NEIGHBOURS FROM HELL
by Julian Rybarczyk
By the end of July more beds in the hospital were needed for the newly wounded soldiers so some of us had to be evacuated elsewhere. The walking wounded were sent to Egypt and some of the more seriously wounded, like myself, were examined and if found fit enough were prepared for a journey by ship to Great Britain. The surgeon began his round of soldiers with legs attached to traction contraptions and began the procedure of dismantling them. It seemed a relatively easy task. With his fingers the surgeon took hold of one end of the pin protruding from the patient's leg and gently, but firmly, pulled it out.
When he came to me and began pulling the pin it would not budge. It had grown into the bone! Mr. Srokowski had to resort to more drastic methods. He produced a pair of pliers and with one hand holding my leg below the knee he gripped the end of the pin. Twisting the pliers a little one way and then a little the other way the pin gradually loosened and was slowly but surely extracted. It was excruciatingly painful and I could not help letting out a few screams. When the pin emerged it looked revoltingly gory. I was given two tots of rum and an injection of morphine. Despite this bit of extra drama my leg continued to heal but I had to have it re-plastered to give it protection for my forthcoming sea journey. And so it was that with others from our battle zone I was transported, on a stretcher, to the sea and boarded the hospital ship Atlantis. While on board we were on proper beds and very, very well looked after. In preparation for my future stay in Britain I learned two English words, "yes" and "no" and with this fluency of a new language I landed in Liverpool in August 1944.
From the ship I was carried, like many others, on a stretcher to waiting ambulances. We were driven to a station and put aboard a special train which had bunk beds for us and nurses in attendance. One nurse came round and gave each wounded soldier a small gift such as a comb, a razor or a pair of scissors. Somehow I was missed out and was too shy to speak up. The train carried us out of Liverpool on a long journey through the night. At the time I did not know where we were going but it turned out that our destination was Scotland. We finally arrived near Aberfeldy in Perthshire. We were surprised and delighted when we found out we were to stay in Taymouth Castle at the eastern end of Loch Tay, near the village of Kenmore. We were even more surprised to find this castle had been turned into a Polish military hospital, run by Polish doctors and nurses. Here the plaster was soon removed from my leg and I could walk with the aid of crutches. I stayed for a few weeks, gaining strength all the time and walking in the lovely grounds of the castle.
From there I was moved into a small convalescence home which must have been a private house at one time. It was named Killin and in Aberfeldy and I believe it is now no more. Here the nurses, like the others, were kind and beautiful but British. This house also had a lovely garden with a putting green which I was soon able to make use of. Before long I was even well enough to kick a ball about. Life was beginning to look good again.
When I had recovered enough to leave the convalescent home in Aberfeldy, I was sent to an army camp in Peebles where there were other recovering wounded servicemen. From there some would be returned to their army units and others, less fit like myself, were offered a variety of courses we could attend. I chose to go on a commercial course in Glasgow, which I hoped might benefit me on my return to Poland. My decision to go to Glasgow turned out to be a momentous one but not in the way I expected.
Along with three wounded friends, who had also chosen to go on the same course, I found lodgings near Charing Cross, at 196 North Street, not far from our college in the heart of Glasgow. Our landlady was a Mrs. Ramage, who was going to provide us with accommodation and full board in her tenement flat for £2 each weekly! We settled down to our new but temporary student life. There were shops below our building and number 194 was a newsagent and tobacconist where we bought our cigarettes and the Dziennik Polski, the Polish paper we had ordered. We were still in uniform and the lady owner, who ran her shop with the help of her young daughter, was rather friendly towards us as our landlady had explained to her that we were "her four wounded Polish officers".
As time went on the Allied armies advanced through Germany and the Americans reached the prisoner of war camp where Bronek was incarcerated. The guards had fled and so after five years, Bronek was freed. He was flown to Britain where he was able to rejoin the Polish Navy (i.e. the Free Polish Navy). With the help of the Red Cross he managed to trace me and turned up one day at Mrs Ramage's flat for an emotional reunion.
My friendship with the young newsagent, named Betty, blossomed. I had asked her out to the cinema and that had been a success. Then I was invited to her home for tea and met her grandmother. Betty helped me with my English and laughed a lot at my mistakes. Teaching me how to pronounce the "TH" sound, which is not in the Polish language, gave her a lot of amusement. Listening to the political leaders we Poles were becoming increasingly worried about our own country's future. While other Allied troops were looking forward to peace and returning to their homelands, the Poles were dismayed to learn that Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin had alarming plans for us. Stalin did not want to give up his grip on Poland and in the end it was agreed by them to move Poland westwards! Poland would be given part of defeated Germany in the west while the USSR would take a large slice of eastern Poland. This meant that my home in Poland would then be part of the Soviet Union.
