An American in Poland

By Amber Poole Kieniewicz

Narrative and closure are incongruous worlds; but they yearn for each other. In the world of narrative, ultimate meanings are veiled; desires and fears, multiple possibilities, suspense, insufficiency keep the story going. But when the end comes, nothing further can develop; all is arrested in the condition to which its turbulent history has brought it. Imaginative activity might link loss with recovery.

The Murmuring Deep, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg


I was fifty and on my way to India the year I met my mother-in-law, Rose Kieniewicz. That same year I married her son, moved to Scotland, buried my father and said goodbye to all that had, up to that point, been familiar. I was crossing a border, moving onto an unknown frontier not unlike my own ancestors who settled West Texas.It was in this year that Rose was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

The disorientation of relocating from America to Great Britain was substantial enough, add to that the physical loss of my father produced a condition of mild depression that I hadn’t expected. It felt like Zeus had hurled a thunderbolt from the heavens, splitting my heart into pieces. Nothing made sense anymore.

Yet, it has been my personal experience where suffering is concerned that even at its most hopeless a beam of light radiates. Rose Kieniewicz was that light within reach. Even more extraordinary, she had no idea nor did she ever realise to what extent she influenced my inner world. We came to each other at the crossroads of exile and physical decline, developing a relationship that would ultimately inform my decision to move to Poland. To bring this decision into focus, it would be helpful to know something about Rose.

Wójcza, Polska (1920 – 1939)

Rostworowski and Popiel families in Wójcza before World War II

In the Spartan surroundings of her terraced house in Scotland, sitting in a chair worn by 50 years of loving use, the sunlight framing her face from the expanse of the bay window behind, crowded with plants, she said, “If you had told me in 1939 that in six years I would be living in Scotland for the rest of my life, I would have said you were from the moon.” She told me this before the disease had taken root, before it prevented her from organizing her thoughts to even tell a story.

There I sat opposite, in an equally worn chair, beneath the portrait Józef Mehoffer (a frequent visitor to Wójcza) had sketched of her when she was ten. I never tired of listening to the endless tales about her childhood growing up in the countryside with five other siblings and countless cousins who visited at will. The games they played, the fireflies they caught, the woodland walks, the hunt for mushrooms, the peals of laughter that burst forth from hours of unencumbered dalliance before being fed and tucked into bed with story and prayer captivate to this day.

She especially remembered and referenced often the harvest at Wójcza; the golden brilliance of the rapeseed fields on the sloping hillsides that surrounded the village. Summer had its place, with autumn giving way to winter before the rejoicing of spring again ushering in the rains and the bounty of wildflowers.

Rose was born between the wars into the Popiel family. This unique time in history saw the rebirth of Polish sovereignty and a cultural revival that promised to give rise to a new intelligentsia. She grew strong and confident in this hot house of family love and security. She spoke French at table, was tutored at home in literature, and learned from her mother the value of humility and prudence, and from her father, kindness. She often remarked, “My parents put God first. After God, they put their marriage. This always made me feel safe, knowing my parents loved each other like this. There was a freedom in it.”

It’s not surprising that she would want to reproduce this kind of union in her own marriage and raise her children not unlike herself in the bucolic atmosphere of Wójcza. Her chance came when Henryk Kieniewicz was hired by her father to run the estate at Wójcza. It wasn’t long before love quickened between the two, when one afternoon on horseback, the young Polish officer, Henryk Kieniewicz, seized his opportunity to dismount his horse, bend to one knee and propose marriage to his beloved Rose. At nineteen, she was a decade younger than her handsome Polish officer. “I am too young to make that decision,” she said politely. “I will go home and speak to my father about it.” Her father gave his blessing but urged they marry soon for reasons she never understood. Perhaps he sensed imminent danger.

Rose Kieniewicz, and the charcoal sketch by Józef Mehoffer (1929)

Rose and Henry on their wedding day, June 1939

She bloomed faithful in her devotion to God and in her marriage to Henryk. Still, nothing could have prepared her for what was about to come: the occupation of Poland by the Nazis, unfathomable antisemitism that let loose an evil upon the Jewish population the likes of which no one has seen before or since, and finally her husband captured and taken prisoner of war after only three months of marriage. (In the memoirs of Henryk Kieniewicz, he said all he could see at the Kraków platform on August 31, 1939 as the Polish army marshaled troops, was the tear stained faced of his young bride, Rose, and how he would not see her again for six years.) No one could have predicted that this age of innocence was about to go up in smoke.

On September 1, 1939 Hitler invaded Poland from the West. On September 17, 1939, Stalin invaded her from the East. The life that Rose had enjoyed as a child, the life she had hoped for, her dreams, and her aspirations vanished that month. Forever. Her moorings cut. The way she evaluated the world changed in a matter of days. By the time she was twenty five, she would be living in exile for the rest of her life.

