Hanka Ordonówna - from the stage to a Soviet labor camp

The bumpy road of a star of the Polish stage

“Love will forgive you everything” – sang Hanka Ordonówna yet this love would turn out to be disastrous for her. One of the greatest pre-war stars of the stage would experience the hell of the sovkhoz. She died shortly after the end of the Second World War at the age of 48. Her life reads like the story of “Cinderella.”

by Magdalena Mikrut-Majeranek


Karol Hanusz, an actor and one of the first Polish cabaret stars, told her that she would not make a career on stage with the  name she was born with. This is how Maria Anna Pietruszyńska became Hanka Ordonówna. Under this pseudonym, the star of the talented Polish actress and singer would shine brightly indeed.

However, her life was marked by both joy, when she appeared in the spotlight, and suffering, when she was in a Soviet labor camp. Together with her father Władysław, a railwayman, and mother Helena, she grew up in a working-class district of Warsaw at 68 Żelazna St.

Hanka Ordonówna (1930)

The exact date of the artist’s birth has been a mystery for years. In the pre-war lexicon “Czy wiesz kto to jest?” (“Do you know who that is?”) edited by Stanisław Łoza, it was indicated that she was born on 11 August 1904 in Warsaw. However,  23 September 1905 was entered in a consular passport issued in Tehran, and her tombstone lists the year of her birth as 1902. 4 August 1902 does seem the most likely choice for her birthdate, as this same date is written on  her birth certificate in the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Warsaw.

The young actress, like many pre-war celebrities, attended the ballet school at the Grand Theater in Warsaw. She took her first steps on stage as a teenager and  made her debut on the stage of the Miraż theater in 1915. Initially, her performances gave no indication of her potential for an international career. The fragile and shy girl did not captivate the audience. After the coolly received debut of “Anna Ordon”, she fled to Lublin, where she began performing with the Wesoły Ul cabaret. Her hard work paid off. She returned to Warsaw as Hanka Ordonówna and charmed audiences. Karol Hanusz helped her get an engagement in the Miraż Theatre and she soon became a recognizable star. Tomasz Mościcki in the book “Kochana stara buda. Teatr Qui Pro Quo” (“The Old Beloved Booth. The Qui Pro Quo Theatre”) emphasized her phenomenal memory and intense work ethic. It is thanks to these two features that she is remembered as an outstanding artist. She herself said that she was not a true star, but was simply born under a lucky star.

Private life

Her private life was not easy. Her first great love was Janusz Sarnecki (1892–1930), a young actor with aspirations. Initially, he performed in the Warsaw theaters: Powszechny, Mały, Czarny Kot and Sfinks. They had an affair, but Sarnecki unexpectedly left, leaving Hanka without saying goodbye. Soon after, he married the actress Janina Fruchtmanówna. It was because of him that she planned to commit suicide by shooting herself in the head with a pistol. At the last moment she gave up but the bullet wounded her in the temple. The scar on her face, a memento of this attempt, would afterwards always be carefully covered with a hat worn at an angle.

Ordonówna and Bogusław Samborski in the film The Spy in a Mask (Szpieg w masce), 1933

As an outstanding figure on the stage, she cast a spell over Count Michał Tyszkiewicz and in March 1931 she became his wife. They both knew that this misalliance would trigger the greatest matrimonial scandal of the Second Polish Republic. The count’s family boycotted the wedding. The count, however, ignored this and did as his heart told him. He would also write the lyrics of many cult songs for Ordonówna.

She later had an affair with the actor Igo Sym, a cinema actor known for playing the role [of the sterotypical lover in interwar melodramas]. It was also said that she had affairs with Fryderyk Járosy and Juliusz Osterwa. The latter, as a penance, eventually  handed over Ordonka’s letters to Tyszkiewicz. “Why does Anita have a mysterious smile today, eyes full of sweetness, because Don José is sending her looks more and more tenderly. Don’t be such a stone”- she sang in the song “Mimosa,” written for her by the poet Jan Lechoń and, like the lyrical subject of the piece, she was also subject to impulses of the heart. She was not a faithful wife but her husband turned a blind eye to her affairs. And she always found peace at his side.