In the future the new Poland was going to be dominated by Stalin and his communist regime. That was not what we had fought for. When victory finally came in 1945 and people were celebrating in the streets, we four soldiers stayed indoors and were very disappointed. In a pathetic and futile gesture of despair and frustration we threw two rather suspect kippers out of the window onto the happy revellers below. A fat lot of good that did.
Sometime after peace was declared Kazia and Marysia arrived from the Middle East and were living in a large Polish Army Camp in Herefordshire. Betty came with me to meet them in this camp and we had another happy reunion. Zbyszek had also reached Britain so it was only left for my parents to join us to make our small family complete again. They were still in the Displaced Persons' Camp in Africa.
When my time in Glasgow was up I had moved to a camp in Kinross. From there I was transferred to a camp which was in the grounds of Inverary Castle, in Argyllshire, and then on to Thornhill in southern Scotland. There were thousands of Polish ser vice men and women now in Britain, not to mention civilians in Displaced Persons Camps. A large majority of them did not want to return to Poland under the conditions now in place there.
Our family, for instance, had no home to go back to and we certainly weren't going to put ourselves at the mercy of the Communist Party again. We were lucky, in a way, as our complete family was out of Poland and under British care. Some Poles, of course, chose to return to Poland, especially if they had close relatives waiting for them. For the Poles who chose not to return there were hard choices to make. Some would stay in Britain but finding a job would be difficult and the government here did not really encourage them to do so. Some countries, such as Australia, Canada, Argentina, America and Belgium offered sanctuary to Poles not wishing to return home and so it was decision time for many of my compatriots.
Meanwhile Bronek was still in the navy and moved about quite a bit. Some of the time his ship was in the River Clyde, where he found a sweetheart too, also named Betty. Marysia, still in Herefordshire, had met Marek Duszynski, and fallen in love with him. He had been a civil engineer, with a wife and very young son when war broke out. Being in the Army Reserves he had been called up immediately and, like Bronek, had been taken prisoner at the outset and remained locked up for the next five years. During that time his wife had died and his two sisters had taken over care of little Peter, his son.
I had no idea what kind of employment I could hope to find in Scotland and then I heard of a Polish ex-service man who had found work in a carpet factory. Betty, who I was keeping regular contact with, suggested that it would do no harm for me to enquire if there were any vacancies at the famous Glasgow carpet factory of Templetons. She offered to come with me as my English was still not very fluent. We were received by a very nice man who chatted with us for a while and in the end said he was prepared to take me on as a trainee weaver. We were over the moon although one snag was it would always mean working on the nightshift. We were told we would have to go to the nearby Labour Exchange where I would need to obtain a work permit before I could be employed by the factory. Along we went and were interviewed by a pleasant manager who said he was sorry but as he had a lot of unemployed British men on his books he could not give a work permit for that job to a foreigner. He did add that for one reason or another he didn't think the carpet factory would employ the men he had to offer.
Now it so happened that Betty's best friend's mother, a Mrs. Campbell, owned a carpet and linoleum shop nearby so when we left the labour exchange, a bit fed-up, we popped in to see her and tell her our news. Her response surprised us and cheered us up a bit. She said she knew the manager of the Labour Exchange and that he was a customer in a nearby grocery shop belonging to her cousin. Seemingly this man occasionally received a wee bit extra on top of his normal ration of food or maybe the odd egg if there was one to spare. Perks that he no doubt cherished. Mrs. Campbell said she would make an appointment to go, one day soon, and see the manager of the Labour Exchange and we should go with her. As we walked into his office, Mrs. Campbell, going in first and looking particularly smart, he looked up and gave her a radiant smile which rather melted away as he spotted us walking in behind her. We sat down and talked for a while. Mrs. Campbell explained that she knew us well and assured the manager I was of good character and a hard worker. He replied that his hands were tied and all he could really offer me was work down the coal mines! Betty spoke up then and explained I couldn't do that kind of work because I had been wounded in the war. "Oh! you have been wounded", exclaimed the manager, "Well that makes a big difference. I'll see what I can do". And that is how I got the work permit.
I enjoyed being in the carpet factory. The other weavers were friendly and the work interesting. It only remained now for me and Bronek to be demobbed and become full time civilians. It was now 1948 and firstly Bronek and his Betty married and also Marysia and Marek. On April 2nd Betty Ferguson and I tied the knot. By the summertime my father and mother arrived in Britain by ship and Bronek was able to go and meet them after a separation of nearly ten years. My parents were sent to live in a small Displaced Persons' Camp at Llwyngwril, practically on the shore in mid Wales where Betty and I were able to spend some time with them that summer. By the next summer they had been moved to Bubwith in Yorkshire and then soon after to live in the camp of Penrhos outside Pwllheli in north Wales for a year or two.
