College recently heard of the death of Dr Urszula Szulakowska. As always, Somerville contacted her family and sent the college’s condolences. I also asked for information about her that I could use in our annual Commemoration Service (next on Saturday 8 June 2024), when we celebrate the lives of Somervillians we have lost. Usually, family members send an obituary or a eulogy, and it’s often very moving to read of the lives of alumni since they graduated.
But Urszula’s death in July revealed a particularly interesting story. Somerville was accredited as a College of Sanctuary in 2021, but throughout its history members of the college community have had the need for refuge firmly in their backgrounds: in Urszula’s case, not in her own, but in that of her parents.
Her younger sister, Halina, told me of the family’s joy at Urszula’s success when she came up to college in 1970 to read History. Clearly a creative and spiritual intellect, after her degree she moved from Oxford to Australia, where she completed her PhD, then lectured in Art History for 13 years – first in Sydney, then in Brisbane. She was a gifted painter herself, whose vibrant colour studies nonetheless incorporate allusions to her past (her painting ‘June in Polesie 1930s’ is the featured image for this article, and two further paintings are reproduced below).
Returning to the UK, she went on to work for the University of Leeds, and wrote extensively on alchemy and art in the Renaissance and the Baroque, including the monographs The Alchemy of Light and The Sacrificial Body and the Day of Doom. Her academic life was highly successful and she was a significant name in her field, as well as in the wider art community. We shall clearly celebrate her success as we look to commemorate her life.
But the information Halina sent encouraged me to look further. She commented, as many Somervillians say, how proud their parents had been of her sister’s entry to Oxford. Details of her family’s past led me to realise how important this must have been to them. Urszula’s successful academic and artistic life, impressive though it is in its own terms, emerged from roots in a dark and difficult family history.
Their daughter’s arrival at the calm, intellectual environment of Somerville must have amazed Urszula’s parents, Antoni Szulakowski and Matylda Brodalka. They met as refugees in a camp in Lincolnshire after World War 2, married in Derby in 1949, and made their lives in the UK after the trauma and upheaval of the war.
Antoni had been born close to the Soviet border and, as a young man in 1939 he had secured a place at a military academy to continue his education. He was due to start in January of 1940. Of course, when Poland was invaded this had to be abandoned; instead, he and his family, along with an estimated 1.7 million former Polish citizens of these borderlands, were deported as slave labour. The Szulakowski family were sent to the bitter cold and near starvation of a gulag in Siberia. Released after 20 months, after Stalin turned to the Allies and granted an amnesty, Antoni travelled across the USSR to join his country’s army in exile in Uzbekistan. A hard struggle lay ahead, involving service in the Polish Parachute Brigade.
By 1944, after training in Scotland (the journey to which involved his boat initially being pursued by German ships to South America), Antoni was fighting in Arnhem as part of the ultimately unsuccessful Operation Market-Garden. He managed to escape by boat, after some days under German fire, and returned to find that command of the supposedly independent Polish forces had been retained by the British. It was clear that the men of the brigade were not going to be able to fight in Poland for the country’s freedom.
Eventually, at the end of the war, with Soviet occupation of Poland agreed, Polish fighters like Antoni were stranded. After being stationed in Germany and leaving the army as a Corporal, he chose to stay in Britain, found work and married. As refugees Halina recalls that they pushed their daughters hard to be achievers, keen that they should have the academic success that their parents had missed out on. The success of Urszula in winning a place at Somerville was a source of real pride for them.
Somerville’s role as a College of Sanctuary has its roots in stories such as these
Here we come to a difficult part of the story for a modern reader. Halina tells me that at the point of Urszula’s matriculation her parents were still displaced persons, stripped of their Polish citizenship by the Communist government that Stalin had installed in Poland, and both continued to be loyal to the democratic Polish government exiled in London. It was the 1970s, and, despite Urszula’s grammar school giving everyone the day off in response to her winning her Oxford place, the working-class family faced poverty and racist taunts at home. The class system, meanwhile, was thriving in Oxford too, and, as they dropped Urszula off at college, Halina recalls her parents’ memory of their second-hand Ford car parking between two Rolls Royces. Urszula’s tutor asked to see Antoni and advised them to take British citizenship. She felt that, as the daughter of refugees, left with nothing after a war that had deprived them of their homeland, Urszula would find it difficult to succeed unless they did. Taking British citizenship was something neither of them wanted; they found it very hard to turn from their Polish roots, but they did it for their daughters’ sakes.
Such a story is hard to hear. The trauma of never being able to return to the home they both loved was clearly something they had to live with all their lives. Yet from it emerged the success of two daughters, and consequent parental pride. Somerville’s role as a College of Sanctuary has its roots in stories such as these. The college has always supported academic talent despite the hardships of family experience, but over the intervening years we have learnt not only to support that talent, but also to accept people, whatever their background, on equal terms.
In our Commemoration Service next June we will pay tribute to the success of Urszula’s career, based as it was in part on the suffering, self-sacrifice and strength of her parents.
Jackie Watson (English, 1986)
If you know of the death of a Somervillian who should be included in our Commemoration Service, please do let college know by emailing Jackie Watson, email@example.com