by Barbara Stepien-Foad
As told by Stanislaw Stepien, her Father
I, Stanislaw, was born in 1912, the youngest of 12 children in Central Poland at a place called Sulejów. I was told my parents died when I was just 12 weeks old. My mother caught typhoid from helping neighbours out and shortly afterwards died herself. My father died 2 days later following a massive stroke.
I was, as a baby, also infected with typhoid to such a degree that it was felt best to leave me in peace to die, however things turned out differently.
My oldest brothers were either serving in the occupying Russian Army (at that time one served 10 years National Service) or working in underground Polish organisations risking being arrested.
After finishing a state education, I was called up for National Service and following 2 years service I gained promotion to non-commissioned officer in the artillery division.
At this time, I moved to Eastern Poland and began working as an assistant accountant, then as manager in a co-operative. Neither seemed satisfying to me, therefore I applied for government work and was accepted to work in the “Safety Section”. Following numerous courses and practical work, I established myself by working as an instructor in Police Academies. When war broke out 1st September 1939, I was mobilised into the Polish Army serving to protect Poland. The Nazis invaded from the west, the Soviets from the east. People suffered turmoil and great change, thousands died – many civilians. War is a terrible thing and difficult to explain unless you have experienced it yourself.
My health suffered following the various troubles that I underwent – I was exposed to many explosions and infections and, being found on Hungarian soil, I was nursed in an Allied hospital. The extent of my injuries were such that I was taken to a mortuary and again left for dead. However, things turned out differently.
Following further treatment, it was planned that I was to be sent back to Poland. But Poland was occupied at that time. It was easy to avoid this route as the Hungarians turned a blind eye and so I joined other Polish soldiers in situ to fight for our freedom. The Hungarian authorities seemed helpful and kind, unlike some of the Austrian civilians who supported the German army - they would spit at us as we marched along – for what we represented.
When I heard that the Polish Army was assembling in France, I decided to join them. Rail tickets were provided – paid for by the French Consulate in Zagreb. I travelled through former Yugoslavia and Northern Italy to reach France. I experienced much warmth and support in both countries. Civilians offered to take us in, sleep on their floors, they gave us food and shelter – some families even sent us off with food parcels. I reached France – Modena – a south easterly area, and entered a transit camp which was poorly run – it was here I became infested with fleas, I’m not sure if they were Polish or French fleas!
In a short time, I was transferred to the Paris headquarters (Ministry of War). People truly believed that the Maginot line was uncrossable. The French army was well armed but without the spirit to fight, so it was not surprising that the German attack was successful. Perhaps by not retaliating as much, the French saved lives and their buildings etc.
Following France’s defeat and some more troubled times, I was evacuated in a Norwegian coal ship headed for England. The journey was fraught with Nazi air attacks off the coast of France and following this, U-boat attacks in the Atlantic, we steered a winding course. Eventually, I landed in Liverpool, and then travelled further to Glasgow and onto Douglas Castle in Scotland. I found the Scottish very sympathetic to the Polish soldiers. For the first time ever I saw “the man in a skirt with a sporran”.
In a relatively short time, I was well organised into the Polish Pancer Division (the 1st Polish Armoured Division) – for this I received further extensive training in Scotland. I made friends with various allies such as Czechoslovakians, French, Norwegian and of course American soldiers. The Battle of Britain was won with help from many other nationalities including the Polish airmen. One in five airmen in the Battle of Britain were young Polish lads. The invasion of the continent was hell at sea, on land and in the air.
I was taken out of the line of battle on the Western Front to instruct new sections of Polish prisoners of war from Wermaht in order to work my way to return home, to Poland.
The end of the War. The Nazis were defeated but life did not return to how it was. The Yalta Conference of 1945 involving “The Big Three” – President Roosevelt of the USA – an ailing man who died 6 weeks later – Churchill, the Prime Minister of Britain, and the Dictator of Russia – Stalin. In this way, Poland lost nearly 50% of its territory to Russia in the east and the government, hand-picked by Stalin, was to act as his puppets.
This was a tragic blow to the Polish people who had fought so bravely in extensive war campaigns all over the globe – to have their freedom taken away, to have their country left under the Rule of a dictator – Stalin. It was a time of great uncertainty as to the future. It seemed that no one knew what to do. I know of men who committed suicide.
I received information that some of those (of my group) who had returned to Poland were kept in camps and prisons, many were sent to camps in Russia. They were viewed by the Soviets as “traitors” to communism and the new state in Poland. The place I was living at before the war – Lwów, (Lviv) where I would have returned – had become occupied by Russia (it now exists as a city in the Ukraine). I never wanted to live abroad or indeed planned to live in England, but circumstances prevented me from returning to my homeland that was no longer a free country.
We were given an option – we could return to a Communist state in “Poland” or to travel to any country. Many Poles travelled to Argentina, Canada and Australia.
Before I was demobbed, the medics wanted to send me to a special commission to reduce my health status from category A1 – this would enable me to be entitled to a war/invalid pension. I rejected this because I wanted to return home to Poland and with a category A1 status I would be entitled to my previous employment there.
Following being demobbed from the army, I eventually came to Bradford where there was much work to be had. The Bradfordians welcomed me very well. I began learning the textile trade – something I had never seen before, and also the English language. Polish qualifications were not recognised in England and many highly qualified Polish people had to take on menial jobs to earn a living. Only Scotland recognised the medical qualifications of doctors, etc. I know of Polish doctors in England who took on jobs in industry.
It was at this time that I met my future partner in life – a widow from Poland, whose husband – an air pilot, had been killed in the conflict between the Germans and the Allies over France. Like me, my wife came from an area which was now taken over by the USSR.
We had no family here in England. We took our vows in Melton Mowbray where my wife, Lola, was living in barracks. I was living in lodgings at the time. My wife later joined me in Bradford. The union was to also produce a daughter – made in England.
Having £5 in my pocket, I bought a house in Bradford which I later sold and bought the property we now reside in – in Shipley. My wife was taken ill and underwent serious surgery in Leeds, where she was hospitalised for 9 months. Because of this, my daughter being only young, I had to give up a well-paid job in the textiles, and accept work nearer home and thus I remained in this job until I reached retirement age.
I am in my 100th year now – I am no longer so active in the Polish ex-combatants Society due to my ageing health - but I continue to be a member of the Polish Veteran’s Association. We hold meetings, socials and Holy observances. I have met many fellow Polish ex-soldiers through the club. However, many of my good friends have now died. I recently celebrated my 100th birthday, together with the veterans at one of their monthly meetings that was a very proud day for both my wife and myself. I was presented with many well wishes from old friends and veterans of the war, from generals who are still alive, and the Polish Consul also attended. He presented my wife with the Siberian Cross - a medal given to those who survived the unbearable hardships of Stalin’s Siberia. It was a wonderful day and I was so pleased to be able to celebrate it together with my wife, daughter and son-in-law, and all the Polish veterans. Up until recently, I have continued to be a very keen gardener and I have grown all our own fruit and vegetables. I find this a very rewarding pastime but I am no longer able to get out as I used to and it is a shame to see the garden becoming overgrown. This is what happens in older age - a lot changes… Out of my eleven siblings only I remain alive – my next older brother Roman, was the last to pass on. He was 90 years old. He, like all my brothers and sisters, remained in Poland. I have nephews and nieces, but I do not know them. The lifting of Communism in 1989 was another great period of change and still changing. Despite Poland at last having regained freedom and democracy, it took 50 years for this to happen and so it is now too late for me to live in Poland – I would probably feel like a “foreigner” myself, time and distance have changed many things. I am happy to remain in England, as this is now my home.