On stage and in the cinema

She began her acting career in the year Poland regained independence. Fryderyk Járosy, the talent scout who skillfully guided her career, played a significant role in her professional life. Initially, she performed at the Sfinks Theater in Warsaw, and then for many years she was associated with the Teatr im. Juliusz Słowacki in Krakow and the Qui Pro Quo cabaret in Warsaw, for which Tacjanna Wysocka, the guru of the Polish ballet world at that time, created choreographies. When Qui Pro Quo was closed in 1931, the artist decided to pursue a solo career and individual concerts. She went on tour in Poland, and also abroad. Additionally, as a guest artist, she performed at the Teatr Miejski im. Juliusz Słowacki in Krakow. But that was not all, as audiences also applauded her performances in Banda (1932–1933), Wielka Rewia (1935–1936) or in Cyrulik Warszawski (1936–1937).

Hanka Ordonówna, 1939

Ordonówna performed in the theater, cabaret and film. She sang in Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Hamburg, Dresden, Munich and Vienna, as well as overseas – in Greenwich Village, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit, Madison and other centres of the Polish diaspora. She made her debut as a dancer, but soon changed her profession. She was not only a talented actress and singer, but also a charismatic woman who willingly – against the prevailing fashion – donned pants and low-cut dresses. Poets wrote texts for her, among them Julian Tuwim, Marian Hemar, Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński and Jan Lechoń.

The thirties were golden years for her. “Ordonka” was sought after. Not only did she play and sing, but also recorded albums for such labels as: Parlophone, Odeon, Columbia andSyrena-Electro and also sang on the radio.

On the silver screen, she made her debut in silent film, but she did brilliantly in sound productions. You could see her in such films as: “Slave of Love” (1923), “Eaglet” (1927), “Life Sentence” (1933) or “Warsaw Parade” (1937). However, it was “Spy in a Mask” directed by Mieczysław Krawicz from 1933 that brought her real fame. It was also her debut in sound cinema. There she played the role of the female spy Rita Holm and sang “Love will forgive you anything.” Interestingly, Igo Sym played the role of the chief of counterintelligence. Six years later, it turned out that he liked the role of a German spy better, so much, in fact, that he would play this role in real life.

In 1936, Ordonka performed on the stage of the Grand Theater in Lviv. As Gazeta Lwowska wrote: “The performances of this famous Polish diseuse always enjoy well-deserved success.” The press also wrote that the artist designed and made her own costumes. In 1936, she performed with Igo Sym at the Bagatela in Krakow and at the Polish Theater in Cieszyn. At that time, “Gazeta Robotnicza” reported: “Due to the great success of the performances of Hanka Ordonówna and Igo Sym, the management of the Bagatela Theater managed to extend their hospitality for another 8 days. Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński in the “Kurier Poranny” from 1935 noted: “Orodonka and Sym in one form or another make one of the nicest couples in love.”

Hanka Ordonówna during the performance, 1937 (fot. NAC)

In March 1939, the press wrote: ‘Popular throughout Poland, a favorite of the public (…) Hanka Ordonówna – is a talent, a great talent. Her singing recitations are of the highest quality in every respect. Hanka not only recites, sings, but also plays!” The editor also reported that she enriched her performance with facial expressions, gesture and movement or dance: “In a word – art of the highest order, giving aesthetic experiences and making this slender, beautiful lady able to fill an entire theater evening alone,” assessed the journalist. She was offered a trip to the United States, where she might continue her career. But there was no time for this.

The war that changed everything

The outbreak of the Second World War strongly affected the career of Ordonówna. In September 1939, together with Mieczysław Fogg, she sang songs to wounded soldiers at the Gdańsk Railway Station. Later, the artist performed in the Tip-Top theater for a few more days, and on 1 November she protested against the screening of a film about the occupation of Warsaw by the German army in cinemas. She was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to the Pawiak prison. According to one hypothesis, her ex-lover, Igo Sym, was  involved in her arrest. On 2 April 1961, Count Tyszkiewicz during a Radio Free Europe broadcast devoted to Hanka Ordonówna, confirmed that the arrest was the result of her protest in the cinema.

