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Maria Tulasiewicz
Born (Warsaw, Poland) - 21.11.1925, Died (London, England) - 17.05.2009


The following section has been kindly donated by Edward Tulasiewicz.

Poland - 1925. It's just seven years since the country was back on the map after over 125 years of partition by Prussia, Austria and Russia. My mother Maria is born in Warsaw - the younger daughter of Franciszek Wierzbicki and his wife, Julia, in Warsaw and sister to Jasia (or Janina). Franciszek had been a member of Poland's 'legions' ,which led by Pilsudki, during the chaos of the First World War had managed to lead an army of national liberation. Her father had then taken part in the Polish Soviet war - still today a relatively unknown conflict, but which many say prevented the Russian Revolution from spreading west to the rest of Europe.

The picture I have in my mind is of a young girl growing up in a renaissance Poland, a people free and starting to forge a new society. From my mother's recollections, it was a cosmopolitan city - not just Poles, but Jews, Ukrainians, and other minorities together forming part of the exciting city she grew up in. After his military service, her father than worked for the equivalent of MI5, and her mother also worked, in her case for the Postal Service. They lived in relative comfort - my mother recalling cooks and chauffeurs in their flat in the south of Warsaw. Christmas at that time, as for so many children, was always a high point - unlike today, the Christmas Tree was only revealed to my mother and her sister on Christmas Eve, and she often told me of the magical thrill of waiting for her father to open the doors to their sitting room, where the Tree would be awash with light from the already lit candles.

But as she started her teenage years, the storm clouds of the Second World War were fast approaching. The weather during the summer of 1939, she would recall, was glorious - perfect for what would be her family's last summer holiday. Then 1st September, the Nazis invaded Poland. Everyone pinned their hopes on the British intervening to help the vastly outnumbered and technologically outclassed Polish forces - cavalry against tanks - with crowds gathering outside the UK embassy in Warsaw. But the Brits never came, and the decision was made by the Polish High Command to retreat. I try to imagine what that must have felt like - standing outside their flat in Warsaw, leaving friends and family behind, not to mention her beloved pet dog, not really knowing what would happen next. The retreat took the High Command, together with my mother, her sister and her mother to the furthest corner of south east Poland (now in the Ukraine) where they crossed the bridge into Romania, then neutral ally. They were just in time, because as the Germans swallowed up Warsaw and western Poland, so the Soviet Red Army was invading eastern Poland - twin claws of a scorpion - and if the retreat had been a few days later, the Poles, including my mother, would in all likelihood have been captured by the Red Army, and may well have been subject to a massacre similar to that perpetrated in Katyn in 1940 or deported to the Soviet Union.

Whilst her father was to spend the war years in Yugoslavia, Palestine and Egypt with the Polish Intelligence Corps, my mother, together with her sister and her mother spent most of the war in Vichy France in a Polish lycee, which had moved to Villard des Lans, near Grenoble, from German occupied Paris. It was there that she became fluent in French, and continued to study music and literature. Just a few weeks ago, I discovered a website telling the story of the school, which included photographs taken during the war. To my amazement, several were of my mother, so I printed them off, and took them in to show my mother in hospital - I asked her whether she could recognise herself in a group picture, and she lifted up her hand and pointed straight at herself in the photo. Compared to the many millions who died in the War, my mother was lucky - but life was not easy, and it was there that she developed a loathing of lentils, the staple food at the lycee.

Towards the end of the war, together with her sister, my mother found herself in Italy, working for the Polish Red Cross, and then in 1946 made the journey to England - one of many DP's or displaced persons - who today we would call refugees or asylum seekers. My mum travelled by boat, and then by train and from what I understand, arrived in Victoria Station, where she then had her first taste of English food in a Lyons Corner House, eating cake and custard. There was no way that her father could have gone back to Poland, as in the eyes of Stalin's communists who were then ruling Poland, he had been on the 'wrong side', working with the western allies, rather than with the Soviet backed Polish 'People's Army'. He never returned to Poland, and neither did my mother, saying that the city she grew up in had been destroyed, and many of the people she knew killed. So, for the third time, a new life had to be started, this time in London. (Although, at that time my mother could have ended up in Kansas, having been offered re-settlement after the end of the war - but that was one 'yellow brick road' she did not embark on). At this time, her father had found 'another woman' and so, together with her mother and sister, Maria started out in a one room flat near Gloucester Road, soon making the move to a 3 bedroom flat - the other two bedrooms rented out to lodgers, mainly foreign students from countries including Vietnam and Nigeria.

