Jacek Dehnel has dusted off and returned to the cultural fold the real historical figure of Makryna Mieczysławska, who perpetrated one of the greatest hoaxes of the nineteenth century, and on a European scale too. The story of the fake nun, who was not exposed until fifty years after her death, provides the material for a thrilling plot. In September 1845 a middle-aged woman turns up in Paris, claiming to have been the Mother Superior at a convent of Sisters of the Order of Saint Basil in Minsk, which was closed down eleven years earlier by the Russian authorities. In Paris Makryna is taken up by some eminent representatives of the so-called Great Migration of Poles who have fled from the empires that have engulfed their country, first and foremost Prince Adam Czartoryski. They are extremely willing to listen to her made-up stories about martyrdom for the Catholic faith and for being Polish. For Makryna maintains that she and the other nuns were kept prisoner for years on end, cruelly tortured, starved and forced to do hard labour, all because she had refused to convert to the Russian Orthodox church. Curiously, not just Polish émigrés are fooled by her shocking stories but so is the European general public – the French and British press report widely on her sufferings and the cruelty of the Russians, the bishops refer to her martyrdom in their pastoral letters, and finally she is received by Pope Gregory XVI; his successor, Pius IX, also has a soft spot for her.
Clearly fascinated by this unusual swindler, Dehnel’s main question concerns what determined the success of her incredible hoax; he explains why Makryna’s lies were useful, in the political sense. In any case, her more perceptive listeners quite soon realised that she was a fraud and a liar, but the need to maintain the image of a holy martyr took the upper hand. What triumphed was not so much naivety, as plain cynicism.
The story develops through two interwoven monologues narrated by the title character. The first, as it were official line, is a literary rendition of the testimonies to her martyrdom for her faith and motherland that Makryna gave in Poznań, Paris and Rome, in other words contemporary documentary evidence. The second, which is more like a religious confession than anything else, reveals the true story of Makryna, and this is the one that has the greater effect on the reader’s imagination and emotions. What we get is the story of Irena Wińczowa, a poor Jewish girl from Wilno, who was forced to adopt a series of false identities as the only way to survive in a cruel world.
As a convert obsessed with the Catholic faith, she dreamed of entering a holy order, but became a servant instead. As the pretty Jula (previously known as Juta), she attracted a Russian officer called Wińcz, and then became Irena, in exchange for two betrayals – her religious conversion (this time to the Orthodox church) and her liaison with the Russian, and thus with a representative of the hateful partitioning power. At first he doted on her, but when it turned out that she couldn’t have children, he became a ruthless wife-beater. The countless wounds on her body, which she showed in Paris and Rome as proof of the cruelty of the Russkies, were inflicted by her sadistic alcoholic husband. After his death she wound up destitute – he had drunk away everything they owned. She managed to latch on to one of the Wilno convents as a charwoman, and that was where she came across the Basilian nuns who had been driven out of Minsk. Embellishing the stories she heard from them, she took on a new identity, becoming Mother Makryna.
