Iza gently stroked her mother's hair. It had been thick and dark in her youth, but now was brittle
. The face, once full and smooth and happy had grown care-worn
. Her lips, once pink and pretty, struggled to say something. A prayer
, perhaps, or maybe some words of comfort. Then she quietly closed her eyes.
Iza looked at the nurse, 'She's gone, hasn't she'?
'Yes,' came the whispered response.
It was a heart attack, three hours earlier which finally felled her. Strong as an oak in heart and mind and body, she had seen the world and suffered at its hands. Now, after 82 years of heroic struggle she was resting in peace.
She had seen the world, but not in a way to gladden the heart. Her journeys had been full of pain and anguish. Born into the hard countryside around Lwów, she grew up on a farm. In that time and place women worked and did not go to school. She grew up with a peasant's perspective on life. Your elders are your betters and older people are wise and clever. The youngsters learn from the older people, and always show respect. She showed respect for her first 20 years, and then she was married. Soon a son, Lech, came along, and then the war.
A midnight knock on the door, a cattle truck, long journeys across bare landscapes, with little food and few clothes. The young family, with a few relatives ended up in Archangel in the far north of the Russian arctic, felling trees. A daughter, Lucyna was born. Jewellery and gold was exchanged for food. And then the gold ran out, and she grew ill and died, because the rations were so thin, and the cold was so bitter and man is so inhuman to his fellow men. She hated Jews to the end of her life. Bitter experience taught her bitter hatred.
South to Persia, and her husband went to fight at Monte Cassino. Her two-year-old son, tested by two years of hunger and cold finally succumbed to typhus. Then north to Lebanon, and the end of the war. But brothers and relatives were dead in four corners of the globe. Reunited, the remains of the family could have emigrated to the USA, but the US immigration wanted only the young couple, not their ageing relatives, so the three of them: grieving mother, her own mother and her war-hero husband, all went to the UK. They watched their friends as they set off for the Land of the Free and saw Churchill and Roosevelt split their country in two at Yalta.
In the UK, they were housed in a thin-walled, draughty hut on an old airfield, and worked and then worked some more and saved every penny and found a way off the airfield ghetto.
A house, more work, and two daughters were born, but still they worked night shifts and day shifts and did the jobs that the Brits refused to do, and worked harder, but were paid less than their neighbours.
She respected her mother, and her mother knew best, and her mother brought up the children while the parents worked for money. When they were not working, they were building and growing vegetables and looking after the chickens and helping their friends who were doing the same thing.
The first daughter went to school aged five, not knowing a word of English. Polish was the only language she knew, and the girl was terrified, because she was locked in a classroom for an hour for a prank, and she screamed and cried and was desperate, and has never forgotten it. The parents barely knew, because they spoke Polish, and the teachers spoke English, and there was no communication.
The father had an occasional night out with some vodka and small-scale gambling, and his wife berated him. She worked in the factory, and she looked after her mother, now herself dying.
The daughters grew up and learned English and understood England and the English better than their parents. The parents worked and saved and managed to send their daughters away to a Polish boarding school from age 11. They grew up away from their parents, and learned more about England and the boys at the school down the road, and still the parents worked.
University for the daughters, coincided with a kind of retirement for the parents. But with retirement came illness, and the father took to his bed and rarely rose from it again. The mother looked after him and worked some more and watched her daughters growing further apart.
The daughters brought their university-educated men friends back to the house, and all was alien to those sophisticated menfolk, who didn?t understand how it feels to watch your babies slowly starve to death, or what it means to live with no money in a cold, damp refugee camp in the bleak fields in windswept East Anglia.
The daughters married those strange, English men, and went to live miles away from their ageing parents.
And finally, a small son came to one of the daughters, and the father knew his daughter had grown up. He died a few months later oblivious to the uproar around his hospital bed. The doctor had been on duty for two solid days with no rest, and it reinforced his wife's fear of hospitals.
The grandmother was strong in her mourning. She berated everyone about the world, and the wickedness she saw in it. She dug the heavy clay soil every year for her potatoes and onions, she looked after her grandson, as her mother had looked after her own daughters, and she watched as her daughters grew up in times of plenty and how their lives seemed charmed to this woman who had travelled the world amid pain and suffering and death and disease.
More grandchildren came along, and the daughters wouldn't take her advice. 'No respect', she would mutter.
Gradually the daughters saw that this rock was getting weaker. She worked and she dug her potatoes and she walked into town, but when she fell, the bruises took longer to heal. When she walked, her chest would burst with pain. The doctors got tired of treating this 80-year-old and ignored her, or didn't do the right tests, and then she was diagnosed with diabetes, and gallstones, and then the paramedics had to rush her to the cardiac care unit and they put a catheter up her rectum, and tubes in her arms and pipes up her nose.
One daughter rushed out there, and gave the other sister the news. The next day, Iza journeyed the 90 minutes to the hospital, and her mum was back to normal, telling the nurse off for living with her boyfriend when they were not married. She came back home, relieved and told her husband and children and friends that things were well. Next morning the old woman spoke to her daughters and her grandchildren on the phone. She sounded bright and as happy as she ever was. An hour later, the hospital rang with the message no-one wants to hear, 'Come as quick as you can!'
Iza crossed London and got there with 15 minutes to spare, tending her mother at the bedside and smoothing her hair. 'I love you, mum' she said, just as those eyes closed and the pipes and tubes and catheters were of no more use.
Yes, this is a true story. Nothing made up. Sorry if the reference to Jews causes offence, but she was prejudiced.
I am not prejudiced, and I was sad that she thought that way, but that was how it was with her. She had some good reasons to hate some specific individuals. Who can blame her for extending that to a whole class of people, given the circumstances?
This aspect of Polish history is becoming forgotten as the people who lived it die. They do not especially want to talk about it. It was not a happy time, but I think it needs to be recorded and this is my way of helping that process.