A Letter to My Mother-in-Law, Rose Popiel Kieniewicz
Rose Popiel was born in Wójcza, a small village about 20 kilometers from Sichow. Rose’s mother and her mother’s sister married first cousins. Rose’s first cousin Zofia married Krzysztof Radziwiłł and they settled here at Sichow.
I asked all the wrong questions about Ruszcza. I asked you stupid questions like were you afraid? what did you do during the day? were you bored? how did you manage to secretly move your furnishings into Krakow and beyond? to Warsaw? did you often hear artillery fire? What ridiculous questions these were. Why did you not reproach me and say, “Listen, don’t ask me these impertinent questions. If you want to know what it’s like to live five years during a war in a house with forty displaced people driven from their homes, ask me smart questions, like how did we manage to maintain a sense of emotional equilibrium? Or how did we renew our faith, day in and day out. How did we remain optimistic? Ask me smart questions.” I wish that I could go back to those days when we poured over the old photographs and have another chance to ask them.
I miss you. Everywhere I turn these days, you’re there. Just as it was for me on my first trip to Poland when I cried everywhere I went. Do you remember me telling you about that? You thought it was very funny and a little bit silly that I would fall apart like that. Your whole family must have thought Paul’s wife disturbed, that she kept bursting into floods of tears and then running for the nearest bathroom. It was especially difficult for me at Gontyna. Ciocia Zosia thought I was unhinged. At one point, she said in a way unique only Ciocia Zosia, “What’s wrong with her!” There was so much of you still in that house, in the furnishings, outside where you gardened, and the sunroom, where your father died.
These sudden hysterics must have been troubling to the observer, but all the stories of the war came hastening back; there was no place in Kraków, no place in Warsaw where I visited that I didn’t see a piece of you or a piece of Ruszcza. The image of you at twenty-four, loading up a bryczka and sneaking into Kraków, at great risk to your life, to distribute your belongings among family members is to this day quite a powerful one. (I want you to know that I still have the picture of Wojcza. It hangs on the wall in the library, right next to the Mehoffer study of Our Lady. Don’t worry. They are safe with me.)
I wasn’t prepared for this war, even though for Paul and me, it’s of no direct consequence. Not like it was for you in 1939 when the violence and the threat of death was around every corner. One never knew from hour to hour what might be encountered. This is a different kind of war today for those of us living in Poland. Russia has invaded Ukraine, not us, and is determined to reclaim this country. Putin, not unlike Stalin in your day, imposes his own maniacal and deranged means upon anyone who stands in the way of achieving his goal.
There’s so much I want to tell you. We are living at Sichów, sheltering forty refugees from Ukraine. You must be surprised to hear this news after so many years of peace and even more surprised that we ended up at Sichów.
Our cousin Stefan, Zofia Radziwiłł’s grandson, found a book with your name and the signatures of you and your sisters in it. You had come for a birthday party, but Jaś stayed home, probably because of his studies, and Józio was just a baby so it was only the girls who signed the book.
Generous donations have kept the wolf from the door, but winter is coming and Russia is up to no good: they have turned off the gas to Germany, and who knows what that will mean for Poland and the rest of Europe for that matter.
I never asked you how you kept warm at Ruszcza. You were only nineteen and a newlywed when you opened your doors to those in need. Your husband had been captured and you didn’t know at first his whereabouts nor anything about his safety. Had he been injured? Had he been killed? My God, I never thought to ask these questions. Nor did I ask who was in the house helping you those first few months of pandemonium.
From the few diary entries Terenia found, you did have food stores in the cellar, which must have kept you going at least through the first winter, replenished in subsequent years from the fields, I can only presume. I know you were hungry. I know you were all hungry. And I know you were trying to hold on to what you had, from what you write in your diary about filling up the sugar bowl only halfway.
Blessedly, we have plenty of food and we’re warm for the moment. Everyone here is active, cooking, cleaning; the children are in school and the teenagers are enrolled in online studies.
So what makes my heart long so to be with you again, to consult with you and have you by my side to reassure me? I lose my way. I get scared and I hate other people sometimes. All the things that would disappoint you in a person, I confess I’m at fault.
I am writing to ask for your prayers. Terenia is praying for us, and there are many scattered around the globe who are also praying. I understand we are named on several prayer lists. What a blessing, my life.
