July 22, 2010

My Maternal Grandmother

Both of my grandmothers passed away this last year.

My earliest memory of my maternal grandmother, Alexandra Żaryn or "Babcia Olenka" as we called her, was of her apartment in the old Mokotów district of Warsaw. The socialist housing block that she lived in was a grey, bleak edifice typical of so many neighborhoods across the Soviet world, affectionately called "bloki" by Varsovians. Warsaw, having been almost completely raised by Hitler after the Uprising, had been largely reconstructed after the war in this style.

The door to each apartment was as solid and brutal as the front of the building—a massive slab that seemed designed to keep people in as much as others out. And getting into the elevator was quite the experience for this young Canadian. Its lack of an inner door meant that you would stand next to the moving wall of the elevator shaft as you went up or down. This didn't seem to phase the inhabitants, but to me it seemed a horrific meat grinder of a machine.

"Stand back."

The undecorated corridors of my grandmother's apartment block were formed out of plaster and concrete. Sounds echoed within them in a kind of ceramic interiority that was always been, for me, an immersive synonym of the social repression of the Soviet era. If someone closed their door firmly on the top floor, you would likely hear it on the ground floor. And I'll never forget the smell of those old buildings — like old earth. It's hard to describe. Just yesterday I reencountered that same smell, as one does with smells and memories, in a completely unexpected place: the stairwell of Building 7 here at MIT. Perhaps I'll bottle it.

But from the coldness of the building, I will always remember the contrast of my grandmother's apartment door opening and walking into a world that seemed plucked right out of a 19th century salon. My grandmother was born into a family with aristocratic lineage—her French was impeccable and classic, and in later years when I would return to visit her she and I would switch with ease back and forth from Polish as I searched to fill my spotty vocabulary.

More recent visits to her apartment always involved long conversations over tea as I would try and translate my life in Canada into words and concepts that be meaningful to her. Being in Poland always involved recounting my studies and my life plans to numerous relatives, but it was Babcia Olenka who always took the most earnest interest in my deliberations. I would sit in the living room and sip tea and nibble on the stale biscuits while she asked me questions from the kitchen. My answers would stumble out in broken Polonaise while I scanned the room, taking in the oil paintings of old relatives, etchings of street scenes, the lace curtains, the plastic radio tuned to Radio Maryja, the beautiful old silver sugar box on the table—de rigeur in all cultured Polish homes.

There was something about speaking Polish (and French) with my grandmother that always provided me with a space to philosophize and reflect upon my life: where I was and where I was going. She would hear me out as I tried to explain to her why I was studying something. She was patient with me while I struggled to find the words and cogent thoughts in a language that, despite the best efforts of my Saturday morning Polish tutor, I was not fluent in. Those long afternoon tea sessions were for me not only a glimpse at the pace of life long before the distractions and conveniences of the 20th century, but also richly satisfying conversations with someone who took a deep interest in what I was trying to say. She would consider our conversation over the course of a few days and we would pick up the next time we met, or sometimes she would finish a thought by sending a postcard to me in Canada (along with some scolding at not having written her.)

It wasn't until later in my twenties that I started to take a greater interest in the history of Poland. In fact, I don't think I had really considered the meaning of the WWII and the peculiar place that the Holocaust has in Polish consciousness until after I learned that Babcia Olenka had been recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among Nations.

My grandmother and grandfather (and her sister and sister's husband) had helped shelter a Jewish couple who had escaped the Lvov ghetto in 1943. Harboring Jews during the occupation in Poland usually had mortal consequences, hence the special recognition. I have copied an account of the story in which my grandmother played a part here:

The Jewish couple Lazar, and Irena E. escaped from the Lvov ghetto in 1943 warned by the Gestapo man, Kramer, that the end of the Jews approached. There were only 500 of them left in the ghetto. The couple reached Warsaw and learned that Mother Matylda Getter, superior of the congregation of St. Mary's Family, was helping Jews. Irena E. went to her and told her that she was a Jew and got work through her as a maid at the estate of Szeligi II near Warsaw. Its owner was Kazimiera Jawornicki who died shortly after her arrival. The manager of the estate was her son, Count Wladyslaw Olizar and his wife Jadwiga, née Jankowski. There lived also Jadwiga's sister Alexandra, married to the engineer Stanislaw Zaryn (q.v.). Both couples had children, some of which were in their teens. All of them knew that Irena was Jewish and treated her very well. When they realized that the maid's work was too hard for her, they proposed to Irena that she become the governess of Alexandra's children [among them, my mother]. Wladyslaw found a place for Irena's husband on a nearby farm. The housekeeper of the owners of the farm, Halina Pesko, took part in helping in the care of the Jewish couple. A delegation of the estate workers asked the count to get rid of Irena, feeling that their safety was compromised by the presence of a Jewish person. The count refused, telling them "I alone will be responsible for what will happen". They accepted his words, and kept quiet. Irena stayed with them till January 20, 1944, when both families were forced to leave the estate due to the agricultural reform imposed by the new Communist regime in Poland. Irena E. and her husband maintained heartfelt contacts with the Olizars couple via letters and thoughtful, meaningful gifts. Yad Vashem recognized the Olizars and the Żaryns as "Righteous among the Nations" on January 29, 1998. However, only Jadwiga Olizar, ill and in her 80's- could come to the ceremony in Warsaw honoring the four of them on Jan 14, 1999. Case No. 7521, started in 1995.

In my visits to Poland after learning of my grandmother's recognition I by Yad Vashem, I began reading more historical accounts of the country, I began visiting more monuments, I visited Auschwitz. I started to really formulate a relationship between what I was learning, what I was hearing around me and how I felt as a Pole, as a foreigner, and as this particular student of history.

More on that another time.


Daniel said...

Very interesting story Ian !! My great grand aunt is Mother Matylda Getter. I came across your blog googling her. Sorry for your loss, Polish grandmothers are very very special !!! :)May all be well !

Ian Wojtowicz said...

Thanks Daniel. And thanks for letting me know about your great great aunt.