Krystyna Modrzewska (1919–2008) – ENGLISH VERSION
- Childhood and family
- Youth in Lublin
- Studying in Bologna
- German occupation years
- After the War
- Work at Poznań University
- Studies and scientific work at the Medical Academy in Białystok
- Return to Lublin. Work at the Department of Anthropology at UMCS, County Hospital in Bełżyce and the Institute of Rural Health Care and Hygiene
- Literary activity
- Mother’s death
- Emigration to Sweden
- Scientific career and life in Sweden
- Visits in Poland
- Literary oeuvre
- The final years
Childhood and family
Krystyna Modrzewska (Mandelbaum) was born to an assimilated Jewish family in Warsaw on September 14th, 1919.
Her mother was Franciszka Mandelbaum née Frenkiel, born in Warsaw, a graduate of Music Conservatory, a student of Professor Bolesław Domaniewski in a grand piano class, and father –doctor Henryk (Hersch) Mandelbaum, born in Lublin, a graduate of Wrocław Uniwersity, a well-known devoted Lublin doctor. In 1927–1939, he held a city councillor mandate on behalf of Bund Jewish socialist party). From 1935 to 1939, he was the main manager of the Jewish Hospital. Dr. Mandelbaum’s family originated from Lublin. His father, Dawid Symcha Mandelbaum was born in Wieniawa. He run a wine shop at Krakowskie Przedmieście. Along with his wife and three sons, he lived in a tenement house at 5 Zielona Street. When his business ceased to be profitable, Symcha’s wife, Regina (Rebecca) Mandelbaum founded haberdashery and toys shop and toys at 15 Krakowskie Przedmieście Street.
Krystyna Mandelbaum had an eight years older brother – Marian, who graduated from high school in Warsaw and, in 1929, left for Berlin, where he started studying at the Department of Machine Construction of the Technical University. He would come home rarely – he spent his holidays working at AEG, a machine factory. When still at the University, he joined an anti-Nazi organization, from 1933 was wanted by German police and SS. By that time he had not kept in touch with his family. He was arrested and murdered in a prison in Dresden in October 5th, 1939.
For the first five years of her life, Krystyna lived in Warsaw, with her mother and brother. Her father, doctor Mandelbaum was working in Lublin. His surgery was situated at 13 Namiestnikowska Street. He lived there with his parents and siblings; his wife and children used to visit him during the holidays. Krystyna’s memories of the time spent in Lublin on that occasions are not too affectionate. Her grandmother’s aloofness, so different from the atmosphere of her mother's family home in Warsaw, and the provincionalism of the town would not make a good impression on her. In 1929, Franciszka Mandelbaum decided to join her husband. The whole family (apart from the elder son, a student of his last grade in high school) settled in Lublin in a tenement house at 9 Bernardyńska Street, that was bought in a transaction shared with the grandmother. Doctor Mandelbaum’s surgery was also moved there.
Youth in Lublin
Krystyna Mandelbaum started attending the elite Unia Lubelska Public High School for girls in Lublin. She was not too conscientious a student. In her books, she would blame her individualism for her problems at school. It is worth noticing, though, that it was already then that she was enthusiastic about writing. After many years, she would fondly recollect both her teachers and her schoolmates. In the testimony that was recorded for the “Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre” Centre, she recollected:
’Unia’ was a school where one was brought up to become a Home Army soldier, to put it shortly. It taught us, it shaped us, it drilled certain values into its pupils.
Two years before her school-leaving exams, due to the fact that she was not promoted to the next grade as her final Maths grade was D, she had to change schools. Her parents made her attend the private Helena Czarniecka High School. In 1937, she took and passed her school-leaving exams without being enrolled in classes. The atmosphere in that school was not in the least comparable to the one in Union, so was the level of teaching. She expressed her rebellion on the day of giving diplomas:
I got on the bike and went to Radom, to visit an aunt. I didn’t get my diploma then, only later – in the school office.
Studying in Bologna
In 1937, Krystyna Mandelbaum takes up anthropology at the Natural Sciences Department of the Bologna University with Fabio Frassetto as the leading professor. In her books, she wrote that it was the time, when she was not only developing as a scholar, but got to know herself a lot. In Bologna, following her former beliefs and the spiritual traditions of her family, she was christened and became Catholic. We do not know much more about this period of her life. Her studies in Bologna were interrupted by the outbreak of WWII.
German occupation years
September 1939 saw Krystyna on vacations in Lublin. Her father, doctor Mandelbaum was called up, her brother was in Germany. Fortunately, their flat at Bernardyńska Street was not destroyed in the bombardment of Lublin in September 1939, yet the Germans ordered the family to leave it at the beginning of December 1939. Mother and daughter inhabited a room situated in the buildings of the Jewish Hospital. Rev. Paweł Dziubiński, parish priest of Conversion of St. Paul church, helped them to hide a rich book collection and family mementoes.
