6th January 2020
On Friday 3rd January I was honoured to attend the funeral of Krysia (as I knew her) in the small town in Sherborne in the West of England. I asked her son Michael if I could share the Eulogy he delivered. It follows this introduction.
A letter from the Polish Ambassador to the United Kingdom Arkady Rzegocki was read out:
“It is with profound sadness that I have learned of the death of Krystyna Griffith-Jones, a Polish second world war and Soviet gulag survivor, a veteran of the Polish 2nd Corps and a translator of Polish literature. Her extreme wartime merits and later contributions to Polish culture deserve our highest recognition”
Why do I want to share this Eulogy ? Making the history of those who served in the Anders Army better known has been a primary motivation of my “Wojtek the Soldier Bear” project, which I described at TEDxKrakow here back in 2010. One of my primary motivations to organise my own TEDx event was so that I could allow the then 90 year Wojtek Narębski tell his extraordinary story. You can hear him being interviewed on my podcast here and see him on the TEDxKazimierz stage here. The title of his talk “A life well lived” could equally apply to Krysia, as you will discover from reading her Eulogy.
How you are remembered and remembering Polish history was talked about by a remarkable Englishman Paddy Ney who spoke at TEDxKazimierz in 2018 on “The day before you die – Why doing what really matters is so important“. Paddy is a prominent example of someone like me who has become Polish by choice, rather than birth, He has a large following for his Youtube and other social media content in English and Polish about life in Poland, Polish history and more. I interviewed him here.
And so to Krysia – At the wake following the her funeral, photos and articles about her were shared, including links here and here to a wonderful talk she gave at Sherborne Girls School many years ago.
Michael Griffith-Jones’ Eulogy – who always refers to her as “Mama” delivered the story of her life, and it is a privilege to share it now. I am honoured to have known her.
Krystyna Griffith-Jones, née Broniatowska 1920 – 2019
It has been a delight, and sometimes a revelation, to read so many messages about Mama. I will read from just one, from the Polish Ambassador to London: “It is with profound sadness that I have learned of the death of Krystyna Griffith-Jones, a Polish second world war and Soviet gulag survivor, a veteran of the Polish 2nd Corps and a translator of Polish literature. Her extreme wartime merits and later contributions to Polish culture deserve our highest recognition” I am speaking for Clare and also for our partners, Gill and Alan, and Mara’s granddaughters, Laurie and Lisa, and her great grandchildren, Rianna, Rhys, Matthew and Ella. Mara was their name for Mama.
As many of you have written, she was a remarkable woman. We were blessed to have her as our mother, and as a grandmother and great grandmother.
We all know very different aspects of Krysia; this congregation represents different areas of Mama’s life, but no one is left to remember her life before 1950. What follows is my understanding of her life, with a strong caveat, which Mama always emphasised – you cannot rely on oral history. This, therefore, is my version of her version of her history, and that used to change from time to time.
She was born in Łodz, and grew up in Warsaw. Her parents divorced, unusual for a Catholic couple in the 1920s. She lived with her mother; her father remarried and had a son, Adam, who died last year in Poland.
Her mother, Irena Broniatowska, had graduated from Cracow university, rowing for the women’s first 8, at a time when hardly any women in the UK were awarded degrees. She became head of a teacher training college and had interesting views about education, sending Mama to numerous schools.
At 16, in the days when there were no ski lifts, Mama was Girl Guide skiing champion; she broke innumerable bones – not a cautious skier.
By 17, when she matriculated, she was the only woman on the editorial board of a national magazine with Gustav Herling, Jan Strzelecki and others; she became strongly embedded in the intellectual life in Warsaw. At 17 she tried to enrol to study directing at the Polish drama academy, but Leon Schiller said she was too young.
At 18 she started reading for two degrees simultaneously – law at Warsaw, because her father thought that a sound foundation, and French law through Lille university. In her second year she also finally started at the Polish drama academy; she directed many plays at the student theatre. She was not to finish her education.
In summer 1939, aged 19, she went camping with Gustav and Janek; they could hear guns firing across the German border – practice for what was to come. In late August they returned to Warsaw, and the following month, when Poland was invaded from the West by the Germans, shortly followed by the Soviet Union from the East, she, like masses of young Poles, joined the underground.
