Memories of a Polish Girl, Deported
Written by TANIA SZABANOWICZ
6 May 2014
My name is Emily Haggar. I was born as Mina Szabanowicz of Muslim parents, although the!religion was known as Muhammadan, in Poland, at the time of my birth. Its believed! hat I was born on 25th December 1929, but unfortunately all records were lost in the Second World War, so I am uncertain of my actual date of birth. I was around 9 or 10 when the Russians invaded my village, Staniewicze, took our home and we left Poland forever.
I lived on a small working farm, possibly called Staniewicze Farm; with my father Jan, mother Maria, two uncles; Adam and Sulejman, who were my father’s siblings, an aunt, my two younger brothers: Adam and Jacob and my two elder sisters; Felicia and Helena. For a while, my grandfather on my father’s side lived with us too. I am the youngest daughter of the five children. My father is believed to have been born near Lithuania; a Tatar Muslim and it is possible that his family was also of Mongol extraction.
General Pilsudski was president of Poland at the time my father was a young teenager and proposed that if anyone wanted to go to fight and free Poland from the Tsars, where they had governed Poland for over 150 years, he would reward them with either money or land. He mobilised the Polish army and declared war on Russia and consequently, the Polish forces were victorious. As a result, my father chose to have some land because his father before him had lost his own land by gambling and squandering it, which meant that the children, six sons and one daughter, would not inherit anything. Eventually, my father settled on the farm in Staniewicze, which was near the Russian border.
The land was very much neglected, you couldn’t even call it a farm, and it was full of pine trees and boulders, so my father had to really work hard to clear it. My father soon met and married my mother, Maria Rafalowicz, who was born in the village of Murawszczyzna, Poland in 1906.
Our farm house was made of wood and mud. We had a large brick oven in our kitchen which my siblings and I used to sit on to keep warm, with a glass of fresh cold milk, in the freezing winter. The oven had a flat top that could be slept on because it was so warm all the time. The icy snow outside would glisten, especially under the moonlight.
Beyond our kitchen was the bedroom where my uncles, Adam and Sulejman, slept. Apparently, there were only three people in the whole of Poland that read as much as Adam did, so he got sent free books, though I’m not sure who by. He had so many books, but he ran out of room in our house, so he built a hut in the woods to keep them in. I remember going with him to help him build it. He was very strong, but he contracted what was most likely polio around the age of eight and he only had one good hand and two fingers on his other hand. However, when I was really small, he used to pick me up and lift me so I could stand on his good hand.
When my parents had gone out, they used to leave my uncles in charge of us. We used to sit around the fire in our living room and Uncle Adam used to tell us stories. Sometimes, they were so scary we would have to look under the bed or in the corners. Then when our parents came back, they always used to bring us sweets and a loaf of white bread to eat, as all we normally had was brown, with rye grain. The forest where our farm was built was made up of pine trees. There were also a lot of hazelnuts, cranberries and wild strawberries which we used to pick and eat.
We had a wide staircase inside of the house which led upstairs to the loft of the house where the chickens we kept used to roost of an evening because it was warm. One thing I remember was the loud noise the chickens used to make in our garden. My mother used to look after them, but my siblings and I used to go out and search for the eggs that the hens had laid, because they were so free range. My father used to harvest the rye grain, wheat, barley, oats and buckwheat for making bread and feeding the farm animals. Both of my parents used to employ some of the people in the village. The women used to help mother look after us children, for housework, and sometimes to help on the farm as well. The men used to help with the harvesting of the grain.
The house itself wasn’t that big, but there were two sections of the farm, one smaller one, in which we grew tomatoes and beetroot, and the other section was bigger, with carrots, swedes with many other root vegetables growing in it as well as fruit. We all used to pick them and eat them raw. There was also another gate in which the cattle were let through to the fields. We also had sheep, five cows and two horses. As the farm progressed, father had begun to invest in new more modern machinery and livestock. He was already selling milk and some grain to the market. He was very much a part of the farming community and the farm was prospering very nicely.
