Congratulations from The Polish Mission!!!

To Marcin and Cecile

I hope you remember me from the short time I spent at the Polish Mission two summers ago. I have wanted to send you both an email to reestablish contact for a while now, but kept forgetting. First, I wanted to congratulate you on the large contribution the Mission recently received, which I heard about from my grandparents. I know it is going to a excellent cause and will contribute to the good that is being done at the Mission.

I wanted to share with you some good news of my own that is long overdue. Although my time working at the Mission was brief, it truly did make a memorable impact on me. When it came time to write my essays for college, my experiences at the Polish Mission continually stood out as a topic of interest to me. To supplement my application to Emory University (in Atlanta, GA), I also applied for a program called “Emory Scholars”. It is a very selective program that not only awards scholarships to about 50 incoming students, but also accepts them into a unique student leadership program with many perks once at the school. It involved writing an additional essay on a significant experience you had in one of your academic areas of interest. I chose to write my essay on my time at the Polish Mission, and later learned that it had won me a $100,000 scholarship.

I regret that I was not able to give more of my time to the Mission, but my schedule and activities made it difficult. I am continuing those activities in college, as I am part of the Varsity swim team at Emory. The Emory Scholars program that my Polish Mission essay got me into has already presented me with amazing opportunities, including meeting President Carter recently, and the unique chance to meet the Dalai Lama when he visits Emory this month. I will always remember my time at the Polish Mission with fondness as an enlightening experience. I have not decided whether this summer I will return to Michigan or pursue internships in Atlanta, but if I return I may try to contact you about helping at the Mission once again. In either case, I wish you the best of luck.

I have attached my essays on the Polish Mission. The first attachment is my essay for the Emory scholarship and the second is an essay I wrote for Amherst College (the quote at the top was meant as a prompt). Both essays had strict word limits, which is why I could not discuss more.

– Jack Edwards

Ever since I was a child I have had an affinity for history. It was first sparked by my father showing me black-and-white war films such as The Longest Day, and soon my room’s bookshelf was crowded with introductory books on American history. My family took driving trips venturing to famous battlefields and landmarks across the country. When my grandparents offered to take me anywhere in the world for my tenth birthday, I chose to go to Normandy, France, to follow the path of the World War II D-Day invasion. However, my passion for the subject was put on hold as I got older. School history classes became monuments to memorization and races to cover material, with little focus on what was really important to me: the practical significance of the past. An unexpected opportunity to revive my interest arose when I learned of the Polish Mission at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s School. My grandparents first told me over dinner about the effort at St. Mary’s, an old Polish-founded parochial school and seminary in the area, established to catalogue and preserve huge collections of documents and  donated artifacts that had long been neglected and nearly forgotten. I met with the director of the Polish Mission, Marcin Chumiecki, a month later. Ecstatic to receive his first student volunteer, he welcomed me into the room where he was working that day. It was a cramped room full of overflowing filing cabinets that smelled of old dusty paper. He and a colleague were sorting through years of documents that had been deposited there. They were thrilled because recently they had discovered a letter from the King of Poland commending the institution on its contributions to Polska, the worldwide Polish community. To hear the story, to see the letter for myself, and to consider that such treasures were just waiting to be uncovered, I realized that the Polish Mission was the enlightening experience I had been looking for. As if I was not already awe-inspired enough, the first project to which I was assigned blew me away. I helped Mr. Chumiecki work directly with the Auschwitz museum in Poland to coordinate the transfer of St. Mary’s most invaluable Holocaust artifacts.

