I was born in Tylmanow, in the Krakow area, on 12 October 1913. In 1920 my family moved to the Tarnopol area of the Eastern Borderlands. From 1935to 1937, I did my obligatory service in the Polish armed forces. I then married Stephanie Haracz, who was from the Lwow area. We settled in Lwow, where I was waiting to join the Police Force when the war began. As a member of the reserves, I was called up to duty on 3 September 1939. In the early days of the war, I was engaged in the defence of the city, but Poland’s defences collapsed and the fighting soon ended. When the Russians invaded, my wife and I escaped Lwow and went to the village of Gliniany, where her parents lived.
On 10 February 1940, our home was ransacked, and we were arrested. Along with tens of thousands of other Poles, my family and my wife’s family were forcibly removed from our home (in addition to my wife and myself, this included my father, my step-mother, my two brothers, my wife’s parents, and her brother). In the dead of winter, we were taken to Koravitza train station and loaded into cattle wagons with no sanitary facilities, and only an iron stove in the centre to warm us. By the time we reached Sarny, there were 60 people in our wagon. Every so often, we received stale bread, and only occasionally some weak soup, or boiled water. We had no idea where they were taking us.
The trip lasted 33 days and we ended up in the Irkutsk region of southeastern Siberia. For the next 2 years, my wife and I struggled to stay alive. We were forced to work in the forest, in subhuman conditions (bitter cold in winter, with temperatures sinking to minus 50 degrees Celsius and worse, and devoured by black flies and mosquitoes in the short summer season). During this period I contracted pneumonia on several occasions, and barely recovered each time.
Work consisted of collecting sap from pine trees (apparently the sap had 52 uses), as well as making planks and boards from the felled trees. Because we lacked vitamins, most of us suffered from night blindness.
At one point, I received word that my father had died. He, his wife, and my brothers were at a location 150 km south of where I was. I later learned that my step-mother and my 19-year-old brother had also died. My 16-year-old brother Franek was seriously ill, and the NKVD permitted him to travel to my camp, where the doctor declared that he would live only 3 to 5 more days. To the doctor’s amazement, my wife and I nursed him back to health.
In late 1941, I received a letter from friends in Lwow, saying that the Germans had attacked the Russians. As a result of this letter, I was brought before the NKVD, questioned and warned about spreading propaganda. Several days later there was a camp meeting and the NKVD told us that we were now free, but gave no other information. They even suggested that we may want to stay and work there, rather than risk going off into the unknown.
We decided that we would take our chances with the unknown rather than dying in this wasteland. As we travelled west, we learned of the Polish Army being formed in the south of the USSR, so we decided to head that way. Unfortunately, I had to leave my wife in Kazakhstan, to tend to her sick parents. My brother and her brother also stayed with her, as they were too weak to travel.
Joining the Polish Army
I was able to join the Polish 10th Division at Lugovoye in the USSR, and was then transferred to the 6th Division near Guzar, in Uzbekistan. Eventually I was evacuated via Krasnovodsk to Persia, even though I was very sick at the time. After I recovered, I went on to Iraq, where I joined the 5th Kresy Infantry Division (5ta Kresowa Dywizja Piechoty) 6th Field Artillery. I served in Iraq, Egypt and Syria, and then was sent to Palestine, where I took part in military exercises. In Iraq, I had once more felt the cold chill of death settle on me, as I succumbed to an epidemic of dysentery, but I somehow managed to cheat death one more time.
In December 1943, we boarded ships for Italy. There were 25 ships in total, protected by submarines. My first action with my artillery unit was at Campo Basso, but for Easter 1944 there was a big communal dinner at which we had painted eggs! I really felt there was an atmosphere of total unity – a real family feeling.
In the buildup to the Battle for Monte Cassino, I trained near Naples and carried out some reconnaissance. I gave all my dry food provisions to hungry Italian children – I just could not resist, when I saw the look of desperation in their eyes. At one point, I spent 5 days digging artillery positions, but the ground was so hard that my hands were bleeding and covered in blisters.
When the attack started at midnight on the 11th of May, the artillery barrage was so intense that that the ears, noses and eyes of the artillery crews were bleeding. The barrel of my canon was so hot that we periodically had to stop firing, and cover it with wet sheets, to cool it down. The after-effects were so severe that I was unable to speak or hear properly for at least 3 days.
Because there had been such a loss of life on the first attack, two of my artillery crew had to replace the lost infantry. As I was a loader, I remained with my canon, and I firmly believe that this saved my life.
I fought in all the major battles on the Adriatic and, after the Battle of Ancona, I spent the winter of 1944 at Preddappio. I never understood why we were withdrawn from the fighting after the Battle of Bologna.
My wife had remained in Kazakhstan, tending her parents until they died. She was repatriated to Poland in 1946. Once in Poland, she made her way to East Berlin and a priest helped her escape to the British sector by hiding her in a barrel. From Berlin she was able to make contact with me in Italy, via the Red Cross. The Red Cross also put her in contact with the Polish 1st Army, who transported her and her brother (who had been at Kozielsk but had been released) via France, to Forli in Italy, where I was waiting for them.
A New Home in England
I remained with the Polish Second Corps until I reached England in 1946, then I enrolled in the Polish Resettlement Corps (PRC). My wife was transferred to England by train through France, but I went by ship from Naples, along with the German prisoners I was escorting to prison at Gibraltar. I arrived at Glasgow, and was then transferred to Gloucestershire, where my wife joined me.
During the next years, my wife and I lived in barracks, in what were former military camps, and this is where both our daughters were born. Conditions were quite primitive, but we made do as best we could. When it rained, the water in the barrack was ankle-deep!
On leaving the PRC, I worked for a builder in Cheltenham, before moving to Manchester in 1951. We moved here because my cousin told me that houses were cheaper to buy in Manchester. We did buy a home, but for many years we had to have renters in order to help with the payments.
Finding work was not easy in those days, partly because there was a general lack of work, and partly because Polish workers were not wanted. I remember frequently seeing graffiti on building walls saying “Poles go home, the war is over”. I had no home to go back to in Poland. I had tasted Soviet hospitality once already – in Siberia – and had no compulsion to repeat the experience. Besides, we often heard that many who had returned had mysteriously disappeared.
I ended up working at Carborundum in Trafford Park, before becoming a self-employed photographer in 1958, and continued in that career until my retirement.
I will be 100 years old next October, but I don’t let age slow me down. I continue to be an active SPK council member (I hold the title of Honorary President of the Manchester branch), am active in the Polish Parish, and at Polish Saturday schools (where I tell the students about Polish history). I continue to help out with the organization of events, and by daily visits to the sick and anyone in need of assistance. I have helped raise money for Polish schools and to help those who remained behind in Russia. I am happy to say that I have managed to convince the next generations to join us in these causes.
I love to have the young visit me at home, so I can share some Polish history with them, by telling them about the photos and documents that decorate my rooms. I try to tell young people that life must be lived with passion; that you cannot think only of yourself and your loved ones, but you must also help to build a community in which every generation will thrive. God blessed me with a strong constitution, which explains why I have lived so long, but I have always tried not to waste my life, but to put my energies to good use. Hopefully, my community work has been helpful to the youngsters, and I have managed to pass on a little about their Polish roots to them.
P.S. My brother Franek had remained in Kazakhstan with my wife, and was also repatriated to Poland in 1946. He chose to remain there, and this is where he lives to this day.
From an interview conducted by Frank Pleszak