Still in 1939, Krystyna Mandelbaum changed her surname to Modrzewska. In the Maria Curie-Skłodowska University Archives there is a copy of her marriage certificate with Tomasz Modrzewski. Curiously enough, in the testimony recorded for the "Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre" Centre, Modrzewska refers to the issue in a different way: “the surname was picked for me in a telephone directory”. Later, thanks to the help of Rev. Dziubiński, Krystyna settled in Mełgiew (a village located some 20 km from Lublin) at a convent, paying for her stay and helping nuns with basic work (also by giving children religious instruction lessons). After a while, she started work as a translator in the District Office in Mełgiew and then in Uścimów. Krystyna’s mother lived for some time in Lublin, where she would teach children in the ghetto. When the circumstances got really difficult for the Jewish community, Franciszka Mandelbaum was forced to leave Lublin. Rev. Dziubiński put her in Międzylesie near Warsaw, in a house belonging to the nuns of the Bethany Family order. She would make her living by needle works, she also got material support from her daughter, who showed an impressive resourcefulness in finding both permanent and odd jobs. It was then that Franciszka Mandlebaum befriended sister Tekla, a nun who, after the war, stepped out from the convent and worked in Lublin. She lived with Krystyna and her mother and took care after Mrs Mandelbaum during her final years.
In February 1941, Modrzewska was sworn in and assigned to the Quartermaster Headquarters of the Home Army District Division "Gołąb" in Garwolin. She adopted a nickname „Kret” („Mole”). With a degree of a senior rifleman she cooperated with Home Army until the Soviet Army entered Poland in July 1944. In 1985, the Former Home Army Soldiers Association in London issued a verification certificate stating that Krystyna Modrzewska conducted economic sabotage and provided supply cards for Home Army Forest Divisions. Her testimony shows that she had never revealed her Jewish identity to her comrades.
Since 1943, she worked in district authority’s office in Garwolin as an office clerk in the supplies department. She was a highly regarded office clerk, her German employers put great interest in her, which she successfully used in sabotage activities when cooperating with Home Army. Her work in the office did not arouse any suspicions and achieved so full a recognition that in 1944 she was delegated to Warsaw for a great gratuity reception for the office clerks responsible for supplies in the whole Warsaw region. German notables, along with the head of the region, Fischer, congratulated Modrzewska on her great work. In her memoir of the occupation days she wrote:
It was then that I experienced one of the best of my war days, a day of a great, overpowering satisfaction. [...] I looked at the faces of people, the Germans’ uniforms, at the whole farce. And here I was, accepting the praise of Nazi officials, it was really wonderful! I wanted to laugh, but my face was serious and severe.
It was indeed an amazing event – the Nazis, unaware of anything, were shaking hands with a Polish Jew who was a Home Army non-commissioned officer.
During the war, Modrzewska lost most of her family. On October 5th, 1939, her brother Marian died in a Dresden prison and her beloved aunt Helena Frenkiel and with her grandmother Anna Frenkiel died in Treblinka in 1942. Krystyna wanted to get them out of the Warsaw ghetto. She never came to terms with the fact that she was late with her help by a few hours only. Modrzewska’s father, Henryk Mandelbaum, interned at a POW camp at Lake Balaton, died of cancer in a hospital in Budapest in June 1944.
During the years of the occupation, Modrzewska had close friends and more distant acquaintances. Thanks to the camouflage of a fake, “Aryan” identity she lived an animated social life – realizing the ordinary necessities so characteristic of the years of youth, when “people would die all around”. After many years she would recollect that with pricks of conscience. The close relationship with a family of her Garwolin office colleague, Marysia (who was one of very few to know about Krystyna’s Jewish origins and with much devotion looked after her safety) was to last long after the War. Years later, Modrzewska became a godmother of Marysia’s daughter, Krystyna, who, persuaded by her, would emigrate to Sweden in the 70’s.
After the War
After the liberation from the German occupation in 1944, Krystyna Modrzewska came back to Lublin with her mother. The house at 9 Bernardyńska Street was partially destroyed, but they wanted to live there anyway. This turned out to be more difficult than they had expected – the building was inhabited by Soviet soldiers and in some of the remaining rooms a militia unit was stationing. The women found shelter in the nearby presbytery belonging to the parish of the Conversion of St. Paul. It seemed that the return to their house would not be possible. A chance encounter with an old-time Warsaw acquaintance, Izabela “Czajka” Stachowicz, changed the situation. Due to her intercession, Krystyna managed to get a room in the family house allotted for her. The property was however legally acknowledged as a property abandoned during the war and Modrzewska had to file a re-entry lawsuit to get the tenement house back.