Ruszcza, Poland (1939 – 1945)

Ruszcza before World War II

The newlyweds had already moved to Ruszcza (outside Kraków) end of June, 1939. Ruszcza was one of the family manor homes of the Popiels, endowed by her parents as part of her dowry. In the early 20thCentury, Rusiecka 13 was a meeting place for the intellectual elite of Kraków whose visiting luminaries included the playwright Karol Hubert Rostworoski, who was married to Rose’s Aunt Rose Popiel. For three, uneventful months, they went about setting up a household in preparation for their lives together to include their future children. But on September 1, 1939, Ruszcza instead became home to the scattering of residents forced to leave their own homes by the Nazis. Ruszcza was now a refuge for the homeless, the sick, the dying and destitute. At the tender age of nineteen, Rose Kieniewicz became estate manager, vegetable gardener, counsellor, nurse, mother, cook and cleaner.

From her diary: A. Organization. Get up early. Indicate what work needs to be done. The cleaning, all corners of the house. B. Dedicate a specific hour in which everything in the larder is passed out. Give money to those who need it. C. Let all know the day before what duties will need doing the day after. D. Don’t put out so much sugar when serving tea. Think about everything you do beforehand. Careful not to waste food. E. Take care of the furniture and be sure it doesn’t fall into disrepair. The things that are broken, put in another place so they can be mended. F. Clean windows, beat rugs, wash linen, pack winter coats in moth balls, polish the door handles. Put everything on the calendar. G. Consider the relationships of the poor and the other house guests, take to heart their destiny. Don’t ask ordinary questions. Ask myself if I have done everything for them. Look for Jesus in them and believe that Jesus is in me and will do something through me. Listen to them with great attention. Try to console them. Don’t say superficial things to them but with the real love which you have within you, enter into work alongside them and make an effort to make it easier.

(On my first visit there in 2009, the groundskeeper of the adjacent church took us on a tour of the manor house, now in complete ruin. I didn’t speak or understand a word of Polish at the time and well into the visit, he paused, became quite emotional, but then recovered quickly. Later, I asked Paul what happened at that point and he said, “There was an old, blind Jewish man in the village that Rose took into hiding and was somehow able to assist to safety or protect him during the war. He wasn’t sure. The villagers knew about it though. They also knew that had she been caught, she would have been executed on the spot. He remembers this story from his own childhood. After the war, people remembered her as some kind of saint for helping everybody.”)

Rose Kieniewicz never lost her faith in God even in these times of unspeakable horror when it would have seemed the natural thing to do: give up on God. From the few pages of her war diary, she wrote:

Loving Jesus, as you thought it was necessary to take our mother away, I offer you all our sadness and pain, for your glory and service. And I offer myself to your great mercy.” January 28, 1942 (Rose Kieniewicz on the death of her mother, Jadwiga Popiel (Mańkowska). Ruszcza)

Michał Popiel, Wójcza, 1939

There are no entries however about how her father and her sister  were forced to watch as the the Nazis burned down her childhood home in Wójcza. There are no entries about how she and forty refugees managed to load up the horse drawn wagon during the night and drive her belongings into Kraków, to distribute and hide them among family members. There is only a solemn reminiscence about how she opened the door to the Soviet Army at the end of the war, thinking they had struck gold as they ascended the grand entrance to the manor house at Ruszcza only to discover upon opening the door the place was completely empty. She picked up her fur coat and what she could carry and then handed them the key. “Weren’t you frightened?” I asked like a silly child. “No,” she replied. “Fear had left a long time before.”

That day she also succeeded in safeguarding her engagement ring that had belonged to her mother-in-law, was passed on to her; the ring that I now wear. No one is exactly sure how she escaped Poland, into Germany where she found her husband waiting for her, and on to Great Britain with the ring unharmed.

Ruszcza Manor House

EXILE (1945 – 2012)

Rose Kieniewicz lost everything during the war but her faith. This, her ring, the clothes on her back, and her husband is what she brought with her to a new land. She came, feeling in part bitterness and in part anticipation, but she never came believing or accepting she would not return home to Poland to live. She never imagined she wouldn’t see her father again before he died or not be able to attend the funeral of her sister, killed in a car accident in 1963. “I think I cried all the tears I had that day,” she said about receiving the telegram with the news.

Rose did not always graciously accept her destiny and cursed the fate that prevented her return. Again, from the memoirs of her husband, she suffered this loss long and hard.

When I moved from Texas to Scotland in June, 2006 I had already lost both my parents. Adding to this loss was the significant time difference, the intimacy one treasures with family in daily contact, and the natural rhythms embedded in the routine of such a small community, like the way we celebrated. The spontaneity between us had become laboured for no other reason than the imposition of time and space. All that had been culturally discernible was now in exile.

