Wife of Polish Envoy Makes Friends, Helps Community in D.C.
You can always spot her in a room. Her bright red hair is a natural trademark and her smile and warmth are real. Hanna Reiter, wife of Polish Ambassador Janusz Reiter, is a breath of fresh air in Washington.
“My husband and I met at Warsaw University,” she began as we sat in the spacious sunroom that runs the full length of the back of their yellow stone residence just off Connecticut Avenue.
“We were studying German philology, the German language and the literature. It was not a big department, maybe 120 students, and everyone knew each other. There were very few boys, only 10, and all the girls were very attracted to Janusz. He was always the best in our class. He knew how to answer every question and I was very impressed,” she recalled. “He noticed me and gave me some red roses on March 8, what we called ‘Women’s Day.’” Then they started to see each other.
“One morning on our way to school, he proposed to me on the tram. And we were married while we were still students—he was in graduate school and I was still an undergraduate. My parents were worried. I was still very young and they did not want to lose their only child,” she said.
“We rented a very small one-bedroom apartment in Mokotów, an area that is similar to your Georgetown except it has more apartments. It was one of the only parts of the city that was still standing since more than 90 percent of Warsaw was destroyed in World War II. We had a pretty view on the eighth floor, but the elevator was always broken and when I was pregnant, I was walking up all those steps.”
Today, Hanna thinks their early marriage was a good decision. “My husband’s parents died early and he was alone, responsible for everything. Now, we have been married for over 30 years and have two wonderful daughters,” she said. “And my parents are very happy too and love him.”
While they were both students, Hanna and Janusz had their first daughter, Joanna, who is now 30 years old and a lawyer working for the international company EADS (European Aeronautic Defence and Space) in Madrid. Their other daughter Natalia was born three years later, after Hanna received her master’s degree. Natalia is a journalist and lawyer, following in the footsteps of her father, who was a newspaperman before he became a diplomat. In fact, both Hanna’s husband and daughter were published in the Washington Post: Natalia reported on a Polish-American meeting and Janusz wrote an op-ed on the 25th anniversary of Martial Law in Poland.
Hanna’s sweet memories of their young married life are darkened by the difficult political times in which they lived. “Four days before Martial Law, my husband, who had been invited abroad by a journalist, drove to the airport to take a plane. But at the last moment, he realized he had a cold and decided not to board the plane but reschedule for the next week.
“It took my husband five years to get the exit visa again, and even then, we couldn’t travel out of the country at the same time. Waiting for a passport took hours standing in line, even in the cold winter. Most people were finally allowed to leave, but Janusz belonged to a minority that was often refused a passport. They said he was a threat to the security of the state,” Hanna explained.
“Those days, there was almost nothing in the shops,” she added, sadly. “A phone was almost a luxury, not because it was expensive but because it was so hard to get it installed. There was the saying that if the Sahara were ruled by communists, it would run out of sand. Poland and the other countries in Central Europe were a good example of that.”
After Janusz was dismissed from his daily, Zycie Warszawy, for which he wrote until December 1981, he and some colleagues founded a number of opposition magazines. From 1984 to 1989, he was an editorial writer for the independent weekly Przeglad Katolicki.
Diplomatic life began for the couple in 1990 when the communist regime collapsed and Poland started down the road to full democracy. Janusz was recognized to speak on behalf of the new Poland and became his country’s first post-communist ambassador to Germany.
The ambassador said his time in Bonn was a wonderful posting. “Because we are Germany’s second largest neighbor and we had to overcome the legacy between our two countries, I had a guaranteed place in public life and that gave me full and open access,” Janusz said in a separate phone interview. “Everyone wanted to talk to me and, especially since I had written before, I became a favorite of the Germany media.”
Like her husband, Hanna shares fond memories of their first diplomatic posting. “Our family lived in Germany for five years,” said Hanna. “It was especially interesting for us because it was a time of great change in Central Europe. History was being written in front of our eyes: the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany. And all these changes greatly influenced our lives.”
When this family of four moved back to Warsaw in 1995, both Janusz and Hanna began new ventures. He founded the Center for International Relations and remained involved in the political discussion as an author of widely published reports and policy papers, as well as a commentator for the daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita and Polish public television.
