Maria Zaścińska – Siberian, lawyer, social activist, long-term president of the Polish Aid Committee for Children, a person radiating optimism and light-heartedness, tells Pangea Magazine about her life in exile and her work helping the needy.
In all my life – which is quite long, for I am 92 now, and can be described maybe not as “ancient” but definitely “advanced in age” – I have never lost my faith in humanity. Even during my two-year exile in a Siberian camp I never experienced humiliation and fear from other human beings, on the contrary, I have witnessed some incredibly strong community bonds. Many people ask me, “Maria, how can you reminisce about Siberia so fondly?”. And when my friends warn me about being too helpful towards others, I always remember the camp and my mom, bringing a pot of kasha to a family less well off than us. Touched by her kindness, they protested, “But Wanda, you have three kids of your own!” and she responded, “Today I have something you need and I can share it, tomorrow it can be the other way around.” And so it was in this camp where Jews and Poles lived side by side – we supported each other, we became friends. Many Russians helped us too.
Perhaps I am such an optimist because my parents were such great role models. They raised us very gently and lovingly, taught us to love life. In all my travels visiting different places – in a camp in Pachlewia, in Lebanon, where I studied law, and then in London – I always felt good.
I came to Montreal, Canada with my husband in 1957, and almost immediately became involved with the Polish Aid Committee for Children. It was started by a few ladies shortly after the War. Other organisations pleaded for donations, but these ladies decided to earn money the hard way. The Polish Aid Committee for Children is still active today and recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Twice a year, before Easter and Christmas, we organise a market, and we cook a massive amount of dumplings. Hence my nickname – “Mary with dumplings” – because I was the Committee’s president for many years.
It was something special – helping sick kids and other people, idealists who sacrificed their time and energy as volunteers. The Committee members were all people who went through the horrors of war, maybe that is why they were so sensitive to others’ suffering. The money earned from selling dumplings and also from renting tables to other Polish enterprises, as well as from raffles, is sent to Polish orphanages. We get around $20,000 from each market. We are proud that our organisation doesn’t waste money on administration.
At first we sent the money as a donation, now we fund specific things such as prosthetics or wheelchairs. It’s not just kids we help. For a few years now we have had a special group which helps the elderly. Unfortunately, the Committee is getting “old”. Some older members are passing away, and young people are not interested in social activism. And it is very important, to work together towards a noble goal: the young alongside the old.
I was often criticised for my activity in the community. I never took it to heart though, for only those who don’t do anything don’t ever face criticism. Instead of enjoying a well-earned rest in my “autumn years” I yearn for more community work. Fortunately I am not lonely, people visit me, phone me, I even have contact with young people. I was recently visited by a boy, my friend’s son. He declined his mother’s offer of a joint visit saying “ I want to be alone with Mrs Maria”. I was very touched.