Demy's Cookie - A Christmas Story

"When we first discussed doing this blog, it brought several things to mind for me," said certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "Specifically, the strength and resolve of those who lived through World War II and became refugees, leaving behind loved ones in a devastated country to eventually become American citizens and how they overcame a multitude of adversities, many of which today's generation would find difficult to imagine, to become successful in life. And generally, the absolute importance of keepsakes and a deep appreciation that the most important things in life do not have price tags."

A devastated Poland during World War II

"Every keepsake is rooted in warm and happy memories about those who are most important to us," continued Attorney Connelly. "Without these items, some of the most special memories of our loved one may begin to fade and sadly be forgotten. While life may never be the same without them, such items honor the deceased and is a way to ensure that our loved one is never truly gone. Such is the case in this blog, "Demy's Cookie", written by a member of our staff. I hope you enjoy it."

Demy's Cookie

I was fifteen years old when I met Zofia. I was delivering the Easton Express, a local Pennsylvania early evening newspaper, after school, and she lived in what was called at the time “Greystone”, or the old folk's community, but many of the kids in school referred to it as “Tombstone”, for obvious reasons. It was made up of one large residence with several smaller apartments, one of which she occupied.

Zofia was an immigrant from Poland, coming to the United States shortly after the end of World War II. Each night I would personally knock on the door and hand the paper to her just to see her smile and gentle eyes. She lived alone and was sick, I could tell but did not know at the time that she was in the early stages of dementia. She also had an arm that hung limp at her side, I didn’t know why and it was really none of my business but I sure was curious.

As the months went by, I grew closer to her. Her speech was affected by her illness but I could still understand her. Her deep blue eyes and expressive face gave me the answers I needed when the words eluded her. She would invite me in on hot days for a glass of cold water and during the winter, would be waiting for me with a cup of hot chocolate.

Her speech was affected by her illness but I could still understand her. Her deep blue eyes and expressive face gave me the answers when her words eluded her.

Then one evening, she motioned to me to come in and I saw a beautiful piece of apple pie and a scoop of ice cream waiting for me. She struggled for the words but managed to communicate to me that she made it herself. It was delicious. This piece of pie turned into a regular meal at least once every two weeks. I enjoyed my time with ‘Zoffy’, as I began calling her, and eventually, I felt comfortable enough to ask her questions about her past.

Polio affected young children in America

My first was about her arm. In my mind, she must have been in an accident, but she wrote the word “polio”, the best she could, on a piece of paper. Now I understood. She then stood up and went into her closet and pulled out a journal and gave it to me to read. What I learned about Zoffy was nothing short of remarkable.

According to her story, she had been married in her native Poland before coming to this country. Her husband, Wojciech, had fought for the Polish resistance during the German invasion of the country in 1939. It was during this attack that she lost her father to the brutality of the German troops. Her mother, who was at work when the invasion occurred, never returned home again.

Zoffy wrote of her fear for Wojciech every time he went out to attack the Nazi soldiers. The couple also had a child named Dymek, who was the inspiration for her husband’s fight for Polish independence, wanting the boy to live free and not under the brutal Nazi regime.

“One night,” she wrote, “he went out and I never saw him again. Being a part of the resistance put a target on me and Dymek.” His body was never found and she was forced into hiding to avoid any German retaliation. When the war ended, she came to the United States with her young son where she would be joined sometime later by her sister Hanna.

Zoffy left Europe with nothing but her child and a few clothes that she managed to gather from the rubble of their home, which had been destroyed by German bombs. There were no pictures, no child toys…nothing. But she was excited to start a new life in America.

Polish refugees arriving in America

During their trip across the ocean, Dymek became ill. It first appeared to be a cold, but the coughing became deep and frequent. At times he struggled to breathe. He became lethargic and refused to eat, by the time they arrived in New York, he was coughing up blood. Upon examination, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and hospitalized. Just a scant three days later, he died. Zoffy had no one to turn to and was forced to deal with the loss of her son alone. She did turn to the church for solace and this became a cornerstone of her life.

During their trip across the ocean, Dymek became ill...he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and hospitalized. Just a scant three days later, he died.

Fellow parishioners helped Zoffy find a place to live on Staten Island and she began to attend college while working as a seamstress in her spare time. She wrote of her love for children and wanted to teach school as a gift to “my Dymek”. It was 1954 and as she entered her senior year, she wrote of the fatigue that she started to feel, chalking it up to her non-stop schedule.

Now, how do I remember all this? Quite simply, I was so captivated by her story that I wrote a paper on her experiences for a creative writing high school class and again in college for a psychology assignment on the resilience of those exposed to wartime. It is the paper that I keep to this very day. At this point, I will use Zoffy’s own words.

I woke up one morning and was unable to get out of my bed. When I did not show up at work that night, my friends came looking for me. When they found me, I was unable to move, paralyzed on my left side. They called for help and I was taken to the local hospital, first in New Jersey and then transferred to New York City where I was diagnosed with polio.

The thing I remembered the most was being moved outside into the cold winter night because for some reason, they thought that cold helped with the symptoms, but it didn’t. It was bone-chilling cold and I couldn’t get up to walk inside so I laid there and listened to the street noises and tried to imagine it was summer. I went through this again and again.

After a month in the ward, I started getting letters from church members which made me feel better but I was by myself in New York. It was a big place, a lonely place. My sister, who had come over about a year after me, was living in Pittsburgh with a family we knew from Warsaw. Any contact with her was sparse at best.

The "Iron Lung" treating polio victims

I initially began to feel better but without warning, things got worse and my breathing began to suffer. Not only was I paralyzed on one side but now I felt like I had just run one hundred miles and continued to run. After a few days, my doctor came in and told me I would need oxygen and suddenly I was moved from the ward that was busy into critical care with a respirator strapped on my face that was really bothersome. Then they came in with the news that I would be put into an "iron lung." I had no idea what that was at the time but I learned really quickly.

As scared as I was about the “iron lung”, it actually was quite comfortable at first. The respirator that was strapped tightly on my face was removed and I was lying flat on my back with the machine helping me breathe. It was quite relaxing except for the fact that you couldn’t see what was going on around you. There was a mirror on the front so you could see behind you and a frame that a book or newspaper would go into, but it wouldn’t do you any good if there was no one to turn the pages and believe me, there was plenty to do for the nurses as it seemed there were new patients coming in every few minutes for treatment.

"As scared as I was about the 'iron lung', it actually was quite comfortable at first. The respirator that was strapped tightly on my face was removed...with the machine helping me breathe." ---Zofia

The lung reminded me of an oven and me being on a cookie tray. They would slide me in and out like a roast chicken. Underneath me was the pump for the machine and you could feel the vibrations of the motor running. It would take a breath for you and then you will feel a bump as the air escapes. But I got used to it.

Having food was another challenge, however. Because your body was inside the machine and your head was outside, swallowing became a chore. Because the machine was pulling your diaphragm in and out, you learned to swallow in rhythm with the lung. It was a strange dance I did with the machine but it was a partner that saved my life. On the sides of the lung were portholes so the therapists could reach in and do the therapy needed on the muscles and joints.

I remember people feeling sorry for me, asking me how I could take being locked up in a machine all day, not being able to have my freedom. But I told them that I was thankful to have had this chance. If I would have stayed in Europe, I may not have been alive much less having a chance for life thanks to a machine like that. Overall, I considered myself very lucky...”

Zoffy ended up recovering enough to be discharged but her arm would never improve. She did return to college after nearly two years of being hospitalized and graduated, getting her first teaching job in South Jersey. A few years later she took another teaching position in eastern Pennsylvania where she stayed for the remainder of her career.