2013 Vol. 5 No. 3 — Fall / Features

Aladdin, Drohiczyn and Me


A road in Podlasie, Poland

My brother and I grew up watching Disney movies. Polish was our first language and my parents didn’t hesitate in building us a pretty impressive collection of video cassettes to get us practicing English. We loved those movies, for their funny characters (good and bad alike), the comfort of their happy, redemptive endings (typically after that one good cry). We loved dashing Lumière and uptight Cogsworth, the hilarious duet of Timone and Pumbaa, mouthy Iago and the grandiose Genie as well as the uncountable Dalmatians, etc. We spent one memorable afternoon recreating the fighting sequence where Rafiki beats off the hyenas in the Lion King. Someone should have filmed us.

But as a really sensitive and imaginative kid, it was the images and words of the songs that really reached me. I loved the parading teacups and dancing cutlery welcoming me to be their guest. I remember being awed by the grandeur and majesty of the Circle of Life as the entire jungle and savannah prostrated itself before the new king. I couldn’t shake off the carefree swagger of Hakuna Matata.

Years later, I still marvel at how clever the lyrics of these songs are, with their references to Shakespeare, current events as well as history, while still being so incredibly catchy. They were enjoyable for both kids and adults, and had lovely, human themes that really captured each moment perfectly.



Going to Poland during the summertime to visit my grandparents used to be a staple of my childhood summers. I never really noticed how it shaped my values; it created an attachment to Poland, deepened my mastery of Polish and fostered a sense of family with people that didn’t necessarily live in Montreal. It’s really only now when I go back, unfortunately not every summer anymore, that I see how these things are a part of me. This summer, I had the chance to attend my cousin’s wedding. (Cousin becoming an increasingly looser and flexible term in my life, going back one, two, three, four generations.)

Of course, it was a beautiful wedding; the (very, very) happy couple, the lovely bride in her splendid dress, the stunning cathedral, all the guests in their absolute finest. It was followed by a lovely reception, with a bountiful spread of both food and alcohol, a live band, dancing into the morning. The same was repeated a second time the next day on the poprawiny [a second day of wedding celebrations —Ed. note].

A summer evening in Podlasie

A summer evening in Podlasie

But what really made the wedding special was what ran deeper than what the cameras captured. It was being there as a family, not just the nuclear, my-mom-and-dad-and-brother kind, but a family that branched even further out, to aunts and uncles, first, second and even third cousins. It was nice to put faces on names I had become acquainted with as I made the family tree, and it was nice to have them around me eating and drinking, dancing, laughing, telling their stories and their jokes. I remember looking around the room, spotting the shelf-like Władysiuk chin that appeared every now and then. I looked at little Natalka, the spitting image of her grandmother, with the same brown eyes and eyebrows, but in a face more than sixty years younger. I looked at the older generations, with their flair and gallantry, the men with their splendid, cared for mustaches, their big dreams and hard work, close escapes, faith, sensitivity, generosity, their sense of humour and obtuse stubbornness. I thought about how those very same qualities had been somehow passed on to be a part of me. They came from somewhere, from someone. They didn’t come out of nowhere.

Another, different, image comes to me from my last visit in Poland.

Drohiczyn is a small town of about two thousand, a hundred and thirty kilometres from Warsaw. It has four churches including an Orthodox one, a high school, a Biedronka [supermarket] and a market place where people mill about their day, all saying “Hi!” to each other. The houses are well kept and tidy, with beautiful gardens with fruit trees, abundant flowers and dogs of varying sizes barking by each fence.

Aladdin_CemeteryThe cemetery is to the southeast of the town. It’s a beautiful, picturesque place in an already beautiful picturesque town. It’s peaceful, slightly elevated, with a view of the Bug river snaking through fields that have been growing wheat, buckwheat and rye for generations.

The hill rises and I know that my grandparents are right at the very top, by the fence. All the Władysiuks are, in general, to the left of the cobbled road that divides the cemetery, the one that passes by the 19th century crypt dedicated to Lili Ushakova, who died in 1896 at ten years old, leaving her parents completely heartbroken.

Aladdin_Cemetery2The cemetery has been well maintained; there are flowers and large candles by the graves. It really feels like the buried here are resting, in the clean country air, far away from any kind of noise other than that of the wind.

I look around to find more of my family, of Władysiuks and Pykałos. I recognize familiar names from granite tombstones, all with a cross above them, but belonging to other people, from other generations; I see Wiktors, Józefs, Antonis, Stanisławs, Marias, Annas, Teresas…

It brings to mind that one Disney song, from the third Aladdin movie, Aladdin and the King of Thieves. Aladdin, has just found out that the father he thought dead for all his life is very much alive. He explains his conflict in seeking him to Jasmine, mentioning how difficult it was to grow up in the streets of Agrabah, fatherless. Jasmine encourages him to delay their already delayed wedding and to seek out his father, saying “people like you don’t come out of thin air.”

And that’s really what I was feeling. What a richness, what a privilege to know of my ancestors; to be able to walk where they once walked, to see what they once had seen, even just knowing their names and where they are buried, the smallest bits of their lives.

I didn’t come out of thin air.


Susanne Wladysiuk
Susanne Wladysiuk, or Zuza as she is known in her family, graduated with a degree in civil law from the University of Montréal. She is interested in pursuing a career in immigration and refugee law. Before passing the dreaded Bar exam, she is doing a working holiday in Australia. She enjoys reading, writing, muay thai, long distance running and baking. She has recently experienced her first polskie wesele.
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