Pre-war Lady of French, Mme Sergeanton – Recollection
Madame Sergeanton, a French teacher at the University of Warsaw, was a regular guest at our home. I don’t know how her parents knew her. As far as I can remember, she was with us “always”.
At home, everyone spoke French: Father fluent and with a perfect accent; My mother did well, with a nice accent, but it was audible, however, that it was not her mother tongue. My older sister and I spoke quite freely, apparently with a nice accent.
My knowledge of French was a good practice that my sister and I had strictly observed in our home: it was only allowed to speak French at lunch.
On weekdays it almost never happened that our whole family met for dinner. My father worked a lot and often patients’ visits and medical consultations extended beyond the agreed hours. My sister was 8 years older than me. When I was starting school, she was finishing it, when I was starting high school, my sister was in college. Our timetables varied so much that it was only on Sundays and public holidays that we could all meet at the table.
Thanks to the aforementioned habit, I knew the language well, just like my sister, never learning it. When I was a few years old, it didn’t matter to me whether I spoke Polish or French.
Mrs. Sergeanton was invited by her parents “once and for all” for Sunday lunch. She was a nice and welcome guest by everyone. Very intelligent, well-mannered, well-read, witty, with a great sense of humor, she took part in Sunday discussions and almost always argued fiercely with my father about a new performance in opera or theater, an article in the Warsaw Courier or the Illustration weekly, or the current one. political situation. Whenever she was unable to attend Sunday lunch, he lost some of his charm.
We (sister and I separately) had a “consultation” with Mrs. Sergeanton twice a week. Although we spoke and read fluently, we (for sure) knew little about the grammar and spelling of this language.
These were normal lessons, but could only be called consultations because Madame was not into giving private lessons! They lasted only 20 minutes, a maximum of half an hour. However, she conducted them in such a way that they were not a punishment for our sins.
I would, of course, be lying if I would say that the peak of a teenager’s dream is to learn to conjugate verbs in all tenses and modes in active and passive forms, etc., etc., and to learn about countless rules and exceptions to them.
Her great achievement, however, was that she was able to learn a lot, while not effectively disgusting all the grammars of the world once and for all. I do not know how she did it, but I only fully appreciated her when they tried to introduce me (with poor results) to the secrets of (successively) German, Russian and English grammars.
Apart from us, she was also friends with several Polish families. They were not people from the front pages of newspapers, but as I had the opportunity to find out (sometimes even many years after the war), several of their representatives during the occupation played an important role in the Home Army or in the authorities of the Polish Underground State.
Madame was friends with the ambassador (I’m not sure of the name – Noël?) And his family; she also attended all official ceremonies and receptions at the French embassy. For the ceremony of decorating Madame Sergeanton with the Legion of Honor, the parents were kindly invited to the embassy.
I remember that she was always very well versed in current politics, both Polish and international. After Hitler came to power, she warned against underestimating him and had no doubts that he would lead to a new world war.
When the Italians attacked Abyssinia, she brought a large colored map of the country from Illustration weekly and helped me move the colored pins on it to mark the frontline changes. I was then full of enthusiasm for the “civilizing mission of Italy”, as indeed much of our press. With amazement as I moved the pins on the map, I listened to her explanations that this war had to be viewed in a completely different way, that it was the most ordinary attack from the stronger to the much weaker. When I repeated the arguments read in the press, she asked me: “What is the difference here with the partitions of Poland?”
I have to admit that this question “choked me” and made me think more deeply about the whole conflict and evaluate press opinions more critically.
In 1939, as always at the beginning of summer holidays, she left for her hometown in the south of France – unfortunately I do not remember the town. I was walking her – as always for several years – to the station. She lived in the house of the University on Oboźna Street: I was surprised that this time she had a huge luggage, instead of two small suitcases as in previous years. She was saying goodbye to our entire family as if we would never see each other again. At the time, it seemed to me to be an excess of sentimentality.
I never met her after the war, never got any news about her. He has certainly been dead for many years. When she left Poland in 1939, she was over 50. I don’t even know what her name was. We always called her “Madame”.
I owe a great deal to Madame Sergeanton, and I always remember her with fondness. I have reason to believe that she also liked us and our house.
MB, Warsaw, July 2003
Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of Madame Sergeanton. All family heirlooms died during the Warsaw Uprising, when our house at 9 Miodowa Street was bombed. A similar fate befell our closest family’s houses (except that the apartments were not completely destroyed and were thoroughly looted).
I have only two (not the best quality) amateur photos of my mother and her maiden photo. If I had not remembered that such a photograph stood in a frame above the fireplace in the dining room, I would have denied my own mother, because I do not remember her, of course.
Only a few photos taken before the Uprising survived, which I had with me when I went to the Uprising. They survived, but in poor condition.
(excerpts from MEMORIES FROM THE PRE-WAR, WAR AND THE FIRST POST-WAR YEARS)