My mother and father in their military uniforms circa 1944-5
Poland's 'Long Service' (for marriage) Medal awarded to our parent's on their Golden Wedding Anniversary in 1995
And in 1993 just 44 years into their marriage
Detail of my father's medal ribbons as seen on his uniform above with the two 'wound stars' clearly visible as well as the ribbons for the 39-45 Star and the Africa Star (4th row 2nd and 3rd ribbon bars)
My father's medals and cap - Top Row (l to r) : Virtuti Militari | Polonia Restituta | Cross of Valour/Krzyż Walecznych | Gold Cross of Merit with Swords/Złoty Krzyż Zasługi z mieczami | Army Medal for War 1939-45/ Medal Wojskowy 1939-1945 | Monte Cassino Cross/Krzyż Monte Cassino | Cross of September Campaign 1939/Krzyż Kampanii Wrzesniowej 1939 | Marriage Longevity Medal/Medal za Długoletnie Pożycie Małżeńskie - Centre Row (l to r) : Medal for the War of 1939/Medal Za Udział w Wojnie Obronnej 1939 | Polish Armed Forces in the West Military Action Cross/Krzyż Czynu Bojowego Polskich Sił Zbrojnych na Zachodzie | National Treasury Award/Skarb Narodowy | Polish Falcon Association in Great Britain Medal of Merit | 'Sokół' Merit Medal |Gold National Treasury Award/Złoty Skarb Narodowy | The 1966 Millenium Medal/Medal Tysiąclecia 1966 Polski Chrześcijańskiej Millenium | 30th Anniversary of the 5th Kresowa Infantry Division Cross/30-lecie 5 Kresowa Dywizja Piechoty. Bottom Row (l to r) : United Kingdom Italy Star | United Kingdom France & Germany Star | British Defence Medal | British War Medal | Monte Cassino Memorial Medal 1969 (Scouting Movement)/ ZHP 1969 Medal Monte Cassino | Award not yet identified | Award not yet identified | 'Sokół' Rank Pin (Not shown - Wound Badge with two stars) - Many thanks to Andrzejku for the assist in identifying some of these medals.
We do not beg for freedom - we fight for it / My nie błagamy o wolność - my o nią walczymy
It seems most Poles subscribed to this mantra whether in the air, on the sea, on land behind enemy lines or joining with the Allied divisions so it is fitting it appears on the page dedicated to my parents.
How my father cheated Katyn
The Tragedy at Katyn 2010
The spur for the idea of this book / web-page came on 10th April 2010 when the news of an airborne tragedy in Smolensk/Katyń started filtering through on the 24-hour news channels.
My first thought was to let my sister know as I knew she would not have her television switched on at that time and the only way to forward the news was by text (sms). I also needed to get in touch with another friend, who although now a nationalised French citizen, has Polish roots, as do my sister and I, and who was currently in the Caribbean whilst the lift [elevator] in her Paris appartement was being repaired. The time difference alone would have precluded her from hearing the news as it happened. What I really wanted to do was to discuss this with my Dad who is our own family hero and political guru – Dad died a couple of years ago and yet still we want to consult him on all these important issues.
Before I continue, I want to say that the whole point of these reminiscences of a pretty full life are down to the “six degrees of separation” theory. Only in my case, a lot of times I don’t even have to do six stages, hence the title “A Brush With ….” – how could I have known that Katyń could have impacted on my life twice with branches spreading elsewhere prior to 10.04.10?
My father was a soldier in the Polish Army during the 1939-45 conflict known as World War II. He had been a cadet prior to this and was always meant to be officer material. As with many of his peers he was captured due to Polands’ woefully poor preparation for the conflict. He started his captivity enduring forced marching [my mother chose the more comfortable option of travelling by cattle truck from Kraków to Siberia]. Thanks to a bout of dysentery, the day the Katyń massacre occurred my father was enduring stomach cramps of the most excrutiating kind. So, was he lucky not to get a bullet in the back of the head? To cut a long story short, he did not escape a bullet in the head – he got that in Monte Cassino in 1944 and survived – the victims of Katyń did not, and so – yes it was lucky his bullet entered his skull at an angle in the forehead and traversed through the top of his ear leaving a hole the size of a dessicated pea. My first brush with Katyń then.
I re-married in 1994 into a family of four brothers and a couple of years ago one of my sisters'-in-law became acquainted with a new colleague who had a unique sounding first name. On finding it was a diminutive of a Polish name my sister-in-law, who lives in High Wycombe, said to her colleague “Oh, that sounds like the first name of my sister-in-law who lives in Nottingham – do you know her?” OK – so what were the chances of Jagoda knowing who I was – remarkably, she did. When my sister and I were children, Jagoda’s father and ours were inextricably linked with members of the government-in-exile set up by the Poles in the UK during the war in an effort to preserve the nationality of all the Poles who had chosen to become political emigrés rather than live under a Communist regime. This included setting up the Polish Scout Movement, Youth Associations and all the trappings of a government in exile with military knowledge. Jagoda’s father eventually became the Polish Prezydent in exile having had the baton passed to him by the original holder of the post. It was he who was sought out by Lech Walęsa after Solidarity brought about the downfall of the Communist stranglehold. Her father was killed in the aeroplane crash on 10th April – the man whose wife had dangled me on her lap and whose daughter I grew up alongside during our formative years.
