Emil, Henryka and Ludwig
In a departure from our contemporary recorded stories, we are publishing a vignette of stories recorded by Brendan Jackson. Back in 2000, he interviewed members of the Anglo-Polish Society in Wolverhampton for a project called 'Crossing Borders'; inspired by the Living Memory website, here he recalls some of their stories.
‘I was on the run somewhere outside of Romania. I saw the Russian army coming. They came in thousands, in thousands they were coming.’
So recalled Emil Ślusarczyk, a member of the Anglo-Polish Society of the West Midlands at the turn of this century. In 1939, he had completed nearly two years service in the army – with the military police – when he was sent to an airport near Brześć nad Bugiem, on the eastern frontier with Soviet Russia. He was only there a few weeks when the war started on September 1st, with the Germans systematically destroying infrastructure and the Polish airforce, quickly advancing to the outskirts of Warsaw. On September 17th, the Soviets invaded from the east.
Emil’s father worked on the railways but he had started to work with a butcher at the age of 14 before being called up for service. He planned to soon resume his career in the meat trade, but within days he found himself fleeing south towards the Romanian border on a bicycle. (Polish units had been ordered to evacuate Poland and reorganize in France.) He gets as far as Stanisiowow in East Little Poland, before being surrounded by Russian troops, when he is taken captive and imprisoned for a few weeks before being transported by cattle train to Siberia. Upon arrival he and his fellows were marched off into the wilderness and told to make a camp. ‘We made a huge fire and put branches on top of the snow and the next day dug the snow out and built a tent – about 300 feet long it was. It was all right there. I had very good clothes on me, but whoever had very light clothes on, they froze. They didn't last. They pulled him out, that's it, war finished for him!’
For him it was a time of fear and great uncertainly. An estimated one and a half million Poles, both military and civilians, were deported to Gulag camps in Siberia and Kazakstan. Half would never return. A few months after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin (in allying with Britain) agreed to release these prisoners of the labour camps. Over 150,000 (no-one seems to know exact numbers) then left the Soviet Union, led by General Anders, making their way south to Iran and then Palestine to come under British command.
After two years labouring, building roads and railways in terribly harsh conditions in Northern Siberia, Emil and his companions told they were to be freed and would be rejoining the Polish Army. They were transported to Southern Siberia, to Altai, where they worked on Russian farms. Then they were taken to Turkmenistan and onto Iran. ‘The British took us to Iraq and they taught us how to drive. First they took me to the parachute brigade and then they changed they minds and took me to transport and they taught me everything. After a few months there, we were transporting soldiers to the African front, from Iraq to Egypt and from there we got on boat again and we landed in Sicily.’
With the Polish Second Corps, Emil fought during the Italian campaign and was transferred to England at the end of the war, arriving at a camp in Haverford West. ‘The last place we were in Italy was Verona... and when I come here, I thought it was the last place on earth! I didn't like it at all... it rained ten times a day and I thought, ‘Oh, welcome to this...’ and I looked to run away. Then papers came to the camp office asking, ‘Are there any butchers in your company? Can he go to do voluntary work in a Plymouth factory?’ So I thought, Yes, that is a good job for me.’
The Polish Resettlement Corps was established in May 1946, to help the quarter of a million Polish servicemen like Emil who had fought for the Western Allies and could not return to their homeland, which was now behind the Iron Curtain. (Many of these Poles came from the eastern borderlands, territories which were now reallocated – Brest was now in Belarus and Wilno was now part of Lithuania. Many would emigrate to Canada and Australia, some to the U.S.) It was intended to be an opportunity for retraining and education; British trade unions agreed that prospective Polish employees could only be recruited from the PRC and would be placed in ‘approved’ Ministry of Labour jobs. After three months in Plymouth, Emil was sent on driving duties to remove and destroy army ordnance, then worked as an ambulance driver. In 1947, with the passing of the Polish Resettlement Act, which entitled Polish refugees in the UK to employment and to unemployment benefit, Emil was finally demobbed and sent to a hostel in Merry Hill, Wolverhampton. He responded to an advertisement for a butcher to work at a meat factory in Brierley Hill and went on to work there for the next 30 years, becoming a Master Butcher. He met his wife Freda at the Registration Office at the Labour Exchange, marrying her in 1948. They had three children.
