1st Polish Armoured Division
After the end of World War II, many Polish soldiers fighting as part of the Polish Armed Forces in the West did not return to their homeland – they were stopped by fear of repression or the desire to make a new life for themselves abroad.
Such were the reasons that determined the fate of the young sapper Roman Figiel. In September 1944, Roman Figiel, together with the 1st Polish Armoured Division of General Stanisław Maczek, took part in the battles for the liberation of Breda and Arnhem. The young soldier went through the entire combat route of the 1st Armoured Division and returned to Breda, where he had previously met the love of his life, a young Dutch woman named Joke.
In January 2018, Roman Figiel turned 92 [he died on May 10, 2020]. He lived with his wife in a modest house in Breda. Surrounded by the care of his closest family and friends, he enjoyed extraordinary health for his age. What's more, having a positive attitude to life, he willingly took part in social life, and was even more willing to receive guests at his home. He liked to tell his story, reminiscing about the past years with a tear in his eye. The memory of the past is supported by numerous publications, books, newspaper articles and photographs collected over the years and meticulously supplemented by his son Ada. You can find them all over the house. On the wall in the guest room there are photographs from important ceremonies and, of course, the wedding photo of Mr. and Mrs. Figiel. If it hadn't been for the war, Mr. Roman's life would probably have turned out completely differently.
But let's start from the beginning.
Roman Figiel was born on 6 January 1926 in Upper Silesia, in the village of Janów near Katowice, in a large mining family (6 brothers and 2 sisters). After the outbreak of the war, his father and two brothers were sent to forced labour in Germany, with the eldest being shot for escaping and beating up the Germans when he learned of his wife's close contacts with the Germans
Young Roman had to support the rest of the family on his own, and then, at the urging of his older brother, he made his way with him to Western Europe. His brother joined the Canadian Army (he settled in Canada after the war), and the younger Figiel was captured by the Germans and forced to do hard work, building a German defensive line in Normandy. From there, in June 1944, he managed to escape and get to the Americans who had just landed in Normandy. The Americans sent him to Scotland, where the 1st Polish Armoured Division under the command of General Stanisław Maczek was being formed. Figiel joined a sapper battalion and learned how to build bridges and disarm mines. After three weeks of training, he became a soldier and received a Polish uniform, which was a great event for him.
After completing his training, the Division was transported by boat to France. His first encounter with the war came when several experienced sappers died while trying to disarm a new type of German mine, and fragments of camouflage netting fell on the resting Figiel and his colleagues. It was also quite a horror to watch the approaching Allied bombers and the sight of the hatches of the bomb holds opening... Maczek's soldiers were bombed by the Allies as a result of a mistake. To avoid this in the future, they were given yellow scarves by the English, which they were to wave at the sight of English planes flying over them.
As a sapper, Roman Figiel only occasionally participated in battles, as his task was to build and rebuild bridges and clear mines. This was his main occupation in Breda, liberated by Polish soldiers on 29 October 1944.
In Breda, the eighteen-year-old soldier met Joke Vetter, who was a year younger, and who later became his wife. After arriving in Breda, Figiel was sent to the family's house in Ginneken on the Kerkhofweg. The prospect of sleeping in a bed made him very happy, because at the front he only slept on a blanket under the jeep! With Mr. and Mrs. Vetter, however, he found not only a comfortable place to stay, but also a great love. When he drove up to the house in the jeep, he saw the girl in the window and waved the yellow scarf. But she turned on her heel, as if to indicate that she was not interested in him. In fact, she fell in love with the Polish soldier at first sight. Years later, Mrs. Joke recalls the moment: "He drove up to my parents' house in a jeep and waved a yellow scarf at me. I fell in love with him at first sight, but embarrassed, I immediately walked away from the window."
After a few days, Figiel invited the young Dutch woman to a dance and this is how their story began. Roman moved in with Joke's family, and through his hard work he gained the trust of her parents and friends. When the sapper had to leave the city and move on to Germany, he promised the Dutch maiden that he would return to her, and he kept his word. After his return, Roman and Joke decided to get married, but due to the difference in religions – he was a Catholic, she was a Protestant – the Dutch pastor did not want to marry them. At that time, in the Netherlands there were still so-called religious pillars, which effectively separated the two religious groups. Fortunately, Roman's colleagues found a way to do it, advising: "tell the priest that you have to". Young Figiel didn't know what that meant, but the priest immediately set a deadline in three weeks.
Joke and Roman were married on December 7, 1946 – the groom in a military uniform, the bride in a silk dress bought especially for the occasion in Antwerp. She managed to get a white dress, which was very difficult at the time (some brides went to the wedding in black).
"And how did you talk to each other?" I asked Joke during one of my visits. "We hardly talked at all," she replied with a laugh. "Roman doesn't know the language well and hasn't learned it well so far. Still, we get along. We don't need much to be happy.
