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Prime Time | Wendell Affield: Writer still learning about his mother

From left, school friends Barb (Wendell Affield’s mother), Ann and Eva stand outside St. Mark's Cathedral in Italy in 1939

My mother, Barbara Affield, was haunted all her life. A few months after she died in 2010, my sister and I discovered a time capsule of letters, diaries, pictures and documents dating back to the early 1800s locked in the chicken house on our old farm near Nebish. Mom had inherited the treasure from my grandmother.

Mom was raised in Darien, Conn. On Sept. 24, 1937, she traveled to Brussels, Belgium, where she studied music at Institute Droissard. In the summer of 1939, she and two school friends toured Europe. After visiting France, Spain, Italy and the Balkans, they reached Eva Barbacka’s home near Nowy Sacz, Poland, on July 27, 1939.

The young women stayed at the Barbacka summer dacha in the Carpathian Mountains. Mom met and fell in love with Konopka Kristaw, a Polish Army officer. It must have been a whirlwind war romance. On Aug. 12, 1939, he wrote this letter to my mother. It reads rather choppy in the translation from Polish/French to English.

“Dear and good friend Berti (Barbara), I was very sad, that for me it was impossible my dear Bari (Barbara) to stay for your birthday. And I remember fondly the good times at Chet — I’m waiting for any bit of news from you and what you are doing. In accordance with what you said, I’m sending you a proposal of the letter to your dear parents. But I’m sure that this proposal needs to be corrected. I’m leaving this to your discretion, my dear Bari. Also many kisses. Sincerely, Kristaw”

Kristaw must have been on maneuvers along the Polish/German border, because on Aug. 15, Hitler had given mobilization orders to the German railroad to transport German army divisions toward Poland. On Aug. 26, 1939, Eva’s father warned Mom that she must flee Poland. He put her on a train, and by late evening she reached Warsaw. As she was leaving, the rail station manager announced, “No more trains across the German/Poland border.” Mom was let out at 5 a.m. in a Polish frontier village.

In 2008, during an interview, Mom told me that a tall Polish-American Jew talked the German border guards into letting her cross into Germany. Gaining passage on a train, she reached Berlin and again was ordered off. By then she was penniless but did hold rail passage to Brussels. Mom recalled the Jews in Berlin with yellow stars stitched to their coats. She said she saw trainloads of German troops traveling west, toward Poland. She spoke of arrogant strutting soldiers brandishing rifles. Six days after she left Nowy Sacz, Mom arrived in Brussels and wired her parents for money.

She traveled to England and purchased passage on the SS American Farmer, the same ship she had sailed on two years earlier. In the late evening of Sept. 17, the second day out from Liverpool, England, a German submarine, U-53, surfaced near the Farmer with 29 survivors from a British steam merchant ship it had torpedoed. The British steamer, Kafiristan, had been en route from Cuba to Liverpool with a cargo of 8870 tons of sugar. Six British crewmen had been killed during the attack by U-53.

I imagine my mother standing on deck, leaning against the rail, listening as U-boat Captain Ernst-Gunter Heinicke hailed the Farmer to take survivors aboard. The Farmer lowered its lifeboats, motored to U-53 and loaded the Kafiristan crewmen. The Farmer’s loaded lifeboats were midway back to the Farmer when a British bomber swooped down out of the sun and strafed the U-boat. The bomber circled, came in low, and dropped a bomb on the U-boat’s conning tower. U-53 sank with all hands.

On Sept. 24, 1939, two years to the day Mom had left New York, she arrived back in the United States. On Sept. 29 my grandmother wrote in her diary, “Barbara is not well.” After a short home convalescence, Mom registered at Julliard, the famed music school in New York.

My grandmother’s 1939 diary, through entries detailing psychiatric appointments for my mother, reveals a young woman spiraling downward. Sadly, my grandfather understood but said nothing. In 1943 he wrote to my grandmother, “I’ve prayed so hard that her (my mother’s) life would straighten itself out. The more I think of it the more I feel it is possible her war experience unconsciously to her was eating her vitals out. How tragic life is.”

My grandfather was an army officer in both world wars. In 1919 he had witnessed the psychological traumas of returning troops.

From 1940-1949 Mom wandered the country, was married and divorced twice, and had four children. My grandparents’ letters and diaries reveal a decade of angst. My grandmother was terrified that Mom would kill her children and commit suicide. Several times during the decade, my grandmother traveled across the country to rescue Mom and her children. By early 1949 Mom was living in an unheated apartment in New York City. She purchased an advertisement in a lonely hearts club newspaper, “Cupid’s Columns,” a bimonthly singles newspaper printed in St. Paul.

Her advertisement read, “Charming, attractive, refined, brunette, 28, 5 ft. 4 1/2 in. tall, 129 lbs. College educated. Plays piano and sings. I am a wonderful cook and housekeeper. Know how to farm or ranch. Would love to correspond with farmer or rancher, or any respectable gentleman who loves children. I have 4 children, 7, 5, 3, 1. Would like to meet someone who would sincerely love my children and make them his own and be a good father to them, since they lost their own. My children would be a great help to a farmer or rancher in later years, however any gentleman who thinks he could love my children will be considered. Am willing to go anyplace in the world for the right man.” Linda Curry, 1871 Walton Ave., Bronx 53, N.Y.

That autumn of 1949 Mom disappeared from New York City along with her children.

My grandmother was frantic. She was a Vassar College alumnus and had connections. An excerpt from a letter draft she composed to the governor of New York begins, “Dear Gov. Dewey, Please help us find our schizophrenic daughter and her five small children. She has been on welfare in New York for the last five years due to her illness. Since her illness she has taken to disappearing.” By April 29, 1950, when my grandmother drafted that letter, my mother and Herman Affield were married. My brothers, my sister, and I had a new father and Mom was pregnant with her next child.

One of the clues I hope to unravel is my grandmother’s reference, in three different documents, to Mom having five children by 1949. There were only four of us. In a 1960 court-ordered psychiatrist’s report, a tantalizing clue hints that Mom and Kristaw may have gotten married in August 1939. An excerpt reads, “Patient has fared poorly in selection of her three (perhaps four) husbands.” When the German army invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, the area around Nowy Sacz was heavily contested. Kristaw and Eva were probably early casualties of World War Two. Mom told me that she tried to contact Eva after the war, but everything was gone.

As I work on my mother’s biography, I wonder just how this penniless 19-year-old woman negotiated her way across the sealed Polish border into Germany. In Berlin, how she talked her way back onto the train; how she managed to cross the sealed German/Belgian border.

After reading my grandmother’s diary accounts and letters, I believe much more happened. I wonder what this beautiful young woman was subjected to during those dark days that was the genesis of the hatred she would unleash on my German stepfather 15 years in the future.

Mom lived on the Nebish homestead into her late 80s. A few years before she died, I set up a pair of bluebird houses just beyond her front window. Each time I came to visit, she would give me a detailed account of the sparring bluebirds and nest-stealing swallows. In spring she marveled at returning geese. She loved to watch eagles and ospreys soar above Maple Lake. She was fascinated when pelicans began coming to the lake. I didn’t know then, but now I believe those pelicans symbolized a happier time as she remembered them bobbing beyond the wharf at Greenbank Farm on Whidbey Island, Wash., where she had lived her first six years.