I started going to school at the age of seven and my sisters and I used to walk to our school which was about 5 miles away in Iwie. We had to go through the pine woods where wolves lived; we used to hear them howling in the distance. The journey was particularly difficult during the winter as the snow was so deep and meant we couldn’t see where the road or fields were. On one occasion, one of my sisters fell into a ditch because the snow was so high.
At school, my favourite subject was history. We were also taught Catholicism, but all of us that were brought up as Tatars were allowed out during the time the rest of my classmates were taught by the priest. Our family had to arrange to go to our own religious teachings, so my siblings and I used to go and visit the Imam instead.
Just before the war began, everything was progressing nicely and life was pretty good and, if it had not been for the war, we probably would have been working on the farm and may have married one of the boys in the next village from our own religious background.
Second World War
Then the Second World War broke out and my father disappeared. We were not certain what happened to him as there were many rumours regarding his whereabouts. It is said that he was conscripted into the Polish Army. He was 39 at the time, but had he been 40, he would have not been sent to the front line. Some people thought my father had volunteered to join the army in the hope he would win some more land and others suggested he was conscripted.
We also heard that he was behind the lines, perhaps as a chef or cook for the troops. However, we were not certain as there were also stories circulating that he had been captured by the Germans. It is also suggested that my father was released by the Germans as they had nothing against Muslims and that he supposedly went on to become mayor of Bialystok. It is alleged that my father was attacked, robbed and killed on his way back from work one night. We also heard he was killed in Warsaw. There are also rumours that he was executed by Stalin at some point as well, possibly during the Katyn Massacre. Not too long ago, a mass grave was discovered, so he could have been there. However, he vanished, and even now we still do not know what truly happened to him.
Rumours that the Russians and the Germans were coming to Poland began to spread and people in our village were afraid. The general word going around seemed to be to ‘lock your doors and windows and don’t let anybody in your house.’ The people from other villages around us used to come to our farm as well as our neighbours, and tell us all to ‘be very careful who you speak to and who you let in’. At this point, we had no contact at all from my father or any idea where he was or what he was doing. My mother was managing the farm nicely on her own, with the help of my Uncle Sulejman.
Then on the morning of the 10th February 1940, the Soviets came to our house. It was about 6 o’clock and they thumped hard on our front door shouting “get up, get up” through the door. We were all crying and very scared as we had no idea what or who was at our door. My mother opened it and six Soviet soldiers and a Jewish man marched in. The Jewish man was practically selling our family to the Russians. He told them that my father fought in the war against them and that he had gone to war again to fight against them. The Jewish people were so happy the Russians had come instead of the Germans, as they knew already what was happening to the Jews elsewhere. They were also relieved because they knew nothing would happen to them, they would be looked after by the Russians. My mother got angry with the Jewish man and said ‘I may not return, but if I do, I’ll just kill you. My husband was always very good to you, what has he ever done to you that means you have to talk about him like that?’
The Russians told us to bring all our farming equipment, kitchen utensils, anything else that’s sharp and put it on the dining room table. They asked us how many people were in the house and whether there were any guns or ammunition in the house. My mother was so scared and told them we didn’t have any. Only then did she remember that my father always kept a gun under the pillow, so she told one of my uncles, Sulejman, to go and get it and to dispose of it. Sulejman was very short-sighted, but a gentle character, he used to look after our farm animals. Anyway, he threw the gun in the soft snow and didn’t look back. A Soviet soldier spotted him and then followed him and picked up the gun.
Originally the Russians had given us only two hours to get ready and pack our belongings. The Soviet soldier brought back the gun and said to my mother ‘what’s this; you said you didn’t have any ammunition?’ She explained that she had forgotten about it. When they found the gun they reduced our time to 90 minutes and placed my Uncle Sulejman on a chair and told him not to move. My other uncle, Adam, was quite disabled. He fell on the floor and said ‘I’m not going anywhere without my books, do what you like, but I’m not going anywhere without them.’ Because of his condition, he had to have special shoes made as he had one foot facing forward and one backward. The Russians just picked him up and dumped him on the sledge they had waiting for us outside. Uncle Adam didn’t have any shoes or a coat on and it was an extremely cold, bitter winter.
