Published: 14 October 2010
by DAN CARRIER
TRAVEL writer and zoologist Hanka Kawecka Lee traversed the globe and chronicled her adventures.
And it seems fitting that she, in particular, should have been able to see the world, having been born in 1943 in Nazi-occupied Poland and growing up in a Communist state that restricted the right of its citizens to go abroad.
She died in 2008 – and her last 10 years included having to manage the degenerative disease multiple sclerosis, which restricted her physical movement once again. Now her husband Michael Lee has compiled a selection of her writings, in what amounts to a requiem to her life.
Hanka lived in Hampstead when not on her extensive travels, and the essays are a selection of the best of her travel writings covering Asia, Africa and Europe.
She had an eye for the unconventional, and delighted in hearing and recording people’s voices. It means the articles range from considering a friendship forged with an Ethiopian 12-year-old Ahmed, penned for the Observer, through to hanging out with Buddhist monks in Laos.
Michael, who lives in Flask Walk, Hampstead, lost his wife early: but her voice lives on as her words describe her responses to the people and places they were fortunate to visit together.
“It would be foolish to pretend that Hanka was by nature anything other than a somewhat eccentric non-conformist,” he says. “That role as a free spirit is what provides some of the distinctive clarity and perspective of her writing.”
He added: “An important element was that I tried to choose those pieces which had a sub-text about Hanka’s own character and history, so that the whole adds up to a sort of mosaic about Hanka herself – a feisty, lovely, loving woman who cares about humanity and wildlife, who is not afraid of showing her disdain for those who trample on individuals’ rights.”
The couple met at a party in Hampstead. It was 1968, and Michael was working as a designer, while Hanka had travelled to England with plans to do research at Chester Zoo. Her project had not come to fruition and she was in London learning English.
Born in Krakow in 1943, during the height of the war, her father was later arrested by the Soviets and deported to a concentration camp in the Urals.
Hanka began working as a zoologist and completed a PhD, finishing a study in the visual perception of monkeys. At the time, you could gain a passport for single journeys so Hanka was able to travel to London but would have to return home.
“She took these restrictions in her stride,” recalls Michael.
They fell in love and were married at Hampstead Town Hall in 1969: but because of her visa, Hanka had to return home to Poland, leaving Michael behind. Then it was a case of getting the correct permission for Hanka to emigrate to Britain.
“There were lots of bureaucratic hoops to go through,” recalls Michael.
“We did not know if it would be successful but we were prepared to wait it out, and as a fall back, I was ready to go and live there so we could be together.”
Eventually Hanka received the clearance she needed.
The couple settled for a time in Cyprus, but as the book shows, they travelled constantly, moving from one job to another, on one continent and then another. All the time Hanka wrote – be it for newspapers and magazines, academic journals, or simply for herself.
“It was not totally obvious in Poland when she was living there that freedom of speech was being curtailed,” he recalls. “She went to cabarets where satire was practised and there was a lot of criticism of the regime.
“But she was also aware of the inhibitions of living in Poland and became increasingly upset about these things. And having seen the restrictions in Poland made her aware of equivalent restrictions in other countries we visited. She always felt very sorry for people under oppressive regimes or governments around the world, and was always thankful to be able to travel and write.”
And the book does not just talk of far-flung places: a particularly poignant piece of personal writing includes a tribute to the Royal Free Hospital, where she spent three months in 1996 before doctors discovered she was suffering from MS.
For Michael, putting together her book meant sifting through the works of his life-long love.
He explains: “It brought back so many happy memories, rather than the sadness of her passing.”
• Hanka, Passionate Exile. By Hanka Kawecka Lee and Michael Lee (editor). Amber-and-Turquoise Books, £12.99