In winter 1939, she was arrested by the Soviets with Gustav, trying to get across the Lithuanian border to get to Paris to join the army there. After a lengthy period of incarceration and much unpleasant interrogation, she was sentenced to 5 years hard labour in the Soviet Gulag, suffering hardships about which she hardly ever spoke. She put down her survival to her youth, her determination, her ability to eat faster than her cell mates, (during our childhood, she would always finish meals long before us), her faith, and the sheepskin coat that the man who had betrayed them gave her in remorse.
Some months after Germany’s attack on Russia in 1941, thousands of Poles, now Soviet allies, were chaotically released by the Soviets to form a Polish army under General Anders. Not all were released; apart from those kept back by the Soviets, Stalin had had some 12,000 Polish officers shot at Katyn. To become an effective fighting force, the Poles were to join British forces in Persia. Mama had to make her own way through the Caucasus, walking much of the thousands of miles; it took more than six months. Malnutrition had been such that when she arrived in Teheran she could remove and replace each of her teeth in her gums. It says much for the Army Dental Service that she died with many of her own teeth.
What became the Polish 2nd Corps, under General Anders, was trained by the British in Palestine, Iraq and Egypt. Mama was commissioned; she led a platoon of drivers and canteens serving the troops.
Sometime during this period she met Pa, Morley Griffith-Jones, who was responsible for liaison between the Poles and the rest of 8th army.
They both served throughout the Italian campaign, including at Monte Cassino, one of the bloodiest battles of the whole war, and the battle of Ancona. The Polish women served much closer to the front line than their British equivalents; well within reach of the German guns.
While they were still fighting the Germans in Italy, the Polish 2nd Corps, a unit as large as the entire modern British army, discovered that they were no longer fighting for their country – Poland had been given away by Roosevelt and Churchill to appease Stalin. For the same reason, the Poles who had fought alongside the British and other Allies in Italy, and other theatres of war, were not allowed to join the VE parades in London in 1946.
As soon as the war was over, Krysia was given a jeep and driver by Anders to see if she could find members of her family in Germany. She went to many liberated Nazi camps, (there was, of course, no access to the Soviet side) and, after many adventures, found her mother in a Red Cross camp. They had not seen each other for over five years. Irena had been imprisoned by the Nazis for secretly teaching Polish children in an underground school – Poles of course did not need educating in a Nazi world – hence her criminal conviction.
In 1946, still in Italy, Mama and Pa were engaged. As Pa put it in a letter to his mother, “you will be amazed, perhaps, but I am engaged. Her name is Krysia Broniatowska and I have known her for some two years…. I am strangely happy and nothing can depress me. She is 25 and is now reading history at Rome university. She was in Russia for two years.”
In October they were married in Rome; Pa 6’ 3” in uniform, and Mama 5’ 0”. No family members were there, but many rather senior officers.
For those of you who did not know him, Pa was a devout Anglican. (My memories of childhood Sundays when at home, were of Clare and Pa walking to the village church, while Mama and I drove to Clitheroe for Catholic mass.)
In 1947 they came to England, Mama for the first time. She found that Morley’s extended family lived a comfortable Edwardian life, but unlike Pa, had few cultural interests. Her parents in law, like many Britons, found it hard to believe Mama about how ‘Uncle Joe’ had treated her and her countrymen and women.
They lived in London, where I was born, until 1954. She enrolled as a postgraduate at London university, her fifth major course of study, in a fourth language. She worked at the National Central Library, precursor to the British Library. Mama subsequently worked at several London University libraries.
After the “thaw” in 1956 Mama visited Poland as often as could be afforded. She saw her father for the first time after 16 years.
Clare was born in Lancashire, where we lived for 14 years; Krysia’s mother, who Mama described as her best friend, lived with us until she died in 1971. They moved via Sussex to Somerset in 1971and then to Sherborne.
Mama translated into English a number of plays by Gombrowicz and Mrożek, among others. Some were staged in London and Edinburgh and others recorded on the BBC Home service or Third programme. Pa used to help Mama with English swear words – not an area of expertise for her. She also wrote pieces of theatre criticism for Polish cultural journals.
Mama translated papers for Solidarnosc (Solidarity) before the collapse of the Soviet empire.
Papa died in 1995; Mama continued to play a full part in Sherborne life, whilst retaining her links with family and friends across the world.
