The Ancestors are Watching and The Tears in Vladyslava’s Eyes
The magic of the place you love meant that Sichów, surrounded by a large green clump of trees, seemed like the safest place for us at the time. Every rat in a moment of real danger, if it can, flees to its own well-known hole. There was probably something of that in this decision. Zofia z Radziwiłłów Skórzyńska, Świadetwo Czasu Minionego (Testimony of a Time Gone By)
In 1944, the three Radziwiłłów sisters walked twenty kilometers from Słupia to Sichów after an evacuation order was issued from the Soviets who burst into the basement and told the families there to leave as soon as possible, for they were in imminent danger of being re-occupied by the Nazis. The Red Army was at Barnowo, not far from Sandomierz, where we were yesterday on our outing. The front line was shifting.
The older girls, including their brother Staś, had been staying in Słupia since their parents had been arrested by the Nazis in 1940; their father, taken to Majdanek and their mother, to Ravensbruck. Anna, the youngest, was only nine months old at the time, and she stayed at Sichów in the care of Fr. Rector Konstanty Michalski.*
The house that belonged to Krysia and Maciej Radziwiłłów is still standing today and functions as a care home. This is where Staś and his sisters stayed up until August 1944 before the long walk home. (As a matter of note, Staś was grouped together with others who would also make their way to Sichów separately.)
When the mother escaping Kharkiv with her blind son and daughter, noticeably affected by trauma, arrived here at Sichów mid-week, we offered to re-house them in a town flat in Staszów. The young woman could not stop remembering the sounds of shelling and explosions, and when she arrived here to see that our property was still in half-ruin, she was undone. It’s not often that someone has such an aversion, but given all she had come through, perhaps Sichów was too much of a reminder of the devastation of war. Visible damage left in a state of decay. I felt it was a bad idea to leave them on their own under the circumstances and pushed for another solution. We called Pan Grzegorz, a Ukrainian native who speaks Polish with whom we consult quite frequently these days. He and Stefan drove to the convent in Pacanów. The sisters indicated they might be able to help.
When they opened the door, there was a larger-than-life (or so it seemed to Stefan at the time) framed photograph of his great aunt and uncle, Krysia and Maciej Radziwiłłów, alongside a sizable plaque thanking them for their generosity in funding the convent not only after the war but throughout the remainder of their lives.
When I heard the story that night, I knew this family would be in the protective space of those who were certainly better qualified to support and serve them.
The living presence of our ancestors had guided them to safety. The magic of Sichów.
Every nerve ending in my body stands on alert. My life will never be quite the same again, as my choices will now be informed by this experience. Do I need it; can I live without it; is there something more important I could be doing; am I making a difference in my household by the decisions I make?
The nuance and subtleties of the everyday are particularly poignant. The feeling that overtakes me when I consider all of us living under one roof — each and every wounded one of us — emerging from our rooms, some irritated, frustrated, overwhelmed, frightened, remote, exhausted, restless, angry…how we all swirl together in this space co-creating our lives after a single twist of fate has thrown us together against our will by the hardship of war?
Yesterday, we went to Sandomierz in a hefty van that seated twenty-six. Paul and I took another car to carry the remainder.
The sun was high in the sky, and even though it wasn’t very warm, it was beautiful. We walked around town for a couple of hours. We had ice cream. We looked in shop windows. We sat in the main square and watched the children play. Then, pizza and the drive home.
I was hoping for a reprieve, but we got a call that a family in distress needed a place to stay. Fortunately, we have two young men under the age of eighteen who are capable of moving beds and mattresses, and one of the ladies who works for us sprang into action with clean sheets and towels so that by five o’clock, we were ready for their arrival. Paul and I rested and then met the bus from Warsaw at eight.
We haven’t gotten to know our new family yet; they will likely decompress for a few more days. The father has had brain cancer and is traveling with his wife, two children and mother. He is not well and neurologically his illness is obvious. They crossed the border in early March and were right away put into a large stadium without privacy or adequate toilet services, with poor hygienic conditions and food without much nutritional value. They got sick. They left the stadium and returned to the train station platform. At least there, they could find a place of warmth. This is where Stefan met them yesterday. He volunteers there when in Warsaw. They were on their way to Łodz. Apparently, they had a little money left and found a hotel they could afford and decided to spend it for a good night’s sleep. Thankfully, they are now here. I can’t even imagine what would have become of them with no money and no relatives outside of the Ukraine.
I’m a long way from my conversation earlier in the week with my cousin Basia when we were talking about her friend from choir who is a Ukrainian cookbook author and is responsible for raising funds for the soldiers.
We were talking about how women move through the world during a crisis, what they hold sacred. And in some cases, what a civilization holds valuable.
Poland lived without borders for 200 years. They remembered themselves through language, folk art and food. With a houseful of Ukrainian women who are always cooking, walking dogs, running after children, cleaning and speaking in their native language, I am reminded of the resolve of the Sichów ancestors.
One woman told me that if I could say only one word in their language, it would be ‘borshch’, not soup, but borshch. This is the defining word when remembering the Ukrainians, when beginning to understand who they are.
It made me think of the tears in Vladyslava’s eyes when a relative from Russia told her that the Ukrainians are murdering themselves; that Russians have nothing to do with this war. And no matter what she says to defend her position, they have made up their minds that she is, in fact, the perpetrator.
I am afraid for Ukraine. I am afraid their borders will disappear, and they will have to go on the run for years to come, holding onto their language, their folk art, and their borshch.
Tomorrow we will shop for curtains for the nursery. We will also take Andrzej with us as he needs trousers.
One of the women said to me this morning that yesterday in Sandomierz was ‘joy’—no, in fact, she said, ‘it was joyful.’ It is true that our visit was restorative, and we are planning another outing, this time to Krakow in two weeks.
*Fr. Michalski was the rector at the Jagiellonian University during Sonderaktion Krakau, when he and his colleagues were tricked into the famous Lecture Room 56, where they were seized and taken to the camps by the Gestapo. The Intelligenzaktion or intelligentsia mass shootings, was a mass murder scheme conducted by Nazi Germany against Polish intelligentsia devised early in the war for the sole purpose of eradicating the Polish elite. There were upward of 180 professors, lecturers and employees of the university arrested that day in November of 1939, and all were dispersed—first, to Sachsenhausen, then later to Dachau and Buchenwald. Fr. Michalski was among them.
After an international protest by prominent Italians, among them Mussolini and the Vatican, the Reich was forced to begin a strategy of release. Fr. Michalski and a group of other professors made their way to Sichów for shelter.