At the same time, Hanna started her own real estate business. “It was a wonderful period for me because the girls were old enough to take care of themselves and this new venture was totally different from anything I have ever done before.”
Ten years after basically retiring from diplomacy, Janusz was once again called upon to represent his country abroad. On Oct. 3, 2005, Janusz was sworn in as Poland’s ambassador to the United States at the White House with Hanna and their two grown daughters at his side.
“In Germany,” said the ambassador, “you take along some people from the embassy when you present your credentials. Here, I was surprised to find out that I could take my family with me.” That was the first clue that ambassadors’ wives are typically much more involved in their spouses’ jobs here than in many other countries.
According to Hanna, “Life is full of surprises. Living here means meeting incredible new people, finding new friendships and facing new challenges. Like all ambassadors’ wives, I have many tasks. I accompany my husband very often, but I also have my own projects which I shape and carry out myself. Thanks to the support of my Polish and American friends here, I find that everything is possible. I love the enthusiasm and eagerness of Americans to learn more about Poland.”
Hanna is proud of Polish contributions to society and enjoys sharing them with others. Of course, she brings with her a legacy of famous Poles, including Pope John Paul II and 10 Polish Nobel Prize winners. “Casimir Funk was the pioneering Polish scientist who discovered vitamins, and Poland had the first constitution in Europe, even before the French and second only to America’s. And your Thomas Jefferson was greatly influenced by the writings of Polish philosophers,” Hanna proudly explained.
She often arranges concerts in the embassy’s handsome Blue Room overlooking 16th Street. There, on a grand piano that once belonged to Ignacy Paderewski, Polish-American pianists bring to life the world-renowned notes of Frédéric Chopin, Poland’s most famous composer. One of these Chopin concerts was held recently to commemorate the 25th anniversary of “Solidarnosz,” Poland’s Solidarity Movement that triggered the beginning of the end of communism.
Hanna is also involved in the Washington Performing Arts Society’s Embassy Adoption Program for Anne Beers Elementary School. “I also invite groups of women home with me to Poland,” she noted, having just extended such a personal tour to the Junior League of Washington. “My dream is to show Poland to everyone: politicians, other diplomats and friends.”
Hanna finds it easy not only to create her own programs, but to embrace the ongoing project of a former Polish ambassador’s wife. “I love to continue the work of my predecessor, Irena Kozminska, and her project, which aims to improve the mental health of Polish children through reading. We encourage Polish parents to read to their children for 20 minutes a day, and now all of Poland is reading to their kids.”
In Washington, Hanna and her husband, along with a group of Polish actors, often read fairytales to children they invite from the Polish School. “Reading is the only way for them not to forget their native language,” said Hanna. “Even though we lost our independence to Russia and Germany, we never lost our language…. Until the 17th century, we had a huge empire from Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Poles are Slav but are very oriented to Western culture and civilization.”
Hanna herself is a very well-read linguist. Although she has had very little time in Washington to perfect her English, she is fluent in German, Italian and Russian. She also knows some Spanish, Hungarian and Turkish.
Hanna also stays in touch with her Polish roots by talking with her 83- and 87-year-old parents during daily phone calls and through e-mail chats with her daughters. She also checks up on her 12-year old black lab Filou, “an American dog our daughter brought from Ohio when she was an exchange student there.” Filou remains in Warsaw with their daughter Natalia while Hanna continues her work here, welcoming official and personal Polish guests, traveling with her husband, and planning an endless calendar of events.
Her husband knows what an asset he has in his wife. “Hanna is a very natural, spontaneous and likeable person. She makes friends for Poland wherever she is. She loves it. Hanna doesn’t do it because she has to, but because she really wants to. Obviously, for me and for Poland, there’s a clear benefit because my time is limited and mainly it’s spent with other EU [European Union] ambassadors. But Hanna makes friends not just with European spouses, but with those from Latin America, Asia, Africa—spouses from all over the world. And then I can follow up and build a relationship with those ambassadors. That’s very important to me and our country.”
About the Author
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.