Photos by Javier Llorente
Malgorzata Palka sits at her desk reading the news online from Germany, Poland and Chicago. It is 5 a.m. She drinks her daily cup of coffee and her mind drifts from what she is reading.
She envisions her daughter’s young and happy face, laughing and talking inaudibly – her hair is styled in a short blond bob, her blue eyes twinkle, and she is wearing jeans with a black and white sequined shirt. Then Malgorzata recalls that day in 2011 when her life changed so unexpectedly.
On Tuesday, May 3, Malgorzata called her daughter, Justyna, offering to pick her up from work. Justyna had to stay late that evening, so Malgorzata and her husband, Dan Sobol, decided to go out to dinner.
At 6:52 p.m. Malgorzata looked at her phone and noticed a missed call and message from Justyna, saying she would walk home from the advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather, where she worked as an art director.
At about 6:50 p.m. Justyna, 26, was crossing North Columbus Drive on a green light, when a tour bus, turning right, ran her over.
Malgorzata found out about Justyna’s accident after she and her husband had arrived home. They received a call from Tomasz Palka, her second son, “Mom, Justysia had an accident,” – calling his younger sister by her nickname.
Malgorzata and Dan rushed to the hospital, but it was too late.
Justyna was pronounced dead at Northwestern Memorial Hospital at 7:04 p.m.
“She was preparing for the rest of her life. She was so young and she left everything,” Malgorzata said with tears in her eyes, sitting in Justyna’s apartment five years after the accident. Interviews were translated from Polish for the purpose of this story.
“I was always very cheerful, but now I’m thrown off since the tragedy. I don’t know what to do with myself,” Malgorzata said.
The loss of her daughter has left Malgorzata in search of a new meaning to life. She said she has always done everything for the benefit of her children, Sebastian, 37, Tomasz, 36, and Justyna, who would be 31. That is what motivates her in trying to keep Justyna’s memory alive: through publishing a book in her name, establishing a company to produce her designs and dedicating her life to telling the world Justyna’s story.
Malgorzata has overcome many obstacles throughout her life, but she said she is like “kot Filemon, który chadzał własnymi ścieżkami” – referring to a Polish animated cartoon from the 1970s, “who trod her own paths.”
Malgorzata, 58, was born in Krakow, Poland, and met her first husband, Ludwik, in high school. They were married after graduation and had three children.
After World War II and until 1989, Poland was communist and Malgorzata described it as “gray, divided and sad.”
Political and social protests against Soviet Union control made everyone afraid and many emigrated from Poland.
“I wanted to leave too. What was I going to do? You can’t rebuild Poland on your own,” she said.
After the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine – about 560 miles from the family’s home – Malgorzata and Ludwik decided to move to Dortmund, Germany in 1986.
Justyna was often ill in her childhood. Since the side effects and impact of the nuclear explosion were unknown, the family moved in part to protect their daughter.
“We wanted the best for our children,” Malgorzata said.
The move to Germany was difficult – a new language, lifestyle, culture and political system.
As her children learned German, so did Malgorzata. She was involved in the community, their schools and swim club.
“I did everything to always be with my kids,” Malgorzata said. “We traveled often to the United States and had many adventures together.”
Her oldest son, Sebastian, who owns an advertising company in Germany, wrote in an email interview that their childhood was “wonderful.”
“We didn’t miss anything, although we didn’t have much money,” he said. “My mom always forced us to be better than good, to be creative and to achieve our goals.”
In the 1990s, Malgorzata’s mother, Helena, moved to Chicago. When Helena became ill, Malgorzata visited her for a few months each year between 1999 and 2005.
Malgorzata met her current husband, Dan, by chance in Chicago in 2003.
“I had never planned to live in Chicago. But I met Daniel and helped him plan his family reunion. There was never any talk of divorce or plans together for the future. But we fell in love,” Malgorzata said.
She was married to Ludwik, her first husband, for 27 years and said, “We were young. People change much differently in their adult lives – different dreams, goals.”
She left everything to Ludwik in the divorce, “in order to completely start over” in Chicago.
Malgorzata and Dan married on May 5, 2007, after obtaining her fiancee visa, which required matrimony within 90 days in the U.S.
In 2008, Malgorzata was diagnosed with breast cancer, which required immediate surgery and 14 months of chemotherapy. Malgorzata’s dreams of “spreading her wings” or finding a new path to life were put on hold.
Then Malgorzata’s mother passed away in April 2008.
By 2005, Justyna had already moved to Chicago and began studying visual communication at the School of the Art Institute. She was known as one of the best students of her graduating class.
Justyna and Malgorzata spent a lot of time together during those difficult years. She helped her daughter with school projects. Malgorzata was always the helping hand in last-minute art supply runs to the store.
She would pick her daughter up from school and drop her off, although classes were a short walk from home.
“I loved those drives home from school,” Malgorzata said. “Justyna was always so excited to talk about a new project or something that had happened in class or about her friends.”
In 2006, Justyna wrote an essay in which she said, “I pledge allegiance to my beloved family; to my parents whose unconditional love and support allowed me to make mistakes, to learn and grow from these mistakes, and to find my identity; … to my mother who tells me every day always to shoot for the moon, and whom I can call in the middle of the night, when I feel the need to talk.”
Justyna’s tragedy broke Malgorzata’s heart.
“What am I supposed to do?” she cried.
The family filed and settled a lawsuit for $6.75 million against the tour bus company.
The driver, who struck and killed Justyna, tested positive for cocaine at a hospital after the accident and later pleaded guilty to aggravated driving under the influence. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison for Justyna’s death.
“I miss her every day,” said Justyna’s oldest brother in a written statement. “It’s like a part of your life and possible experiences have been taken from you. I will never be able to work, laugh, argue and dance with her again.”
The family’s legal headaches were settled in late 2013, more than two years after Justyna’s death.
During this time, Malgorzata wrote a book about her daughter filled with memories, Justyna’s essays and artwork, poems and notes from past professors, mentors, friends and family.
She Simply Disappeared is titled after a quotation in Justyna’s project about her great-grandmother’s arrest and survival in Auschwitz.
“It was a way to create a record of Justyna’s life for our family. It was also a way to help me cope with losing her,” Malgorzata said.
The book is self-published in English, German and Polish, and was released in celebration of Justyna’s 30th birthday in February 2015.
“At first I would sob every time I attempted to put together the book’s material. But with each passing day it became a little easier and I found true meaning in it,” Malgorzata said.
Sebastian described his mother as restless.
“She is always in a hurry and there is always one more thing to do,” he said. “I help her a lot with the projects and I hope it helps her to deal with the loss.”
Malgorzata, Sebastian, Tomasz and Ludwik founded Justyna Palka Designs to produce products based on Justyna’s work. All the funds from the company go to the Justyna Palka Memorial Scholarship Fund, established by Ogilvy & Mather and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Four scholarships have been awarded thus far.
“When we forget history we can’t go into the future,” said Justyna’s brother, Tomasz, in a written statement. “Justyna is a part of our history and she always will be a part of our future.”
Malgorzata has dedicated her life to spreading Justyna’s work and story to the world. In three countries, she has organized exhibits, presentations, concerts, TV and radio appearances, and annual birthday celebrations to honor her daughter.
“Justyna couldn’t have had a better mother,” said Dan, Malgorzata’s husband, an investment counselor at a downtown firm. “She was smart, creative and brilliant. And she got all of that from her mother.”
“I’m doing what she should be doing herself,” Malgorzata said. “She is always on my mind. It’s not possible for me to forget her even for a moment. I miss her so much. And I just want to save her from oblivion.”