Elle (Łoś) Englander ’91 was forced from her home two months shy of her sixteenth birthday, arriving in America without knowing English and uncertain of what her future held. But as her story shows, being open to life’s possibilities is sometimes all a person needs to persevere through the tides of history.
When Elle Englander sits down to recount the roads she traveled to arrive at the person she is today, you quickly realize that there are a number of themes at play. There are politics, of course, along with history, family, and sacrifice, but at its heart, Englander’s story centers around the idea of home—leaving it, rediscovering it, and finding peace with the places that have come to define her, as well as the people and the culture she loves.
Englander was born Elle Łoś in Bolesławiec, a picturesque town of 40,000 located on the Bóbr River in southwestern Poland. Known as the “Town of Ceramics” for its long history of pottery making, Bolesławiec is everything people imagine when they think of a venerable European city: narrow streets, a wide market square, a mix of ancient and modern architecture, and scenic countryside just beyond the city’s limits. Englander speaks of growing up there with unreserved affection.
“My childhood was wonderful,” she says. “Bolesławiec is a very concentrated city, so we walked to school, rode our bikes everywhere. It was such a livable community. Both sets of my grandparents had farms just outside the city, and there were always aunts and uncles and cousins all over the place, so we had this huge network of support. I was very lucky.”
She pauses. “It was wonderful until it all changed and crashed. That happened all at once—at midnight on December 13, 1981.”
Lives Forever Changed
For those not familiar with the significance of that date, some history will be helpful. After World War II, Poland fell under the direct influence of the Soviet Union as part of the Eastern Bloc, the group of communist states in Central and Eastern Europe brought together under the Warsaw Pact in 1955. Beginning at that time, an uneasy balance of power existed in the country; though persecution of anti-communist groups was prevalent and the Soviet Union controlled the country’s official ideology, Poland was considered one of the least oppressive communist states in Eastern Europe.
That began to change, however, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as rising food prices, stagnant wages, and a shrinking economy led to the formation of Solidarity, a Polish trade union founded in September 1980 that advocated for non-violent resistance to communist influence in the country. In an attempt to break the union and crush political opposition, Poland’s communist government, acting in concert with the Soviet Union, introduced martial law on December 13, 1981. Over the course of one night, all national borders were sealed, airports were closed, telephone lines were disconnected, and thousands of members of Solidarity, including Englander’s father, Ryszard Łoś, were jailed.
“It was that sudden,” she says, remembering that night. “Of course, I knew what was happening in Poland growing up because of my father. His first loves were history and politics, so he was careful to teach us the correct history as opposed to the propaganda being taught in schools. We also heard a lot of political discussion in church because the priests were not afraid of the government and took really activist stances.
“And there were always rumors of this or that particular priest or teacher disappearing and no one knowing what happened, but that was just a way of life, so you never really questioned it. You went on and lived your life. When martial law went into effect, though, that all changed. They swept through our house with German Shepherds and they took my father, and just like that, he was gone.”
Englander would not know the whereabouts of her father—or even if he was still alive—for the next nine months, but she was keenly aware of the attention the world was paying to Poland’s situation. The recent elections of leaders with strong anti-communist worldviews, particularly Ronald Reagan of the United States and Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom, were beginning a wave of support that was threatening the strength of Soviet influence throughout the world. Added to that was the support of Pope John Paul II, former Archbishop of Kraków, Poland.
“We knew that there were too many people watching, so the government couldn’t just ship all of the prisoners off to Russia,” says Englander. “And when we listened to Radio Free Europe on the shortwave radio, we could hear that people knew what was happening. We knew things would get resolved.”
That resolution came in the form of a deal between the Polish government and several western countries: imprisoned members of Solidarity would be allowed to leave Poland on a one-way passport by themselves or with members of their families to various countries in the west that offered political asylum, including the United States, Great Britain, France, West Germany, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. For Englander’s family, the former option was ruled out, as remaining family members of Solidarity participants who left the country were almost always persecuted by the communist government. Choosing which country to begin their new life, however, created its own tension.
“My mother didn’t want to move too far from home, and I spoke German, so I wanted to go to West Germany, but America was the only option for my father,” explains Englander. “He said, ‘If I’m getting kicked out of my own country, I’m going to a country that stands for freedom.’ My father had read the U.S. Constitution and knew of Polish generals, such as Kazimierz Pułaski, who fought with Washington in the American Revolution. For him, America was the only place he felt he could truly be free.”
After a vetting process that lasted nine months, and an additional one-month health screening in West Germany, Englander and her family would leave for America from Frankfurt, arriving in New York City just two months shy of her sixteenth birthday.
“My parents, who were just turning 40, were tremendously heartbroken,” says Englander. “I never saw my father cry until the day he had to sell his books. He had this huge library of beautifully bound volumes of world literature, and watching him have to give them away was very emotional. But that’s what you had to do—you just packed a few suitcases and that was it. You left everything else behind.”
Between Two Worlds
When Englander describes her first several years as a teenager in America, she admits to feeling anger, and even some self-pity, over her situation, but says that she never dwelt on the course her life had taken. In fact, only recently has she started looking back and considering her experiences; before then, she simply became determined to adapt to the new path her life had taken and move forward.
After a brief time in New Jersey, her family settled in Lowell, Massachusetts, where she continued her education at Lowell High School. While in Poland, Englander had been on a mathematics and physics track with the hopes of one day attending a medical academy. These skills translated well in her American education, but learning English came more gradually. The same was true of her parents—in Poland her father was an accountant, but because of his lack of English, both he and his wife could only find minimum-wage work. The resulting financial challenges were one of the reasons that Englander chose American International College after graduating from high school.
