Behind the Story Podcast Series
The Tale of Two Cities, Part 1
Santa Rosa, Mexico
Nikki Gamer: Hi, everyone, this is Nikki Gamer for Catholic Relief Services. And welcome to Behind the Story, a podcast series that invites you to celebrate the people behind 75 years of our history—that you’ve helped make possible. Now this isn’t your ordinary history lesson.
What we’ve done for you is actually a little different because every month, we’re going to take you behind the scenes of some of CRS’ most memorable milestones to find out more about our past, present, and our future.
In this two-part inaugural episode, we’re gonna take you back to the 1940s—to two stories that are vital to understanding what CRS is today. We call it ‘The Tale of Two Cities.’
You might be surprised to know that the World Trade Center—it wasn’t the first New York skyscraper to be hit by an airplane. Actually, the first one was the Empire State Building in 1945—right into CRS’ offices.
But we’ll get back to that later. In the first part of this story, the world is at war. You’re going to hear about Julek Plowy, a Polish refugee and CRS’ first project: a refugee settlement in Santa Rosa, Mexico.
It’s February 10, 1940. Julek Plowy’s family was one of thousands expelled from Poland by Soviet troops and sent to the infamous ‘gulag’ labor camps in Siberia. They lived there for 2 ½ years. Julek’s mother was 7 months pregnant with him when they arrived at the gulag, and Julek was born there, in confinement and squalor.
Julek is now 77 and he lives in Southern California. And as you’ll hear, he’s still very emotional when he recalls what his family went through.
Julek Plowy: We were taken to the gulag. So I actually was born in the gulags themselves. So that’s where my story begins.
I heard mom cry a lot. Softly. She remembered life before but I had no feeling of hatred other than I guess hatred of the circumstances that occurred because of Stalin.
Anywhere from 10 to 40 percent of the people that were taken there died from malnutrition and severe labor and the winters and lack of clothing and you know hard labor.
Nikki Gamer: Now a story that sticks out in Julek’s mind is about his mother’s quick thinking the night they left Poland…
Julek Plowy: The Russian soldiers came in the middle of the night. They gave us 20 or 30 minutes to gather our belongings. And she ran out in a chicken coop and slaughtered, I don’t know, 10, 12 chickens and took one alive in a basket.
But that chicken… Excuse me… That chicken laid a double yolk egg the day I was born.
Nikki Gamer: Wow. A double yolk egg… a sign of life and hope.
After 2 ½ years in the gulag, Julek and his family traveled by train for weeks to Iran, where his father died of typhoid and his brother joined the Polish Army in exile.
Then, after months crossing the Pacific, and another train ride from California to Mexico, Julek arrived with his mother and sister to CRS’ first project in 1943: a dusty Polish refugee settlement called Santa Rosa, in Mexico.
Julek Plowy: The Polish community arriving didn’t know what to expect. But the people in Mexico were very beautiful. They met us at the train and singing and dancing and so it was a happy occasion.
We didn’t interact a lot with the Mexican population because we were not really allowed to. But, you know everyone was interested in the other. And so we did performances—Polish performances for them. They did Mexican performances for us. And so the two communities start started to meld together.
There is a number of groups of Mexican musicians that adapted Polish polka music into the Mexican culture.
And even today you can actually dance the polka to the Mexican music because it’s the polka beat and the polka music with some of the Mexican instruments.
Nikki Gamer: And even at his young age, Julek’s will to survive was strong.
Julek Plowy: My earliest memory is eating onions in Mexico.
I, as a child, had a desire to survive. So, in Mexico the doctor said that for me to gain my health back, that I needed to eat onions.
So I would eat an onion like an apple. And it’s because the doctor said it was good for my health and it would make me very healthy.
Nikki Gamer: Julek fondly recalls the Felician Sisters from the U.S., who were the heart of the camp. CRS’ instrumental partners, these sisters ran the school and clinic, led camp youth in building and gardening projects, and they kept meticulous records. In fact, Julek has stayed in touch with them all these years.
Julek Plowy: The Felician Sisters? They educated these children and some of these children added greatly to the society.
Nikki Gamer: If one of the Felician Sisters was here with us in this room what would you say to her?
Julek Plowy: I can’t thank you enough for helping us in the time of distress.
You know you have to preserve that history of these good women who gave up their comfortable life here in the U.S. to go and live in Mexico to teach these poor little souls.
It gives me great satisfaction when someone who didn’t know about something learns it and appreciates what has happened in life.
Nikki Gamer: After 4 years, when he was just 7, Julek left Santa Rosa for the United States, first to Patterson, New Jersey.
Julek Plowy: We were found by neighbors in the United States who had left Poland before the war. And my mother did not want to be a burden to the family.
So she went and got a job. She found a apartment. She spent 30 days cleaning painting, etc. She got paid and we moved into the apartment and then she had me go to the Catholic school there, joined the parish Catholic school.
Nikki Gamer: Julek and his family later moved to Buffalo. He lived there until he was 18, when he joined the Marine Corps for four years. His final tour was in Japan, and afterward he moved to California. He’s lived there ever since with his wife Terri.
Julek Plowy: I have a good family. I have beautiful kids. I have beautiful grandkids. I have a beautiful wife.
Nikki Gamer: Julek credits his Catholic faith for getting him and his family through challenging times, but it was a struggle.
Julek Plowy: I do not blame God for anything bad. I wish he would, on occasion, take a few more steps to push us in the right direction. But I don’t blame Him for the bad.
Nikki Gamer: What do you want people who listen to this to take away from your story?
Julek Plowy: There’s always hope in life. And there’s always goodness in people. You just have to look for it.
Nikki Gamer: Well, my goodness Julek, you’ve given us a lot to think about and on behalf of all of us here at CRS, thank you so much for sharing your story.
Julek Plowy: Well, thank you for giving me a small opportunity. And I… It’s hard to express gratitude for everything you guys do for all the refugees throughout the world.
And I just hope you continue.
Nikki Gamer: While Julek was in Santa Rosa, 20 CRS staffers had come into work at the Empire State Building on a Saturday morning. It was 1945, and there were thousands of World War II refugees who needed assistance.
Bishop Edward Swanstrom, CRS’ assistant executive director, decided he needed a haircut. So, he left his desk on the 79th floor of the Empire State Building and took the elevator to the ground floor. Within minutes, a B-25 bomber barreled into his office window.
Join us next month for Part 2 of The Tale of Two Cities and learn about the inferno caused by an errant Army plane, the heroes inside, and the unlikely story of how our office came to be there in the first place. Until then, thanks for listening.