On Christmas Eve 2014, Anna M. Cienciala of Lawrence, Kansas passed away in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She was 85 years old. Although she was not well known outside her area of expertise (Polish history), her life and her passing are of special importance to this historian. She was my dissertation adviser at the University of Kansas. This edition of The History Rhyme will not follow the typical style and focus of the blog. Instead, I will offer a few brief memories of the professor who played the greatest role in my development as a historian.
Professor Cienciala was born on November 8, 1929 in the Free City of Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland). Her father was involved in the business aspects of the budding Polish shipping industry in interwar Poland and was a strong supporter of the governments led and influenced by Marshal Jozef Pilsudski. When Poland was attacked by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in September 1939, Professor Cienciala, her mother, and sister fled from Poland to Romania, then to Spain, and then to France. Shortly after her arrival in France, the “phony war” of 1939-40 ended with the German invasion in June 1940. The Cienciala’s were then forced to flee to Britain for the duration of the war. After the war and the betrayal of the Polish exile government in exile by the Allies at the end of World War II, many of the Poles in Britain never returned to their homeland. Anna eventually decided to study diplomatic history in order tell the story of Poland during the interwar period.
A woman seeking to become a professor in the 1950s was uncommon and not without criticism (she was told more than once that she was taking a place away from men and that she should become a housewife). Yet, her determination helped her to overcome adversity and to receive a Bachelor of Arts from Liverpool University in 1952. She then moved to North America to continue her education at McGill University (M.A. – 1955) and Indiana University (PhD – 1962). She taught Eastern European history at three universities, University of Ottawa, University of Toronto, and (starting in 1965) at the University of Kansas. During her career, she wrote Poland and the Western Powers:1938-1939 (published 1968) and co-wrote, with Titus Komarnicki, From Versailles To Locarno, Keys to Polish Foreign Policy, 1929-1925 (published 1984). She also wrote numerous articles and participated in many panels on the topics of Polish diplomatic history and especially on the Katyn Forest Massacre. As a professor, she helped guide several budding scholars. The last of her doctoral students (me) completed his work in 2001 after which she retired to emeritus status in 2002. In 2014 she was awarded the Commander’s Cross with Start of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland. After her death, services were held in Lawrence with the Polish Consul in Chicago attending, in New York City at St. Stanislaus church and in Warsaw.
There have already been several memorials to the life of Professor Cienciala. In this blog, I will simply take the opportunity to share a few of my memories of being her student and some thoughts on what I learned from her. When I first met Professor Cienciala (it still feels wrong to call her Anna), I was 23 years old and had some vague ideas on historical topics. I learned quickly that I needed to have a better grasp of my facts and a firmer foundation to my arguments. The incident that comes to mind is shortly after I arrived at Kansas when I made a vague comment about nobody being explicitly to blame for the outbreak of World War I. She told me that it was “soft-headed thinking” and then proceeded to give me a multitude of documented facts showing that the Germans had been prepared for a war with Russia for quite some time. Her insistence that I support my ideas made me a better scholar. I also learned quickly that she was fearless in her defense of her views. When the former President of Communist Polish, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, spoke in the middle 1990s at Kansas State University, my professor was there asking him hard questions about his suppression of the Solidarity movement in the 1980s.
While Professor Cienciala could be demanding of her students, we all knew that she was looking out for us too. When I was presenting a paper at a conference on the use of messianic themes by Poles in exile during World War II (which served as the basis for a journal article on the topic), an older gentlemen who had opposed some of the people I quoted started to grill me. I was unable to answer some of his assertions as they were well outside of the scope of my topic. My professor, who had been in these types of ideological skirmishes for years, came to my rescue. I was very grateful. When I was first preparing to visit Poland in 1995, she not only give me a letter of reference that allowed me to meet with the director of Poland’s National Archive, but also gave me practical advice on how to handle someone trying to give me drinks at a party (“pour it into a nearby plant while they are not looking”).
Finally, Professor Cienciala was also the source of some very humorous stories about Central and Eastern Europe (some of which included herself) which were helpful in explaining the sometimes confusing history of that region. So, in closing, I will try to retell one of her stories that I especially enjoyed that explained the decline and fall of the Soviet Union. In this story, the Soviet Union is a train and that its citizens are operating the train.
During the time of Lenin, the train works for a while but eventually has problems. Lenin goes to the engineers and urges them with great zeal to overcome the obstacles they face. The train is fixed and continues on. Later, during the time of Stalin, the train once again comes to a halt. Stalin orders the engineers to be shot and new, more loyal ones to replace them. With great efforts, the train is fixed and continues on. During the time of Khrushchev, the train once again comes to a halt. The Soviet leader responds by getting a new and very expensive engine which then continues down the track – albeit without a way to pay for the repairs. Finally, during the time of Brezhnev, the train once again comes to a halt. The Soviet leader says “just shake the curtains and pretend we are still moving.”