Mama has been an active member of this church over 45 years; was a member of a local book group, which she only stopped attending two years ago. She sorted books at Save the Children for some 30 years. She has been actively involved in the Douzelage movement and has many friends in Choyna, Sherborne’s twin town in Western Poland; some are here today.
Mama’s intellectual curiosity never dimmed – there would be book piles in four languages; when alone, she would spend hours reading; she could remember characters in books she had read as a child in Polish or French. Until a few years ago she took broadsheet newspapers in rotation to have an overall perspective on the news. She attended classes/discussion groups in French and Italian, and twice went on residential courses in Italy in her 80s. Mama travelled with friends and organised groups, spending periods in Venice, Ethiopia, Spain, France and Poland, among others.
She continued to have a close interest in our lives, visiting often, spending time with Clare and Alan in Essex and with us in London, and often with us in France, when we had a house there.
Mama enjoyed being a grandmother and great grandmother; she was amused as Rhys, now 18, grew taller as she shrank, passing each other on the way – I think he was about 10. Her last semi independent journey was to greet her granddaughter, Laurie’s two day old Ella, in Brighton in summer 2016.
On visits to Eastbury, even when her memory was fading, Mama always wanted to hear what her granddaughters and great grandchildren were doing, and most importantly, what they were interested in.
She became gentler, and one of the most rewarding aspects of her later life for Clare and me, was the re-emergence of her softer emotional intelligence. As Clare and I sorted her many things, we found Mama had left us notes, some dating from the 1990s, later updated in her unmistakable hand, expressing her undying love for us.
She continued independently to visit us in London until a few years ago; she would think nothing of speaking on the phone to friends for half an hour, going to a meeting at the Polish institute, then an exhibition, meeting a friend for lunch, squeezing in another exhibition, perhaps a matinee at the National Theatre, and then meet someone else for tea before returning to us for dinner and, sometimes tactfully, expressing surprise that we had not, yet, seen any of the things she had been to!
Mama had a talent for design that she applied to all her homes. She created or recreated three large gardens and then the courtyard here at Twyford. She was always happy to comment on our gardens, and houses, not always favourably. She would take us to local gardens, always taking lessons from what she saw, and providing great picnics. She always wanted to discuss whatever we had seen, analysing why we liked or disliked it. When NT Live started – she would go toYeovil to see a play at the same time as we in London, and the next day, long discussion on the phone!
Mama had a great capacity for making and keeping friends, of all generations. Over the years many friends of Clare’s and mine have become friends of Mama’s – some of you are here today.
She maintained a very active social life, thinking it perfectly normal into her 90s to have someone stay for the weekend and to have 7 to lunch during the week. Her cooking has always been adventurous – she was amazed at the limitations of English suppliers in her early years in the UK, even after rationing, and was an early fan of Elizabeth David. She won an Evening Standard cooking competition in 1955, where she was described as a “pocket Venus, whose conversation never flagged”.
As one of the many celebrations for her 90th birthday, we took her to Hampton Court for the day, where she had last been with my Godmother, Karla Lanckoronska, many years before; she demonstrated her amazing memory from that visit . We had envisaged a stroll about, followed by coffee and another meander followed by lunch, a look at something and then tea, but no; Mama steamed on and on with us ‘youngsters’ trailing further and further behind. Her energy, even in her later years, could be quite exhausting.
After a series of falls, Mama moved three years ago into Eastbury House, where she was superbly looked after, practically and emotionally; she continued many of her activities. She only stopped using her computer a couple of years ago. Staff helped her remain stylish in her dress, something that was very important to her. She talked often about facing death, sustained by her faith, and how fortunate she had been in life. She had hated what she called her “unreliability” when she fell or became ill; seeing it as a problem for those around her rather than for herself.
Now she has died, Mama must be one of the very last who served throughout the second world war, in this or any country
We had hoped, and Mama had hoped, to invite you all to Twyford after mass; however, as there are so many of you who wanted to see her off, we would like you to join us here in the Parish hall after the funeral to celebrate her life.
Lastly, more from Pa’s 1946 letter introducing Mama to his parents: “She is of rather small height. She has enormous charms and she is highly intelligent, very capable of gaiety and completely incapable of small mindedness or anything but sympathy and understanding and tenderness.”
So ended the Eulogy. A remarkable life, well lived indeed.