Emil was one of many Europeans uprooted by the war who came to live in the Black Country towns. His memories and those of others were originally collected for an exhibition, ‘Crossing Borders’, held at a number of venues including the gallery at the Lighthouse Media Centre in 2001. Outside of Wolverhampton lay a transit and demobilisation camp at Wrottesley Park, the site of a wartime military camp and RAF airfield for Free Dutch Forces. Post-1945, here you would find – as well as the Poles – Ukrainians, Yugoslavs, Latvians and Estonians displaced by the changing borders of post-war Europe. Nothing remains of the old camp, though in the early 1950s the villagers of Lower Penn, with support from the county council, bought a couple of huts and transported them for use as a village hall – Lower Penn Victory Hall.
Most Poles applied for British naturalisation when the opportunity arose. The London Gazette would publish a list of those who had taken the oath of allegiance to the Queen on a regular basis, with the date of their acceptance. The entry for 28th August 1959 includes:
Antoszkiewicz, Franciszek; Poland; Mechanic/Tyre Builder; 35 Old Fallings Lane, Wolverhampton, Staffordshire. 29th June 1959.
Antoszkiewicz, Weronika; Poland; Coning Operator; 35 Old Fallings Lane, Wolverhampton, Staffordshire. 29th June 1959.
Czyzyk, Teodor ; Poland ; Machine Operator; 41 Waterhead Drive, Wolverhampton, Staffordshire. 16th April 1959.
Laba, Ludwik; Poland; Machine Operator; 9A Dunstall Road, Wolverhampton, Staffordshire. 18th June 1959.
Lewczak, Piotr; Poland ; Coal Miner; 27 Southbourne Road, Fordhouses, Wolverhampton, Staffordshire. 1st June 1959.
Wieclawek, Jan ; Poland ; Rubber Worker, 45 Southbourne Road, Wolverhampton, Staffordshire. 12th June 1959.
Of the above, Ludwig Laba was born near the Polish city of Lwów, now part of Western Ukraine. As a member of the Polish Army, he arrived in Britain in 1940 after evacuation from Dunkirk. He was first sent to Liverpool then Scotland. ‘We got jobs, we got British uniforms, we each got a British ID card. We had to work the mines, that was a job; you wouldn’t like it, I tell you.’ He went on to fight with the First Armoured Division in Normandy, Belgium and Holland, where he was wounded. In 1947 he came to live and work in Wolverhampton, for many years at the Goodyear Tyres factory.
His long journey to England was told in a matter-of-fact way, as if it was in no way remarkable. Called up to army service just prior to the war, after the invasion of Poland by Nazi and Soviet forces he fled across the border into Hungary. He was in a refugee camp outside of Budapest, but as Hungary was officially allied to Germany, this was a precarious position to be in. Soon there was a plan to get out and try to join a Polish Army regrouping in France. He recalled: ‘You put your name on the list and when the agent came and read out the names of twenty fellows, he said, ‘Tonight you get out of the barracks. How you get out of the barracks, that’s your business! But you better get out if you want to go to France, if you want to see the future!’ We sold things to the guards – we had good quality army leather belts. We didn’t need any uniform, we went out in civvies – freedom clothes. When you get out of the camp, you couldn't have nothing, nothing, not any bit of paper that could prove who you are. So you change your name; you were under a different name and you were a different man. We went to the border of Yugoslavia. There was a meeting arranged at a hotel there. When we get to the hotel, there was a man in civilian clothes and another little chap who said: ‘We are going to cross the river to Yugoslavia. Who can swim? Who cannot swim? Hands up. Now we go.’ There was a small boat, but it was dangerous. It was not a big river but quite deep – you could throw a stone from the other side when you crossed. In Yugoslavia they called to us, ‘Brothers! Come on brothers, come on!’