Having a good time is not far from the heart of any Pole, and the post-war years saw the setting up of many clubs and social organisations for emigre Poles in London. At the centre of this nexus was the Polish Hearth Club, or Ognisko, which exists to this day on Exhibition Road, just down the road from the Brompton Oratory. My mother wrote sketches for various revues and acted on the stage of the Club's intimate 1st floor theatre, rubbing shoulders with writers such as Marian Hemar, - much of the writing reflecting the themes of grievance felt by many Poles at the 'betrayal' of the Yalta settlement when their country became part of the Soviet bloc behind the iron curtain.

New Year 1956 was when my mother met her future husband, Witold, at a New Year's dance in Hampstead. Later that year, they married, here in this church, Brompton Oratory, which was the religious centre for Poles and after Mass, the meeting point for the Polish community. From London, marriage took my mother to Letchworth, Hitchin and eventually, when her husband got a job at the University as a Lecturer, to Cambridge. Another chapter in her life had opened, and she threw herself into this new life with enthusiasm. She ran the Polish Saturday school, managing to get me the lead parts in some of the Polish plays put on during the year - I well remember playing the devil during the presentation of presents on St Nicholas Day, having to search out and scare the 'naughty children'. Although not a devout Catholic, she made sure that I was an altar server at the Polish Catholic Mass. We lived in a house with a large garden, and my mother soon became an expert gardener, from pruning roses to planting strawberries, if she did not know how to do it, well, get a book and find out.

Alas, my childhood idyll was not too last, and she began another journey, this time with me to London, leaving my father behind. It could not have been an easy choice. She had become a 'single' mum, and a divorced one, and this was in 1970 when the stigma of divorce must have been all too evident. But it was also a family centred time, with at one stage both my grandmother and my paternal grandfather all living together in her new home - and she also now lived close to her sister and her husband and their two children, Eva and Henry. For the next 25 years she worked as a PA, latterly at Hammersmith Hospital in the Medical Physics Department. She combined this with continuing to write and compose, but the 12 years away from London had seen the 1950's turn into the 1970's, with many contacts having moved on and the demand for her writing having to a certain extent evaporated. But that was not to stop her from pursuing her creativity. She kept her finger on the theatrical pulse, and some of my happiest moments were going with her to see the latest Harold Pinter, David Mamet or Christopher Hampton productions - the best she would then translate into Polish, but at that time there was not much demand for these plays either in Poland or in London's émigré Polish theatre, so her translations got no further than their agents. Letter writing was another forte, often coming home from 6th form college, I would find acknowledgements from the letter editors of the Times or the Telegraph and sometimes the Guardian with whose journalist Hella Pick she kept up a long correspondence on various aspects of the Cold War. If she had been born 20 years earlier later I am sure she would have been a passionate blogger - as it was in those days, she would pen a poem or short essay in polish, photocopy it, and then drive it round to the Polish Club and leave copies for people to pick up.

As if this was not enough, partly from economic circumstances, but also from a determination to conquer new horizons, she would also find time to repair her own car, do the DIY - including making her own double glazing, and bake bread and cakes - there are not many people in Ealing who in the 1980's were making their own bagels, but at 30 Meadvale Road, she was.

As her retirement drew on, instead of life becoming easier, I felt that for her it became harder. For one thing as I started a family, she missed me, her only son, not being there. She became, in that way that some Polish emigres are prone to, reclusive, and also became a tremendous hoarder - who knows when that pound of sugar might be useful! Then in 2001, tragedy was narrowly avoided when a fire caused by an old electric storage heater gutted her front room, and she just managed to escape from the house. Then a small accident in her car, a beloved mini, led to her giving up driving and her last five years were spent increasingly confined to her house although for a few years she would often decamp to her car where she would enjoy a cup of tea from a thermos flask.

We celebrated her 83rd birthday by going up on the London Eye - I'm not sure she really knew where she was, but afterwards in the Royal Festival Hall she did not want to go home as she was enjoying the jazz so much. She was admitted to hospital on Valentine's Day 2009, and then spent 3 months there, becoming increasingly frail but maintaining her independence of spirit. Urged by the doctors to get out of bed and sit in a chair she insisted that she was perfectly happy in bed; on the evening before she died we watched a DVD of Mr. Bean Goes on Holiday and after it had finished I asked her whether she had enjoyed it - Yes, of course' she said ' but I've seen it before, so bring in something new tomorrow'. I spent much of that Saturday evening working out what to take in on Sunday - but that never came to pass as she died suddenly on the Saturday night. As I was about to leave the hospital on that Saturday evening I asked her if she knew that she was in hospital. Her reply was ' Yes, but maybe I am somewhere else'. Her life was one of many new journeys and new starts - I'm glad that on that evening before she died, she was already planning her next move.
 

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