Maryla was our well loved history teacher. She was a small, frail looking woman with a lovely cameo-like face. We, the girls of the Convent of Our Lady, thought she was beautiful and we admired her. Maryla was also a wonderful teacher. She made history lessons alive, not with dates, but with interesting facts, events and personalities. We studied hard to please her, so it's no wonder that we all excelled at the subject.
Because of the Nazi occupation in Poland, we had to study in the most unorthodox of ways. Schools and universities were closed, and there were house searches and arrests for illegal material such as books on Polish history. But here was our frail looking Maryla, and a bunch of young people studying with increased dedication.
I loved it when she came to my parents' apartment for our history lesson, which was disguised as a 'sewing circle.' The girls had to arrive in five to ten minute intervals, each carrying a piece of material, needles and scissors. The lounge was converted into a sewing room with a sewing machine in the centre, and all the necessary paraphernalia to set the scene.
Maryla carried a book with sewing instructions, but she also carried other books under her dress. These books were fastened tightly with a band of elastic around her tummy. She used to distribute these books amongst us, and collect them the following week and carry them to another group of students. Maryla often joked that these books gave her security; who would have dared to disrobe such a heavily pregnant woman?
It was amazing that this frail looking woman managed to traverse our town on foot. From one side to another, from one house to another, in rain, sleet and wind, she managed to teach so many groups of students. But she was not the only one. Polish underground organizations created a network of, 'Schools,' embracing children of all ages. Most of the teachers were engaged in this project. We all risked being discovered. But imprisonment and deportation was a risk worth taking.
Our school was closed, and the building was not occupied except for one of the wings where our religious sisters were (for the time being) allowed to remain. Maryla had lost her apartment to a high ranking German official who simply ordered her to leave. However, she was allowed to move to a room (in the loft) of our old school. She called it her, 'Ivory tower.' She remained there for many years. Sitting by the window she had watched the German troop's parade along the main street of our town. She was by the window when the German regiments were marching towards the railway station to be transported to the Eastern front (as the war between German and Russia broke out in 1941). She had watched hundreds of Russian prisoners of war escorted by triumphant Germans, walking in exhaustion and picking leaves from the trees to appease their hunger. She was there, by the window, when the German army units walked the street in less arrogant way, after suffering defeat in Russia. She had witnessed so many historical events, just looking out in the street. But in spite of the war casualties with Russia, the Germans still reigned supreme in our town.
I was already in my last year of school, and Maryla was still walking. That year the winter was very severe, we all suffered from colds and flu brought upon by a lack of sufficient nourishment and proper heating. I still remember that cold afternoon when Maryla left us, after distributing our corrected essays and collecting her books. It was getting late; she was coughing a lot and was generally unwell. I was sorry for her; she had a long way to go, and the curfew hour was close. It started snowing again, and she was fearful not to fall on the slippery pavement. She was half way home when, all of a sudden she heard the call, 'Halt, Halt,' she turned around and froze. Two German soldiers were a few steps before her. They were obviously on patrol, and came out from one of the nearby buildings. One of them came in touching distance to her and demanded her Kennkarte (Identification Card). Maryla had a coughing fit and slowly started to open her handbag. The soldier screamed at her again, 'Kennkarte.' She managed to hand it to him, but as she did she started to cough again. She felt her elastic band snapped off from under her dress, and all her books fell to the ground with a thud. Maryla looked at the soldiers with despair. The one who took her card studied it as if nothing had happened, and then returned it to her without a word. Then the soldiers said something to each other and walked away. Maryla could hardly move, as she was shaking so much. She just repeated over and over again, 'Thank you God, thank you God.'
After the incident, Maryla became more cautious, but she carried on as usual simply because this was her job, and so many young people depended on her. She was also a very spiritual person who believed in the protection of a Higher Power. Years of depravation had played havoc with her health, but her spirit remained strong. Eventually her body finally gave in, and she suffered a heart attack.
At this time we (her students) began to play an active part in her life. There was not a day when one of us did not visit her and bring her food, clean washing, and news of the world. This was usually written on a small tissue like paper which our underground printing press produced. We had even invented a way to announce our arrival. We used to hit a gutter pipe under her, 'Tower,' and wait for her response. When she was free to see us, she hung a red towel in her window. It worked very well.
In those days I grew very close to her. Maryla was a great thinker. 'In my tower,' she used to say, 'I have nothing else to do but think and meditate. To know yourself, you have to be quiet and not be afraid of solitude, after a while you start enjoying it.
I was too young to understand, but I was always drawn to her by her goodness and generosity of spirit. She had no relatives, but she was a member of each and every family of her past students. We had shared all our worries and happy moments with her. She helped us with our difficulties, and rejoiced in our success. She was always our beloved teacher.
Today I appreciate quiet hours, and whenever I become still, I have this feeling of
oneness with the people I have loved; and Maryla, my unforgettable teacher she is always there.