Dominika Ferens, Ph.D.
Professor, Wrocław University, Wrocław, Poland
"Letters to My Father is a quest narrative and a family saga in the form of a memoir. It sprung out of a young American literature scholar’s puzzlement with and resistance to her immigrant father’s denial of his Jewish roots. At a historical moment when racial, ethnic, and women’s movements exploded the myth of American cultural homogeneity, Kathleen Balgley set out on a quest to affirm what her father had suppressed. Like Art Spiegelman, author of the graphic novel Maus, she was motivated by an avid interest in family history and indignation at being denied knowledge about her connection to European Jews, most of whom had been exterminated in World War II. But while many American writers pursued family roots in Eastern Europe, none have done this which such determination and for as long as Kathleen Balgley. Letters to My Father is the effect of puzzling over and researching family history, extended over a lifetime. Interest and indignation not only drove Kathleen Balgley’s career choices – as a young PhD she applied for a Fulbright Fellowship to Poland, and then requested an extra year, to better understand the country of her father’s birth; interest and indignation still burned with great intensity twenty years after she returned home, and drew her back to Eastern Europe at great personal cost, to dig through Belarusian archives, wrest genealogical knowledge from haughty historians, tramp across snow-covered fields and wade knee-deep in leaves in search of distant relatives’ gravestones. To write the family saga she had to overcome language and alphabet barriers (Polish, Belarusian, Russian, Cyrillic), mountains of human indifference, as well as sheer physical limitations. Where others would have thrown up their arms and gone home, she sought out allies among strangers: drivers, amateur guides and interpreters, kindred spirits.
Not everyone has the strength to go on such an arduous quest. By researching and recording the history of the Balgleys for her father, siblings, daughter, and distant relatives scattered far and wide, Kathleen Balgley has, in a way, quested on behalf all those people of Jewish descent who want to understand why their parents and grandparents hid their origin or discounted its importance. I am one of those people, Kathleen Balgley’s Polish MA student who did not know she was half Jewish. Had I not met her and read Adrienne Rich’s “Split at the Root” in her seminar, I would never have asked my father whether he was Jewish, having grown up in “don’t ask, don’t tell” regime. He would never have volunteered the information, though he proudly took me to a Yad Vashem ceremony in Katowice, where his deceased parents, Wanda and Tadeusz Ferens, and his aunt, Irena Pawłowska – Jews who passed for ethnic Poles – were named among the 'righteous.'"