Living in a family haunted by trauma (Episode 23)


This story was featured on: Episode 23

Donna Solecka Urbikas

Donna was born and grew up in Chicago but her Polish-born mother and much older half sister had endured the wartime trauma of Soviet gulag slave labour in Siberia. War and exile

Donna Solecka Urbikas

Donna Solecka Urbikas

created a profound bond between mother and older daughter, which was inaccessible to Donna.

Donna wanted to be like all her American friends, but her family life was very different – it was full of horrible memories of her sister and their common mother.

She explores these painflul family issues and her process of understanding and coming to terms with their complexity in her book “My Sister’s Mother:  A Memoir of War, Exile and Stalin’s Siberia” published by U of Wisconsin Press.

Donna Urbikas’s website 

Book presentations and signings

How to buy the book


“This stunning, heartfelt memoir looks unflinchingly at the scars borne by one Polish immigrant family as their daughter tries to become a normal American girl in Chicago. A gripping study of family dynamics, this is also a must-read for World War II history buffs.”
—Leonard Kniffel, author of A Polish Son in the Motherland

“After the Soviets invaded eastern Poland in September 1939, they deported nearly half a million people into the interior of the USSR. The sufferings of these captives did not end with their release from labor and concentration camps but continued throughout their lives, affecting their families drastically. This poignant and moving memoir is essential reading for all who want to understand the nature of the Soviet Gulag system and the problems faced by its former inmates in adapting to a normal life.”
—Antony Polonsky, chief historian of the Museum of Polish Jews in Warsaw

“Superbly records the bitter suffering both of victims of the Soviet Gulag and of displaced emigrants. And, we witness the enormous problems of traumatized parents in connecting and sharing their experiences with their American-raised children. In this context, Donna’s teenage ‘tragedy’of failing to make the cheerleading squad is particularly poignant.”
—Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, author of Between Nazis and Soviets

“An unprecedented saga of a loving mother and her two daughters raised years and oceans apart: the older one in Soviet slavery during World War II, the younger in freedom and safety in the United States. The demons that possessed the mother in slavery—fighting like a tigress to protect her child—never left her in freedom, emotionally harming her younger daughter. A unique perspective on the tragic deportation of Poles to Siberia.”
—Wesley Adamczyk, author of When God Looked the Other Way

“A primer for all who seek to understand the harrowing journey of Poles during this fateful period.”
—Allen Paul, author of Katyń: Stalin’s Massacre and the Triumph of Truth

“Shows not only how love, loss, fear, and hope intersect in the lives of refugees, but also how they reverberate—for good and for bad—in the lives that follow. Enlightening..”
—James Conroyd Martin, author of The Poland Trilogy

POLcast’s full interview with Donna Solecka Urbikas:


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