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 email@example.com.
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.
Here is a link to a trailer for a recent film about Helena’s life (unrelated to my book):