As I was saying, it’s a different kind of war on the outside, but on the inside, it is the same one. It could easily be 1939 again. Everyone here has lost their country for the moment as did you and Henry, forced to leave Poland. Everyone here has lost their living space. They’ve had to leave behind their belongings, their pets, their way of life, their routine, their jobs, all that was familiar in the world to them. They have left behind brothers, fathers, husbands, neighbours and those too sick to make the journey.
At first, there was an outpouring of compassion, later turned to bitter resentment among many. Just as it was for you and Henry settling in Scotland that first year, there were those who did not want you there and some who made it difficult for you to adjust. There was that awful woman in Bankfoot who insisted you keep a newborn quiet. Honestly.
Of course, not everyone behaves this way, but there is certainly among some locals a visible irritation. And in all fairness, to have a million people load up an infrastructure not capable of handling them would realistically cause frustration.
I admit to the complexities of such a situation, but I also feel the way it’s handled is not in good form either and that’s what brings out the worst in me. Terenia calls it ‘compassion fatigue.’ Really? How can one tire of compassion? Is this not what keeps us connected to God?
There must have been things that drove you crazy during the war that sent you to seek the help of Heaven to overcome. Why didn’t I ask that question? There must have been conflicts in the house. How did a nineteen-year-old manage to quell these tensions? And I have no idea what external obstacles you faced. I know the church next door offered a great comfort to you, but then I don’t know what the neighbors were like, whether they caused you any sleepless nights. I know German army officers parked themselves in the house. That couldn’t have been easy for you.
I lose my temper frequently because I’m always remembering you, dear girl, on the run to Scotland, pregnant and looking for shelter and a way to make a living in a language you know not a word. Fortunately, you had Henry, as he survived. But these women do not have their husbands. They are alone with their children. Yes, I thought that would break your heart.
We are quick today to judge another and quick to insist that people move on and start a new life and forget about their country or go the hell back. We have forgotten and we don’t want to be inconvenienced. Very few pause in meditation and think what it would feel like to be standing in the kitchen, drinking the first cup of coffee of the day, on a Thursday morning in late February and hear the missiles rain down. The disorientation. The panic. The random grab for whatever is within in reach. What about the dogs? What about the baby’s favorite toy? Can’t find it? Leave it. A doctor’s appointment this afternoon. Forget about it. Forget about everything except running for the border, by foot, by bus, by train, by car.
We’ve had dancers, professional artists, school administrators, psychologists and teachers arrive at the doorstep. We have teenagers, their dreams aborted. Some of the more recent arrivals are clearly depressed and this worries me terribly.
The philosophy here at The Cross Border House is to create together an environment for those living in exile the opportunity to stabilize their systems so that they can once more think about their future. They can begin to plan. It’s impossible to plan in an atmosphere of panic. Landlords in the cities are wary of leasing to Ukrainians as they regard them as high-risk tenants. Jobs are in short supply unless you’re willing to grab a toilet brush and get to it, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but the income yielded by such a job is not going to add up fast enough to put down the money for an apartment that a landlord is not likely to lease to you anyway. What does one do in the meantime. The Ukrainians without a place to live are begging space from other Ukrainian families who did manage to acquire lodging. Then there is the question of schools for the children and, oh yes, the language. Not unlike it was for you and Henry. Alone, without anything familiar around you. What was it you used to say: “If anyone had told me that by the time I was twenty-five I’d be living in Scotland, I’d say they were from the moon.”
The model here is to provide shelter, food, clothing and other basic needs such as toiletries and medicine. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a place of psychological wellbeing, where one can pick up where they left off in Ukraine. Naturally, not in the exact way but in a way that nourishes one’s soul. If one was an artist, then the gallery here welcomes anyone who wishes to paint or to draw. If one were a seamstress, then the sewing room invites one to take material and thread and machine and create something useful. And these spaces develop organically along with the community. At first we thought the gallery would only be for the professional painters, but in fact it has become so much more to the other residents: children’s activities and drawing classes, a space for our plays and concerts, a quiet workspace for others.
We are criticised for this model, as the hard-core facts of life are bearing down from a society that could give a fig about the soul and thinks us privileged for even considering such a way of being in the world. Why should we be able to live like this when other people are not? That’s another irrelevant question.