When the Russians first arrived at our house, they said we would be taken to another village or town in Poland and our house was to be used by the Soviets, but when the war was over, we could return to our home. We gathered as much as we could, with my older sister Helena helping my mother as my brothers and I were too young to do much. Adam had to leave without his books, which the Russian soldiers burnt in the end, as they thought there could be something political in them. With us all on the sledge, off we went to the nearest town with a railway station in Iwie. It is quite likely that after we left, they also slaughtered all the animals on our farm.
When we got to the station, we were all put into the cattle train. Everyone was hysterical and crying and the temperature was freezing. The wagons were crowded with men, women and children, all together. For some reason there was an iron stove in the middle of the truck, possibly for coal, but I don’t really remember why. There were also bunk beds with three tiers. The mothers and their children were always on the bottom, but they put my poor Uncle Adam up on the top bunk. There wasn’t a proper toilet on the train, so some men made a hole in the floor and hung a blanket around it, which became our toilet. As my Uncle Adam was up on the highest bunk, he went three weeks without going to the toilet as he couldn’t get down to use it.
There was little food too. We brought some from the house when we left, but it soon ran out and the women started to shout and bang on the windows; ‘our children are hungry, give us food.’ Now and then, they opened the window and gave us cabbage soup or a bit of porridge, but it wasn’t enough. People started to question where we were going, but they guessed that we had left the Polish borders, going towards Russia. No one had any idea we were travelling to Siberia. We kept going, passing different towns and ended up in Siberia, near to the Chinese border.
After we left Poland, my father apparently wrote to us because he didn’t know what had happened to us. Nobody could tell him where we were to write to us. People told him my mother had gone mad and jumped out of the train. She was so desperate and alone, although my two uncles were with us during the journey to Siberia, they were not very able. Somehow, she got all of us through that hell.
The train finally stopped and from there, we were put onto sledges again and taken to a camp with huge barracks which would be our new home. Everyone was assigned a job to do, but my Uncle Adam simply couldn’t work because of his disability and he refused to eat what food we were given, begging the Russians to take him away. So they did, to a camp about two hundred miles away. Some time later, we heard the camp got burnt down and we never heard from him again. The rest of my family had to work for the food. My sister Helena was taken to cut down big pine trees with a large saw, and my mother got taken to work in a communal garden, growing vegetables, but of course, they weren’t meant for us. My mother hoped that she would steal some food from there, so she and a neighbour, who also happened to be from our village in Poland, asked one of the supervisors if they could take the leaves from the tops of the vegetables. My mother and our neighbour explained to the guard that they ‘need to feed our children, they have nothing to eat.’ My mother and the neighbour begged him, but the supervisor refused their pleas and told them the leaves were for the pigs. However, my mother had luckily packed my father’s big old army coat, so she put it on over her trousers and tied them together with string like a belt. She and her friend used to hide a few vegetables in their clothes and take them to the woods when the guard wasn’t looking. They had to remember exactly where they had hidden them and then walk for miles and miles in mid-winter in the middle of the night to find the food they had hidden in the forest and stuff their clothes with the leaves. As well as hiding the vegetables, my mother took a few of the hessian sacks the vegetables were put into, for trousers that could be made for my two brothers.
I remember my mother once nearly killed a Soviet soldier. The rule in the camp was that if you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. She never had any time off to do anything else. One day a Soviet soldier asked her why she wasn’t working and she said ‘Well I have to look after my children as well’ He said ‘no, you have to go to work’ She stood up, grabbed an axe from somewhere and shouted ‘if you don’t get out of here, I will kill you’ at the soldier. My mother was very angry at the soldier but because she threatened him she was jailed for a couple of days.