Dehnel tells the story in a way that leads us to sympathise with the central character, and even to feel fond of her; he persuades us that her fabricated martyrdom was not at all far from the genuine suffering she endured. As she sets off to conquer the world as a fake nun, she describes herself as: “One, a widow. Two, a pauper. Three, no longer young. Four, a woman. Five, a Jewish convert. Six, ugly. With lots of old scars on her face, and a few more entirely new ones, wrinkled and hunchbacked, with swollen legs, panting as she goes up steps.” Despite such negative assets, she did extremely well for herself, living to a great age as a guest at a convent in Rome, surrounded to the end of her days by the cult of a holy martyr.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, I shall write the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God in heaven and all the saints, amen. Scarcely had I entered the presence of Archbishop Przyłuski in Poznań, scarcely had I fallen at his feet, when I raised my weeping eyes to him and said:
“This is the tale of Makryna Mieczysławska, Mother Superior of the Basilian Sisters of Minsk, and of their seven years of persecution for their faith. As I recall the scene today, I could see Siemaszko as clearly as I can see the fringes on the Episcopal throne, as clearly as the tassels on the curtains; I had him within arm’s reach, as he stood there and said: ‘Just you wait – with the lash I shall strip you of the skin in which you were born! By the time a new one grows, you’ll be singing a different tune’ – those were his exact words, and no other, as he stood in the convent with his hired assassins, like the assassins that took Our Lord Jesus Christ captive in Gethsemane, though those men came on a cold spring night, in March, or April, before Holy Week, and these came to us in mid-summer, at break of day. So Siemaszko addressed us, while there I stood in my robes of Prioress of the Basilian convent, with my ring and my crosier, and my sisters around me: Krystyna Huwaldówna, Nepomucena Grotkowska, and lastly Euzebia Wawrzecka – she with whom I later ran from Muscovite bondage, having broken our chains; that was the last I saw of her, for we scattered in all directions, calling on God to help us evade pursuit, like the Holy Family pursued by Herod’s henchmen. So there stood Siemaszko, setting foot on the door, forced open by those Muscovite ruffians, until the iron staples and hinges snapped like kindling wood; he was savouring his might, his satanic power, as if he were the Lord Jesus Christ Himself at the gates of hell – yet he had done wrong, for he had invaded the Holy Church and was maltreating us, the handmaidens of the Lord, threatening us. By then it was high summer, and the red, well-fed snout of the civilian governor Ushakov, all decked in his braided uniform, was bathed in beads of sweat; but Siemaszko was dry, dry as the very devil, dried by the desert winds of hell. He screamed at us, the handmaidens of God, he screamed at me, ‘You, Polish sow, you Warsaw sow’ – for he knew me to be of high birth, and that in my youth I had frequented our, Mieszko’s, Mieczysław’s old Polish capital – ‘sow,’ therefore, ‘Warsaw sow,’ he shouted, ‘I shall rip your tongue from your throat, I shall tug, yank, and grip so hard that my very grasp shall cause the blood to spurt, and I shall toss it to the ravening hounds’ – until dry, bitter froth appeared in the corners of his mouth, so close was my view as he leaned over me, every word like a bitter wind blowing in my face. ‘Ha’,
thought I, ‘Mieczysław became the Bold, so Mieczysławska shall be the stone from David’s sling: let him just try to fight a woman’.
The day was dawning; on our way to the chancel for meditation, we had been torn from prayer as from a mother’s womb. As the bell struck five, I implored the governor to let us enter the confines of the church, where for so many years we had served God. Siemaszko was all but casting sparks from his eyes; I merely gazed at the apostate, waiting for his cassock to burst into sulphurous flames upon him. When I instructed our dearest, fresh-faced sisters Irena Pomarnacka and Liberata Korminówna to fetch from the treasury our silver cross, set with precious stones and the relics of Saint Basil himself, at once it was seized by sacrilegious hands, causing the blood to flow from Sister Liberata’s fingers, as if a portent of the day to come when they would tear her limb from limb; she merely gave a gentle moan and yielded to the care of Providence. Fortunately, the Muscovite was greedy for precious metal and stones; thus he was desirous of riches, not the cross – and took much plunder from the treasury, the precious robes, and the altars, including my entire dowry, twice one hundred thousand Polish zlotys with which I had entered the convent, and which I had wholly invested in its embellishment. Never mind the riches snapped up by those ruffians – our souls are what matters. We were allowed to take a simple cross, of wood, for under this symbol we would go to our martyrdom. That it would indeed be martyrdom had been made plain to us by then; therefore I took hold of the hard, sharp-edged cross, and laid it on my left shoulder, with Sister Pomarnacka like Simon of Cyrene to help me, and sometimes other sisters too, though if any tried to give me aid, a soldier would strike her with the flat of his sword or prick her with his bayonet.
