Remembering Maria

Sundays were the day I visited Maria Jankowska, a sweet little white-haired old lady who lived  in sheltered housing in Morningside Road.

She was in her 90s, housebound, with chronic back pain, and I would go round with the Sunday newspapers once I’d read them. She had come from Poland, settling here after the war and becoming a domestic science teacher at Tynecastle High School. Her English was excellent – I had an uncomfortable feeling it was better than mine. She regularly beat me at Scrabble. She said how much she appreciated the newspapers. “Since I can’t get out, reading is my – “  She stopped, searching for the right word. I helpfully supplied “hobby” just as she said “consolation.”

She loved watching tennis – Roger Federer was her particular favourite – and one Sunday I went to watch Wimbledon with her. It wasn’t the quiet afternoon I had expected. The sheltered housing block was undergoing significant structural repairs. Workmen were tramping around on the roof, bellowing to one another, and pieces of masonry kept hurtling past the window.

My sweet white-haired old lady sighed and said: “It’s just like being back in the Warsaw Uprising.”

And that was how I discovered that Maria was a heroine who had fought against the Nazis for her country’s freedom. She was in her early twenties, living with her widowed mother, when the Nazis invaded. An officer turned up at their door, saluted, and said that because their family was of German origin, they would be protected. That night, her mother said they were leaving their home and joining the Resistance. I like to imagine I would be as brave as that, but if I’m honest, I know I wouldn’t be.

Maria became a quartermaster in the Polish Home Army, the underground resistance movement which valiantly launched the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944. The Nazis wanted to fortify the Polish capital against a feared Soviet attack, but the Poles refused to obey orders to carry out the work. The Home Army, afraid of reprisals against the civilians, launched the uprising, hoping that the Soviets would support their struggle. It was a forlorn hope. The Soviets moved into Polish territory and then sat back, leaving the Home Army defenceless.

Maria didn’t go into detail, saying merely that they came under heavy air and artillery bombardment. She was in a building when it was bombed and said it was just like being in a lift: the floor rose and fell. The Home Army held out for 63 days until its food, water and ammunition ran out. Then, Maria said, they were forced to surrender. Over 15,000 of her comrades had been killed. Those remaining marched out in formation to be arrested by the Nazis and sent to prisoner of war camps.

She said little about that experience either, simply remarking that they were forced to spend Christmas standing outside in the rain without moving, supposedly for a camp roll call.

We didn’t talk about it again. She took a huge interest in current affairs, and we would chat about what was in the papers, or about Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray. She had a very modest income, but virtually every time I visited, she would give me an envelope to post, containing a charitable donation to one good cause or another. She continued to beat me at Scrabble. Most of the time, I thought of her as a sweet little white-haired old lady, and then I would remember she was so very much more than that.

Re-posted in honour of International Women’s Day, March 2019.


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