Tyszkiewicz fought to free his wife from prison, and his efforts had the desired effect. Thanks to the further intervention of his cousin – Stefan Tyszkiewicz and his wife.  The King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel II, who was related to the family of Stefan Tyszkiewicz’s wife, became involved in the case and even personally intervened with Hitler. Eventually, “Ordonka” left the prison in February 1940. After regaining her freedom, the artist left with her husband to his family estate Orniany near Vilnius, then under the control of the Republic of Lithuania. While living there, she performed at the Teatr na Pohulance, as well as in Lutnia and the Polish Dramatic Theater. The count took care of Polish citizens in Lithuania on behalf of the Polish government in exile.

Hanka Ordonówna, Igo Sym and Leon Boruński in Łódź (fot. NAC)

When the eastern provinces of the Republic of Poland were annexed by the USSR, Count Tyszkiewicz was arrested. He was charged with espionage and contacts with the Polish government in exile, and as a consequence he was sent to the Lubyanka [prison] in Moscow. In turn, his spouse, who was trying to go to the East to be closer to her husband, was offered the chance to perform in Moscow. After much hesitation, she agreed as she believed that in this way she might save her beloved. However, she refused to accept citizenship of the USSR and in the end both she and her husband fell victim to NKVD repression.

In a new role

Ordonówna and Tyszkiewicz were released from prison only after the outbreak of the German-Soviet war. In the changed political circumstances, on 30 July an agreement was concluded between the Polish government-in-exile and the Soviet authorities (the so-called Sikorski-Mayski agreement). As part of this arrangement, hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens who had been illegally imprisoned were released from labor camps and prisons during the “amnesty” (the term was imposed by Moscow).

In the fall of 1941, Tyszkiewicz was appointed secretary of the Polish mission in Tehran. Ordonówna also began a new chapter in her life. In December 1941, she managed to reach Buzuluk, where, in 1941–1942, the headquarters of the command and staff of the Polish Army was located under the formation of General Władysław Anders in the USSR. At that time, in the assembly camps of the forming Polish Army, there were many Polish artists who formed two teams headed by Feliks Konarski and Kazimierz Krukowski. Subsequently, Ordonówna did not continue the odyssey to Europe with thousands of her compatriots. She left for Ashgabat and there organized an orphanage for Polish children in Tashkent. In Ashgabat, she also met again her husband after two years of separation. The count was then the head of the Polish social welfare institution.

Out of the same concern for the youngsters in her charge, she decided to save Polish children who had been sent deep into the USSR with adults. She managed to deport about two hundred orphans. She did not return to the stage but devoted her energies to helping them and became an advocate for the children whom she helped evacuate from the USSR to India, and from there to the Middle East.

Ordonówna as Rita Holm in the movie Spy in a Mask (Szpieg w masce), 1933

The group led by “Ordonka” wandered on. When they got to Bombay, the Red Cross took care of the children, and Tyszkiewicz took his ailing wife to Tehran. However, the artist’s health did not improve, so they left for Palestine, where, thanks to more favorable conditions, she managed to repair her damaged health. She sang wherever she could.

The artist wrote down her memories in the book “Wandering Children”, which she published under the pseudonym Weronika Hort in 1948 in Beirut. In her book, she described her travels from the time of her stay in the USSR until she reached India. Due to concern for the fate of her family, she was afraid to publish under her own name.

Ordonówna travelled from Jerusalem to Beirut in October 1945. There she found a new passion, which was oil painting. She also wrote poems and short stories. Ordonówna survived the turmoil of war, and the hell of the sovkhoz, but died only 5 years after the end of the Second World War. For many years she had suffered from tuberculosis, and the hardships of the war ordeal prevented her from ever regaining her full strength. She fell ill for the first time in 1937, and the disease came back many times. However, this was not the direct cause of her death. She contracted typhus from her husband who was helping Polish refugees during an epidemic of this dangerous disease. As a consequence, already weakened by war experiences and devastated by disease, she died on 8 September 1950, far from her homeland. She was buried in the Polish cemetery in Beirut. However, in 1990, at the initiative of Jerzy Waldorff, her remains were exhumed. They were taken to free Poland, and then buried in the Alley of Merit in Warsaw’s Powązki Cemetery. Above the modest tombstone there is a relief depicting Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn, a symbol of Vilnius. On her grave there is an inscription “She saved hundreds of Polish children, wandering alone in the war expanses of the USSR”. Of all the roles she had played in her short life, she was perhaps the most proud of this one.


Author: Dr. Magdalena Mikrut-Majeranek
Translation: Mikołaj Sekrecki