Black Madonna

Faith & Family
Faith & Family

Many thanks to my good pal Jim for giving me the heads up about this text. It’s a great piece about the life of the post-war Polonia, that is the Polish people who came to the United Kingdom after World War II (as part of the UK Polish Repatriation Act) as opposed to those Polish people who have come to the UK post-EU accession. I’m ‘posting’ the text in full (copyright The Guardian 2009):

As a child growing up in Derby in the 60s I spoke Polish beautifully, thanks to my grandmother. While my mother went out to work, my grandmother, who spoke no English, looked after me, teaching me to speak her native tongue. Babcia, as we called her, dressed in black with stout brown shoes, wore her grey hair in a bun, and carried a walking stick. She was the hub of our household – she could cook Polish delicacies, play Chopin on the piano and make paper storks. I adored her.

My father, Jerzy, had escaped from Poland after the Germans invaded, travelling on foot across Europe to England, where he became a pilot in the RAF. At the end of the war, he met my English mother at a dance organised by my maternal grandfather to help lonely young Polish pilots. In 1957, he arranged for my grandmother, Maria, who was living in a tiny flat in Warsaw in increasing distress under the privations of communism, to come to the UK.

Like other Polish families in the area, we spent our weekends in the vast Polish club that kept our community’s culture alive. My father helped to establish Dom Polski (Polish House) in the 1950s and it was known as the air force club because the founders were pilots. It provided a focus for all those old comrades and their history. I remember one woman at the club who had a concentration camp number tattooed on her arm, and another whose husband and daughter got off the train transporting them to Siberia to buy bread, only for the train to leave without them. She never saw them again. There were people who had been taken east through Russia as slave labour, others who were taken west to provide a workforce for German farms and factories.

The walls of the club were covered with black-and-white photos of Polish pilots, and a huge propeller from a Spitfire was fixed to one wall. On Saturday mornings my sisters and I would study Polish at the school it ran, and on Saturday nights, my parents would go dancing. On Sundays, we played tombola there over lunch.

But my love affair with Polish culture began to fade when I was five – the year Babcia died. We had been so close that when she was dying, her last words were to ask that I should be looked after. I couldn’t believe she was dead, and went from being confident and cocky to a very quiet child.

Without Babcia’s childcare, my mother had to give up her full-time job and take part-time work in a school across the road. I was placed in the reception class and, accustomed to being at home alone with Babcia, I hated it. I don’t remember making a conscious decision, but in shock I refused to speak Polish until I saw Babcia again.

My sisters and I continued to go to Polish school, but the language would not return. Despite the efforts of my father, even a family trip to Poland in 1965 could not bring it back. When six years later my father died too, at just 53, our Polish connection almost ceased to exist. I left Derby and went to university in London. I never spoke Polish, never ate Polish food nor visited Poland. My childhood was gone and almost forgotten.

Then in 2004, more than 30 years later, things changed again. A new wave of Polish immigrants had arrived and I began to hear the language of my childhood all around me – every time I got on a bus. I saw Polish news-papers in the capital and Polish food for sale in the shops. The language sounded so familiar yet somehow distant – as if it were something I tried to grab but was always out of reach.

In Derby, Dom Polski had closed down. The building was decaying and up for rent; the old soldiers and air force men were almost all dead, and the second and third generations too busy to worry about it. But my memory had been jogged. I began to write a novel about a fictional Polish family and, at the same time, decided to enrol at a Polish language school.

Each week I went through half-remembered phrases, getting bogged down in the intricate grammar and impossible inflections. When my book was published, it put me back in touch with schoolfriends who like me were second-generation Polish. And strangely, in my language classes, I still had my accent and I found words and phrases would sometimes come unbidden, long lost speech patterns making a sudden reappearance. I had found my childhood again.

Joanna Czechowska

Her book, The Black Madonna of Derby (or Goodbye Polsko) is published by Silkmill Press.