This is my tribute to all those who died on that day and to my parents who never gave up their own identities despite being forced to start a new life from scratch in the UK and gave my sister and I such a rich upbringing in a dual culture. May they rest in everlasting peace.
New Katyń Museum here
Preparing for these pages, I found what I had written about her just after her death in 2000.
I think she would have loved this as she adored all living things and creatures!
I love this picture of my mother (centre) in Egypt in 1944 whilst serving as a theatre nurse in the military mobile hospital
I wonder if we ever fully understand the impact people make on our lives and in particular how one person can influence what we become?
What or who am I? I’m asking this question now, because my Mother died just a few short weeks ago and I want to justify to myself and anyone who wishes to read this, what I think she was to me and what I am as a result of being her daughter.
Today, my sister reminded me that our mother had a great love of nature. She had grown up in a “puszcza” and her father was a leśnik. The thought evokes Forests and all that is contained within that expansive word – the wonders of the undergrowth, the multitude of wildlife in all forms, the life within life itself. Mama also had, as I remember, not only a great love, but a high regard and very great respect for horses. If you can imagine a physical link, like hugging someone, where their being encompasses yours with its warmth and strength – somehow Mama instilled in me that great respect of horses. I know very little of these animals, rarely coming into close proximity of them, but I do know that when I first discovered the French eat horsemeat, I was physically sickened and abhorred by the idea. A couple of years ago, I “met” my first horse at the famous Nottingham Goose Fair. It’s a tragedy that the Police have to show a presence “mounted” on their steeds at what should be a “fun” event. Andrew and I were walking to the Fair and had to stop before crossing a road, we happened to stop near the mounted police, being me and wanting (after all this time) to experience the knowledge that was ingrained in my mother, I asked the officer if I could touch the animal. I’m not sure who was most surprised at the request, but it was refused – at first, then he said OK – and I went straight for the nose, the officer suggested I stroke the flank instead. That was my first and last (so far) contact with this magnificent beast and it didn’t do a lot for me – but looking into the animal’s eyes did. It was easy to be reverent in its company, not for any reason other than to acknowledge, in wonderment, it’s sheer beauty of existence. I already understood from my mother the power of the horse, now I understood it from the horse itself. No wonder those in close proximity to these magnificent beasts respect them!
I have grown to become a conservationist, and when I embrace a cause, it is whole-heartedly, otherwise it is not worth anything to me. I was one before it became a trend. I have been told I have “green fingers”, I don’t remember anyone teaching me – but Mama and I both liked to mess about with pot plants and in the garden. In fact, I made mud pies from about the age of two years – I’m not sure how I can weave that into any memory my mother evoked in me, but I’ve never been afraid of getting my hands dirty in the garden. Having been reared in a terraced house with only a small garden patch in the back – how did I instinctively know to appreciate flora and fauna if there wasn’t some link back to my mother?
Fashion dictates of the 40s and 50s encouraged my mother to have a “fox fur” wrap, complete with head, paws and tail. I don’t know what I thought of this really, other than I know my mother had inordinate pride in this fashion accessory. (OK, before you ask, yes I am anti-fur). Because she had pride in it, I believed that I must treat it with respect also – but my measure of respect was manifested by desperately hoping that by loving it as mother did and by stroking it whenever I could (and she wasn’t looking – because I don’t think I was really supposed to touch it) I would somehow bring it back to life. I remember occasionally wondering how I would explain that to her, but of course I never had to go beyond the imagination because it did not happen. I also wondered how I would feed it as it had a satin lining where its tummy should have been!
Christmas – oh what a joy and I never found out how she did it. Without fail, every year on Christmas Eve, we were sent to get dressed for the evening celebration and however hard we tried to trick her, however quickly we got dressed and thundered down those stairs – when we opened the door – there was the Christmas Tree, beautifully decorated and presents stashed below – I never did find out how she did that …..
Stories – Mama wove magic into the stories about her life. She never made light of the seriousness of some of the situations she found herself in, but she had a great sense of humour.
Take the turkey story – on the smallholding they lived on, they were all but self-sufficient – hens laid eggs, chickens were reared, mushrooms were picked, vegetables were grown, wild roots and herbs were in abundance. There was also an old rooster or turkey (I forget which) which had probably turned rogue and so, being a danger and nuisance and of no further value, they decided it was for the pot – except the bird wreaked its own revenge, however long they boiled and simmered it, the meat was inedible and the stock (or lack of it) unusable. Nature fought back ……
Mama used to despair of my love of onions - in Siberia she had (literally) survived on onions and vowed never to eat one again. I know she laughed at my consumption – but I wonder what she felt and I wonder why I need them so much?