The camp in Siberia was a terrible place, so bad that people were glad to be dying and some people even prayed that they would die. Those that were still living were all ragged, thin and dirty. I do remember one thing that wasn’t completely terrible. Although the summers were fairly short, we used to walk with bare feet and the small snakes used to slither over our feet. It was a perplexing feeling.
Eventually there was a rumour we would be leaving the camp after having been there for two years and shortly after the rumours began, we were put onto sledges and taken to the station.
Whilst we were waiting for the train for Uzbekistan, the platforms were very crowded with many people who were very ill and dying. There was a man stood next to my family on the platform and I remember that he just dropped dead, right in front of us. In fact, there was a stench of death in the air around us, as so many people had already died. We took it all as a warning as all we cared about was surviving and trying to get something, anything, to eat. We were all so thin and looked like skeletons.
Whilst we were at the station, my mother and her friend went to the Polish consulate in the hope of getting some food. She was given some large tins of corned beef, but when she returned with them, we had nothing to open the tins with, but I remember eating it, so somehow, we must have managed to open the tins. Just before we left, a Soviet woman walked up to us and asked my mother if she was able to look after us five children and she offered to take two of us to an orphanage which would help my mother be able to feed the remaining children. My mother didn’t want to do it but with huge regret, she thought that this might be for the best for me and my brother Jacob.
In the meantime, the Soviet woman went off to see some other people and said she would come back shortly to take my brother and I, but whilst she was away, the train arrived and we all hurried on together, even though we didn’t know where our destination was.
After a very uncomfortable journey, due to the fact that the train was so overcrowded, we arrived in Uzbekistan.
I remember that Uzbekistan was a very hot country, especially compared to Siberia. We lived in a camp with dozens of other evacuees and we were given some very sparse accommodation; wooden huts, which consisted of some very rough beds. The beds were slatted and in amongst the slats were hundreds of bed bugs, the bedding was also full of lice and we all hadn’t washed in a long time. We couldn’t sleep for very long as we were constantly scratching due to the fact that we were almost being eaten alive; they grew fatter as we grew thinner. My Uncle Sulejman used to sleep outside in a sand pit. Even out there he was being eaten by the bugs and on one night, a Russian soldier said to him “why don’t you just die, or if you like I could shoot you?” My poor kind-natured uncle just smiled and said nothing; in fact he barely had the strength to say anything.
Normally we had to buy our food, which was always cabbage soup. We had to obtain vouchers stating how many portions we required, which I think was seven at the time, but as we were always so hungry, we used to try and cheat and increase this to mor every time. After a while, the kitchen staff started to suspect us as we did it more and more, and eventually we were caught and they punished us.
The kitchen was crawling with cockroaches and they often used to drop into our food. We used to pick them out and carry on eating. What are a few cockroaches here and there when you’re starving? Still after all this time we hadn’t seen nor had any bread and the thought of food was always on our minds.
Uzbekistan had so many wonderful, exotic fruits growing in the orchards there but we were not allowed to have any. We tried to steal food, particularly the cattle cakes; these were small round lumps of greenery used for feeding the cows. We also used to try and steal nettles from the field and then the Uzbek children used to throw stones and shout ‘get out from there you Polaks’ at us.
There were a few young Polish men within the group at the camp who were deemed to be able and fit. There was a Polish army unit stationed about 20 kilometres away and many of these young men were recruited to go and fight in the war. My mother took my younger brother Jacob to the unit see if they would accept him into the army but they refused him on the grounds that firstly he was much too young being only about 10 or 11, but he was also quite short for his age. They said that had he been a bit taller, they might have taken him in.