17 thoughts on “Black Madonna

  1. Nice story about roots and childhood… just wondering why some of the famous polish madonnas are black madonnas ? We have some in France as well, and the prevailing idea about their origin is christianisation of ancient mother godesses… Anything like that by yours ?

  2. One theory is that the black material chosen for these statues (basalt, for example) lasted longer and was more resistant to staining, atmospheric dust, etc. than your ‘standard’ light-coloured materials (marble, etc.).

    Another is that Mary was of African origin, of course, and this was the Church’s way of offloading some of its guilt at how non-Whites were historically treated in Europe. (That’s the Dan Brown version. 😉 )

  3. The picture of the Black Madonna is apparently a Byzantine piece of art which just happened to end up in Poland so the blackness is nothing to do with Poland. Don’t what it means though…

  4. Came across your comments on my article. The Black Madonna I refer to in the novel is called that because it has become dark over the centuries as a result of all the soot from the votive candles. The original icon is held in southern Poland at Jasna Gora.

  5. Joanna, fantastic to hear from you. I can’t believe that someone has written something about a little Polish community in Derby. Congrats! 🙂
    As for the soot theory, I’ve heard this but as far as I know it’s not true – the Byzantine theory is the one I’ve always known to be closest to the truth.
    Once again, congrats on the book.

  6. … uh ! didn’t that Polish black virgins where most of time icons, thought that you had statues as well. The christianisation theorie only applies to statues…
    And for painting, the soot theory didn’t resist to expertises here (under soot, they were black as well !)
    Thanks for all your contributions !

  7. There is a high probability that Jesus & his Jewish people are dark-skinned. See ‘The African Heritage Edition of the Bible’ for lots of evidence. It’s pub. in the USA by Nelson. Racist have said that Africans are descended from Ham & why should he alone of Noah’s sons have been black? The Suez Canal has made a modern division in folk’s minds between Africa & Asia & ‘The Middle East’ is a modern conception. It’s necessary to ste aside modern geographical labels & go back to Bible ones. Cush, the Hebrew name for Africa, also applied to Babylonia & the Babylonians had similar physionomical features to modern Africans. The theory of evolution, too, isn’t even accepted as ‘gospel’ by all scientists. Sir Fred Hoyle considered the world to be on a collision course by putting all its ‘scientific’ eggs in that basket. But man’s origins are in N.E. Africa, that is scientifically accepted on grounds acceptable to Bible-believing Christians. Climate is the cause of people’s skin-colour. There is insufficient space here to explain exhaustively the justification for Jesus’ human family’s skin colour. But Israel’s position in NE Africa should be sufficient. Too, in ancient times a black skin-colour was honoured by civilised peoples. Osiris, the paramount god of the ancient Egyptians, was as black as the ace of spades & was married to two lovely white girls. Zeus seduced Europa, the black Phoenician daughter of the king of Tyre, took here pff to Crete & she bore him three of the most famous mythological kings of Greece, e.g., King Minos. The Greeks named a district of mainland Greece after her which name gradually spread to cover the area of modern Europe. How wonderful if this were taught in all the schools! Wouldn’t it make all the racial prejudices evaporate? There’s plenty of Biblical evidence for the unprejudiced student to support the view that the ancient Jews were of dark skins. Their skins have grown pale thriugh their dispersion in temperate climates. It doesn’t take as long as evolutionists make out for necessary changes to take place in peoples. Unprejudiced research will reveal it to anyone who is concerned enough. I wrote a book on it whilst in Kinshasa & still got a 51-title bibliography to back it up, as well as several websites.

  8. John it was always my understanding that Jesus, like many semitic peoples, Jews and Arabs, was dark skinned, but not necessarily black African. Personally it does not matter to me one but, but it would make more sense for him and most Jews of the time to be more like dark skinned Arabs of today.
    Jews are mainly white now because of intermingling of genes with Europeans I would say and less through natural evolution. After all 2000 years is nothing in evolutionary terms.

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