Anatol Maciejny, 88, took a recent break from sorting laundry at his northeast Minneapolis home and agreed to share his dizzying immigration story, which began with his birth in a part of Poland that's now in war-torn Ukraine.
From there, things snaked to a World War II work camp in Siberia, through an eight-month separation from his mother at age 8, to refugee camps in Iran, Iraq and Syria, until finally a Swedish freighter brought him to the United States.
A few years later, Maciejny (MAH-chaney) was serving as a U.S. Army meteorologist in Korea after the war there ended.
Back in 1943, when he reunited with his mother in Iran after shuffling through a series of Soviet orphanages, "she said I was skin and bones with a distended stomach, and a doctor told her I'd only live for 10 days.
"But here I am, 80 years later talking about it," he said. "Sometimes when I tell my story it sounds like it must be somebody else's. Did I really live through all that?"
Anatol, then 15, arrived in northeast Minneapolis with his mother, Helena, on Jan. 31, 1950 — thanks to sponsorship from an aunt who had earlier joined the neighborhood's thriving Polish community. It's been his home ever since.
He started his American education at Holy Cross Catholic School, part of what was the Twin Cities' largest Polish parish. "But the teachers were all nuns speaking Polish, so that wasn't much help in picking up English," he said. He can still write and read Polish and speak some Farsi, Arabic and Russian gleaned from his childhood wandering.
After Korea, Maciejny tried to cash in on his military meteorological training, but the Weather Bureau guys at the Twin Cities airport were in their early 20s, like him. The only two meteorologist jobs he was offered were in Nome, Alaska, and "atop 10,000 feet of ice in Greenland."
He turned them down and, when his unemployment benefits ran out, became a floor layer instead. Anatol and his Polish-American wife of 56 years, Barbara, adopted two Polish-born babies, Steven and Ramona, who now live in Mounds View and South Carolina, respectively. He worked until 1990, when he injured his back and retired.
For all the twists in Anatol's immigration saga, the most dramatic part came in the early 1940s. After his mother was forced to tend farm animals at a Soviet lumber camp in Siberia, mother and son had been sent on a packed train back to Poland. When she got off to rest at a station, she was told the train wouldn't go until the next morning.
"When she woke up, the train had left with me on it," he said.
An aunt and uncle on the train wound up caring for him but eventually turned him over to an orphanage, believing he'd get more to eat there than with the other starving refugees.
"I was 8 and they moved us around the Soviet Union, hopping trains to Iran," he said, recalling his days begging for food. "There was two of us boys leaning against a station and we both noticed a man eating an apple and throwing the core on the sidewalk. We both dived for it but I grabbed it first, brushed off the dirt and, oh, what a taste."
At 10, Anatol found himself in a phalanx of buses transporting war refugees through the Mideast. "All of a sudden, all the buses stopped and started blaring their horns," he said. "It was May 8, 1945, and the war in Europe was over."
Today's war in Europe sickens Maciejny. With Poland's shifting borders in the 20th century, his birthplace in Tiutkaw is now part of Ukraine. "When those Russian SOBs started relocating people to Russia, it was the same damn thing we went through all over again," he said.
I learned about Anatol from a traveling photographic exhibit called Kalejdoskop Polski MN, a project sponsored by the Minnesota Polish Medical Society. The exhibit has stopped at the State Capitol and Landmark Center in St. Paul, with future stops planned this fall at the University of St. Thomas and next year at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
The exhibit "aims to document the stories of contemporary Polish immigrants and refugees who settled in Minnesota," said Dr. Katarzyna Litak, a University of Minnesota psychiatry professor, president of the Polish doctors' group and curator of the exhibit.
"The goal of this project is to educate people about history and celebrate resilience," Litak said. Since the project began, she said, two of the Polish emigres interviewed and photographed have died, one suffered a stroke and another has slipped into dementia.
Anatol recently helped Barbara endure a case of melanoma. "But I'm still kicking," he said.
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear every other Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.