Identity. A Moving target. (1)

A few months ago Michal poked my stubborn resistance to writing our family history.* He insisted - Mom and you have so many stories. I need to learn more about who I am.

Wolborka River in Tomaszow Mazowiecki, Poland,
is a flowing metaphor of my life.

A couple of assignments to consider my own spiritual geography added pressure. What follows is a somewhat random exercise in probing into my identity.

Recently, inspiration also came from Reinder Bruinsma, a fellow European, a thinker-writer-theologian, a colleague and a friend. A few definitions he listed included a thought, that one’s identity is a work in progress.

In his lecture on “Adventist Identity in a Postmodern World,” at Australia’s Avondale College, Reinder referred to a view expressed by a social scientist, Vivienne Jabri, that “the identity of an individual is not static, but is a developing framework,” based on an invisible, so to speak, discourse between the individual and his or her social milieu.**

So, I looked back. Identity, but when? I pondered. Actually, I thought I already knew who Rajmund Dabrowski was/is. I reject the tabula rasa concept. There is more that effects who I am than my perceived and experienced reality.

Reviewing my past, I needed to consider what has contributed to my make-up as a human being, a cosmopolitan man, who enjoys life and engages in the cultural milieu? How does my pedigree, those who were before me, contribute to who I am? I have never met them, but they, I believe, are in me and have contributed to who I am now.

In essence, my DNA features expressive humanness and non-conformity. It includes religious conviction, a need for a fulfilling spirituality and authenticity, as well as “pushing the borders” in life.

A search for the genetic “bricks” of my identity led me to Jozef von Czajkowski, my great grandfather on my mother’s side. He was a landowner, including several flourmills, in Southern Poland near Czestochowa and Lubartow. There were nobility claims murmured as part of our family lore. However, he was also a rabble-rouser. A bigger than life story is told in my family, that he did not refrain from drink and fistfights, and once, he rode a horse inside a local tavern. His notoriety was well known, my mom recalled. It was said that the police arrested him quite often, but would not dare to keep him locked up for long. Apparently his status helped.

My grandmother, Janina, pictured in 1976,
was a presence of hope in my life.

My grandmother, Janina Jedrzejak, was the youngest of Rozalia and Jozef’s seven children. For me, she was the “Mother of All Housewives.” But there was more. I was fortunate to have a grandmother who connected me with two things at once – her faith, and her care for people. I spent hours listening to her, though one had to drag out from her memories of herself and her wisdom. She would tell stories about people that entered her life, but less, much less about herself.

Like many Poles who lived through WWII, my grandparents, Jan & Janina, met violence and suffering head on. Irrespective of the consequences, Janina turned their home in the central Polish industrial town of Tomaszow Mazowiecki, into a shelter for a Jewish family during the Nazi purges of the 2nd World War. My uncle Alfred and aunt Bonia told me that overnight, their family was enlarged by four Jews: a mother, a father and their two boys, who were kept in a courtyard shed just outside their apartment house for months…

My parents - Stanislaw and Alina Dabrowski.
Pictured in 2007 on my mother's 80th birthday.

Such heroic acts - though not considered to be such by those who did them - could have cost their own lives. My mom, Alina, recalls her own risky responses to non-conformity. When she was only 12 years of age, she bought bread for a Jewish laborer who would not be served in a local shop, guarded by German soldier. “I did it,” she quipped, because it was right to do. I didn’t understand why this man could not buy bread in a baker’s shop he was renovating.” She remembered him saying, that “when the war is over, I will repay you by painting your own home.”

A home for three generations, Tekli [now Barlickiego] Street 8,
was a birthplace for my mother and me.

My grandfather, Jan Jedrzejak, was an actor, and traveled for seven years entertaining audiences in the region with musicals, vaudeville, and comedy acts. He later owned an Odeon cinema. My mother recalls watching the silent movies from a projection booth. I was mesmerized and excited to see all these film stars, she reminisced. Jan ultimately became a foreman and a unionist, who for me, as I connected the dots, defined what solidarity of the working-class meant. Around 1927 or 1928 he was selected to represent the region in parliamentary elections as a National Democratic Party candidate. Apparently it was not yet time for an actor to succeed in politics… He was not elected.

Unexpected street encounter: My mother, Alina, in conversation
in October, 2001, with her old neighbors from Tekli 8 Street,
Mr. and Mrs. Hendler.

My grandparents became Seventh-day Adventist in 1932. They abandoned some of their Roman Catholic beliefs, and their attention was turned toward building a congregation of like-believers in their town, and granddad became a church elder. The only faint recollection I have is going for walks, and in being held in Jan’s arms in their garden plot on the outskirts of Tomaszow Mazowiecki.

* First part of several reflections on personal and our family life journey.

**Discourses on violence: conflict analysis reconsidered, Manchester 1996, in: Adventist Identity in a Postmodern World, Reinder Bruinsma, Avondale College, January 16-18, 2011 [manuscript].

In part 2 - Genetic bricks from my father’s side of the family, and more


  1. A brave step Ray. I look forward to part 2. John will be proud of you!!

  2. Lovely story weaving.. I'm fascinated how the vignettes of individuals, rather than specific encounters or decisions define your internal image-scape of personality. What about these people and these places made a difference for you? How did these vignettes define you? What do you feel about them? How did they effect your beliefs, values, and actions?

    What does self-reflection on these stories tell you about who these people were, and what parts you've taken into your own story.

  3. @ Michael - Lovely to connect on the blog. Your questions (and seeming suggestions) are destined for a one-on-one conversation when we meet.

    It is not easy to express oneself and describe things and then conclude that vulnerability is what we are after. These few family details are simply a beginning to go beyond a genealogical research. I always wanted to find out who was who, and why they were who they were.

    Grandma Janina was a woman with a smile painted on her face. To me she was not just a grandmother. She was a friend. Together we talked about stuff that your grandparents were not privy to discover and analyze. And she was a great story teller. The funny thing was that she talked about virtue and values, but did not claim to have a view which was judgmental. And she was a believer that could tell you a few things about miracles.

    What did I learn from her? Diversity is a good thing. Be a man of hope, but also recognize that not everyone is where you are on their journey. Hers was a lesson, that there is a story in my life that is a reflection of who she was and I must discover it by myself. In her simplicity, connections with many, many of her friends, she was a woman that would step outside the convenient, opportune, and predictable. We could add a couple of other concepts here, such as, political and expedient. There you have it.

    She was a staunch Adventist, yet, when Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was selected as pope, she exclaimed: "We have a Polish pope!" It seemed that she waited for me to step in a doorway for her to declare how she felt.

    This is a vignette that is rich with meaning for me. The one thing I am learning to muster is to not over analyze what is what.

    In any case, Janina, and obviously Alina and Stanislaw, have influenced me greatly. Janina - because in simple things of life you find quality of life (and plenty of great cooking!), and your grandparents - that parental love is discovered when they let you do what you have to do. I am a rebel, a nonconformist, and only lately I was able to hear myself say: I will make my own decisions. My grandma taught me to do so!

    And besides, there is plenty of Jozef von Czajkowski in me. It seemed that he was a mixture of "life needs to be lived out," and the "borders of expression should not become an obstacle in life." The only problem is that he knew how to ride a horse without being thrown off it. I am yet to learn how to jump and stay in control [as in: mounted!].

    Looking forward to a chat in a decent milieu. We will find it soon.