My Uncle Sulejman also decided to try and enlist even though he was very weak and also because he felt he was being a strain on the rest of the family. He thought that at least he might be able to do some menial work in the army in return for food and shelter. He walked the 20 kilometres, resting along the way. They turned him down because he was very short-sighted and not suitable for the army in any capacity, but they gave him 10 rubles to buy some food for his journey back. On the way back he was very weak and hungry but was desperate to bring his money back to my mother. He stopped to rest under a tree, fell asleep and died. The officials went to my mum and told them that her husband had died, thinking that my Uncle Sulejman was her husband. They brought his body back to the camp and buried him according to the Muslim religion.
Sometime later, my sister Helena got ill with typhoid and was taken to the hospital some distance away. Then I also got ill, something to do with my kidneys, so I had to go as well. They put Helena and I on the same mattress on the floor, but luckily, I did not catch typhoid from her. When I was better and they signed me out, I saw a neighbour’s son who I knew from Poland, who was also at the hospital. We were going to go back to the same camp where the rest of my family was, but neither he nor I could remember which camp we were in; he said Stalin 1 and I said Stalin 2. A driver with a horse and cart came to take us back to one of them but it must have been the wrong one as there was no one there we recognised, so the driver took us back to the hospital but in fact as it was getting late, he refused to take us all the way back to the hospital and he left us with a family that he knew and said that he would return the next day.
The family gave us a spoon between the two of us to eat with, a small bowl of soup and a mattress to sleep on. The next day the driver did not return, so the boy and I decided to walk back to the hospital and on the way we found a hut and we decided to rest as we were hot, thirsty and very hungry. The boy went into the hut, which was very dark inside, and he saw a dead man slumped against the wall, right at the back. We were lost and not sure where to go, and while we were sitting outside the hut, a man with a camel came along and he offered to take us back to the hospital. I sat on the camel at the front and the boy was at the back. At one stage the camel put his head down and I slid down his neck which we found quite funny. As we arrived back at the hospital, my sister Felicia had just arrived to visit us and we went back with her on the cart, this time to the right camp.
After we hadn’t eaten much for quite some time, a poor lone donkey strayed into our camp and came by our hut. My mother and a neighbour were so desperate for food that they got hold of the donkey and killed it. They took a belt and tied it tight round its nose like a muzzle, then took a large tool, perhaps a hammer, and hit it over the head and then cut it up. It must have been a miracle, because the neighbour had her husband’s suit hanging up on the wall and it was a perfect place to hide the meat. They stuffed as much of the donkey meat as they could in the sleeves, trouser legs and pockets. The floor of the hut was made of mud and underneath the bunks was a hollow, so my mother and the other women hid some under there also. Eventually, some Uzbek women came to our hut and asked us if we had seen a donkey. My mother and her neighbour denied they had seen it, but for some reason, they didn’t believe us.
They came inside and started looking around, even under the bed, but how they didn’t see the chunks of meat there or see the suit stuffed full of it, I will never know. The same thing happened with a goat and again, the Uzbek women came looking for the goat, but we got away with that also. I really believe this was a true miracle because if they had found the meat, I’m sure the Uzbeks would have killed us for killing their animals.
After around six months in Uzbekistan, there was talk that we would be leaving, so we thought about preparing some food for the journey. My sister Helena was in charge of the cooking, but we didn’t have any wood for burning, though we had brought a big iron pot with us from Poland. There was a lot of cotton growing around us, so we stole some cotton stalks and some of the planks from under the bed and made a fire out of it in the hut, as we didn’t want to get caught cooking. The large pot was sitting on the fire coming to the boil. We watched it, like hungry wolves. I asked Helena if I could have a bit, but she refused as it was still raw. If the Uzbek ladies had seen us, they would have killed us. When it was beginning to come to the boil the fuel for cooking was running out, Helena strained the meat so that we could eat. Even dogs wouldn’t have eaten meat this rancid. However, we were so hungry, but we had to save as much as we could for the journey. We ate a bit, but it didn’t smell and nobody got ill from eating it, especially seeing as we all had empty stomachs.
