I’ve just finished reading Finding Poland, by Matthew Kelly.
For some reason I can’t find it in Facebook, to add to my Books. Facebook can’t even locate the ISBN.
I hope I’ve got the following facts correct.
In 1940, my father was taken prisoner at St Valéry. In 1955, when I was four, my father took me to the site of the battlefield. He showed me where a soldier, my Dad’s friend, standing next to him by the side of the road, had been shot through the neck by a sniper. That soldier is buried in an unmarked grave. He showed me where he’d been walking down the road with his company when a German tank came round the corner and took them prisoner. I asked “Why didn’t you shoot the tank, Daddy?”
He was eventually put on a cattle truck train and shipped east. They were given a bucket of water, but were not told that the bucket had to do them all for three days. I think he spent time in Stalag 13, which was why he could never watch Hogan’s Heroes, and various other camps in Germany, and then a camp in Poland.
When you see photos of him with other prisoners of war, taken in the camps, they are all really thin, but yet they smile broadly for their families back home.
As a builder by trade, my Dad was put to work building houses. To do so, he and other workers were let out of the camp each day. The camp guards were often not the brightest sparks in the matchbox. My Dad would buy a loaf in the village, then secure it in a basket. When he passed the guards on the way back into the camp, he’d turn the basket upside down, and the guards would think there was nothing in the basket.
There was one guard who, knowing that his side was likely to lose the war, treated the prisoners leniently. At one point, he was under threat of being shipped to the dreaded Eastern Front. Some prisoners arranged to escape from the camp, then they made sure that the same guard captured them. The guard was commended for his action, and kept his post.
Whilst building a house in Poland, my Dad fell off a roof and broke his back. After several weeks in hospital, he was shipped back to England via Sweden. In England, he worked in a prisoner of war camp for captured Germans and Italians.
In the 1950s, occasionally he’d arrive home with black bread bought from Valvona & Crolla’s. This reminded him of his times in the prisoner of war camps in Poland. As kids, we were unimpressed with the black bread. Occasionally, we’d also have Polish people to Sunday lunch, including one chap called Paul Smith, who was very good with my sister and I, and used to play various kiddy games with us. I’m sure he wasn’t originally named Paul Smith.
My Dad was impressed with German efficiency. As an aside, one time when we were on holiday in North Berwick in 1960, he made friends with a German family in the caravan next door. Their Dad was like something out of the Gestapo, even I could see that. Apart from us, no-one spoke to them, and for once, my Dad didn’t mention the war. The boys were called Adolf and Deutleuf and had closely cropped hair. Can you imagine a German who would call his first born son, born in 1951, Adolf? I was a penpal of Adolf for two years.
Poland has a complex history, some of which is covered by Matthew Kelly’s book, which is mostly about the Ryzewski family’s experience from the 1920s to the 1980s. I found it a very approachable and gentle book. It tells the story of a family uprooted and deported by the Soviets from the kresy to the steppe and thence to Kazakhstan, Iran, Pakistan, India and eventually the UK. It’s quite a story, and I enjoyed reading it.
My pal Big Jambo, who topped himself a couple of years ago, also had a Polish background.
Later this year, in September, Lindsey and I are going to Krakow. We won’t be visiting Oświęcim (Auschwitz), but one day I’d really like to take my sons there, or to another extermination camp, just to try to make some continuation with the generations and try to ensure that nothing like that ever happens again. Just to drum it in. Something like that must never fade from memory.
We may tend to think of Poland, as it is today, as an entity with a specific history, just like the UK or other countries. But the fact is that Poland has a complex history and for long periods no Polish state existed. Within what is today Poland, there were people who thought of themselves as Poles; people who were Jewish, some of whom thought of themselves as Poles and some who thought of themselves more as Jewish; there were people who were essentially what we’d today call today Ukranians; people who were essentially Lithuanians; people who were essentially what today we’d call Belarussians; people who might think of themselves today as Estonians; there were Germans and Slavs; people who associated themselves more with the Catholic church than anything else; peasants who might sometimes associate themselves with what became communism; people who just lived and didn’t actually associate themselves with any larger community; and so on, and so on. Poland wasn’t ever a simple concept as a nation. The Ryzewski family lived for a while in the kresy (borderlands) where they developed a school and taught Polish. This was part of a plan to Polonize those areas.
In the middle of the last century, some people strived to make it a nation, but a lot of nasty stuff happened at that time. Really nasty stuff.
Jedwabne, by the Polish ‘Gentiles’ and the Katyn massacre by the Soviets, are only the surface of the bad things that happened at those times. Poles fought against the Russians, then when war was declared against Germany in 1941, turned round and fought with the Russkies against Germany. Anything was better than the Germans. Many Polish people had things to hide from either side. Polish pilots played a big role in the Battle of Britain.
Two million Poles were murdered by the Nazis and the Soviets! That’s a fact. A vey large number of Polish Jews were killed. Some Poles were anti-semitic and helped the Germans, others helped Jews and endangered their own lives.
Britain declared war on Germany as a result of the German invasion of Poland. Yet, after the war ended, the Poles were, essentially, abandoned. Britain couldn’t face another war, with Stalin. Like many other Poles, the Ryzewski family didn’t return to Poland.