The Snow Queens

by Cynthia Gralla

The Snow Queens is a literary historical novel primarily set in interwar and World War II Poland. Two of its characters are based on Cynthia’s distant cousins: Helena Marusarzówna, a ski courier in the Polish resistance who was captured by the Nazis, and Stanisław Marusarz, an Olympic skier and fellow courier who survived the war, but only because he broke out of death row in a Kraków prison in spectacular fashion.

In 2012 Cynthia received a senior researcher grant from the U.S. – Polish Fulbright Commission that allowed her to conduct research for the book in Poland, and she lived for two years in Lublin, a city near the Ukrainian border famous for its cluster of universities.

As she wrote the novel, it grew in scope, eventually covering over one hundred years in the life of an extended Polish-Catholic family, including fictional characters as well as ones based on historical figures. The war chapters form the central portion of the book and in many ways the heart of the story, but the narrative stretches from 1912 to contemporary Poland, with all of its contradictions and troubling legacies.

In writing The Snow Queens, she was influenced by literary historical novels like Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Susan Sontag’s In America, as well as writers like Elena Ferrante who explore the complexities of female friendships over time.

If you have any questions about the book, please feel free to email Cynthia at

~ Cynthia's Polish Family ~ Excerpts ~ Home ~

Helena Marusarzówna

Stanisław Marusarz

Cynthia's Polish Family

Zakopane, Poland, lies at the foot of the Tatra Mountains. The Tatras form a natural border between Poland and present-day Slovakia. Zakopane has been popular for over a hundred years as a popular ski resort and tourist destination. With its fairy-tale wooden chalets and traditional costumes, Zakopane also allows visitors a glimpse of the old folk traditions of Poland.

Stanisław Marusarz was born in Zakopane in 1913 and his sister Helena in 1918. They were the first cousins of Cynthia’s maternal grandmother, or her first cousins twice removed. Stanisław is the inspiration for the character of Bruno in The Snow Queens, while Klara is based on Helena.

In Zakopane during the 1920s and 1930s, skiing was a fact of life, and depending on the weather conditions, its villagers might glide on skis to Christmas Eve’s midnight mass. Stanisław and Helena showed talent in the sport early on, and despite their parents being so poor that Helena had to quit school after eighth grade to help on the family farm, the brother and sister trained when they could.

Both went on to place first in national competitions, Stanisław in ski jumping and Helena in downhill and slalom. Stanisław competed in his first Olympic games (of four) in 1932, and in 1938 he became the first Pole to medal in the International Ski Federation’s World Championships, winning the silver for ski jumping. Helena was training for the 1940 Olympics when World War II interrupted her dreams.

On September 1, 1939, the Germans invaded Poland. The Poles fought back but were quickly defeated. Almost immediately after the invasion, Zakopane was declared a closed town, with no one allowed to travel in or out – at least in theory. In reality, members of the resistance circulated throughout the country, using forged transit papers.

Although the borders were closed, there was still one way in and out of Poland: over the Tatras. If you could make it over the mountains and through present-day Slovakia, you could reach one of the resistance pockets in Budapest and communicate with the Polish government-in-exile, whose main headquarters were located in Paris early in the war, and in London later on.

To do that, you needed the help of ski couriers like Stanisław and Helena, who quickly joined the resistance at great risk to their lives.

The graves of Helena and Stanisław

The Marusarz family house today

A Street in Zakopane

The Tatra Mountains

Excerpt from The Snow Queens

The Spies

In late February, at long last: the assignment that made all his sacrifices worthwhile.

When Bruno received word that Irena needed help getting out of the country, he felt a sense of correctness, as if, even in the midst of war and occupation, all was right with Poland, and by extension, the world. Of course, he was not given a message from Irena, strictly speaking. Like everyone in the ZWZ, she had adopted a pseudonym, Krystyna. Still, the paternity of “Krystyna’s” request was doubtless as soon as Ms. Krasowska attached its rider. “Tell him not to wear a suit. It may inconvenience him on the journey.”

Bruno arranged to meet her seven days later, at the same abandoned mill where Klara had nursed her despair at the no-shows. He wasted the night before in a ridiculous dance of twitching and tossing.

