Chicken Soup for the Polish Soul

I am four thousand, nine hundred and forty-five miles from home. On the wooden table in front of me, there is a bowl of chicken noodle soup. The soup is simple and inconspicuous, but I am staring at it as if I have never seen a bowl of chicken noodle soup in my life. When I lift the spoon to my lips, the fog steaming my glasses, and taste the savory broth, I nearly burst into tears. I am four thousand, nine hundred and forty-five miles from home, but somehow, my mother is in the kitchen of this small, Polish restaurant, and she has made this soup for me. Either that or this restaurant has stolen my mother’s recipe.

On May 18, 1899, my great-great-grandparents, Michelina Mickelsky and Martinus Rusiecki, arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from Warsaw, Poland, via Antwerp, Belgium. They settled in Luzerne, Pennsylvania, to work in the coal mines. In 1911, Michelina gave birth to my great-grandmother, Frances. In 1939, she gave birth to my grandfather, John. In 1963, his wife, Judith, gave birth to my mother, Laura. We are Polish through and through– after all, my mother is only three generations off the boat.

On my mother’s side of the family, our Polish heritage is strong. It is evident in the Catholicism she practices, in the way bits of Polish slip into her speech, but most visibly, in our food.

Regardless of the time of year, a rainy day means pierogies. Kielbasa is our preference, over hot dogs. Horseradish is ever-present on our refrigerator door, despite no one actually enjoying it.  

The home-made cookbooks that my mother received from my great-grandmother fill glass cabinets above the marble countertops. Inside these aging, hand-bound books, are yellowed recipe cards. Sometimes, the words change from English to Polish mid-sentence, as if whoever wrote them couldn’t find the word outside of her mother tongue. Sometimes, the words are indiscernible altogether. On some cards, there are red-purple stains that look (and smell) suspiciously like horseradish, despite no one actually enjoying it.

I never understood how unchanged and genuinely Polish my food was, until I traveled to Poland, and experienced it for myself.

Just like I hadn’t been to Europe before, I have never traveled in a group. Nor have I traveled with people my age. We clash almost instantly. I’m here to find my heritage. They’re here to vacation. It’s evident in our approaches to food.

My peers look curiously at our hotel breakfast. They don’t seem to understand why, exactly, there are four different kinds of sausages on offer. I, on the other hand, pile my plate high with Kielbasa, and I exclaim in delight when the first taste of savory, spicy pork hits my tongue.

My peers are anxious to eat the pierogis at lunch, at a crowded, overfilled restaurant tucked behind a bustling, cobblestone Warsaw street. The dumplings are stuffed full and overflowing with mushrooms, onions, potatoes, and meat, and cooked to perfection, their edges just slightly browned. As I bite into them, all I taste is the familiar; a home cooked meal on a Thursday night, my mother wearing an apron that proclaims OUR LADY OF ANGELS CATHOLIC CHURCH, listening to NPR and poking impatiently at pierogies in a sizzling, spitting skillet.

My peers decide to eat American food for dinner. Instead, I am on the hunt for the Polish street food I remember from Church bazaars, the smell of grilled onions and smoked meat filling the air as I jumped on the bouncy houses with my friends from school. I find a stand that sells Kielbasa on white bread smothered in sweet, juicy onions, and slathered in brown mustard.

My peers get ice cream for dessert, but I’m on the hunt for Paçzki, massive, fruit-filled doughnuts that my mother gets for us every Fat Tuesday. The confection is covered in powdered sugar, and I have to hold it with two hands, like a real American cheeseburger.  

You’ll get sick off of that stuff, my peers say, turning up their nose as I lick sweet fruit off my sugar-covered fingers, or I stuff some escaped onions back into my makeshift sandwich, or push potato back into the pierogi, or add another sausage to my breakfast plate. The food is too heavy; it’s too rich.

I won’t get sick. Like a world-class athlete, I have been training to eat this food my entire life.

Just like my Polish heritage is influenced by my father’s Judaism, Polish cuisine is also heavily influenced by the centuries-old Ashkenazi Jewish population of Poland.

Before World War II, Poland had the largest population of Jews in Europe, and the second-largest population in the world, outside of New York City. I am surprised by how seamlessly the two cultures blend; from the latkes served with my pierogies, to the Matzo ball soup served as an appetizer for my kielbasa dinner. The simultaneous Ashkenazi and Polish diet of cabbage and onions and potatoes intertwine, coming together like the Ashkenazi and Polish double helix that is my genetic code.

Even the bagel, the most ubiquitously Jewish food, was invented on the streets of Krakow. On a rainy morning in the Cloth Hall of Krakow, I eat the very first bagel. It tastes like every bagel I’ve eaten before– and I’ve eaten a lot. I’m a New York Jew, after all.  

This cloth hall and this bagel have been around since the 13th century. Maybe my ancestor once pulled a wooden cart across these uneven cobblestone streets. Everything in Poland seems like a memory of a past life, of places I’ve visited but never have seen.

In Auschwitz, I have apple cake with lunch. Apple cake, to me, is a rarity outside of Christmas dinner. The cake-pie hybrid is crisp and refreshing and tastes infinitely better than the water-without-gas I’ve been drinking. I’m dehydrated from all the tears I have cried.

As we return to our tour, we leave a barrack and enter a courtyard that was used as shooting grounds for thousands of helpless prisoners. In the middle of the gravel, bullet-riddled, brick-surrounded square, I see my mother’s second cousin, Pam.

Speechlessly, I walk over to her. We both have earphones in, listening to our separate tours. I wave. She looks shocked, before hugging me. My professor, Dr. Kennedy, looks concerned, before I say, excitedly, that this is my cousin.

I knew they were in Poland at the same time as me, but I never imagined to see them 4,945 miles from home. They live in North Carolina. I live in Georgia. We’ve only met once, when I was six, at my great-grandmother’s funeral, in Pennsylvania.

Yet here we are, in a death camp, in Poland.

When I return to Krakow, I meet my mother’s second cousins in the Old Square for dinner. We find a restaurant, and order soup prior to our meals. It’s like I’m at a family reunion. Pam and her husband, Robert, ask me about my trip, about college, about my plans for the future. They ask me what I thought about Auschwitz. They’re curious as to how I felt– they know my dad is Jewish. They heard my grandfather passed away last fall– how is my mom doing?

We’re served chicken noodle soup. It’s identical to my mother’s, down to the spices and long, spaghetti-like noodles.

My mother’s second cousin and I lift our spoons to our mouths and moan in delight. “Wow,” She says, smiling at me. We have the same chin, the Danielowicz chin. “This soup tastes just like my mom’s.” It doesn’t just taste like her mom’s soup, or my mom’s soup, or our Great-Grandmother’s soup. It tastes like Poland. It tastes like home.

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