During this transitional time, I often accompanied Rose to mass. She called me her, “Best Presbyterian daughter-in-law, more Catholic than her own children.” Of course this is an exaggeration as her own children are all very religious, so it might have been her way of commenting on the countless candles I lit kneeling at the altar of Our Lady.

Rose and Henry, Scotland, 1980s

Exile is a stark and painful condition that can drive one to the brink of madness. In this borderland between the “what was” and “what will be” we can find our strength and make meaning out of it or collapse in despondency. Hearing Rose tell her stories again and again showed me that she had suffered exile and survived but in the end the damage done seemed to me not truly transformed. As at her deathbed, she pleaded time and again to my husband, “Don’t forget Wójcza. Promise me you won’t forget.” Clinging to the picture of the house that had been burned down, the house that held her happiest memories, the house that had the potential to bloom even fuller had the war not utterly destroyed everything, this was her dying memory: to not forget. Rose was not able to tell us why she felt so strongly about Wójcza, but as is the case with all narratives, there are some gap-filling opportunities which only the individual reader or observer can take advantage of. Some might say I am filling in the gap by my move to Poland as how do we know she would have intended this? The answer is: we don’t. We also don’t know if the disease itself and its profile would suggest a biochemical reason for early childhood memories to override later ones. But in the world of relationships, not all is known. Much, if not most, spawns from the unconscious. Here resides the mystery in this liminal space between two people. And between Rose and I prevailed the tenacious motif of exile.

In a blog article I wrote for her 89th birthday, I concluded with: “Love the Lord with all your heart, be happy be happy today”. This is what she would tell me. I love you Rose Kieniewicz. Thank you for being my mother-in-law, my Naomi, my Mara, my Rose, and my north star.

I wasn’t the only one in the family who likened the story of Ruth and Naomi to me and Rose. From the chapter Law and Narrative in the Book of Ruth, Zornberg writes: “Boaz acknowledges Ruth’s spiritual parentage: like Abraham, she has left her father and mother in her quest for an unknown alternative. She belongs to the world of Abraham, which for her is represented by Naomi. As a mother, however, Naomi is far from incarnating the soft mother of infancy. Her words create her as separate, distinct, not the loving mother of primal desire, but the mother whom Christopher Bollas describes as a process of transformation….The Ruth who is able to articulate her experience, to play in the potential space between desire and reality, is also the Ruth who seeks the transformative moment of uncanny fusion. It is at the hands of a somewhat austere mother, then, that Ruth seeks out her own transformation.

I cannot say Rose was austere though there was an austerity about her in her faith to God. There was an unknowingness about our relationship. She never asked me anything about my past or the reason I had chosen to leave family and friends so late in life. My exile was not forced, but self-imposed. Still, does the soul of one in exile recognise another in exile? Was her story so powerful and unfinished in those six years of caring for her that something of it permeated my own soul like a spirit? As her illness took her further and further away from me, I became the stranger. She stopped speaking English and her periods of withdrawal were more pronounced, yet I loved her with all my heart. I loved what she stood for. I loved her strength and I wanted to be strong like this. I wanted that only God should be my guide and not the capricious nature of man.

Popiel sisters: Renia, Rose, Marynia and Tosia before World War II

Scholars suggest that Naomi needed Ruth and her quietude, her almost inaudible presence for the story to transform itself. I have fallen into this story and it has brought me to Poland. I now live within twenty minutes of the ruins at Wójcza and about two hours from Ruszcza. Thanks to the generosity of Paul’s cousin, Stefan Dunin-Wąsowicz, I am a guest on what was the Radziwiłł family estate, where the women  were arrested by the Nazis. They endured imprisonment at Ravensbruck concentration camp, which they miraculously survived. Every morning I tread the same gravelled driveway the Nazis used to trespass on a home where they were not invited to threaten, bully and finally arrest these Radziwiłł women.

I have not come to Poland to recreate or to glorify the past. But I have come because something was left behind; something that needs re-imagining. Human lives were brutally tortured before they were murdered. Children, old men and women, young poets, pregnant mothers, scholars, priests, rabbis, Jews, Catholics, teachers, shopkeepers and librarians alike were robbed of their right to life by a psychosis which still persists in the heart of man and can so easily be constellated again. Can we renew the potential that was lost?

I have come to Poland and joined together with other like minds to build an educational centre where depth psychologists, academics, artists and historians can gather to discuss the condition of man. If we can contribute to the raising of the consciousness of man so that we never repeat these atrocities, then I have fulfilled my calling.

There is no guarantee of a happy ending. There is only the risk of following the narrative to my own end.

For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may God do to me if anything but death parts me from you.” (Ruth 1: 16-17)

(Rose Kieniewicz died on June 26, 2012)