“What’s the matter?” Dorota had asked, and he knew that he must have tried the patience of the steadiest of women, if she was asking him what was wrong when he and she and most people they loved were risking their lives daily.

“Nothing . . .Just worried about Klara. She’s been so depressed lately.”

In the dark, Dorota nodded. By unspoken agreement, they never acknowledged between them the fact that his sister was a ski courier. Bruno knew Dorota knew, because she understood Klara’s stubbornness better than most. It would have been as unimaginable to her as to him if his sister had not insisted on doing what she could for the ZWZ. But it seemed safer not to mention it. Loose lips could quickly fall victim to duplicitous ears, and besides, Bruno preferred to maintain the delusion that if his wife were taken for questioning by the Germans, her innocence would somehow protect her. In this instance, the upshot was that Dorota kissed him, questioned him no further, and burrowed back into sleep.

The next day, Bruno met Irena at the scheduled time. She was waiting for him when he cautiously approached the mill, sitting just in the doorway, her desire to bathe in the weak winter sun trumping the need to hide herself. She was a wanted woman, he knew. Irena had already crossed the Tatras once on the well-trodden route through the Slovak Republic to the resistance headquarters in Budapest. She had then snuck back into Poland, much to her guide’s disbelief. Everyone else was trying to get out, but she was determined to return to her home country, entrusted with a mission to spread word of the support abroad for Poland, in an attempt to counteract German propaganda that assured Poles the rest of the world had forgotten them. She landed back in Zakopane at the end of the previous year—as Bruno only heard later—and proceeded straight to Warsaw via horse-drawn carts.

Now, she wanted to make another trip to Budapest, weighted with a unique Polish anti-tank rifle, the stock and barrel of it sawed off to make transport easier. Looking at her now, he saw that commitment to the cause had enlivened her face, giving her lovely tanned skin a slight flush and her eyes violent purpose. Looking at her now, he couldn’t believe he had given up on his pursuit of her and married someone else.

Common sense rushed to quash that thought. You knew she could never be serious about you. So you married Dorota, and you’ve been happy.

Shut up, he told himself.

Without much discussion, Bruno took responsibility for the rifle and the pair plunged into the mountains. Knowing she had accomplished the crossing before relaxed Bruno a little, but he soon found this relaxation gave his mind unwelcome room to wander.

During the first stage of the climb, Irena was quiet, and her lips, usually quick to quirk in a mocking smile, were hyphen-straight with tension. Her face was soon drenched in sweat. On her skis, curved like serifs on the letters in an old book, she stood lithe as ever, but she was struggling with the terrain and the cold, and her posture had adopted the grandiose stoop of a put-upon maiden in a fairy tale. The association startled him. She who had always seemed so modern was stranded in timelessness on these mountains.

Timelessness breeds immoral thoughts, of actions beyond consequence. Soon, Bruno could hardly concentrate for fantasizing about her. When they skied past Czarny Staw Lake, he glanced toward the littoral yawn and could not resist the image, fever-dream vivid, of him and Irena making love beside the water.

His conscience interrupted him: You have a wife you love. You should stop staring at this sweaty female who does not care about you.

And then another thought hit him, worse than the first: I sound like Magda.

He shivered dramatically, then cursed himself: Shivering dramatically is the kind of thing Magda would do.

Discouraged by his mental tumult as much as the trek’s physical hardships, Bruno was more wrecked than Irena when they finally reached the hut near Rysy Peak. It had been built to accommodate the guides of the Tatra Voluntary Rescue Service over thirty years ago. The Rescue Service had been founded after Mieczyslaw Karlowicz, a distinguished composer, was killed in an avalanche. His mother’s father had been one of the guides, exploring the mountains while assisting ill-prepared hikers and skiers who lost their way. He wondered if his grandfather had ever imagined a situation where the deepest recesses of the Tatras would come to represent salvation more than danger. At least, most of the time. The ski couriers were not the only people taking advantage of the little-trafficked pockets of these peaks. As more courier trails were established, they were being used, Bruno knew, by bandits and blackmailers. Two ski couriers had already perished in the line of duty, one presumably in a blizzard two months earlier. The other, it was said, met his fate as the result of a collaborator who crouched in wait near the foot of the mountains, waylaying passersby like the troll beneath the bridge in “Three Billy Goats Gruff.” Then there were those who functioned as ski couriers outside of the ZWZ, ferrying people across the mountains in exchange for money (or, in one tale he heard, sex).