We left Uzbekistan and travelled to what was then Persia, now Iran, to the capital, Teheran. The Persian people used to come into our camp and sell us all these boiled eggs and chapattis, we wanted it all. However, the guards told us not to eat too much, because our stomachs will have shrunk and wouldn’t have been used to food as we hadn’t eaten properly for such a long time. Some people could not resist the temptation of eating too much and in fact quite a few people died from this.
Hunger and food were the main things we all thought about. We were always hungry. In Persia, we had white bread. We promised ourselves that if we got out alive, we would never again waste any food. We all looked like skeletons and our hair had been shaved previously, because of the lice infestation. We stayed there for a little while, I can’t remember how long, maybe about 6 months.
From there, we travelled by boat to Karachi in Pakistan. All the sailors were so very kind; they gave ud plenty to eat and looked after us really well; they gave us oranges and bread to eat.
After many months we eventually arrived in East Africa and they took us by open lorries to Tanganyika - which is now known as Tanzania, in Africa. They took us to a refugee camp known as Tengeru. This was still being constructed when we all arrived, but we had a lovely little hut which was built under a tree that my siblings and I used to play under. The round hut consisted of one room, one window and a door. There were only four beds, which wasn’t enough for the six of us. They were building a school, a Catholic church and many other buildings one might find in a small town. We were also sent clothing from America, a little like the relief help other countries get now.
On the boat going to Africa, we had befriended a woman and her son and they had a similar sized hut in the camp. As there were only the two of them, she offered to take my sister Felicia, who was about 14 at the time, to go and stay with them. The woman had another son, who was in the Polish Army in England. So without our knowledge, her intention was to convert my sister from Muslim to Catholic and send her to England to marry her son. My sister was sent to the priest in the refugee camp to be converted into a Catholic, all in secret. Eventually, my sister was sent over to Luton by this woman. We didn’t know anything about it at first and had no idea what had happened to Felicia. The woman eventually told us that she had sent my sister to England and the reason why. Naturally, my mother was very shocked. However, as we found out later, Felicia met another soldier, Ted Polataijko, in England and married him instead. Her husband never knew about the fact that she wasn’t always a Catholic, which we didn’t find out about until many years later when we met up with her and her family in England.
Going to Africa was also the first time we had seen black people in the flesh, but the African people were very nice to us and they learnt Polish, so they could communicate with us; we couldn’t speak a word of English. They had such a good understanding of the language; there was one man living nearby, that you would think that he was Polish if you heard him speak. We also learnt to speak Swahili pretty quickly as well. It’s such an easy, lovely language to learn.
Anyway, I made a few friends in Tengeru; I remember one of them was called Kristina. Her mother was my school teacher; she was funny and kind to me. I think Kristina and her family eventually went to Australia, but we lost touch with one another. All the children attended the school and regardless of age, we all attended the same class. I wasn’t all that great at mathematics but I passed my exams in geography, biology and literature. We had to do poetry and story recitals, learning long pieces of writing for homework, often for the next day and then stand in front of the whole class. Sometimes we had to sing in front of everybody. I hated doing that.
Whilst we were at school, my mother created a garden around our hut and asked some of the African boys to build her a brick oven in our garden, so we could have our own as opposed to the communal one, though we still used it from time to time.
There was a row of shops not far from us, mostly run by Indian people. The materials they sold for sarees were so beautiful and shiny; we’d never seen anything so stunning before. The shop workers picked up our language so easily and before long, it was easy to communicate with them.
We were living in Tanganyika for around 4 or 5 year and our family were the only Tatar family there whilst we were there, although much later on we met another Tater family. Most of the other families were Catholic. The Catholics used to put pork in our food whilst we were cooking it just to see if anything happened after we ate it. Of course, nothing did actually happen, but we only learnt this later on after somebody told us. I thought this was a very small-minded thing to do. This wasn’t the only thing they did to us either. On a Sunday, my mother used to work in her garden when everybody else in Tengeru went to church. They used to mock her and ask her why she wasn’t going or why she was working on a Sunday.
