On Creating Poland Parables

 Poland Parables, with music by Carol Ann Weaver and texts by Connie Braun, was performed at Mennonite/s Writing 2022.

As I began to write this preface to Poland Parables, the spring of 2020 shocked us into the realization that May 7th marked 75 years since the German Third Reich surrendered to the allied troops. Both of my parents experienced that war as children. I now see that because of them, my studies and scholarship have continued to excavate themes of dispossession and refugee and immigrant trauma. In my books of nonfiction and poetry, I have become a second-generation narrator, and witness. The experiences of my father, born in 1931 in Ukraine, and my mother, born in 1939 in Poland, have compelled me into a writer’s life I never would have wished for or anticipated, and now, surprisingly my poetry has come to be set to musical composition. Canadian composer Carol Ann Weaver initiated and has now completed this current project.

In my writing I have probed the questions of just such childhoods and refugee stories as were my parents’, not only to discover how past trauma has informed my own life, but  also to try to comprehend the historical response to suffering. It compels me to consider my responsibilities to present-day injustices. I reach into the time that should have been childhood for my own mother and father, offering a voice of compassion for what was catastrophe, instead. I recognize that history never leaves us as these stories become the ground of memory, which is the present human condition, filled with survival’s degradations. Furthermore, over the last five years,  along with drought and famine, the movement of refugees arising from war in Syria, conflicts in other regions of the world, and the plight of asylum seekers has come to parallel the flight and mass population transfers of World War II. 

As I think of that time, I note that in May 1939, as refugees fled Europe, the Jewish passengers of the ocean liner St. Louis were turned away from distant safe harbours, including Canada’s. And in Europe, inherent in the stories of my heritage as German, and my faith heritage (Mennonite), are also the unspeakable experiences of others. In our present day, as children are taken from their parents seeking asylum, as borders are sealed to families fleeing violence, and seas swallow desperate migrants in overcrowded life rafts, we ask ourselves what can be done, what should be done—what I can do—even as we go about our own lives. 

I have returned to Poland numerous times, each time exploring another facet of a difficult story, plumbing the sorrow and hope from which poems and prose emerge. But even before I travelled to my mother’s home-place, my grandparents had always seemed to embody this elsewhere, and so its landscape felt familiar. The farmland and the wide Vistula River emptying into the Baltic Sea reminded me so much of my childhood’s valley and the Fraser River that flows into the nearby Pacific. Not only geographical but emotional, the connection is ineffable. Psychologists say that one’s history is both felt, and learned. And then there is this. Carol Ann sent me her first recordings of the poems set to music in late January. I listened to them the following day, on my birthday, January 27th, which is also Holocaust Remembrance Day. 

The selection of these poems and their sequence and vocal/instrumental composition by Carol Ann offered evermore perceptive ears to hear with. I was astonished anew at how potent the words to music. The metaphor of a river is an anticipated one for both memory and music, but how unexpectedly the music’s range, its currents, its tempo, staccato notes and their pitch at climactic moments, swept me along and into eddies swirling within the poems’ recollections of Poland. This is the work of poet and composer: working through the artistic aesthetic tension of what was horrible, and yet making it hearable for the audience. Not chronological, and though some of Carol Ann’s text arrangements contain only fragments of poems, her ordering of texts forms the song cycle that gently introduces grief on a personal level, plunging into the terrors and darkness of that time. After a time, grief’s range extends as one may be compelled to turn and “face the darkness” of their own stories with humility, and with their implications for the present day.

This musical composition for soprano, piano, and cello, begins with a journey to Poland, a physical journey that opens the door inward to memory. In memory, childhood is ruptured by the death of a teenage brother on the front when a telegram arrives, and the mother of a dead son is forever altered. At times, juxtapositions of poems are agonizing: the imprisonment of a Mennonite man from this German minority in Poland, a father, by Polish authorities in, what was then called, a concentration camp as Germany invaded Poland, followed by a present day visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau—in particular, a walk through the warehouse named Kanada that houses the personal and intimate possessions of Nazi concentration-extermination camp victims. As I see each title listed, I note that this poem/song, as if symbolic of history, is situated in the centre of Poland Parables. The music next propels the listener along on a march at gunpoint of refugees, experienced by a boy whose only shoes were the ones given to children during Nazi occupation. Beyond chronological time, the music spans a cosmic space where the dead of one’s history are all present. 

It must be understood that suffering is not to be compared, nor one catastrophe with another, for such comparisons divide us rather than unite us. And each person’s grief is singular. Rather, spiritual teachers and thinkers instruct us that when stories are shared, listening to another’s grief makes possible a way to carry its weight. The sharing of such a burden between people of diverse backgrounds and experiences ushers in hope, and the role of grief and lament for the past is a moral commitment to change. The musical range of this work reflects the shadow under which the second-generation narrator and witness resides, as well as the light that persists but insists, as wisdom literature and poetry does, that in this space and dimension we inhabit, there is a time for everything.

[ . . . ]

Following my first trip to Poland and Ukraine, 2005, I showed a first draft of an essay to a well-known writer whose writing also considers heritage, faith, and the history of Eastern Europe. She told me this could become my life’s work. I understood that she meant our stories will take us deeper and that writing allows us to discover our humanity. The song cycle of Poland Parables combines previously published poems with new poems that revisit this history. A grandmother now, I think more deeply about my grandparents’ generation and the story of Mennonites in Poland and elsewhere. The verse in Ecclesiastes, which has been a touchstone for the themes in my own writing, speaks to me again: The heart of the wise resides in the house of mourning. Profound are the correspondences between mourning, wisdom, justice and hope, revealing that it’s not the past, but the future we redeem.

From Poland Parables, Pandora Press, Kitchener, ON, 2020.

About the Author

Connie T. Braun

Connie T. Braun, a university instructor, has published two books of non-fiction and two poetry chapbooks. Her academic and personal essays and poetry appear in various journals and anthologies in Canada, the US and UK, including When Blue Will Rise Over Yellow, An International Anthology for Ukraine, ed. John Bradley, Callista Gaia Press (2022), with proceeds to go to Ukrainian refugees displaced by Russian invasion. In 2018 her poetry was commissioned for musical composition, Following the Moonroad, and the 100th Anniversary Commemoration of Mennonites from Russia to Canada, The Places of Memory, and her poetry appears in Poland Parables. Connie’s heritage is Mennonite from Poland and Ukraine, born to refugee-immigrant parents who settled in British Columbia in 1947 and 1952. She lives in Vancouver British Columbia, and has completed a new full-length poetry collection.