Luckily, though, the hut was empty when they arrived. Bruno expected Irena to be too exhausted to talk, but after they enjoyed some of the food they’d brought in silence, she surprised him by chatting animatedly, asking after the health of his wife, sister, and parents. Then she proceeded to tell him stories about her pack of suitors in Budapest, each more wolfish yet more inept than the last. In spite of his keen awareness that he was, given his history and his current state of mind, kin to these devotees, Bruno laughed along with her when she described one man who recently tried to kill himself over her rejection by jumping into the Danube. He simply landed on its sheets of ice, the river having frozen over.

“What happened to him?”

“Oh, he’s still hanging around. In fact, he seems to think his misadventure is cause for me to reconsider granting him my favors.” The coldness with which she spoke wiped the smile off Bruno’s face. But that was just Irena’s way. She alternated between volcanic warmth and crushing coldness. Like the trek up here. Your body burns while your extremities nearly freeze. Except that the mountain can’t help but be relentless. She could.

“How’s your husband?” he suddenly couldn’t stop himself asking.

She shrugged. “Still my husband. Still in Cairo. He’s my Svengali. I’ll never be completely free of him.” Bruno still hated him.

Irena slept less than two feet away from him that night, but the gulf between them, in his mind, could fit itself into the mountain they had just ascended. So far, she hadn’t thanked him for helping her, appearing to take it as her due. But that’s what you like about her, the voice inside him rattled on. Her imperiousness. Her sense that she deserves tribute.

Go to sleep, he told the voice and himself.

The second voice, which seemed to specialize in gut-punching after-thoughts, added, Yeah, I can’t believe you’re not in love with your Aunt Salomea, if you adore women like Irena. The thought was so disturbing that he immediately clamped his mind against it and hurled himself—with a final, superhuman push such as he sometimes employed during mountain passes—down the precipitous chute of sleep.

Bruno was still in a state of dissolution when they ventured forth the next morning. His desire to hold Irena down against the floor of the hut and ravish her had been held in check only by the thinnest lacquer of probity. With her, as always, he felt vanquished. He hated his helplessness and he hated her for it. But he loved the deliciousness of hating her, the way he could sink the delicate pincers of a strange beast into that loathing, tasting it like animal flesh.

They reached the Tatras’ tipping point, crossing into Slovakia and what was called “the High Tatras.” The descent came at them with a rush. Here it was the linguistic more than the geographical landscape that changed, the names of the peaks and towns now peppered by v-shaped háčeks—Štrbské Pleso, Prešov Kriváň—which always made him think of spices dashed on top of cold soup. He felt the shift in her mood: Irena seemed happier now that they were out of Poland. Glancing frequently at his charge, he caught her occasional smile, a dazzling brightness amidst subfuscous clothing. Bruno smiled back, but his mouth felt uncertain in his face. With Irena, even the separate features of his face felt disoriented, their bone compass broken.

In the woods south of the ski resort town of Štrbské Pleso, he heard a noise. He motioned Irena to stop while he considered what to do next. It could have been an animal. He often spotted lynxes, foxes, wolves, marmots, and even the weird-faced Tatra chamois in these parts, and he knew the occasional brown bear roamed here as well. But even more frightening than a hungry bear were the human possibilities. If the noise had been made by a person, he or she might be another courier—even Bruno didn’t know exactly how many of his kind were traversing these paths on a regular basis. But he didn’t dare to hope that a human, if encountered, would be friend rather than foe.

He took her hand and pulled her toward the nearest cave. It was not too far from the manmade lake, created by damming a brook forty years ago, which was now one of the charms of this homey base for hiking and skiing. That they were so close to the populated area recalibrated Bruno’s ideas about the sudden sound, making him sure it was human. They would just have to wait until it appeared safe to continue on.

