Posted by Mardi Jo Link in books, family, Isadore's Secret, writing on May 1, 2015
Ok, so imagine this one.
It was the spring of 2008, I’d been working on Isadore’s Secret for almost two years, and the manuscript was due to my editor July 1. My research was finished, my interviews were finished, the writing had gone well, and so I wasn’t too worried about that deadline. I was completing my final revisions, thinking I had all kinds of time to tinker, and even luxuriating in that rather rare idea.
And then I stumbled upon a treasure trove of long-lost documents about the missing nun. Documents no one had seen in almost a century. Documents I was certain were crucial to learning what had happened to Sister Janina. I could not believe my luck. A local bookseller had tipped me off, and the documents really were a true crime writer’s dream.
Except that they were all in Polish.
To backtrack: Isadore’s Secret is my second true crime book and it concerns the 1907 disappearance and murder of a Felician nun. Sister Janina had served as a teaching nun at Holy Rosary in Isadore, Michigan, a four corners just outside the small town of Cedar, a Polish farming community in Leelanau County. One August day she had simply disappeared. The case was a sensation (preview only), the local farmers hired a reporter from Poland to come and tell their side of the story, and it was his reports that I’d found.
And I couldn’t read a word of them.
Until that moment, if you would have asked me if I would ever be filled with the all-encompassing desire for fluency with the Polish language, you can guess what my answer would have been. Ah, no. And yet at that moment I could think of nothing I wanted more.
Enter Paul S. Brzezinski.
Veteran of World War II, civil engineer, chair of the Knights of Columbus annual Tootsie Roll charity drive, husband, father and Boy Scout leader. Not only had he grown up in Isadore, he’d also attended Holy Rosary (the church and the school), one of his sisters was a Felician nun, he could read and speak Polish, and he was willing to help me.
That last and was a biggie, because until that point, I’d spent a lot of time knocking on doors in the area and no one, and I mean no one, would speak with me. Sister Janina had been pregnant when she disappeared, something residents still found too scandalous to talk about even a century later. I’d found Mr. Brzezinski (He wasn’t the kind of guy you called “Paul”) through his niece, who was my age, open-minded, and interested in the story, too.
When I contacted him by phone, Mr. Brzezinski said he’d be happy to help. He’d long ago moved a few towns away from Isadore, and that little distance from the secret keepers emboldened him. In a strange coincidence, he and his wife lived right down the street from me.
Over several visits he translated every document I gave him, asking only that he be allowed to keep a copy. The information he provided helped me form a fuller impression of Isadore’s farm families, of Sister Janina herself, and aided in uncovering what really happened the day she went missing. (Her story will soon be told on The Discovery Channel.)
I’m forever grateful for his help, and though I find solace in knowing he had a long and full life, on the outside chance I ever again happen upon secrets written in Polish, I’ll miss knowing he’s there, right down the street.
Paul S. Brzezinski died April 24, 2015. He was 90.