Halina Szurmiak (1922–1945)

Anna Żalińska

Halina Barbara – that’s how she would often sign her name. This already indicates the strongly formed personality traits, such as seriousness and sense of responsibility. At the same time, she was remembered as a very cheerful, energetic and sociable person. People close to her would call her Halinka or Hala instead. In the hopeless, reality of the occupation her attitude could arouse hope and faith, for those around she was like a ray sunshine among the darkness. In January 1945, she was wounded by a piece of a bomb. In the last weeks of her life, which she spent in the hospital, despite physical pain, she stood out among the companions of her suffering by her unfading serenity and patience. This is how she was remembered.

Halina was born on 29 may 1920 in Nowy Sącz at Kunegundy 15 Str.[1] as the first-born child of two teachers: Bolesław and Anna née Juszczyk. Bolesław Szurmiak taught Polish language and literature at A. Mickiewicz Elementary School in Nowy Sącz. He also belonged to the “Sokół” Gymnastic Society. As a dedicated educator, he effectively shaped interest in Humanities among his students (he mentored, among others Antoni Siteka – as he would himself mention[2]).

In 1924, the second daughter of the Szurmiak marriage, Maria, and on 26 December 1928 Aleksandra was born. The childhood of Halina and her sisters was quite carefree. In 1930, with an excellent fourth class graduation certificate from the K. Hofmanowa Elementary Universal (in the so-called “Ciuciubabka”), Halina took the secondary school entrance exam. Her literary talent started to show already. She belonged to a school choir. She also manifested passion for sport (she was great at ice skating) and mountain hikes. In the 8th grade of secondary school she was the editor-in-chief of the interschool magazine “Zew Gór” (“Call of the Mountains”). A tradition at the Szurmiak family home was composing poems and organizing performances for various family holidays – in which Halina excelled. The time filled with intense studying was alternated with holiday stays at the “priest Uncle”’s in Garwolin – her mother’s brother who took exceptional care of his niece, including financial help – especially in the pweriod of her university times[3].

Ijn secondary school Halina became involved in scouting. She joined the team in 1932, and on 6 May 1934 she pledged the scouting oath. A year later, after finishing a course in Karwieńskie Błota by the sea, she became the leader of the 5th female group at the Hofmanowa school. From 1 February 1937, she took on the role of a team leader, which she would keep – according to her sister’s account – until the outbreak of the war. She was present at the famous ZHP International Jamboree in Spała in July 1935 She received more and more scouting ranks: volunteer, pioneer and Samaritan, gained merit badges: direction-giver, city guide, cook, camper, launderer, maid and gasfitter[4].

From middle school, during the entire occupation period, Halina kept a diary – the so-called “confidants”. She devoted significant parts of her writing to her feelings, spiritual condition and religious experiences. As early as in winter 1933, at the age of 13, she joined the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary. On this occasion, a theatrical performance was staged, in which Halina played the main role[5]. In may 1938 she went to the Eucharistic Congress in Budapest, which she remembered as a wonderful yet short pilgrimage[6].

In the summer of 1938, having graduated high school she considered studying at the Higher School of Journalism in Warsaw. Finally, he decides to enroll in the Warsaw University. She starts studying at two faculties at the same time: Polish philology and pedagogical psychology. After the first year, she successfully passes all of her exams[7]. She spends her well-deserved holidays with her family in Nowy Sącz. She was here when the war broke out. She joins the scout emergency service right away. After a few days, in view of the approaching German troops, the Szurmiak family moves to Garwolin. After settling in Garwolin, at the “Uncle’s”, Halina volunteers for the scout nursing service[8].

