- February 1, 2013
A new person is born…
Doctor Hanna Strużanowska delivered almost 25 thousand births. She welcomed each child to this world with joy and affection, but also with an enormous feeling of responsibility for.
Dr. Hanna worked in healthcare for 50 years, and will soon celebrate her 80th birthday. Despite leaving hospital a long time ago, she is still remembered by her young co-workers, grateful mothers, grandmothers, and colleagues.
Recently, we visited Hanna Strużanowska-Balsinė, a distinguished doctor, long-term vice director of the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics at St. Jacob Hospital in Vilnius (First Soviet Hospital after war), member of the Polish Association of Physicians in the Vilnius region, awarded with the Gold Cross of Merit, and the daughter of Janina Strużanowska, a well-known activist in the field of Polish theatre and promotion of Polish culture in the Vilnius region.
We enjoyed interviewing Dr. Strużanowska in her large family house in Turniškės. Joyful and peaceful, busy with looking after her great grandchild Aleksander, the youngest in the family, she shared her memories with pleasure. The life of Hanka, her parents and her whole family is definitely a history book material. This interview, therefore, covers but a fraction of her story.
As we all know, the 50s, when you studied medicine at the Vilnius University, were not kind to the Polish youth who aspired for higher education in Lithuania.Schools underwent Russification and there were no scholarships, so how did you manage to study medicine?
I will begin with the most important thing – there were Polish schools in Vilnius, and among them there was the 5th Gimnasium in Antokalnis, later the 5th Seconday School in Vilnius, where great numbers of Polish intelligentsia graduated every year in spite of hard times. This school and its pre-war teachers – let me mention such professors as Kuczewski, Jabłoński or Święcicki – sparked our interest and hunger for knowledge from the very beginning. When it comes to me, I had it engraved in my mind from early childhood that I would become a doctor. Just like my mum.
The beginnings weren’t easy. At that time only gold medallists or those who fought or had a Feldscher diploma were enrolled without exams. The competition was very high, with only 20 places to fill.
After finishing school with good grades in 1949, I was full of enthusiasm – although I did not receive any medals – and decided to submit my papers to the medical department. I passed the exams well. However, among A’s there were also two C’s. I did not win the competition. But despite this failure, I was sure that I would never stop trying.
And so you decided to try again?
I decided that I would study for the entry exams at home and at the same time audit lectures at the university. However, such “unrolled” students were frowned upon and soon I was forbidden to go there.
Fortunately, the year 1950 was lucky for me. I passed all the entry exams with flying colours and I officially became a student of the Department of Medicine at the Vilnius University.
You mentioned your mother, who was also a doctor. Let us take up the topic and talk about this unusual and unforgettable person, Janina Strużanowska nee Kunigiel, born in the Vilnius region in the Nemenčinė parish.
Although almost 30 years have passed since she left us for ever (she died on January 24th 1984 at the age of 79), her presence can be still felt in this house, built by her father and my grandfather, Ignacy Kunigiel, in the old Vilnius Kolonia Magistracka. Thanks to old books, paintings and other souvenirs, and above all thanks to her unique personality, we have her spirit’s strength. She was able to raise and educate me and my brother Jerzy in the spirit of Polishness.
She was our role model. She experienced a lot in her life, most of all because of the war which separated our parents for ever. My father, Mieczysław Edmund Strużanowski, born near Lviv, was an officer. As a soldier of the Polish Legions he fought on several fronts during the First World War. In 1920 he took part in the Polish-Soviet War. Later, he was transferred to the Vilnius region where he took command of border protection. Here he met my mum, who studied medicine at Stefan Batory University at the time. They got married in 1930.
My mum would always remember their marriage as the happiest years of her life. In 1934, the whole family moved to Warsaw. Father worked in the Ministry of War until the restless summer of 1939. Mum decided to take us back to Vilnius. We said good-bye to father knowing that we would see him again. We never did. He was seriously injured in the first months of the war. He was recovering for a long time. And then… as we all know… the border, prosecution and arrests of former Polish officers. We were only comforted by the thought that he lived to see transformations in Poland, that he was awarded with military decorations and was given the rank of Brigadier General. Unfortunately, he did not enjoy these honours for long because of his age.
In collective memory, Mrs Janina Strużanowska is remembered as the establisher and director of the first Polish theatre group in Vilnius after war. How could she manage to undertake such a difficult endeavour at the time? Not to mention her professional obligations and house chores.
It all began in this house in the 50s. Mum organised a sort of an amateur theatre, which was visited by our school mates and children from other Polish schools. Rehearsals were held in our room on the first floor. We also performed.
And when annual Catholic or national holidays came, we all used to celebrate them quietly, also at our place. Soon mum became asking the local authorities for permission to set up a Polish stage in Vilnius.
Her and several other enthusiasts’ long-term efforts proved to be successful. On February 13th the first public performance of the Polish drama group of the Vilnius communication workers club took place. I’m happy that it exists to this day as the Vilnius Theatre Studio, which celebrated its 50th anniversary several years ago.
Now that we know a little bit about your parents, let us go back to your studies and beginnings of your career.
I would like to stress that our year was very unusual. There were as many as six Poles among 20 students, all of them graduates of our 5th Secondary School. These were: Olgierd Korzeniecki, Medard Czobot, Marian Szyrwiński, Flora Filipowiczówna, Danuta Korsakówna and me. We never let our school and teachers down. Our grades were high and we accomplished much in our professional lives. I think that the Polish youth of the time, having experienced war, prosecutions, deportations and change of political system and conditions of life, had unusual inner strength, determination and the notion of being equal.
Knowing your achievements and dedication to the Vilnius women and their infants’ health, I can assume that these characteristics also apply to you, doctor.
Thank you. I was forced to start work as a 4th year university student. My mum had been made redundant from her clinic in 1954 as “niebłagonadiożnuju”, a person who cannot be trusted. We were always worried about her. During the war our house had sheltered the underground resistance movement, AK. We had a small printing room where we published a patriotic newspaper and mum used to treat wounded AK members.
They were turbulent times. NKVD everywhere. We heard about more and more deportations to Siberia. Mum was unemployed. I decided that I had to find myself a job in order to maintain the house. I heard that St. Jakob Hospital was looking for a night nurse. They took me under the condition that I would work every night. And so I did. I was at the hospital at night, and at the university during day. The last academic year came and I was extremely busy with internship, exams and dissertation, although I appreciated that the hospital management asked the rectorate to place me in the gynaecological-obstetric department of the same historical facility, 255 years in existence at the time. Thus, my whole life passed at St. Jacob.
I could not believe, and neither could my colleagues, that after 50 years, at the time of privatisation, and exactly on the 300-year anniversary of the hospital, it would be closed down despite numerous protests. But at the time I was already leaving the hospital as a pensioner. I became acquainted with the history of the place through archives which I studied when writing my monograph, 300 lat szpitala św.Jakuba w Wilnie (300 years of St. Jacob Hospital in Vilnius). I presented my work at the global congress of medical Polonia in Kraków.
And finally, would you tell us if there are any new doctors in your family?
Just as I followed my mother’s footsteps, so did my daughter, Jolanta. She is a paediatrician, strictly speaking a neonatologist. She takes care of newborns from the moment they’re born until they leave hospital. As we all know, nowadays giving birth is not so terrifying as it used to be. We have modern equipment which tells us exactly what is happening. Childbirth used to be associated with terrible stress and anticipation. Only after the first cry was heard did the tension drop and you could finally relax with a baby in your arms…
Tłumaczenie Aleksandra Christ w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Aleksandra Christ the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.