believing (rightly) that they had made a deal with the devil.