Her story of interrogation by the Russians is so matter of fact you’d think she was writing a film script. She shared a cell and knew that one of the inmates was a spy. She’d set little traps to expose which of her cellmates it was. So she was ready for any entrapments set by the spy herself. When she was dragged into interrogation, she kept focused by looking at the map in the room, because on it were the daily changes pertaining to the war effort. Most people would be quivering wrecks bent on just surviving without too much pain – not Mama, she had it all planned out. At work I am often described as logical and organised and people rely on me to “get things sorted.” Now I wonder where that comes from?
My favourite story, as I remember her telling it to me is the moment she first met Father. To me, as an adult and a smoker, it grows with significance every time I think of it. She was a nurse in a desert hospital in Egypt when the wounded from Monte Cassino started pouring in. As the patients were brought in, they were put into categories for immediate and future treatment. Something made her turn in the direction of Father – apparently, although his head was swathed in bloodied and filthy bandages, she “imagined” that beneath all this was an incredibly handsome face. He was also, in her mind, in a raving delirium, hands crawling up and down his body, the classic symptom of someone searching for something. Actually, he was quite conscious and was searching for something, his kit-bag – he wanted a cigarette. But, to all outward appearances he was in the throes of a deep-rooted delirium, he was also, like anyone half-conscious, muttering away incoherently. As she drew closer, she realised it was a temper tantrum and that this person was grumbling away because he wanted his cigarettes. Loathe to explain to him that he should be thankful that he was alive and that all that he had about his body were the tattered remains of his uniform and certainly no kit-bag or cigarettes, she reached into the apron of her uniform and took out of it the half-nub end of her last precious cigarette, lit it and offered it to him. No sooner had he taken a drag of it, he yelled out that she was tricking him, that he had no intention of smoking such rubbish and not only stubbed it out but demolished it in the process, making it totally irretrievable! Mama was devastated, she had been hanging on to the thought of enjoying that cigarette at the end of her shift. Having exerted himself in his exuberance, Father then fell into a deep sleep and didn’t have to worry about whether or not he could have a smoke. Mama finishes the story there, she never went on to say whether she felt sufficiently frustrated to want to put hot needles into the soles of his feet (I would have!) or how she got hold of any other cigarettes, but that is not important. I can’t remember when they gave up smoking, but certainly there used to be cigarettes in the house, even though I cannot remember either of them smoking in front of us.
My most cherished memories of Mama are from childhood, because as we grew up, being an extremely enlightened parent, she became first a friend and in time turned to us for help. One of the best tributes paid to her are by independent friends, who have all said that they had fond memories of her because she was like a mother to them. I cannot say that of any of their mothers, I don’t wish to sound disrespectful, but they were always Mrs So and So, So and Sos’ mother – not mine.
I have been married twice and although I respect both spouses parents, I do not feel that they match up to my own.
Mama was an extraordinary and special person and that is how I wish to remember her – no frills.
As a result of her tragic death, for it is a tragedy for all of us, I have received, completely without any prior intention, the most precious gift – one that I had not given a thought to ever, nor even felt I would ever want. I have been given Mamas’ wedding ring. When she died I thought that she would be buried with it, apparently that is not the norm (we didn’t know that) and the Funeral Directors retrieved and returned all the jewellery she was wearing at the time of death. If she was not buried in it, then I thought either my Father or sister would have it – quite rightly, in this instance the pecking order should put me the younger daughter, last. Father took the ring first, then decided against having it and asked my sister if I would like it – she said she knew I would like it as we had touched on the subject. I was thrilled and astounded to receive it and as I write this, it is firmly locked on my finger as it has been since the moment I received it, and will stay there for my lifetime. As coming to terms with Mamas’ death has not been easy, I have to say that having the ring in physical contact gives me a degree of great comfort – I cannot explain how it works, maybe the same way as all the things in my life that were influenced by her, only this time, I know and have chosen to have this part of her with me.
Her Book - 'Historia mojej podrozy z Polski do Anglii przez "Raj Sowecki"'
('The Story of my journey from Poland to England via the "Soviet Pradise"')
This is going to be a mammoth task, translating my mother's memories (or memoirs), but it will be done with love and will be found here eventually in its entirety, but for the present in piecemeal. On 6th February 2017 I created the page that will house the adventure, this first instalment appears today, 3rd March 2017. I think of Ann Bell's character (Mrs Jefferson) in 'Tenko' scribbling away to keep a record of what was happening to and around a brave group of individuals who had been thrust into a nightmare existence and survived.
The Front and Back covers of my mothers memories of her journey from Poland to England - the Booklet was printed by the Association of Siberian Deportees known as the 'Sybiraki' by the Bydgoszcz branch.
To read more about the Association and its history please visit the memoirs page.
Page updated : 8th March 2017