Julek Plowy is 78 years old. Of Polish descent, born in Siberia, he had a successful career in business in the United States. But his earliest memory is of eating onions in Mexico. That was 75 years ago. How this Polish boy found himself thousands of miles from home biting into a tear-inducing vegetable is quite a story. It is, among other things, the story of the beginning of Catholic Relief Services (CRS).
The year was 1943, and the world was wracked by warfare — in Europe, Asia and Africa, on the Atlantic, Pacific and almost every other ocean. Poland was a pawn in the brutal game played by Germany and the Soviet Union. When Hitler and Stalin signed a nonaggression pact in 1939, thousands of Poles in the sector then controlled by Russia were sent to Siberia. The Plowy family was among them.
Julek’s mother was pregnant with him when she left Poland, giving birth in Russia. The course of history soon shifted. Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Young men, including Julek’s older brother, joined the war against Germany. The other Poles in Siberia were told they could leave. It took years, but along with thousands of others, the Plowy family made their way out of the Soviet Union, by train and tram, boat and boot, eventually crossing into what was then Persia. In Tehran, they joined thousands of other Poles in a refugee camp.
When World War II broke out, World War I and its legacy were still a fresh memory. Many in the United States knew that this war would produce refugees and launched fundraising appeals to help the displaced. The Catholic Church participated. In early 1943, the Church used that money to form what was then called War Relief Services. The plight of those Poles in Persia came to its attention.
War Relief Services established aid stations in various Persian cities housing the refugees. The United States refused to admit them — or hardly any other war refugees — but Mexico, with $3 million in U.S. aid, agreed. The earliest employees of CRS helped the Poles on their long journey to a Persian port, across the Indian and Pacific oceans, finally to San Diego, California.
There they boarded trains for the journey to Mexico, via El Paso, Texas. The windows were covered with paper as the U.S. government did not want anyone to know the contents of this particular cargo. For some of the refugees, that brought a bit of PTSD, as it reminded them of the cattle cars that had taken them to Siberia.
The Poles were welcomed in Mexico, where they founded a community called Santa Rosa. There, 3-year-old Julek Plowy got sick. A doctor said he should eat onions. He did, and his memory began.
It was not an easy journey for these refugees, but representatives of War Relief Services were there to help them at every step of the way. One of them was Eileen Egan, who in her book “Catholic Relief Services: The Beginning Years” cites as inspiration Paul’s report in 2 Corinthians of taking up a collection among the new Christians in Macedonia to benefit the community in Jerusalem, just 20 years after the crucifixion.
As Egan writes, in the early Christian era the idea of helping people you didn’t know and weren’t related to was new: “It was based on something unheard of in human history, universal brotherhood. This concept, dissolving all ties of blood, tribe, race or citizenship, came direct from Jesus, the universal brother.”
Egan notes that Paul quoted Genesis to explain this appeal: “He that had much had nothing over and he that had little had not want,” reminding the Macedonians that just as God had fed the Israelites wandering in the desert, so they could feed their far-away brethren.
This was the foundation of the cornerstone laid 75 years ago by the men and women who conceived of War Relief Services. Their journeys took them to Iran, to Mexico. It took them to New York where they had offices in the Empire State Building thanks to the beneficence of its builder, John Raskob, a faithful and charitable Catholic. Many were at work on July 28, 1945, when a B-25 bomber became disoriented in foggy conditions and crashed in the building, killing 11 War Relief Services workers.
I think of those people, working on a Saturday, exemplifying what Paul espoused — helping people they would never know, never meet, because of the example and teachings of Jesus. They had become the hands of God, welcoming the stranger, bringing comfort to the afflicted.
I see such dedication every time I visit a CRS project in one of the 100 countries where we work, or our headquarters in Baltimore. CRS has 5,000 employees and many more partners. Through them, for 75 years now, CRS has fulfilled the promise of God to bring food to the hungry.
And onions to a sick little boy.
Bishop Gregory Mansour of the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn, New York, is chairman of the board of Catholic Relief Services. Follow the podcast series Catholic Relief Services is producing for their 75th anniversary at: 75.crs.org/podcasts