Irena, harsh winter and the stove called Goat

It was 1945. The war ended and the aftermath relocation started. My grandparents, Irena and Feliks arrived in Szczecin. Previously German, now regained and completely destroyed town and seaport. It was far from stability and safety, though. Poles were fighting Germans, Russians were fighting Germans, Germans were transported out, Poles were transported in. And on top of that those looking for quick gain would loot or szaber anything valuable still  left. The times were hard, yet at least there was hope of starting anew. The young pharmacist and the railway officer were making plans and were ready to work hard. Soon enough, Irena found out she was expecting and decided to move to Bochnia to work in the same pharmacy she did during the war. A year later Feliks was promoted and offered a position in the Railway Headquarters in Zabrze so the family moved again. Irena worked in a manufacturing pharmacy – processing on average a 100 recipes per day. After her shift she would go around nearby villages to source food supplies – milk, eggs, potatoes, vegetables, meat if she was fortunate. Every now and then they heard from the family who lived in the Eastern province. Life seemed more peaceful and the grass looked greener there. There was plenty of food on the locals farms, and it was easy to get a house too. In 1949 Irena and Feliks packed their bags again and headed east to Nałęczów.

The Old Pharmacy in Nałęczów in the painting by Arek Bednarczyk

As soon as they arrived in Nałęczów, not even unpacking the few bits and bobs they brought along, Irena made her way to the only pharmacy in this little spa resort town. As luck would have it the pharmacist’s widow was looking for a manager. Irena was an ideal person for the job – well educated, experienced and very keen. She started the next day. The pharmacy was located in a beautiful building from the start of the century designed by a renowed Polish artist – Witkiewiecz and, as my grandmother recalled, was unfortunately completely unfit for a pharmacy.

losy-wojenne-i-przedwojenne-farmaceutki-part-3The only source of heat was an old metal stand alone stove located in the middle of the dispensary and connected to a huge pipe running right though the middle of the room. To keep the pharmacy fairly warm Irena kept the heat on all the time. Every now and then she had to excuse her customers and load the stove with coal or wood. At night, she would come by at least once to check on the fire and keep it alight. In the morning she brought up enough coal and wood for to whole day. Then washed her hands and get ready for another day in the pharmacy. She dispensed pills,  prepared ointments, distilled oils, measured ingredients.winter-in-poland

As the stove was very temperamental and would burst billowing with soot as if chocking on a particular hard piece of  coal, Irena chose to work on the prescriptions in the back room  of the pharmacy that was freezing cold yet sanitized. Chilled to the bone and with her winter gloves on, she still managed to precisely follow the recipes. Only many years later, when her hands got deformed, it revealed how much the cold affected her.


Finally, after days and days of asking and pleading she was allowed to install a furnace in the back room. All she needed now was tiles. And she needed then as soon as possible. It was the middle of January and the middle of harsh Polish winter. Those days the winters in Eastern Poland were much harsher and looked more like the winters in my favourite Dr Zhivago  – starting in middle of November all though till the end of March with piles of snow, frozen rivers and lakes and sub-zero temperature.

A scene from Dr Zhivago. Courtesy of IMBd
A scene from Dr Zhivago. Courtesy of IMBd

It was crucial to get the other stove in the pharmacy so Irena arranged a horse and carriage to go to the nearby Lublin and look for the tiles herself. She wrapped herself up in a fur coat and and extra blanket and promised to come back before it got dark. She was petite, yet determined. Whether she loaded the heavy tiles onto the carriage herself I don’t know. I truly hope there was someone to help her. More importantly, she came back on a carriage loaded full of tiles and a few days later the pharmacy was warm for the first time this winter. Everyone was happy.

list-od-babci-ireny-1list-od-babci-ireny-2On 21 of January we celebrate Grandmother Day in Poland. To all past present and future Grandmothers – thank you for spoiling us with your kindness.



2 thoughts on “Irena, harsh winter and the stove called Goat

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s