In the face of the occupation of the whole country, the Szurmiak family returns home. In Nowy Sącz, Halina must find a job to avoid being sent to Germany as a forced laborer and receive an Ausweis (occupational ID). Together with her sister Maria, they sign up for a two-month tailoring course. Whatever they manage to sew, they exchange in the countryside for food products. Later Halina learns German stenography and, after long efforts, gets a job as a typist in railway repair workshops, which were under German management[9]. She works there until the last day of the occupation, which was also the day of her tragic accident. Office nightmare – this is how you the conditions of ther work can be described. Despite the unpleasantness she experienced from her German supervisors, her colleagues always saw her as kind and cheerful, although never servile. Even working for the occupant was something she tried to use to her advantage: Through the Germans working in the workshop, she would send packages to people from Nowy Sącz forced to go to work in the Third Reich from their families. After a 11–12-hour work day she still found time for self-education – she would do it in a very systematical manner. She would learn English, translate from German to Polish, read philosophical and religious literature, as well as fiction. She continued to write her own pieces – it was difficult to find time to do it between work and home duties and also helping her mother, who fell ill from being overworked. When she was shocked by the death of her childhood friend – Jerzy Szaflarski (brother of Danuta, with whom Halina was also friends) – she wrote a novella for him, entitled „Jacek and Alicja”. She has left several notebooks with reports on philosophical, religious and scientific books as well as on works of fiction. Her letters to her university friends were a specific kind of papers, apologetic letters and philosophical tales, in which she tried to convince them to take the path of patience, self-education and perseverance, which was to lead them toward God[10].

She had a strong youthful need for action, expression and sharing. The reality of occupation was overwhelming for her. I can’t live in ordinariness – she writes – I suffocate and I cannot find an outlet to express my thoughts and if I didn’t have my Ally [this is how she calls her close friend from the occupation period[11]] and books, I would fall into black melancholy[12].

During the occupation Halina again got involved in scouting, but in a completely different role than before the war. The absence of sources makes it difficult to reconstruct these events accurately. She was probably “drawn into” the underground courier initiative by her former instructor Bronisława Szczepaniec. The period of Halina’s most intense activity in this area could have been from the spring of 1940 to March 1941. It was then that an active group of girl scouts-couriers, under the command of Zofia Kuhnen “Karolcia”, would operate within the structures of ZWZ-AK. Zofia was the main courier of the Nowy Sącz Inspectorate and worked closely with the aforementioned Bronisława Szczepańcówna, Ewa Harsdorf, Lidia Scheur, Maria Długopolska, Janina Aleksander, Zofia Stebelska, Maria Wusatowska, Bronisława Strumiłło and others. Halina’s tasks in the team could have been sending correspondence and orders, distributing underground press, establishing communication with other couriers or delivering messages or texts to a secret printing house. The activities of the group were interrupted by arrests which took place in March 1941 “Karolcia” managed to escape, her mother Hermina, was taken to a concentration camp instead of her. She was first in Ravensbrück, from where she was sent to the Auschwitz gas chamber, in one of the first transports of women sick and unable to work[13]. Halina could have engaged in the above-mentioned activities, although – as her biographer Fr. S. Nawrocki writes – she was generally not involved in the underground work, she did not have the right conditions for it. On the other hand – Fr. Nawrocki notes – she was eagerly engaged in scouting work[14]. What other kinds of “scouting work” was possible during the occupation than secret teaching, underground communication and charity? During the war in her workplace, i.e. in the area of the railway workshops, Halina created a girl guide group. These women would actively participate in dispensing meals to children, helping the displaced within the framework of the Central Welfare Council, and would regularly attend church services, to receive Holy Communion for the intention of the freedom of the homeland[15].

Halina loved mountains and blooming apple trees. The first thought she expressed in words, when she was told her leg has to be amputated was: So I will never walk up to Przehyba again? Immediately after the question she added: May the will of God be done[16]. Free Sundays – usually every other Sunday – she would spend on hiking trips in the Sącz region. It was during one of such trips – in the Tatra Mountains – that she experienced (as she described it in her “confidants”) her “conversion”. Witnessing a storm near the Giewont mountain in summer 1941, she realized that her vocation is constant self-improvement and helping those in need, the ones around here, to the extent of her possibilities. She started creating self-education groups and retreat groups, and her correspondence took on the characteristics of a systematic lectures on Christian morality. Sensing her openness and goodness, people started spontaneously gathering around her. For friends in the workplace, she becomes a confidante and adviser. They would call her “our Sunshine”. She would use even her 10-minute breakfast breaks for philosophical mini-lectures. In the evenings, in private apartments, discussion meetings initiated by Halina would take place. She organized psychology meetings, retreats and days of recollection in the White Monastery, with the help of priest she knew[17]. Let us share ourselves without forgetting about ourselves – she writes in her “confidants”. – Let us be of service to people, without ceasing to work for ourselves. Let us gift people, not omitting ourselves and not sparing generosity. This is the most beautiful program combining the love of the neighbor with the love of oneself[18].