As accommodation was very scarce, Betty and I were living with her mother and grandmother. Bronek was living and working near the Clyde coastal town of Helensburgh, only twenty odd miles from Glasgow. Marek and Marysia had decided to emigrate to Argentina where Marek had a cousin. Kazia went to work in London where there was a large Polish community.
So we all began a new chapter in our lives. Betty and I were quite content although we would have liked to have had a house of our own. In 1949, our son George was born which brought great happiness to us all. Then in the next year we managed to rent a flat. It was property opposite the shop and had eight, mostly large rooms and a big kitchen. There were a few "sitting tenants" living in it who could not be put out but it still left plenty of space for us. This again was a new experience for us but it worked well most of the time in what was still a period of scarcity and hardship since the end of the war. Betty was no longer working in the shop and her mother was having difficulty in finding a suitable person to replace her. She asked me if I would care to come and help her and I agreed. So after being a carpet weaver for two years I became a shopkeeper.
In 1951 our second son, Antoni, was born and we were happy and busy. Kazia had met a Polish ex-paratrooper, Stanley Kołaczkowski, ("tall and handsome" she told us) and not long afterwards they were married. They bought quite a large terrace house near Clapham Common in London and later took our parents to live with them. Zbyszek, living in England, was finding it quite difficult to find employment, so we invited him to come and stay with us and try his luck in Glasgow. He lived with us for months and found several menial jobs but none of them were really suitable for him. He was a very clever young man but had had a broken education. One day some friends of his got in touch with him and asked him to join them in their printing business in London. He did just that and never looked back. He went on to marry a Polish lady pharmacist with her own chemist shop with a flat above. In time they had a daughter, Ewa.
While Zbyszek was still living with us we thought of purchasing a large flat and letting it out in single rooms. There seemed to be quite a few of this type of flat near us, on the market and not selling. Betty discovered one that we could purchase by paying off the asking price in small instalments with no interest added. We took the plunge and bought it and then spent a hectic time papering and painting as well as buying lots of furniture from the nearby auction rooms.
We had no sooner completed this flat and rented out the rooms when we heard of an even better and bigger flat going for a bargain price. This time, however, we had to have the full purchase price to buy it. With some savings and loans from Betty's granny and granny's brother, Alec, we managed to gather together the asking price. Again we papered and painted. Bronek came and helped us and Betty bought more furniture. Before long we had all the rooms furnished and let. Having these two flats and letting them out gave us an extra income but it is an activity I would not recommend.
Marek and Marysia had settled in Argentina. Marek had obtained quite a good civil engineering position, they had bought a house, made friends and were awaiting the birth of their baby. Sadly the baby boy was stillborn. Marysia, being very upset, was missing her family here in Britain even more and they longed to return. This was to prove very difficult.
You had to find a job that could not be filled by a Britisher and then obtain a work permit from the British authorities. Not easy. Betty had a friend who had an engineering firm and who was sympathetic to Marek's plight. He offered Marek work and wrote letters stating that he particularly wished to employ Marek because of his skills, including his languages, Polish, German, English and Spanish. The work permit was refused but he persisted and wrote more letters. Betty also wrote letters, arguing Marek's case and involved our MP, the much respected Walter Elliot, and even his wife. After three long years we were at last granted the work permit for Marek but then the authorities declared that Marysia would require one also! We were shocked and could not believe this so Betty decided to go to this government office in London and have it out with them, face to face. She went on the train, which was packed and she had to stand nearly all the way. On arriving she went straight from the station to the office in Eberry Street, in central London and what do you think she found? An office full of workers busy issuing Work Permits? No, instead a radio was on and everyone was listening intently to some cricket match and becoming very excited. Betty was none too pleased. She stated why she was there and how far she had come. "Oh, sorry!" they said "We've made a mistake. Your sister-in-law does not need a Work Permit to accompany her husband back to Britain". Betty left the office and made her way to Kazia's house where she spent the night and returned to Glasgow the next day, triumphant but annoyed. Marek and Marysia returned to our shores and Marek's new employer was delighted with him. Marek remained with that firm until he retired, not at sixty five but at seventy.
A few years after their return, Marysia decided to take up teaching again. Being fully qualified in Poland, she only had to complete a one year teacher's training course before becoming a primary school teacher here. She went on to work happily and diligently until her retirement.
During the early post-war years Polish people, who were already settled in Britain, would return to Poland for holidays or more likely to visit relatives. They found a rather sad country, not only badly damaged by the war but also shabby, with lots of scarcities and long queues in the shops for even basic commodities. Back here in Glasgow, people of the Polish community collected second hand clothes from their friends and relatives, had them driven to Poland in vans and distributed to needy people through the church.