Most people don’t have the luxury of designing their own lives. They have to work at jobs they don’t like, have to live in spaces that cost them most of their income with little left over for recreational activities, in relationships they perhaps only tolerate. I imagine many people here lived like that before the war. But at least they had what was familiar upon which to stand and an opportunity to change if they could or if they chose, which is not possible when you lose everything.
It is ultimately about the human heart. I used to think it was about women. I used to think that only women were capable of expressing the compassion needed to change a world so full of hate, but I was wrong. It is the human heart, exclusively the human heart that is capable of such a task.
Terenia encourages me to safeguard my confidence. She recommended this passage from the Bible.
(Hebrews 10: 35-36. So don’t lose your confidence. It will bring you a great reward. You need endurance so that after you have done what God wants you to do, you can receive what he has promised.)
I am not interested in reward or recognition, and I think our collective overculture has abused badly the notion of ‘what God wants’. I am here to say, I’m not that clever to know what God wants.
What I do know is that life is damned hard, and I don’t deserve anything more than anyone else. And what I do have I’d like to share with another.
I don’t know if I ever told you about the old woman from the Muslim section of Istanbul. It’s a story that forever shaped my life. I was never able to see life again in the same way after that. The old woman’s grandson was my guide when I was twenty-five. I have no memory of why my partner decided to go off with the guide and leave me at the grandmother’s house, but this is not important to the story.
I walked through the door of a concrete block. The floors were made of the same slab. There was a thin carpet laid down. There was cot to the side of the wall and a small kitchenette. There were no chairs or tables. One made themselves comfortable on the floor. (God is good that He didn’t offer me this experience today as I’m not sure how easily I could have gotten down to the floor nor how easily I could have returned to standing.) The old woman excused herself and went into the kitchen and re-emerged some ten minutes later with the most beautiful silver tea service I have ever seen. She proceeded to make me mint tea with all the gestures of one who’d been doing this her entire life. She offered me what you and I call Turkish Delights. Candies. Neither one of us spoke a word of each other’s language. So we sat cross-legged on the floor and waited for the men to return, drinking our tea and eating our sweets. She shared with me the best of what she had, and to this day, tears still well up in my eyes when I think of this story. That old woman changed my life. That someone so poor would offer so much. In my silly, ideological way, I guess this is the way I move through life, the way I want to be forever.
I love you Rose Kieniewicz and I miss you terribly. But I know you are looking down upon me, and I know you are influencing my decisions.
I am forever grateful to you, my dear mother-in-law. My Naomi in the desert, who always reminds me that God can take a hopeless situation and turn it into something miraculous.
P.S. And you were right! I still can’t speak but halting Polish. I’m not sure it will always be this way. I hope not. I have stacks of books and notebooks that fill at least two shelves of this blasted language…they might yet find their way back to center point in my life, but certainly not now.
“…and that’s what we do — we’re all counters. We are! We think to ourselves, “You gave this much, so you deserve this much.
Every such expectation is a resentment waiting to happen. When we expect, we’re soon going to resent it when we don’t get what we think we deserve. So, what the Gospel says is “Stop expecting!” Entitlement is lethal for the soul. Everything is a gift — one hundred percent pure gift. The reason any of us woke up this morning had very little to do with us and everything to do with God. All twenty-four hours today are total gift. And so, the only real prayer is to say “Thank you!” and to keep saying it. When our prayer is constantly “Thank you,” and we know we deserve nothing, and that everything is a gift, we stop counting. Only when we stop counting and figuring out what we deserve, will we move from the world of merit into the wonderful world of grace. And in the world of grace, everything is free.”
Richard Rohr, ‘Who Deserves Anything’, homily September 21, 2014
 In 1939, a young newlywed, Rose Popiel Kieniewicz, said goodbye to her husband, Polish Officer Henryk Kieniewicz, on the platform of the Krakow Glowny train station. She didn’t see him again until Christmas Eve 1945 in Munich. During the war years at the manor house called Ruszcza, the house, made available to the young couple through Rose’s dowry, was transformed into a shelter for refugees. She was only nineteen.
After the war, she and Henry moved to Scotland, where they settled until the end of their days. Henry came back to Poland only once, after the fall of the Soviet Union. They had three children, Theresa (Terenia), Paul, and Mary.
Terenia is Paul’s elder sister.
The Cross Border House is the name we have chosen for our community efforts here at Sichów. It is the name of a new website where our readers can keep up with our activities and donate to the project. It will be available at the end of September.