History has long been concerned with the deeds and ambitions of men. While wars were waged and regimes rose and fell, the lives of ordinary people, most especially women, were largely unrecorded. Many women have altered the course of history and made world-changing discoveries, yet neither their names nor their achievements are taught in schools. This has to change.
There have been untold acts of bravery and stoicism that we will never know; the suffering and struggles of many women that we must at least acknowledge. In Being Krystyna, Agnieszka learns the harrowing details of life in a concentration camp and how Krystyna managed to survive, but always there are stories within stories and Agnieszka’s research uncovers another tale of injustice and suffering, one that she finds especially moving.
“I didn’t tell you much about the gulags, did I?”
“There’s no need,” I said. “I’ve been reading about them.”
Krystyna nodded knowingly. “Then I feel for you having to read such things.”
“I have to, Krystyna, to get some background material for the book.”
“Yes, the book.” She fixed me with her gaze. “Is it such a good idea after all, Agnieszka?”
For a moment I thought about it and then I sat down again. “I think it is, Krystyna. I really do. There are so many things that should never be forgotten. They write history books and they’re all about battles, heroes, kings and queens, stuff like that. But the courage and endurance of ordinary people is often overlooked. No-one knows about them and yet somehow the world turns on their suffering.”
“I can tell whatever it is you have been reading, it has moved you, Aga.”
I took a deep breath. “There was one story in particular. I can’t stop thinking about it. It was in 1943. A Russian woman was alleged to have stolen three pounds of rye to feed her starving children. She took the rye from land that had once been hers but it had been taken from her by the state during its collectivisation programme. For this crime she was given ten years in a gulag. She served her time there but for some petty reason they added another two years to her sentence.”
“What happened to her?” asked Krystyna, as concerned for this unfortunate woman as I had been.
“Hmm, well, she served the extra two years and they released her. But even that wasn’t good enough for them. They told her she had to live in exile near to the gulag and it wasn’t until 1956 that she was finally able to make the long journey home. Once there, she started searching for the children she hadn’t seen for 13 years. She never found them.”
“Dear God, such injustice!” exclaimed Krystyna. “That poor woman. Do you have her name?”
I quickly riffled through my notes. “Maria Tchebotareva.”
“Put her in my book, Agnieszka! I wish to be in the company of a woman such as that.”
“So do I,” I said, and then I realised I already was.
Being Krystyna – A Story of Survival in WWII
In 2012 when young Polish immigrant Agnieszka visits fellow countrywoman Krystyna in a Peterborough care home for the first time, she thinks it a simple act of kindness. However, the meeting proves to be the beginning of a life-changing experience.
Krystyna’s stories about the past are not memories of the good old days but recollections of war-ravaged Europe: The Warsaw Ghetto, Pawiak Prison, Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, and a death march to freedom.
The losses and ordeals Krystyna suffered and what she had to do to survive are horrors Agnieszka must confront when she volunteers to be Krystyna’s biographer.
Will Agnieszka be able to keep her promise to tell her story, and, in this harrowing memoir of survival, what is the message for us today?