Zbyszek was one of the people most anxious to visit Warsaw after the war to meet his family again. He had a mother, father and sister but his brother was dead, killed in the Warsaw Rising. Poor Henryk, who had lived with us while attending our local school as a young boy had remained quietly in Warsaw during the German occupation. Secretly he belonged to the Underground Army only waiting for a chance to liberate his country from the Germans. That day came, he thought, in 1944, when the Red Army, now advancing westwards towards Germany, had reached Warsaw but was still on the east side of the River Vistula. Henryk, with comrades, rose up from their hiding places, in and around Warsaw, to attack the retreating Germans, fully expecting the Russians to cross the river and join them. Alas the Red Army had been given orders to remain where they were. Henryk was shot dead in the street on the first day of the fighting. Although the Polish Underground Army fought on bravely for six weeks and suffered heavy losses, in the end they were defeated because of a lack of reinforcements and ammunition. Only after the defeat did the Russians cross the river and carry on with the fighting. Zbyszek continued to visit his family in Poland over the years and helped them as much as he could.
Nearing the end of the nineteen fifties I began to long for a business or career of my own and after considering many ideas I decided to try and become a driving instructor. I already possessed a driving licence so I bought a second hand car, had it fitted with dual controls, swotted up the Highway Code and had the car properly insured. In those days that was all one needed to do to become a driving instructor. I called myself "The Allied School of Motoring" and advertised but only through our shop. I started off with only a few pupils and Betty or her mother took my place in the shop while I was out teaching. My pupils were pleased with their tuition and recommended me to others. Gradually I grew busier and busier until I had to give up working in the shop and my mother-in-law replaced me with one of her cousins. My driving tuition went from strength to strength and sometimes I had a waiting list of prospective pupils and so it continued until I retired many years later.
In nineteen sixty one our third son, Kenneth, was born. It was about this time that the owners of our rented flat, The British Linen Bank, wanted us out as they had plans to change the whole property into offices. We decided to take over our biggest flat, which was all let out, and live in it ourselves. It was a huge flat on two levels, overlooking a park and Glasgow University. We made this house into roughly two flats and Betty's mother and grandmother came to live with us, separately but under the same roof. We moved into this lovely home, which was central yet quiet, and lived there for the next thirty three years.
Betty had always felt rather cheated because her education had been abruptly cut short on the sudden tragic death of her father in an accident when she had just turned fifteen. Because of the war she had to leave school and help her mother run their newsagent shop. Now in her thirties she took special interest in the fact that there was a shortage of teachers and the authorities were encouraging older people to take up this career and become mature students in teacher training colleges. This appealed to Betty so she attended night school to gain the qualifications she still needed to enter college. That done she enrolled for a three year teacher training course which she thoroughly enjoyed. Once she had graduated she had no trouble finding employment in the nearby primary school. The whole experience had been very worthwhile.
My father died aged sixty nine, while living with Kazia's family. Mother lived on there, but in later years she became slightly confused, so we took her to live with us for the last five years of her life and she died in her eighties.
Kazia and her husband brought up two sons. In time one son had a son of his own and the other son had two. Bronek had a family of five children who gave him twelve grandchildren. Betty and I had George, Antoni and Kenneth who became in turn a chartered accountant, an architect and a mathematics teacher. Antoni and his wife, Liz, had three children, Scott, Halina and Louise.
That is nearly everyone accounted for except unlucky Mrs. Olszewska and her daughter, Halina. After we left them in Siberia they were forced to spend another five years in that miserable place before being allowed to return to Poland. Her son survived the war and also returned to Poland.
Mrs Januszajtis, whose two little girls had died in Siberia, also survived the war and reached the safety of London, where my parents and Kazia met her some years later. She had not known the fate of her husband for a long time but eventually he had been released from some Russian labour camp and somehow managed to join her but died shortly afterwards.
Poland, I'm glad to say, has also survived those long difficult years after the war when it was under the heel of the Soviet Communists. Now, thanks to the late Polish Pope John Paul II, Lech Wałęsa and his ship building workers in Solidarity and many, many others. Poland has become at last a much happier, freer and prosperous country. Long may it last.
I consider myself fortunate to have come through the Second World War, often in traumatic and hopeless situations, and survived. To have been wrenched out of Poland with my family, been separated by large distances and yet all come together again, here in Britain, is quite miraculous. We have lived normal, fulfilled lives in Britain and have been free, more or less, to do what we chose without fear of the dreaded midnight knock on the door. For all of this we are truly thankful.
Although members of my family have made short visits to Poland over the years I have never returned. I would rather remember it as it was in my youth.
Neighbours from Hell, including maps of the journey, is available at this link