“I needed quite a bit of financial aid, but then AIC gave me the best additional financial package, and that’s how I got here,” she explains. “But more importantly, Professor [Mahmud] Awan had just begun the international business major, and that’s what really sold me. I knew nothing about the area or the school—it just seemed like the perfect fit for a bilingual student interested in international trade and politics.”
Englander entered college in 1986 just as the changes that her father helped bring about in Poland were beginning to take shape. By 1989, the country held its first democratic parliamentary elections since the end of World War II, and in 1990 elected Lech Wałęsa, a Solidarity candidate and Nobel Peace Prize winner, to the presidency. The Solidarity movement that her father and family had sacrificed for was now helping to bring about the collapse of communist regimes across Europe, but with Englander and her family watching from a great distance.
“That was challenging, not being there,” she admits, “but I tried to have fun with it. In 1989, as communism was falling, I was part of a group of international students at AIC who started the International Club. We worked with the Springfield Chamber of Commerce to contact the embassies of Hungary, East Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic and organized a forum of newly liberated countries. Each of the embassies sent their consultants and we had a wonderful discussion about these new free markets. We were on television and in the newspapers. It was definitely a great way to connect.”
Englander graduated in 1991, the same year her father made the decision to return to Poland, both to continue his political activism and to help start-up companies in the new free-market economy. Her brother soon followed, but Englander stayed in America and took a position at MassMutual underwriting insurance, both as a way to pay off her school loans and to forge her own path. She married her husband, Mark, soon after and began having children, but after several years she found that the long and unpredictable hours were making the balance between work and home increasingly difficult. She decided to take a break from work after the birth of her second child in 1998.
“I walked away on good terms thinking that I would return in a few years, but during that time I had a third child and just never found the right time to go back,” says Englander. “So one day my dad called. Two of his friends had left the government-owned pottery plant in Bolesławiec and my father had helped them start their own pottery-making business, called Manufactura. Now they were looking to enter the U.S. market. He said, ‘You have an international business degree and you’re bilingual, why don’t you talk with them?’ That was in 2003, and that’s how my company, Janelle Imports, got started.”
A Sort of Homecoming
Seeing Polish pottery (also known as Polish stoneware) for the first time invariably brings a smile to people’s faces. Bowls, plates, teapots, and platters are intricately decorated with vibrant, almost surreal colors that create pieces with a fairy-tale appearance. When you walk into a warehouse filled with such products, you are immediately taken aback, a reaction that Englander relishes.
“This is my heritage,” she says. “These pieces are home to me, and I want to get them into as many people’s hands as possible.”
The challenge of doing so, she admits, is the expense. Given the fact that each piece of pottery is handcrafted and painstakingly hand decorated using delicate sea sponges (not to mention the added expense of shipping the products to America), means that the final price can be significant. Keeping prices as low as possible was one reason why Janelle Imports began as a wholesale distributor to major accounts, such as HomeGoods and TJX, and small boutique stores. When the financial crisis of 2008–09 impacted that business model, though, Englander had to switch gears and open her own retail shop, selling products to customers directly at wholesale prices.
“In 2015, we sold 65,000 pieces of pottery just out of this location,” she says, gesturing around the small, barn-like warehouse in Enfield, Connecticut that serves as her store. “And now we’re in the process of rebuilding our Internet business and electronic bridal registry. It’s obviously still a luxury item when you compare it to something like toilet paper, but there’s also a real demand for products like these—beautifully made, extremely durable, something special but also practical. I want everyone to have a chance to buy these products, so we’ve done everything we can to hit the lowest possible price point.”
That strategy has worked. While 2016 was a down year due to Manufactura’s installation of updated firing kilns, which meant an interruption in production, Englander is in talks to distribute for another company in the near future, and plans to import 80,000 pieces in 2018. This second company, Zaklady Ceramiczne Boleslawiec, is not only the largest and oldest manufacturer of Polish pottery, but also the company where her mother and father worked before being forced to leave their home. The cyclical nature of where she came from to what she’s doing now is not lost on Englander.
“The name of the company, Janelle Imports, is a mix of my mother’s name, Janina, and mine, Elle,” she says. “My mom is the one who really convinced me to start this company. She said, ‘You have a foot in both countries, so try it. What do you have to lose?’ That was my inspiration. And when the business really started to take off, she retired early and came to Suffield to help care for her grandkids. I couldn’t have started this without her.”
When Englander’s mother decided to move back to Poland in 2010, it was a pivotal moment—they had come to America as a family almost thirty years earlier, but now she was the only one left. She began asking herself some challenging questions and assessing the measure of her life. “When my mother—who my kids call Babi—when she left, my daughter came to me and asked, ‘Are you going to leave someday like Babi is leaving you?’ And I told her, ‘No, honey, I’m never going to leave.’ Because I realized that I have two homes, and just because I’m here doesn’t mean that I’m not there. My heart will always belong in Poland. That’s my home. But my family is here, and my life is here, and I love my life.
“I think that’s what my story is really about,” says Englander with a smile. “You can plan a life, and all of us should have a plan, but you also have to be open to life’s possibilities. How are you making the most out of where you are right now so that you don’t look back with regret? There are always possibilities; we just don’t see them as such. I’m starting to get an appreciation for the fact that I had a wonderful journey. It didn’t always feel like it, and yet now, I wouldn’t change one thing. That inner peace took a long time to find, but I have found it. And now all I can say is, How lucky am I?”
-By Michael Reid
Photography by Michael Reid