Despite some minor doubts, Modrzewska decided to continue her war-interrupted studies at the newly established Maria Curie-Skłodowska University. In January 1945, she attended the fourth year at the UMCS Faculty of Natural Sciences. In 1947, she defended her master’s dissertation Methods of Testing Human Auricle, written under the supervision of Professor Jan Mydlarski. She joined the Department of Anthropology as a junior assistant. In 1948, just one year after defending her master thesis, she received a title Ph.D. in natural sciences. The basis for this was her work "The Mełgiew Parish as a Biological Isolate", which was also supervised by Professor Jan Mydlarski. She used the archive materials that she had become accustomed with during her stay in Mełgiew and work in the office there in the years of German occupation. Her dissertation gained much recognition and became a ticket to Modrzewska’s academic career. In parallel with her studies, Modrzewska worked as a science teacher in the Primary Jewish School at 3 Wyszyńskiego Street in Lublin (opened in autumn 1946 by the Central Committee of Polish Jews, closed in mid-1949). Her mother taught English and gave music and drawing classes in the same school.
Work at Poznań University
In 1949 Modrzewska was offered a post at the Department of Anthropology of Poznań University with Professor Jan Czekanowski as the chair person.
It was a great distinction for her: “Professor Czekanowski offered me a post in Poznań. Now, you do not flee from such a honour”. She worked there for a year, living in the city centre at 9 Piekary Street. The time spent in Poznań was very good in her later recollections, but harsh economical conditions, her lonely, elderly mother in Lublin and her will to study medicine made her quit the job there.
Studies and scientific work at the Medical Academy in Białystok
In 1950, Professor Tadeusz Dzierżykray-Rogalski offered Modrzewska a post of an assistant professor at the Normal Anatomy Department at the newly established Medical Academy in Białystok. When accepting the job, Modrzewska was additionally to take up medical school. Despite her doctoral degree and an established academic position, she decided to expand her knowledge and accepted the offer. In 1950, she started working and studying at the Medical Academy in Białystok. The subsequent five years brought new research subjects and a number of scientific articles. Białystok turned out to be an important place in the life of Modrzewska, who took very active part in creating academic life there. She was a creative organiser and scholar. Years later, both her and her friends from Białystok recollected the time spent together in a very fond way. In 1955, Modrzewska got a diploma in medicine and a degree of an associate professor.
Return to Lublin. Work at the Department of Anthropology at UMCS, County Hospital in Bełżyce and the Institute of Rural Health Care and Hygiene
Having her lonely and sick mother in mind, after graduating from the Medical Academy, Modrzewska decided to go back to Lublin. The decision was easier to make due to the fact that she got a job in the Department of Anthropology at the Maria Curie-Skłodowska University. The years that followed were intense in scientific and scholar activities. In 1956, she started the second phase of work on UMCS – as an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology. In 1957-1958, in order not to lose the license to practice medicine, she started working at the County Hospital in Bełżyce. In 1958, after accepting the job offer from Professor J. Parnas, she started working at the Institute of Rural Health Care and Hygiene, where she founded the Department of Demography. In 1964, she became the head of the Department of Anthropology at UMCS.
In addition to her scientific career, Krystyna Modrzewska was also active in the literary field. In 1958, she won the third prize in the competition on the doctors’ diaries launched by the weekly magazine “Służba Zdrowia” ("Health Service"). This resulted in the book entitled Rok w miasteczku (A Year in a Small Town) published in 1962 under a pen name Adam Struś by the Czytelnik Publishing House. The book caused a considerable stir in the medical circles. Under the same pen name Modrzewska published several other books: Jestem kim innym (I'm Somebody Else), Prostokąty (Rectangles), Słowa pierwsze i ostatnie (The First and the Last Words) and Gaudeamus w cyrku cieni czyli opowiastki uniwersyteckie (Gaudeamus in the Circus of Shadows or the University Stories). Also, her memories from the years of the German occupation were published (in a censored version) in the "Biuletyn" of Jewish Historical Institute (No. 31, 32, 33, 1959-60).
In May 1965, at the age of 80, Krystyna Modrzewska’s mother, Franciszka Mandelbaum, died and was buried in the Catholic cemetery (she had been baptised after the war) at Lipowa Street in Lublin.
Emigration to Sweden
In the face of the increasing conflicts at the university, cases of slander and repression from the authorities, intrusive invigilation and increasing anti-Semitism atmosphere, Krystyna Modrzewska decided to leave Poland. On June 5th, 1970 at the age of 51, she left for Sweden. It was not an easy decision to make. It brought about a depression that lasted several months. She would say "I was not me that left the Country, it was the Country that left me."
