Maria Danilewicz Zielinska

Energetic director of the Polish Library
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Maria Markowska, librarian, bibliographer, literary scholar and writer: born Aleksandrów Kujawski, Poland 29 May 1907; Director, Polish Library, London 1943-73; married 1927 Ludomir Danilewicz (died 1971), 1973 Adam Zielinski (died 1991); died Feijó, Portugal 22 May 2003.

Like many Poles of her generation, the literary scholar and librarian Maria Danitewicz Zielinska endured a major upheaval in her life arising not from choice but from an external event, the Second World War. But she survived both that war and the subsequent Cold War to reach a ripe old age in which, unlike many of her peers, she came to enjoy respect, affection and acclaim not only among her fellow émigrés but in the highest and broadest circles of her native country.

Her life can be seen as divided into three almost exactly equal periods: in Poland from her birth to September 1939; in Britain from 1942 to 1973 (following an adventurous transit through wartime Europe and a sojourn in France), where she was Director of the Polish Library in London; and in Portugal from 1973 until her death.

She was born Maria Markowska in 1907. Her childhood had as its background the outwardly stable life of a professional family, albeit one living in the artificial conditions of a country which had lost its independence a century earlier. For her parents however, who 18 months earlier had lost twin sons in their infancy, the birth of a daughter was a mixed blessing: more than 80 years later that daughter wrote with a hint of bitterness: "My appearance in the world had a precise aim - to provide a substitute." Perhaps because of this, the dominant figure in her early years was neither of her parents but her forthright and colourful maternal grandmother, a native of Wilno (now Vilnius, the capital of Lithunia) who was the widow of a well-connected writer and journalist, Wincenty Korotynski.

Maria Markowska studied at Warsaw University from 1924 to 1929, receiving the degree of MPhil (and a public award) for a thesis on the minor Romantic poet Tymon Zaborowski, whose collected works she later edited for publication. From 1928 to 1939 she worked at the Polish National Library, being among other things in charge of exhibitions and Secretary General of the Union of Polish Librarians. Her clear and detailed recollections of the library were published much later (Wspomnienia o Bibliotece Narodowej w Warszawie, 1978). Meanwhile, she continued scholarly research, publishing in 1937 a historical monograph on the "Liceum" at Krzemieniec in South-east Poland (now Ukraine) which from 1805 to 1831 provided a first-class education for Poles living in the Russian Empire. She was already married to Ludomir Danilewicz, a radio engineer involved in the development of the cipher machines later used in the Enigma code-breaking operation.

After the German invasion in September 1939, Maria Danilewicz left Poland and made her way to France, where she lived and worked, first in Paris and then in Aix-les-Bains, until 1942: in that year she came, via Spain and Portugal (where she met her future second husband, then serving as a diplomat in Lisbon), to Britain.

For the next 30 years she lived in London, devoting unflagging energies to her post as Director of the newly established Polish Library, housed in an elegant mansion in South Kensington. This work proved to be less a job than a crusading mission: in addition to maintaining a "normal" library of books in Polish and about Poland, Danilewicz sought simultaneously to meet the needs of the hard-pressed émigré Polish education system and - after the end of the war in 1945 - to assist, through the despatch of books and journals, the reconstruction of university libraries in Poland.

The execution of this self- imposed task involved corresponding political risks - of exceeding the terms under which the British government subsidised the Polish Library and of appearing to the Communist authorities in Poland to be engaged in ideological subversion. Danilewicz walked these tightropes with remarkable skill; but the effort was a continual strain upon her and, ironically, as censorship eased in Poland, the British Foreign Office increasingly questioned the continuation of financial aid to the library. At one point it appears to have been saved only thanks to a petition bearing 20,000 signatures.

Despite this hectic activity, Danilewicz found time in her London period to publish a set of short stories, a novel and a collection of literary-historical essays, Pierscien z Herculanum ("The Ring from Herculaneum," 1960), and also to contribute numerous articles and surveys of Polish writing to the journals Wiadomosci (London) and Kultura (Paris) and to Radio Free Europe.

Ludomir Danilewicz died in 1971; two years later Maria married her old acquaintance Adam Zielinski and moved to live - for the remainder of her life, as it turned out - in Portugal, at Feijó, not far from the capital. Ostensibly she now enjoyed retirement, but in reality she was as busy as ever, but with her real love, scholarly critical and editorial work. In 1978 her largest and most important work - Szkice o literaturze emigracyjnej ("Essays on Emigré Literature"), a definitive survey of Polish writing abroad based on her contribution to a collective Bibliography of Books in Polish or Relating to Poland Published Outside Poland since 1 September 1939 was published in Paris. She was hugely gratified when this work was re-published, in 1992, in Poland. This recognition was a metaphorical homecoming, augmented by the publication in 1996 by the National Library in Warsaw of her history of the Polish Library in London and associated papers, Ksiazka i czytelnictwo polskie w Wielkiej Brytanii ("The Book and Polish Readership in Great Britain").

Conversely, after 1989, her Portuguese home with its beautiful garden became a place of pilgrimage for numerous writers, scholars and journalists (including television camera crews) from Poland. Around this time also she completed an important and satisfying scholarly task, the co-editing of two volumes of Mickiewicziana(published in 1989 and 1993) - poems by, letters to and from, and other papers relating to the great poet Adam Mickiewicz which had been almost miraculously recovered, after disappearing for more than 50 years, by an amateur bibliophile.

In her last years, Maria Danilewicz Zielinska was afflicted by melancholy and world-weariness, but she continued to delight friends in many countries with cards and letters. A Polish friend once said of her that she had "two hearts", one of which belonged to the library (in London), the other to the craft and practice of writing. To this may be added that she had known two fine husbands and had been a distinguished citizen of two countries - Poland and "Polonia", the Polish diaspora.

Marcus Wheeler

Comments