The school had a room reserved for such treasures that we sorted through and catalogued. Hanging on the walls were twelve original artworks by famous Holocaust artist Jan Komski, one of the largest existing collections of his work, surpassed only by that of Auschwitz itself. Hidden in drawers and cabinets were extraordinary pieces that had been donated to the school, including a handmade music book of fifty pages of original compositions written by an inmate in the concentration camps. Again I felt the exhilaration of discovery, the assurance that I had found a hands-on outlet for my interest. One finding made me realize that what I was doing offered even more than that. Pulling a box out from a closet, we opened it and moved aside some old newspapers to uncover three deep and shining black wooden casings, each inscribed with “KL Auschwitz”. A chilling feeling overcame me as I recognized what they were. Inside were human cremation remains. Why they were there I could not imagine, but they helped me understand that this project was not just for my self-fulfillment; it was truly a “Mission” to set right something that had been left wrong.

Those boxes were the first pieces to be sent back to Poland to be properly buried. My experience at the Polish Mission changed my view of the meaning of history. Textbooks could present me the facts, but significance I derived on the personal level by finding an element in history that touched me. Sometimes this significance comes from honoring great triumphs and people’s stories, as I did with the lost artwork and music book. But more importantly, sometimes learning from the past can teach timeless lessons; I cannot imagine anything that could display the difference between right and wrong and the prejudices we must avoid in the future more clearly than those black wooden boxes. It is our responsibility not only to learn history, but to learn from history, because we write the next chapter. ”Literature is the best way to overcome death. My father, as I said, is an actor. He’s the happiest man on earth when he’s performing, but when the show is over, he’s sad and troubled. I wish he could live in the eternal present, because in the theater everything remains in memories and photographs. Literature, on the other hand, allows you to live in the present and to remain in the pantheon of the future. Literature is a way to say, I was here, this is what I thought, this is what I perceived. This is my signature, this is my There are many well-known examples of how literature can overcome death. The names of the greatest writers and composers have been immortalized by their masterpieces. I encountered a smaller but no less meaningful illustration of this phenomenon working at the Polish Mission at St. Mary’s, an old, local, Polish-founded parochial school and seminary. The Mission was established to catalogue and preserve the school’s vast collection of documents and artifacts that had long been neglected and nearly forgotten. Hidden in abandoned rooms we discovered such priceless treasures as twelve missing artworks by famous Holocaust artist Jan Komski and a letter from the King of Poland.

For the summer I partnered with the Mission’s director, Marcin Chumiecki, to coordinate the transfer of St. Mary’s most invaluable Holocaust artifacts that we had found to Poland’s Auschwitz museum. One finding was  particularly special. Pulling a box out from a closet, we moved aside old newspapers to reveal what looked like a small silver matchbox. Inside the metal covers, there was music, fifty pages of it, with all the staffs and notes hand-drawn on playing card-sized sheets of tattered brown paper. While some of the songs were childhood folktunes, many were original compositions. At the end it was signed, “P. Koziej, 1942-1945”. We learned that Mr. Koziej had died in the concentration camps; a relative saved the book, which somehow ended up at St. Mary’s. I did a lot of thinking about Mr. Koziej and his music book. Why would he have gone to such lengths, at such risk, to leave behind this makeshift collection of musical notes? I believe it was his way of “overcoming death,” of using literature to leave behind and immortalize his final thoughts and reflections. I did not recognize this at first,  because I associated literature only with words; Mr. Koziej’s story convinced me that literature can be anything that expresses one’s thoughts and says “I was here, this is what I thought, this is what I perceived,” and so this  book of songs was indeed literature. This experience helped me realize that every opportunity to express myself is invaluable, each a chance to share and eternalize my unique ideas and experiences. How do I want to portray myself at this stage of my life? As someone who does not have all the answers, but will do what it takes to find some? As someone who finds inspiration from remembering the past, but achieves success by expecting the most of the future? I have tried to keep this in mind every time I write, because such opportunities should not be wasted nor taken for granted. Mr. Koziej’s story was ultimately so significant to me because I was part of it, the final stage. My work at the Mission rescued his musical memoir from a box and sent it to be properly appreciated, and even had it played by a pianist at an exhibition of Holocaust artifacts, finally allowing him to shine “in the pantheon of the future.”