The minutes thickened unbearably. After suppressing several coughs and registering the sweat on his forehead, Bruno indulged in a recourse rare for him. He prayed. He’d been raised Catholic, of course, but he had never enjoyed the easygoing relationship with the godhead that Klara appeared to have. For her, praying and believing came as naturally as pranking the lusty neighborhood boys. Grace rested lightly on her, but not on Bruno. He felt the presence of God and the talk of His divinity like a bad-fitting suit hampering his movement through life. He wasn’t sure how to keep the wrinkles out. But now, there was nothing for it but to take the leap of faith and adrenaline and ask for His protection—for Irena if not himself.

Irena must have seen his lips moving, because she got the queerest look in her eyes. He looked down and saw that his hands had folded primly, unconsciously, in submission.

She reached over and kissed him.

This fit was perfect and, in its own way, divine. It was a contest of wills, as it always was with her. But even that felt right and sound.

The strangest thing: The way he could hear the sound of her voice as her mouth covered his, like how you hear the echoes of words when you read silent film captions, even though nothing is spoken aloud.

The strangest thing: How her throaty laugh resounded in the cave, yet didn’t, as her hot breath coursed expertly over his hardness and her mouth swallowed him.

There was no accounting for Irena’s quixotic brand of harlotry. No way of knowing when it might blossom into desire and demand. Bruno understood well enough to take what was given, despite the concern for Dorota dancing on the outskirts of his conscious mind.

Irena straddled him and bit his lips, closing her eyes as she pulled back slightly before swooping in for the kill. Again and again and again.

* * *

Depending on the weather, it took two or three days to cross the Tatras. When the mountains were gripped by blizzards, Bruno was forced to stop and spend a second night in one of the mountaineers’ huts scattered across the High Tatras. He hated to be slowed down in this way, but sometimes there was no way around a cautious climb and a hedging descent. Sometimes, too, he had to reroute himself, straying from his preferred paths, due to inclement weather or his having sensed other people in the vicinity.

On his way back into Poland, after seeing Irena to Hungary—he found himself unwilling to leave her side until he knew she was safe at 12 Donati Street—Bruno ran into problems. He was forced to cut closer to Štrbské Pleso than he would have liked due to a recent storm, which had piled snowdrifts higher than his head along his favorite, more secluded trail. He felt uneasy about walking through the tight orbit of the resort town, remembering the sound that had startled him on the descent with Irena. Of course, that memory just circled his thoughts back to images of her body on the darkened pile of outerclothes in the cave.

He was glad they had made love one last time. He doubted they would meet again. If they did, it would be in passing on a street in Budapest or Zakopane. In his heart of hearts, he doubted Irena would survive the war, which was growing in intensity even as her valor and recklessness refused to cool.

He thought about something she’d said to him while they sat on a pile of potato sacks in a railway car, at the back of a train to Budapest: “You know, Bruno, I love being a spy.” He had bristled at this statement for reasons he couldn’t understand, but chewing it over as he trudged through the snow, he realized she said it because she knew he would bristle, because he secretly felt the same way. Despite his recent reservations about the growing danger, Bruno, like Irena, thrived on these missions, because with them he proved his own mettle, mental and physical.

“It’s important work,” he commented, sounding as lame as he always did around her.

She laughed softly, music in her long, tanned throat. How did she stay lightly tanned in the midst of the Slavic winter? he wondered but did not to ask, knowing he was supposed to pretend, once again, that he was ignorant of her physical charms. It was all part of their long-played game, which Irena would always win. She was more deft than he would ever be in the resumption of the everyday after moments of sensual catastrophe.

“We’re storied, we spies,” she said, winking at him. “We are the stuff of stories. Everyone finds us irresistible. And let’s face it, we find ourselves irresistible.”

She was right, as always, and it annoyed him now that she was off to a story he could not invent or share.

He was mulling all this when he heard a sound—branch snapping. He looked up to find a man in the uniform of a Slovak border patrol guard, about thirty feet away, pointing a rifle at his head.

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Copyright © Cynthia Gralla, 2018