9. On her knees

By Peter Fraenkel

She deserved better treatment from Him – or so they said at Akasul. Much of her life had been spent on her knees. In the beginning He had appeared to heed her prayers: Her escape from war-torn Poland had been near-miraculous. She and her husband had got into Romania on a farm tractor. Only an hour or two later German panzers had sealed the frontier behind them. The exiled Polish government in London had evacuated them to remote Africa. There she found that her convent school education had given her skills that helped her to make a living. She found a job as an alteration-hand in a dress shop. Her husband found employment as a mechanic. He had been her parents’ farm manager so he had always repaired tractors and thrashing machines.

But perhaps that exhausted God’s bounty. A vehicle he was repairing reversed unexpectedly and crushed him against a garage wall. For several days he hovered between life and death. She prayed by the side of his hospital bed but he died on the third day.

She felt doubly deprived. She had lost both her husband and her fatherland. Poland was under Stalin’s occupation. A return to a land ruled by the godless was, for her, unthinkable. However, she often talked about “home” to her priest – a Pole like her. Once she reminisced about a pilgrimage she had made as a girl to Lagiewniki. Yes, he too had once prayed at the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy. She told him sadly that on the wall of her Polish home she had had a painting of that beautiful place. Unfortunately she had lost it fleeing from the Nazis.

“That is one loss that can be made good” said the priest, “….unlike most of our losses. Speak to Bonifacy.”

It was not the first time she had heard about this man. He was a Polish painter credited with a photographic memory. He could, on demand, paint pictures of their home towns for nostalgic compatriots. Of course, some cast doubts on that memory. They suspected he had, hidden away, a volume of photographs which he copied.

“No,” said the priest “Bonifacy is genuine.”  He had himself sat by the painter’s side as the man made a sketch of the castle at Toszek, the priest’s own home village. It had been excellent – all done from memory.

She sent a message to the painter.

She was oblivious to the Africa around her. She kept alive a passion for far-away Poland. If God should ever granted her grandchildren she would imbue them with the same passion. Language and literature and song can, after all, be preserved even in exile – until the day of return.

Her son had been demobbed in far away Scotland. There he was working as a motor mechanic – a trade he had learnt in the army. She was delighted when a letter arrived announcing he was engaged – glory be! – to a Polish girl. He enthused about her – young, beautiful and a good Catholic. God was smiling again.

The son wrote regularly – a good son. She had hoped the marriage could be celebrated in Africa but he explained that he had attended the wedding of several comrades who had served with him in the exile Polish army. They expected to celebrate his with him in Scotland. He and Anna would join her immediately after their honeymoon. She felt it would be selfish and sinful to insist that he change his mind.

One of his letters had a brief note from his fiancé. Her Polish spelling was faulty and it was not difficult to see that there were corrections in her son’s hand.

Of course she realised Anna had been brought up in Scotland.  Polish education appeared not to be good in that distant land.  The poor girl couldn’t be blamed. However …..

Soon she received the news that her daughter-in-law was pregnant. She was delighted. If it were to be a boy he would be named after her late husband. And, indeed, a boy it was. The young couple brought him out to Africa soon after. A little girl was born there the following year.

But Mrs Stefanowska’s dreams were never realised.  As he grew up, bronzed by the African sun, her grandson developed a passion for rugby but never for Polish literature. When she tried to teach him the folksongs of her land, he insisted on teaching her football chants. The granddaughter, too, came to share none of her grandmother’s dreams. As she grew older smart clothes and the latest hairstyles were all the girl seemed to care about.

Alas, what could you expect – with that mother?

Mrs Stefanowska spent more and more of her time in her room – on her knees.