Eventually there was talk of our family being sent back to Poland, but we didn’t want to go because it had been taken over by the Russians. However, word got out into the Muslim community in nearby Arusha, and also in Nairobi which was a couple of hundred miles away, that there was a white Muslim family in the camp. My sister Helena was approached by someone who suggested that she meet with this family from Nairobi who were keen for her to marry one of the sons of the family. This was a possible route to avoid being sent back to Poland. She met with the family with the intention of possibly marrying this son, but at the same time she was introduced to another man in Arusha, Dilnawaz Shah, who she eventually married and went to live with.
After a while my mother, my two brothers and I had to leave Tengeru. The family from Nairobi now suggested that the son, Abdul Rehman, marry me, which we agreed to on the basis that he would provide a home for all of us. Sadly the marriage didn’t last but I did have a son which was the compensation for all the hardship I had gone through and was the best thing that happened to me. I then lived in a small house in Kenya with my mother, two brothers and my son. The house was tiny, with only two rooms and an outside toilet.
I started a job on the haberdashery counter in Woolworths in Nairobi. This is where I met my future husband, a train driver on the East African Railways, who used to come in often and say that he wanted to buy needles and thread from me. I wondered why he kept coming back and buying these little things. He was shy and quiet, but eventually, he found the courage to ask me out. I think we went to a restaurant called Sans Chique. We went back there several times and during one of these times, it was the first time I had met a gay man. He said to Cliff ‘If you were not with her, I would have asked her to marry me.’
A little while later, Cliff’s mother, who was living in England, became very ill. He had to go back in a hurry and left the railways. Sadly, soon after he arrived, his mother died. Whiles he was in England, Kenya got its independence and no one was sure what the future held, and he didn’t want to go back to Africa. So he bought a business in the UK, and offered to send for me and my son as this was likely to be a better prospect than staying in Kenya.
I finally came over to England in 1963 with son John. First we lived in Tilehurst and then we moved to Hampshire and opened a fish and chip shop there. We moved again to Kirdford in Sussex and opened a small corner shop. When Cliff retired fully, we moved to Woodley and we got a couple of dogs and then, when I retired, we went on very long walks with them, for hours. We did this until he got glaucoma and his eyesight started going. We still went for walks every day, no matter what the weather, though I had to tell him where the tree roots were or when to cross a road. We used to meet other people with their dogs and look out for the new flowers in the spring time.
We did this often until one day, in early December 2005, he suffered from a stroke. We were at home when it happened, I heard a loud thud upstairs; I didn’t realise at first and thought he had dropped something heavy on the floor. Then there was another loud noise, so I went upstairs to investigate and called for him, with no response. I found him on the floor and called an ambulance. He was in hospital for about 3 weeks. On Christmas day 2005, which was also my birthday, my son John got a call to say that Cliff had passed away early that morning.
There are many more little things that happened, but I left Poland when I was only a child, so my memory is limited on what I can remember. You cannot fully understand what happened unless you have experienced it. My sister Helena went back to visit the area we were born in, which is now in Belarus, at the very beginning of the 90s and, coincidentally, she died there. She found the town we lived in as children was completely wiped out by the Russians and is no longer there.
It’s not important to go through anything like that again and battle through life like I did before as a child. I love this country; I never wanted to go anywhere else after I settled here; no other country interests me. It was June and the middle of summer when we arrived, although coming from Africa, it was cold and miserable. The houses were all dark red and it looked miserable. I liked the English language straight away, I found it easy. We’d learnt some in Tengeru, but I’d taught myself English by reading , though I couldn’t understand every word at first, I understood what it was saying. I also had a Polish-English dictionary that I used to read over and over again.
Now, I have my son, my three wonderful grandchildren and two beautiful great-grandchildren whom I see often. I feel very blessed and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. At the age of 84, I still go for a walk with my dog every day, I love my garden and I keep active. I go walking in the local park, I have met many other dog owners who are very kind, and who have become my friends. I wouldn’t change this life for the world.
© Copyright Tania Szabanowicz