From there they took a train to the port of Split where they were met with a representative from the Polish Council, who put them in digs, gave them pocket money but told them, ‘Don't cause any trouble. Don't steal anything. You have got money for drinks, money for cigarettes, you have got accommodation.’ Two weeks later a boat took them to Marseilles. ‘Then it was off with the civilian clothes. Uniform and rifle, to the army again, hero, fight! We showed the French how to fight! We lasted seventeen days, but the French didn't last thirteen days, by the fourteenth day they were finished.’
In Scotland he was put to work building anti-invasion fortifications on the coast. In 1944, he took part in the D-Day invasion of Hitler’s Fortress Europe, fighting through France, Belgium and Holland, where he was wounded. After the war he came to work in Wolverhampton, for many of those years at Goodyear. ‘I left my parents and my young brother and sister, in order to join the army. If I had gone back to Poland at that time, where would I have gone? What would I have found there? Back to Russia, especially with what Stalin did? I couldn’t go back.’ With British naturalisation secured, he was able to return to Poland attend the funeral of his sister. He remembered: ‘At every restaurant or shop I went to there were people behind my back watching me all the time. My brother would say, ‘Luke, don't talk nothing. If anybody ask you what's it’s like in England tell them it’s very bad. Because if you tell them the truth then they won’t let you go back; you’ll be bloody finished.’
He remembered one instance in a restaurant in Krakow: ‘I sat at my table, and there was a man to one side and this fellow got a bit friendly and he said: ‘Where do you come from?’ I said: ‘England.’ ‘What is it like in England?’ he then asked. I knew what to say: ‘Oh, in England it’s not bloody good.’ ‘Why?’ this young fellow said. I told him: ‘In England you have got to work hard, you've got to work by the clock. If you leave your machine – the clock is clocking how long you have been in the toilet, how long you have been smoking. But in Poland it's beautiful. Seven o'clock in the morning you come out of the factory and the gate, you drink a beer, a vodka, and go back to work. In England they kick you out if you cross the gate.’ There was this fellow opposite listening in who had a bit of a nerve; he listened for a while then said: ‘Excuse me, are you trying to upset me?’ I said: ‘I apologise if I upset you, but I can't see how.’ He said: ‘You were telling your friend how it’s good in Poland and bad in England. Do you work Saturday?’ I said: ‘Yes, we even do Sundays.’ He said: ‘Do you get paid?’ I said: ‘Time and a half for Saturday. Double for Sunday.’ Then I found out what it was he was trying to say. He said to me: ‘I bloody work in an office and every Saturday I go to work for the government for nothing. Because Poland was destroyed and had to be rebuilt, they don't pay you a bloody penny for Saturday! And you've got the nerve to say it’s bloody bad in England!’ So I said: ‘Oh I didn't see, but you've got a very good time here Sir, everybody's happy, everybody drinking vodka.’
It was not just men who had served with the Allied forces who found themselves unexpectedly in this foreign land. Henryka (Utnik) Lappo was born in 1927, in the Ułanówka settlement (now in the Ukraine). These eastern borderland settlements were among newly created provinces after the Polish-Bolshevik war and the 1921 peace Treaty of Riga, the lands often gifted to ‘military settlers’ and their families, men who had fought for General Piłsudski’s Legions to establish the Second Republic. Ułanówka settlement numbered some 30 families.
Henryka recalled: ‘In 1939, at the age of 12, I sat the entrance examination for the grammar school. My brother and sister were already there. Unfortunately, I failed the exam, much to the disappointment of everyone. I remember no one spoke as we walked home. Then war broke out. In February 1940, we were taken to Russia, forced to go. Some families perished completely. There were not many photographs. You did not have a camera to make a picture of how we lived. When they came to deport us, my father and sister were not home that night, just my brother Stanisław. We were given one hour to pack. My mother collected just a few things. We were loaded onto a goods train at the station. It was overcrowded. And they took the three of us to Russia. We were in a camp near Arkhangelsk. There were Poles, Lithuanians, Hungarians. We were chopping wood, big big forests, big trees. Women, children, everybody had to work. I had to carry food out to the workers in a big pack on my back. The food was collected from a central kitchen in the camp. There was a thin watery soup, not edible, so I had to collect berries and mushrooms to help stop people starving to death. I don’t know how we survived, but we did somehow.’
