The general definition of courage is to be able to do something despite it frightening you, or strength in the face of pain and grief. My own understanding of courage comes from my grandmother, Czesława (CHESS-WAH-VAH). Courage is what happens when you persevere because every other option seems impossible. Hopeless. Incomprehensible. Because every other possible path is more frightening.
Czesława was born in 1927 in Poland. She grew up Kozłówka — a small agricultural village in east of the country. A Baroque mansion down the road was a favourite spot for hide and seek with her cousin. Their local church was a little further on, and the sculpture out front was ‘barley’ in their games of chasey. In summer, they would adventure in the thick pine forests surrounding the farm, picking wild berries and mushrooms.
When the Nazis passed through the tiny town, they first lined up all the children to be loaded on to buses and taken away. With the children lined up down the street, the parents looked on from the footpath. Czesława was in the middle of the line when, from the sidelines, her mother began motioning to her to run into the nearby forest. Czesława had heard about the Nazis, and what they were doing to people when they took them away. In her broken English she told me what she felt in that moment. Pointing in the distance, she said;
“Dis not life. Dis terrible. No.”
I realised where she was pointing was toward the bus, from her spot in the line. She didn’t see getting on that bus as a viable choice. It was incomprehensible. The only option was to try to survive. She looked behind her, where at the end of the line a soldier stood with a german shepard. The dogs, distressed by the childrens screaming and crying, was a perfect visual distraction. The scuffle allowed her time to slip out of the line and run into the forest. She stayed in that forest all day and night until she was sure the Nazis had moved on to the next town. Many rural farmers and agricultural workers, ‘unthreatening’ Poles, were left alone. The family of Czesława’s cousin was one such family, whom she stayed with and survived the war with.
Czesława taught me that courage is choosing to survive on your own terms. She passed days before these words were written. I cannot think of a better way to honour her life than to continue to survive on my own terms.