Thus began our Golgotha – as soon as we left the convent, coming through the gate, which I had seen so often from the window of my cell, I looked about for the wagons that would convey us into exile; but at once I realized that, ringed by a band of armed men, we were going to their brigands’ lair on foot. At this point we heard the cries of children. For our convent was not merely dedicated to praising God, but also to serving the people. And day by day many paupers and beggars came to us, with suppurating wounds, with legs or arms missing… a hand torn off by grape shot in the wars, or severed by a Muscovite broadsword; a man whose legs had been trampled by a horse, another who was lame from birth, or with a face so crooked as to be painful to behold; a woman riddled with monstrous worms, another covered in weeping boils – every second person was itching, scabious, or louse-ridden, with matted locks one cubit long, or two. All these people came to us as to the purest spring, in which we would wash, feed and water them. And as if that were too little for our feeble arms to bear, there were the children, the orphans, of whom we had six times ten to nurture. As in the paintings, where Herod’s henchman raises a heavy iron gauntlet to a child, so too the soldiers dispersed and threatened the innocents. The babes were crying and screaming; I can still see them today, gazing out of a small square window, divided in a cross, one child’s head in each pane, in terror and in tears, the younger ones below, the older above; some opened the windows, stretched out their little arms and cried: ‘Our mothers are captured, our mothers are captured!’ Others ran down the stairs, their small feet pattering as they ran towards us, but when they clung to the hem of our habits, the butts of the Muscovite rifles pushed them aside; as if their lives were at stake they watched, until the soldiers glanced the other way, and then at once they sprang to our sides again. The oldest children, the wisest, just as they had often entered the orchard for sour apples, now scrambled over the wall, for the Muscovites were guarding the gate; they went and ran throughout the town, banging on doors, and loudly shouting: ‘Our mothers are captured, our mothers are captured!’ At this cry the whole town awoke, people leaped from their beds, this man flew from his house in nothing but his shirt, that man’s wife threw a cape on his back, yet another grabbed a club, and they all rushed to join us; but they only caught up with us at the inn called the Convenience, a quarter of a mile from town, so nobody saw how the Muscovite assassins drove us through the convent gates, never to enter them again. I with the cross at the fore, like the Lord Jesus, with Sister Pomarnacka like Simon of Cyrene at my side, thinking only of our Lord’s torment as I glanced at my own shoulder – He must have had the self same wound on the shoulder that bore the cross; three bared bones protruded from it, but contemplating agony not my own, but that of Christ, succoured me on our march. Others among us, especially the older sisters whose health was failing, tumbled to the ground, whereupon the henchmen jabbed and beat them with their rifles, heedless of the blood that came bursting from their mouths, their noses, and their feet. Then at the Convenience, the tavern – perhaps so named in derision, for there we suffered the greatest inconvenience – Siemaszko halted our conduct.
Three days had passed since his previous visit; he no longer rode in an open gig that bounced on every stone and exposed him to a cloud of dust; sometimes he had come in a fine, lacquered Berlin, newly bought for imperial roubles, at others, if with a distinguished guest, he had come lounging on cushions in a comfortable vis-à-vis; lately he had gained flesh, fattened on Muscovite victuals, grown red, florid and satisfied. Indeed he had been most willing to travel to Saint Petersburg, and at the Tsar’s court church to enter the schismatic faith with the title of archiereus, and then propose a plan to convert all Uniates by force and to turn his endeavours against us. On the first day of our martyrdom, when he and the governor assailed us, he had come in the vis-à-vis. He bid the carriage stop, stood up as if in a pulpit, as if to address us, but merely watched; he waved a hand, beckoned to one of the soldiers and whispered in his ear. At once there was a commotion, the assassins dashed into the courtyard of the inn, where coffers had been placed in advance. One by one they hauled them into the road, then raised the lids, and there inside were fetters, with which they bound us, chaining us to one another, in pairs. We were made to set our feet, then our hands on a block, and the hammers thumped, while the blood splashed on shattered faces and beaten backs, and soaked into the ground. ‘They’re putting our mothers in chains, they’re putting our mothers in chains!’ wept the children; the people wept too, as now and then a woman who had known kindness from us, an old beggar or a godly citizen emerged from the crowd to beg us for a blessing, each from the sister he knew and held dearest; but the soldiery kept pitilessly warding them off with their rifle butts and bayonets. At last the final hammer fell silent, the final pair of sisters was manacled in chains, the weeping crowd was scattered to the four winds and we set off, impelled at a great rate, now across frozen ground, now mud, all but barefoot, all the way to Vitebsk.
- Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones