Ognisko Polskie, the Polish Hearth Club in South Kensington, has been around for nearly 80 years, and on entering you almost feel you’ve been extended the courtesy of an old glamorous Polish family, with large spacious rooms and crystal chandeliers adding to the ambience.
It’s a good place to hear the story of a Countess, and at Ognisko on 23 February Gabriella Bullock and Polish-born actress Rula Lenska presented a talk on The Future Will Tell, a memoir by Countess Maria Tarnowska – one of Poland’s most remarkable aristocrats. Wife of a diplomat, vice-president of the Red Cross, a member of the Polish Underground, she lived in a world of rulers and prominent politicians, and was as remarkable as any of them. In a world known for its old fashioned modesty, she was unafraid to speak her mind and her written account of griefs, losses and endless ups and downs as her world (and Poland’s) is torn apart – not once but twice – should give us pause when taking 70 years of European peace for granted. Tarnowska was deprived of friends, family, home and countrymen, yet remained strong throughout: a figure of immense humour and fortitude despite the harrowed landscape around her. She is, in short, the kind of heroine we need.
The evening at Ognisko served her well. The glamorous Rula Lenska, clad in turquoise and black velvet – another spirited Polish emigre (and aristocrat) – recounted poignant episodes in Maria’s life, to considerable mirth from the audience. We savoured the departure of Ms.Kate, Tarnowska’s hateful governess, whilst also feeling her anguish as prisoner-of-war under the Germans – where, young and naive, she was crammed into an 8-man cell with 26 others for weeks. Later, in the Red Cross and the Polish underground, Maria proved that resistance was part of her psyche. Men, she recognised, fought, but women could fight too, whether through clandestine activity or performing the countless menial activities that enabled the war effort to continue.
The emotion was raw for Gabriella Bullock. As she closed the evening, her voice teared up as she dedicated the performance to her mother, who had fought so hard to get Tarnowska’s memoirs published.
All in all, an engaging evening, which gave some sense of Poland’s epic history. Some might have quibbled at the £20 admission – book-events like this are usually a fraction of the price elsewhere – while newcomers to Poland’s past may have wished for more context to Tarnowska’s extraordinary life. Yet given the charisma of the setting, and the passion so clearly on display here, many will perhaps have felt it worth a little extra.