When the amnesty came, they travelled south to Uzbekistan to join the Polish army, and went from there by boat to Iran. Her first stop was Teheran, living in tents. ‘There was a school organised for children in a hangar where they kept aeroplanes. There my Polish life began, my schooling, my girl guiding. I was fourteen, nearly fifteen. We were in Teheran four months and then we were moved to East Africa, by boat at first, through the Persian Gulf under military escort, to the coast of Africa and then into Uganda, to a camp for civilians that came out of Russia. There were a lot of those camps, not only in Uganda, but in Tanganyika and South Africa, wherever there were British colonies who would accept civilians. So I landed in Masindi, my home for the next six years. The school we went to, it wasn’t a posh school at all, straw on the roof, low mud walls halfway up so you could see what was happening in the next class.’
The families of soldiers who had served in the Polish Corps under General Anders were eventually allowed to migrate to England. Her brother had been in the army and was already there. In August 1948, she travelled by train to Mombasa, then boarded a ship, the Winchester Castle, and sailed through the Red Sea, the Suez Canal, across the Mediterranean to Southampton. ‘It was summer, but the first thing that greeted us was rain. I was on my own then. My mother from Africa, she went back to Poland because my father was found to be still alive, so she thought it was her duty to be with him. My sister also had survived. I didn’t want to go. I choose my freedom in the West and so I came on my own. It wasn’t very easy. With my Polish qualification I thought I could go to university. I wanted to go to further education, but it was very difficult. I had nowhere to, how you say it, ‘park myself’. You had to think how to live, how to dress, how to eat. I didn’t know what to expect, what I will do, how the life will turn out.’
She worked first as a parlour maid in hotels and later came to Wolverhampton, where she married in 1950, having four children. Her husband, Aleksander, was also Polish and had served in the army. He then worked 28 years as a bus conductor. In 1965, they took British nationality, and that same year made a journey to Poland to find what remained of their family. She was also heavily involved in the Polish Scouting Movement, joining Mr Mrowczyński to establish a group in the town, later participating in a huge commemoration of the battle of Monte Cassino in Italy in 1969.
They say our memories exist as a foundation of our identity. At the conclusion of each meeting of the Anglo-Polish Society in Wolverhampton, they recited the following lines: ‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.’ This comes from Laurence Binyon's poem ‘For the Fallen’, first published in The Times of London in September 1914 and incorporated into many remembrance ceremonies. Daniel Schacter, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, puts it this way: ‘Extensively rehearsed and elaborated memories come to form the core of our life stories - narratives that help us define and understand our identity and place in the world.’
Henryka remained active all her life with the Polish Girl Guides (she was District Commissioner for Polish Guides in the Midlands for over 20 years), also teaching at the Saturday Polish school in Wolverhampton, as well as helping collate memories of the survivors of those deported to Russia. She published a number of books, including ‘Z kresów wschodnich Rzeczypospolitej: wspomnienia z osad wojskowych 1921-1940/From the Eastern Borderlands of the Republic of Poland: memories of military settlements 1921-1940: collective work edited by Henryka Lappo.’
Their testimonies offer us an insight into those events that irrevocably altered their lives, and how they were able to reshape their lives despite the trauma and loss, retaining their identity whilst integrating into a different society (one which was not always welcoming, despite Polish sacrifices in fighting on the British side). Ludwig Laba remembered meeting Enoch Powell, his Member of Parliament for Wolverhampton: ‘I had him in the house with me a few times, in my house, and I got on all right with him, and when I asked him the question he said to me, ‘Mr. Laba, I have nothing against you and I don't mean anything by it when I say, you can be British but you will never be English.’ Which is quite correct. You cannot be English when you was born in another country and then you come to this country. That is the way it is.’
To those Polish emigres, who raised families here, whose birthplace had irrevocably changed through nearly half a century of communism, may their memories live on.