However, the young couple did not have it easy. Immediately after the war, there was no work in Breda and the young husband could only patch potholes on the roads, but he had to take his own shovel to work. He grabbed every job. He shovelled snow and worked hard in a metal factory. Later, he managed to get a better job at Ericsson Telecommunicatie B.V. in Rijen, where he commuted 12 km each way by bicycle every day. To earn more, he worked on piecework (he was paid according to the quantity of products). There was no time to learn and get a profession. Not only did he have his own family to feed in the Netherlands – his son Ad was born, followed seven years later by Hans – but despite his poor earnings, he sent 20-30 kilogram parcels of clothes and food to his family in Poland every month.
After 30 years at Ericsson, Roman Figiel retired. He lived with his wife in a small house with a garden, where the plants he cultivates bloom every year. He proudly displays it to his guests, as well as his medals, books, and photos. He regrets that most of his family and friends are gone , but he enjoys every meeting, especially with the children and the local Polish community.
Privately, Mr. and Mrs. Figiel are very modest people. In December 2016, they celebrated their platinum anniversary. On this occasion, the Polish-Dutch couple was visited by the Mayor of Breda, Paul Depla, who brought a huge bouquet of flowers and a congratulatory letter from His Majesty the King of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Willem Alexander and Her Majesty Queen Maxima.
After 70 years of marriage, Mr. and Mrs. Figiel still look at each other with loving, caring eyes, with a smile on their faces. Whenever I leave them, they hold hands and wave goodbye and ask when I will visit them again.
At the time of this interview, Mr. Figiel was one of the few surviving Polish war veterans living in Breda, while there were about three hundred of them after the war. Twelve soldiers trained as sappers, only three made it to Breda, including young Figiel, who had not even been scratched by a bullet or a bomb fragment during the entire war. "I was more lucky than smart" he recalls.
For many years, the Polish sapper, like other Polish liberators of the Netherlands, felt underestimated by the Dutch authorities. He had to fend for himself, but he didn't complain. The change took place only during the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Breda, when for the first time the few Polish veterans felt truly honoured. Roman Figiel was awardedd six medals (Polish, British, French, Canadian), but he particularly appreciates the medal on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Breda. He also had fond memories of Liberation Day (Bevrijdingsdag) on 5 May 2012, when the then heir to the throne, Prince Willem Alexander, and Prime Minister Mark Rutte appeared in Breda, and he and his grandson stood close to them.
In June 2017, I visited Roman Figiel with members of the Kawasaki motorcycle rally, following in the footsteps of General Maczek, and Han Tiggelaar from the portals "Holland without secrets" and "Poland for the Dutch" was also with us. Mr. Roman showed the guests souvenirs from the war, photos, publications, but unfortunately he could not present his war uniform, which he handed over to a collector of war militaria immediately after the war. After all, there was supposed to be no more war! Interestingly, a few months later he was called up for military service again – they wanted to send him to sea to defuse mines. He managed to avoid service for the sake of his wife.
Unfortunately, the uniform was lost. A distinctive feature of the uniform was the sappers' logo – a yellow and black rope worn on the left shoulder. Mr. Roman is very keen to recover it, so all people who can help in recovering or at least finding this precious souvenir are asked to contact the editors of Hbt: firstname.lastname@example.org. The only thing left of his uniform is a beret, which Mr. Roman is very happy to show and wear during appropriate ceremonies.
Roman Figiel did not consider returning to Poland at all. It was already known that he would face repressions there, maybe even deportation to Siberia, and besides, his family had fallen apart as a result of the war. When asked if he missed Poland and his relatives, he replied: "I knew I had nothing to return to. I had a family, I had to support them. It wasn't easy. You had to work." He visited his homeland for the first time after the war in the 70s, to see his mother, who was still alive, and he regularly supported her with food parcels. Today, there is no one left in Poland, his only surviving brother lives in Canada, and his home is the Netherlands. Despite the passage of years abroad, he speaks Polish very well, and he has not forgotten Silesian.
For many years, Mr. Roman was no longer attracted to his country of origin, but unexpectedly, the day after his 92nd birthday, I received a phone call from his son Ad informing me that he and his father were planning to fly to Poland, during which they would like to see Krakow and Janów to see if the family home was still standing. Fortunately, Mr. Figiel's good condition allowed for this. "We'll only go for a few days," Ad said. "We can't leave Mum home alone for too long!"
Roman died in May 2020
SOURCE: (On FB) Article written by Małgorzata Lubbers-Dąbrowska (In Polish)
Photo credits: Małgorzata Lubbers-Dąbrowska, Mrs. Figiel's archive, and the Polish School in Breda.
Copyright: Figiel family