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In a comment on the earlier post about my first public reading and book signing for To Kill the Other, Madga asked about the story of Marek’s mother’s death.  She asked if the story was based on real facts or if it was fictional. Here is my answer:

Many years had passed after the shipyard workers uprising in 1970 by the time I was old enough to understand what happened. By that time, many different stories became a part of Polish daily life, just like the stories about World War Two.

One of the stories that I remember vividly was about a pregnant woman running up the stairs in Gdynia Stocznia city train station.  As I was told, she was running up the very stairs you see on the picture in this post, screaming: “Panowie, nie strzelajcie, tam jest moj maz.” “Gentlemen, don’t shoot, my husband is there!”

As a young girl I was horrified by the events, by the fact that the woman was pregnant, and touched by her sophisticated, out of place language.

I imagined a beautiful woman holding her ripened belly (I was told she was almost nine months pregnant), sweating in her winter coat as she was running, while the sounds of machine guns cut the air.  I thought of her being brave and ferociously in love with her husband, the father of the child she was carrying.

And as a young girl, raised in the midst of the tragically romantic history of Poland, I concluded — based on another story I had heard back then — that if the people who were shooting that day spoke Polish, she would have been spared.  I simplified:  If they could only understand what she was saying, she would still be alive!

Of course my conclusion was based on the other story about the same events in which the people with machine guns were Russians.  Supposedly, the undeniable proof was derived from the fact that when they were wounded and taken to a hospital, they couldn’t communicate with the personnel because they didn’t speak Polish.

I am not sure if anyone asked questions like: Why would the Russians be wounded?  They were the only ones with machine guns, right?  But I am sure that even if these question were asked, I would had chosen the romantic, tragic story in which everything could have been different “only if,” which makes the events much more painful and corresponds perfectly with the Polish destiny/history as we know it.

I left Poland to the USA after college and the events of 1970 were pushed to the deepest corners of my memory, making a new clean place for everything that was unfolding for me in the new country, until one day I decided to send a package to Poland.

As I was chatting with the lady in a travel agency in Baltimore, and as I told her that I am originally from Gdansk, she mentioned the events of 1970 and asked me if I had heard the story about that pregnant woman.

“Yes, I remember,” I said.

“And do you remember how she was running up the stairs screaming, ‘gentlemen, don’t shoot, my husband is there!'”

That was the moment when I thought:  I have to write about it.

I am not sure if I am preserving a history of Poland in this story or if I am preserving a legend that speaks to the tragically romantic nature of people in Poland.

All I know is that I am telling a story of a pregnant woman who ran up the stairs during the shootings in December 1970 in Gdynia Stocznia city train station, asking the oppressors not to shoot because her husband was there, and I know that I had to preserve this story in my writing.

Is my choice a testimony to my romantically tragic way of perceiving reality?  Perhaps.

Here is the entire excerpt of Marek’s story from my novel, To Kill the Other.



Image in this post: http://prawiejakfotograf.pl/2008/12/17/janek-wisniewski-padl/

8 Responses to “(Perhaps) the true story behind Marek’s mother’s death, as told in my novel, To Kill the Other

  1. PamelaJaye says:

    is Polish that very different that the Russians had no clue what she was saying? I don’t speak Russian – and very little Polish. I was excited I could understand That’s my husband! (which turned out to be “there’s” my husband. and it was especially fun without the accent mark in husband.) I couldn’t translate shoot… it’s not really in the Learn Polish books.

    Plus, I had no idea there were uprisings in 70. I remember 81. Saying They should stop, the russians will kill them! and getting roundly reamed out by my half Polish roommate.

  2. Danuta Hinc says:


    I have found a good website for you:

    Regarding the language:
    Even though there are some similarities between the languages, since they both belong to a group of Slavic languages (some words are similar but still pronounced differently and spelled differently since Russian uses Cyrillic), you can easily, as with any other language, say when one doesn’t speak your language, in this case Polish.

    The story about the pregnant woman that I had heard, suggested that shooters who ended up in a hospital couldn’t communicate with the personnel and that is why they were suspected of being Russians.

    In the climate of communist Poland, naturally, Russians were blamed for everything including things that were absolutely irrational and could have been disputed simply as illogical.

    I guess that the main point of the story wants to show how people accept lies to prove their own righteousness or their own agenda; how they accept lies to justify their actions.

    Does it make sense?

  3. PamelaJaye says:


    I was interested in Russian but when I saw the alphabet there was no way. Some years later I head some Polish and decided to give that a shot (or, as it turned out, beat my head into a wall for 10 months. something tells me that if I were in a class with a teacher yammering at me in Polish as my french and spanish teachers used to, it might have been less formidable)
    I know an English girl whose family is Polish and she can speak it but she doesn’t understand the grammar and says they laugh at her (though I bet they can’t explain what she is doing wrong).

    Thanks for the link. I wonder why it was not in the book.

    And maybe, being “outside” and having studied some languages none of which I’m fluent in, I can just see the similarities more easily, when they are there.

  4. I found this very moving for a reason you might not suspect. On my own blog recently I talked about a family member of mine who was lynched here in the US. When I was told the story by a witness, the storyteller was speaking to me in English, but switched to Polish to report what the victim’s wife said. The phrase included the words “moj maz” and “tam.”

    I knew about 1970. I’ve been told that some Poles wrote the seven as a cross.

    • Danuta Hinc says:

      Can you give me a link to your post, the one you mentioned here?
      Yes, the number seven was written as a cross. It became a logo of those times.

  5. Hi, Danuta, sorry I took so long to get back to you. My mention of my family member is a very brief one in a much longer, somewhat depressing blog post. No need to read it and maybe become depressed! 🙂 Again, my family member is mentioned only briefly. Mostly the blog post is about the life of a working class, ethnic Catholic in the Ivory Tower. here’s the link: http://bieganski-the-blog.blogspot.com/2011/03/dispatch-from-trenches-bohunk-in-ivory.html

    I just thought of it because I remember that sentence in Polish (I have just a few Polish language memories from childhood, where something was said in Polish that stood out so strongly from the rest of language that I remember it in Polish, as opposed to English.)

  6. danutahinc says:

    Thank you, Andrew for your kind words.