Franciszek (Francis) URBAN
Polish 2nd Corps
Franciszerk Urban was born in 1926 in a small village in eastern Poland. He was the third of four children, born on a farm where he spent the summers running through fields of wheat and barley, and hiding in the fruit trees. On a frigid and snowy day in February 1940, the Soviet Secret Police arrested the family and deported them to a labor camp in Siberia. At the camp, Franciszek’s job, and that of his young sister Henia, was to go into the forest and mark trees to be cut with an “X.” He also delivered messages around the camp. He remembered always being cold and hungry. Even as an adult, he hated to be cold and was happiest in tropical climates.
After the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, the Poles in the labor camps were allowed to leave the camps. Franciszek’s family traveled south on foot and by train. His mother died of pneumonia before they got out of the Soviet Union, and his older brother, Tadeusz, weakened by years of privation, died shortly after they finally left the Soviet Union. During this time, Franciszek’s big sister, Stefa, was the rock of the family and it w as she who ultimately led them out of the Soviet Union. Because of Stefa, Franciszek always carried with him the sense that women, including his daughters, could accomplish anything they wanted.
After months of travel, the family arrived in Palestine, where Franciszek attended school as part of the Polish Cadets Corps. He studied, painted, and made friendships that would last a lifetime. After he completed school, Franciszek enlisted in the Polish contingent of the British army – the Polish 2nd Corps. On patrol one afternoon, his jeep drove over a landmine. The shrapnel that doctors were unable to entirely remove from his leg caused him trouble repeatedly, although he joked about the incident that a blood transfusion from a Scottish soldier left him with a Scot’s native love of bagpipe music.
After demobilization, Franciszek studied in Dublin, Ireland, and Strasbourg, France, as well as New York. He read French, English, and Spanish poetry; picnicked on bread, cheese, and wine; and vacationed in snow-covered mountains. In Paris, he saw Edith Piaf sing about regretting nothing in smoky nightclubs. Late at night, he painted tiny intricate holiday cards that he sent to his uncles in America. Later, he went to Pakistan and Burma to work as a professor of mathematics and economics.
Of Karachi, he wrote that the “exoticism wears off in about the first three months and all that remains is the daily work and current problems.” In both Rangoon and Karachi, he preferred the local cuisine, particularly the spicy chilies, to imported European efforts. He also adopted the local dress — continuing for years to wear a longyi when relaxing. One evening in Karachi, he helped a Dutch nurse, Mia Siermann, with a troublesome record player so she could listen to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Although Franciszek later denied that he was ever so gallant, his wife stuck by her story.
When Franciszek began teaching in Sante Fe, New Mexico, Mia joined him and they were married. In the years that followed, Gita and then Terenia were born. He sang Spanish lullabies and later watched Yogi Bear cartoons with his “little angels.” He and Mia began what would be more than thirty years of lively, sometimes perhaps overly lively, political and social discussions. When Franciszek began his career as an international agricultural economist, the family moved to Virginia. Franciszek continued to travel all over the world for his work, first to South America, then Africa, and then Eastern Europe
The whole family followed him to Central Africa for three years. During this time in Zaire, Franciszek attended a conference near Lake Tanganika. At dinner one night, he was served an appetizing-looking cut of meat with a delicate sauce. Unfortunately, he was unable to cut the meat with a knife. He could not poke it with a fork or bite it with his teeth. He was not able, in fact, to find any way to eat the sizeable chunk of dead rhinoceros on his plate. He was finally reduced to licking the sauce off while making polite small talk with his neighbors at the table.
After he retired in 1996, he stayed busy traveling and working with the Polish American Congress, particularly the campaign for Poland’s entry into NATO. Following Mia’s death in 1997, he was devastated. He particularly missed their regular visits to the Blue Ridge Mountains and Cape Hatteras and their constant but usually fruitless search for a Parisian-style café in rural Virginia.
Although he kept busy during these years, he was thrilled to welcome four grandchildren into his family, James, then Turner, then Mia Rose, and finally little Tessa. Each time a new baby was born, Franciszek would dutifully hop on an airplane to do baby-holding and rocking duty in whichever location he was needed.
In 2004, Franciszek moved to New Orleans. He survived Hurricane Katrina and, although he lost many things in the flood that followed, he insisted, “It doesn't matter. They’re just things.” He returned after the storm and picked up as if nothing had changed, defending the grandchildren from all punishment (it was all entirely undeserved, he was certain), complaining about the weather, and searching for a perfect cup of coffee and croissant. Franciszek (Francis) Urban died in 2008.
From the Memorial information written by his daughters.
With mother and 3 siblings in Poland
Franciszek with his younger brother
Franciszek in Polish 2nd Corps uniform
Franciszek's painting from 1948
Franciszek teaching abroad
Mia and Franciszek