May 22, 2018

Little Details

Feb. 17, 2011

Not ours to keep

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

“I don’t understand what the Professor is saying,” I whispered to my classmate.
“None of us do either,” Basia reassured.

As first-year history students at the Jagiellonian University, one of Poland’s most prestigious schools, Basia and I both felt a little out of place. She travelled from a tiny village, pursuing a degree against her parents’ wishes. I was the sole American, struggling to grasp complex historical concepts in Polish.

Nicolas Copernicus, Pope John Paul II and King Jan Sobieski were alumni of the esteemed institution, established in 1364. Our lecture hall was in the Collegium Novum, the building from which, on November 6, 1939, Nazis assembled approximately 168 Polish academics, deporting them to the Sachenhausen Concentration Camp. Their crime: allegedly maintaining a “hostile attitude toward German science”.

Collegium Novum’s stone steps and arcaded ceilings embodied sanctity for learning.

Basia and I won coveted slots in a program in which seven applicants competed for every one seat (get clarification). Basia was studious and may have benefitted from a communist initiative to reserve a few places for promising students from rural villages. My admission was facilitated by an educational foundation based in the U.S. We found ourselves competing with some of Poland’s best and brightest students. I faced the most challenging academic year of my life.

It was the fall of 1985. Poland’s Solidarity movement was forced underground with hundreds of activists imprisoned for pro-democracy efforts. Daily life featured ration cards for food and desperate hunts for textbooks our professors required us to read.  Hot water visited my dorm only sporadically, often in the middle of the night. Toilet paper was a rare commodity. Communist officials tried to distract a freedom-hungry populace; employing tactics of scarcity and intimidation. Life was challenging and, to this American student, fascinating.

Basia and I became fast friends in the lecture hall of our medieval history class.  Professor Wyrozumski, nicknamed “Mistrz” (Master) by students, was an internationally recognized scholar. He possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of Polish Medieval History, from the nation’s embrace of Christianity to political fragmentation and battles with Teutonic Nights.

I benefitted from a small but tight circle of friends. Basia, Mariola, Asia, Anna and I studied together. We shared glasses of tea in our dorm rooms. We sipped mugs of Inka – a coffee substitute made from roasted barley, rye, chicory and beet root – in inexpensive eateries known as Bar Mleczny (Milk Bars).  I shared stories about life in America. They helped fill in historical gaps when my notes failed me.

Basia invited me to spend a weekend in her home village of Regulice. Her family’s small farm felt familiar, like my grandmother’s. A gaggle of chickens greeted us in the front yard of her cinderblock home, flanked by modest fields. Rabbits and a couple of pigs inhabited the barn next to the one requisite cow. Tall glasses of milk did not fit prominently into the Polish diet. Coffee was extremely difficult to find. The cow was expected to produce just enough milk for daily cooking.

Basia’s father sat on a swing on the edge of their property playing his harmonica. He rested there after chores, playing tunes and watching occasional trains rumble by.
My journal entry from that time mentions “much love and religion” at Basia’s house. Her parents, noticeably older, doted on her and I. Her mother immediately offered us food. I don’t remember the menu, but I remember Polish hospitality. I guess our spread included fresh rye bread, cheese, tomatoes, homemade kielbasa, hot tea and a home-baked cake with some variation of apples, prunes or poppy seed.  Huge portraits of Jesus and Mary adorned the walls by the dining table in a room that likely served as her parents’ bedroom, too. Basia was their well-loved only child.

I was a bit of a curiosity; the first American they encountered. I answered questions regarding impressions of Poland and my travels. Her dad pointed out to me that he’d also travelled.

“I’ve been as far as Sandomierz (several hours away) when I was in the army,” he said.
Basia’s parents openly expressed concern about her studies. They feared she would not return to the village after graduating. They worried she’d fall in love and stay in the city. They questioned who would take care of the farm when they got older.

“I don’t understand why Basia has to attend university,” her father told me. “I prayed she wouldn’t pass her entrance exams.”

Basia loved her parents dearly. She also loved learning and was intent on becoming a high school history teacher. She expressed a desire to return to Regulice.

Although I remain in contact with some friends from that time, sadly, I’ve lost touch with Basia. I sometimes wonder if she returned to her village. I also wonder if her Dad is still around – sitting on his swing and playing his harmonica.

As my teenage daughter aspires to her own adventures – some close to home, others much farther afield – I am reminded that parenting is about raising children with the confidence to define and pursue their dreams. Who are we to “keep” them?

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or

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