My grandparents never offered me Werthers’

Lili Bidwell 8 April 2017

My grandparents on my father’s side never offered me Werthers' Originals. I cannot blame them for this: they had, unfortunately, both passed away by the time I was two years old. But maybe, if I had known them for longer, they still would not have presented a packet of those delicious golden sweets: they weren’t from round these parts.   

My Grandma, Marija Kosoris, came from the rural Polish village of Shukiw in south east Poland (now Zhukiv in Ukraine), where she lived in a close-knit family. But, in 1941, she watched as the Nazis bombarded her village, massacred many villagers, and split up families. She was ripped from her relatives and taken away, alone, to Germany, a country she had probably never been to before, and forced to work on a farm as a slave-labourer. Fed on raw potatoes and facing terrible conditions, she must have felt her life had ended. She was 17 years old.

I don’t really know much about Grandad, Hryhory Bretan, at all; there are stories that he may have been a farmer, or a soldier, or that he had to bury his own brother during the war – but all of this is mere speculation. Nobody really knows anything. Unlike Grandma, we do not have his identity card; in fact, we have nothing he owned before 1945. All we know is that he was born on 25th January 1920, and then, in 1947, married my Grandma in a displaced persons' camp, Watenstedt-Salzgitter, in Germany. They moved to the UK shortly after, bringing only one suitcase, a Ukrainian Bible, and their marriage record.

They were assiduous in making sure to forget any remnants of their past lives.

We only have one box of things connected to them, now. One album of family photographs, taken after 1945; one small portfolio of documents; one collection of Eastern European painted eggs.

But each time I visit my Grandma’s grave I cannot fail to acknowledge the blatant anglicised spelling of her first name, as if, even in death, there could be no connection to her origins. There is a part of me that wants to take a big fat permanent marker and change it: restyle ‘Maria’ into ‘Marija’ and strive to openly exhibit our family’s roots – but then I remember  that she, and my Grandad, so evidently did not want links to their past; they tried to assimilate, rather than remember. And then I become perplexed at what I can do, because I, instead, desperately try to reconnect.

It’s hard, because I cannot re-join the dots – there are no dots to be found in the first place; and, even if there were, I don’t believe my grandparents would have wanted them to be explored. They worked so hard to erase their pasts; reduced Borsch into Yorkshire puddings and let whispers of Ukrainian transform into fluent English dialogue. They hardly spoke about what had happened to them, and all we know now are mere rumours.

But, nevertheless, one does feel as if there is something missing. After all, the homophony between Britain and Bretan is, quite frankly, undeniable.

I cannot ask my grandparents about their past: my Grandad died nearly 40 years ago, and my Grandma nearly 20. There is no place to find an ultimate answer; no television resolution that will finally be discovered at the end of the last episode. Life, sadly, isn't like that. And yes, maybe I could go eastwards and try to piece together the mystery by myself or, better still, hope for an invitation to be featured on Who Do You Think You Are – but research could never truly bring me closer to the side of my family I never knew. What use are birthdates and school reports and property records when I cannot share in the grandparent jokes that flood my Facebook timeline; when I am unable to stay at their house in summer; when we cannot meet up for afternoon tea on a warm Sunday? 

Remnants of history may bring me some links to my grandparents; but I will never have memories. I will never have experienced life with them. And I can't help but feel that it is that, instead, which is of the greatest importance.