Late KU history professor receives prestigious honor from Polish government

Polish dignitaries were on the Kansas University campus Thursday to posthumously award one of Poland’s highest honors to the late Anna Cienciala, who was professor of history and Eastern European studies at Kansas University from 1965 until her retirement in 2002.

Anna Cienciala

Romana Boniecka, left, accepts the Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland with Star award Thursday at the Jayhawk Room in Kansas Union on behalf of her lifelong companion, Anna Cienciala, a retired history professor at Kansas University who died Dec. 24. The award recognizes individuals who have been of great service of Poland. Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of the Republic of Poland Maciej Pisarski, center, and Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Chicago Robert Rusiecki, right, presented the award. Seated, at left, is Victor Contoski, KU professor emeritus of English, who read a remembrance at the ceremony, which was also a memorial for Cienciala.

The award, called the Commander’s Cross with Star, is the second-highest decoration under the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland. Cienciala earned the honor for exemplary service to her native land. Born in 1929 in Gdansk, Poland, Cienciala was among the most eminent Polish-American scholars. She specialized in the history of Polish foreign policy between the two World Wars.

Romana Boniecka, a longtime companion of Cienciala, accepted the award for Cienciala, who died on Dec. 24, 2014, at age 85.

Boniecka said that Cienciala knew she had been awarded the medal but had been too ill to make the originally scheduled ceremony last fall. Cienciala died on Christmas Eve, before a rescheduled ceremony could take place.

“Anna knows that she received the medal,” Boniecka said. “She was happy, and she was proud. But she was also a very modest person. She always felt that others deserved awards, but not herself.”

Thursday’s presentation at the Kansas Union by representatives of the Polish Embassy was also a memorial for Cienciala, at which several colleagues from around the world remembered her life and scholarship, which included hundreds of articles and a book called “Katyn: A Crime Without Punishment,” about the 1940 massacre of thousands of Polish nationals by the Soviet secret police.

Many at the memorial spoke fondly of Cienciala’s kindness, humble nature and work ethic.

“She’s been a dear colleague, mentor and advisor since I came here in 1970,” said Norman Saul, KU professor emeritus of history. “She helped me with many projects.”