Maria Urbaniak, Polish survivor of Russian gulags
Maria Urbaniak survived the WWII Russian gulags and became an icon of
Seattle's Polish community. She died May 5, aged 97.
Seattle Times staff reporter
=127203455> Urbaniak: May 19, 1911 - May 5, 2009
When Maria Urbaniak was sent to the Russian gulags during World War II, she
would sneak out of the barracks at night and lay in the snow stripped to her
waist, hoping to catch pneumonia and die, her daughter says.
But she survived. She went on to become a leader in Seattle's Polish
community, helping many new immigrants settle in this country and sending
clothing and supplies back to her homeland.
Just a few weeks ago, a caregiver found Ms. Urbaniak on the floor of her
Seattle home, stripped to her waist. Daughter Eva Urbaniak says it was a
sign her mom was finally ready to move on. Ms. Urbaniak died May 5 after a
series of small strokes. She was 97.
Born in a politically troubled region, Ms. Urbaniak was sent to an orphanage
for one year at age 9 after her father was arrested on dubious charges and
died in custody, and her mother found it hard supporting three daughters.
After the family reunited, Ms. Urbaniak went on to excel in school and earn
a master's degree in law.
In 1939, she was arrested after arguing with Russian soldiers about Polish
sovereignty. She was moved from lockup to lockup, and was eventually
sentenced to five years hard labor in Kazakhstan. In 1942, she was released
under an amnesty agreement and eventually made her way to London, working
for the exiled Polish government.
On a trip to Scotland she met Jozef Urbaniak, a war hero, and the couple
married in 1950. Two years later, they moved to Seattle. The couple became
active with the Polish Hall, the focal point for the local Polish community.
Ms. Urbaniak earned her master's degree in librarianship at the University
of Washington and worked in the Suzzallo Library as a Slavic cataloger. Her
husband, who died in 1986, worked as a dental technician.
Vlad Kaczynski, an associate professor of marine affairs at the UW, recalled
that when he first immigrated to Seattle, Ms. Urbaniak loaned him $5,000 so
he could put a down payment on a house in Ballard and move in with his wife
and 3-year-old son.
"This was the beginning of our life," Kaczynski said. "It was very important
in that sense."
Kaczynski said he was able to later repay Ms. Urbaniak.
"Her life was devoted to others," he said. "She basically became this symbol
of help, cooperation and support. She was the moral focus of the Polish
Ms. Urbaniak could speak fluent French and Russian as well as Polish and
English. She enjoyed reciting poems, singing and dancing. She loved to
entertain by telling jokes, and would sometimes get so carried away she'd
start speaking in another language midway through.
"She was always so much fun, considering the life she had," said Shigeko
Podgorny, who worked with her at the UW.
"She was very well-educated and intelligent. She was also very emotional.
Whenever she talked about Poland, her native land, she always cried,"
Ms. Urbaniak is survived by her two daughters, Eva Urbaniak of the Seattle
area and Anna Urbaniak of Arizona. A memorial service will be held at 11:30
a.m. May 23 at St. Bridget Church, 4900 NE 50th St., Seattle. In lieu of
flowers, donations can be made to the Polish Home Association, 1714 18th
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