Scientific career and life in Sweden
In the first period of emigration, Modrzewska lived in a refugee camp in Växjö. It was a fairly difficult start: the language barrier and the lack of prospects terrified her. She would also be critical about the "company" with which she found herself – many of the immigrants were some sort of the Party’s associates and back in the country had occupied prominent positions until recently – this she found offensive. After five months of intensive study of the Swedish language, in November 1970, Modrzewska passed a multi-level test in Swedish with very good results. For several weeks, she functioned as "difficult-to-employ" (her medical degree with a GP specialization, due to a break in practice that had lasted for several years, was not taken into account), and then was offered a job as a arkivarbetare (archival auxiliary worker) at the Institute of Medical Genetics at the University of in Uppsala. At the beginning, it was difficult for her to get used to the new situation. The difficulties were intensified by the fact that there was no specific job for her.
The change would come in 1972 – Modrzewska started her research on the genetic determinants of schizophrenia. It was a continuation of the work carried out by her supervisor – Professor Jan Arvid Böök – as a part of his doctoral studies. She worked in an interdisciplinary team with Professor Böök and a young psychiatrist, Doctor Lennart Wetterberg. The material for the research, conducted since 1978, she gathered in the north of Sweden in Pajala. The results came in form of numerous publications in leading medical journals. In 1974, she presented her findings at the International Symposium of the European Society of Human Genetics in Umeå. The lecture she delivered restored Modrzewska to active academic life. The success enabled her to obtain a research scholarship, which allowed her to continue and extend her work.
In February 1980 Krystyna Modrzewska defended her doctoral thesis for the second time in her life. She received the Ph.D. title on the basis of her dissertation entitled "Epidemiological Investigations in a North Swedish isolate with high Prevalence of Schizophrenia". The supervisor was Professor Jan Arvid Böök. A year later, in 1981, Modrzewska received her habilitation degree at the University of Uppsala. She retired in 1985. Her decision was enhanced with the awareness that the traditional methods by which she had received her education and her previous work methods were becoming increasingly obsolete in the light of the rapid development of modern genetics and become incompatible with the possibilities offered by it.
Visits in Poland
For 17 years of emigration Krystyna Modrzewska could not visit Poland, which she had left with a „temporary travel ID”. Several attempts at entering the country resulted in deportation. Professor Jan Arvid Böök tried to help her in this situation by sending her for a conference to Poland, but Polish authorities denied her a visa. Visit in Poland only became possible in 1987, when she got an invitation for the Białystok Medical Academy Graduates’ Reunion. After 1989 she would visit Poland regularly. Most often she would visit Lublin and Nałęczów, where she would get treatment in sanatoriums.
Visits in Poland were inextricably linked with time travelling to the past. This was the time when Krystyna Modrzewska was most active as a writer. Since the beginning of the 90’s, she published nine books of a memoirs type. The most important is the triptych: Trzy razy Lublin (Three Times Lublin, 1991), Czas przedostatni (The Time Penultimate, 1992), Na krawędzi chaosu (On the Brink of Chaos, 1994) and Dom przy Bernardyńskiej (The House at Bernardyńska Street, 1994) – devoted to the tenement house that belonged to the family. The majority of her works Modrzewska published with her own funds. Unusually detailed descriptions of the town, mentioning well-known personalities and places make these books special portraits of Lublin. Her particular ability to remember details was mentioned by Hanna Krall in her „Lublin” book – Wyjątkowo długa linia (An Exceptionally Long Line).
The final years
When she retired, Modrzewska travelled a lot. She was especially attracted by warm places. Yet, since the moment when she could visit Poland without any difficulties, she would spend the summer months in Lublin and Nałęczów. She enjoyed meeting old acquaintances and visiting places which she remembered from her childhood and teenage years. She considered the possibility of moving back to Poland, but Sweden would guarantee her more stable living conditions. She was terrified by loneliness and the perspective of losing independence. She visited Poland for the last time in 2007. As the old age became more of a burden, Modrzewska described it in a very personal book Zabłąkani w rzeczywistości (Lost in Reality). It was to be her last book.
Krystyna Modrzewska died on August 28th, 2008 in a sleep. Her funeral took place in a Catholic church of St. Lars in Uppsala on September 19th. The event had been planned by her few years earlier. Friends who took part in it remembered the flowers were white and red. In accordance with her last will, her friends, Jeanette and Carl-Magnus Backman, which took care after her in the final years, threw the urn with her ashes to the sea. Mr and Mrs Backman kept Krystyna Modrzewska’s personal archive and the mementoes she had left.