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.