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A Wonder From Warsaw: The Zbigniew Iwasiewicz Story


Uprising after uprising... In 1908, the citizens of Warsaw remained under the rule of the Russian Empire despite three years of ultimately unsuccessful demonstrations, strikes and violent confrontations. Economic conditions in the city were dire and those who weren't hopping mad were largely despondent. It was in January of that year that Warsaw played host to the European Figure Skating Championships for the very first time. An Austrian won, a Russian lost and ten months later, on October 18, 1908, Jan Iwasiewicz and his wife Francis welcomed their son Zbigniew into this world.

The opening of the first artificial rink in Katowice, Poland, circa 1930. Zbigniew Iwasiewcz is the fourth from the left. Photo courtesy National Archives of Poland.

Zbigniew grew up during World War I and a month after his tenth birthday, saw Poland finally restore its sovereignty after one hundred and twenty three years under foreign partition. As the years passed, he developed a keen interest in figure skating and pursued the sport passionately while attending a military college and studying economics. Through skating, he met a beautiful young woman named Jadwiga Cukiert. The couple soon fell in love, formed a pairs partnership and married. Unfortunately, at the time the team of Zofia Bilorówna and Tadeusz Kowalski were absolutely dominant of the discipline in Poland, winning nine consecutive national titles from 1927 and 1935. Bilorówna and Kowalski won the country's first medal at the European Championships in 1934; the Iwasiewicz's remained in Warsaw empty handed. However, the lovebirds ironically found more success on their own than they ever did together. Jadwiga won a local competition in Warsaw, Zbigniew the Polish senior men's title three times consecutively from 1931 to 1933. Never given the opportunity to compete internationally, the couple glided away from the sport.

Senior men's competitors at the 1933 Polish ChampionshipsPhoto courtesy the Przegląd Sportowy. 

Fast forward to the autumn of 1939. In accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, both the Russians and the German Nazi's invaded Poland at the same time. Zbigniew was in the country's eastern territories on business when Stalin's Red Army invaded. He managed to narrowly escape back to Warsaw and his wife, posing as a railway worker. The couple's sense of security was short lived. They were both arrested by the Gestapo and herded like cattle to a concentration camp. Incredibly, they both escaped from the truck and survived World War II!

Photo courtesy National Archives of Poland

After the War, the couple moved to Gydnia for a time then returned to Warsaw, where Zbigniew worked in foreign trade and for the Western Press Agency, even publishing a book on marine issues called "Polskie ziemie zachodnie i pólnocne: zagadnienia morskie" for the Agency. However, like many, Zbigniew watched on in disbelief as the regime of the Communist Polish United Workers' Party implemented a Sovietized sports program and incorporated all sports organizations into a Central Committee Of Physical Culture. He had never lost his passion for skating and felt powerless as he watched on as Poland's just went through the motions, quite possibly terrified to speak up and get the help they needed to compete successfully on an international stage. When the Polish Skating Union broke into two organizations - speed and figure - in 1957, he stepped up to the plate as the very first President of the Polski Zwiazek Lyzwiarstwa Figurowego (Polish Figure Skating Association). At a time when a faction of more liberal Polish Communists seized power in the country after Stalin's death, he became figure skating's unwavering leader. It was a challenging period full of rebuilding and restructuring sports programs in the country yet under Zbigniew's guidance, Polish skaters slowly started seeing more progress and better training conditions than they had in years. Barbara Jankowska and Zygmond Kazmarczyk earned top ten finishes at the European Championships; ice dancers from the country made their international debut.

Photo courtesy National Archives of Poland

Sadly, not long after Zbigniew took the bull by the horns and became Polish skating's biggest advocate in years, his beloved wife Jadwiga passed away. He later remarried but when he passed away on July 8, 1986 at the age of seventy seven, he was buried next to his first wife, the woman he'd skated pairs with, escaped from a concentration camp with and who encouraged him to return to the sport he loved dearly when it needed his help the most.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":