Halina became one of the few victims of front operations in Nowy Sącz, when the retreating German columns were bombed by the Russians. It was in the afternoon of 16 January 1945. As usual, she came home for a half-hour lunch break and hesitated whether to get back to work at all as the German management fled. She decided to go back for her briefcase. On the way to the workshops, she was wounded by a fragment of an air bomb. The projectile struck her thigh, causing femur fracture and heavy bleeding[19]. After that she stayed in a hospital with constant fever, and the leg had to be amputated. Halina prayed and saw her suffering as a sacrifice for others. Nobody ever heard a word of complaint from her, she offered support to other patients. A month after the amputation, her situation did not improve at all, the thigh wound festered more and more. Halina Szurmiak died on Palm Sunday, 25 March 1945. The funeral was held on Tuesday after Easter. The coffin decorated with flowers was carried from the house to the cemetery by her colleagues. I approach death serenely – she wrote in a letter to a friend – for me it is white, as the Japanese visualize it. Death is only a decisive turning point – a transition from one phase of life – unnecessary, transient, to the second phase – necessary, constant, certain[20].

This is how the testament of Halina Szurmiakówna’s life was summed up after the war by her friend: She would radiate energy, vivacity […] Something incredible. I would never have believed if I had not witnessed it with my own eyes […] She would fundamentally change our souls, pull us out of apathy, make us interested in life and taught how to perceive its beauty[21].


[1] „Taterniczka ducha”. Życiorys Haliny Barbary Szurmiakówny studentki Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, edit. By Fr. Stanisław Nawrocki TJ, Kraków 1980, p. 3. This publication is the primary source of information about Halina Szurmiak’s life and was created based on her “confidants”, correspondence and conversations with people who knew her.

[2] Antoni Sitek i jego rodzina [w:] Zachowajmy w pamięci. Katalog wystawy, A. Totoń, R. Bobrowski, p. 61.

[3] „Taterniczka ducha”…, pp. 4–11 and beyond.

[4] Archiwum Narodowe w Krakowie Oddział w Nowym Sączu (later as: ANKr O/NS), Materiały do dziejów harcerstwa w nowosądeckim, Notatka biograficzna autorstwa Marii Szurmiakówny, ref. 31/559/38, p. 133–135.

[5] „Taterniczka ducha”…, p. 15.

[6] Ibidem, p. 21.

[7] Ibidem, p. 24.

[8] ANKr O/NS, Materiały do dziejów harcerstwa, Notatka biograficzna, ref. 31/559/38, p. 135.

[9] „Taterniczka ducha”…, p. 45–46.

[10] Ibidem, p. 50–53, ANKr O/NS, Materiały do dziejów harcerstwa, Notatka biograficzna, ref. 31/559/38, p. 133.

[11] On 8 November 1942, that man was arrested by the Germans; he was later released, cf. „Taterniczka ducha”…, p. 99. “Confidants”, and after them Fr. S. Nawrocki do not give the names of people close to Halina, which makes it impossible for them to be identified without additional sources.

[12] „Taterniczka ducha”…, p. 97.

[13] Zofia Kuhnen-Gawrońska [in:] Zachowajmy w pamięci…, p. 37.

[14] „Taterniczka ducha”…, p. 99.

[15] Ibidem.

[16] ANKr O/NS, Materiały do dziejów harcerstwa, Notatka biograficzna, ref. 31/559/38, p. 139.

[17] ANKr O/NS, Materiały do dziejów harcerstwa, Notatka biograficzna, ref. 31/559/38, pp. 139–143, „Taterniczka ducha”…, pp. 145, 166.

[18] „Taterniczka ducha”…, p. 59.

[19] ANKr O/NS, Materiały do dziejów harcerstwa, Notatka biograficzna, ref. 31/559/38, p. 133, „Taterniczka ducha”…, pp. 154–157.

[20] ANKr O/NS, Materiały do dziejów harcerstwa, Notatka biograficzna, ref. 31/559/38, p. 145, „Taterniczka ducha”…, p. 166.

[21] „Taterniczka ducha”…, p. 109.