It’s a strange thing. In the habit of writing travel guides, I hadn’t really got my head round the idea of blogging when I started here. The freedom to write about anything….well, it’s kind of mind boggling more than blogging!
It occurred to me that I should be sharing the Polish saga. I’ve often been asked when I’m going to write the story of Dad’s life. I’ve shied away from it a bit. I don’t want to offend or misrepresent anyone, and there’s such a huge cast of characters. Still, it’s the kind of story that when you tell it to someone, you invariably have an “isn’t that amazing?” response. So, here is the abridged version.
At the age of 15 Dad was rounded up from the family farm at Zawady, a small village south of Łódź in Central Poland, and “escorted” by the Germans to work on the land in their country. At 79, it had taken Dad 64 years to be reunited with his family. As the war faltered to an end, Dad and a fellow worker turned their backs on Germany and walked many, many miles to freedom in France. Joining the armed forces, Dad eventually ended up in Coventry, where he met and married my mum.
Links with home continued, and I remember a tin box of letters and photographs. I never learnt Polish as Dad was focused on integrating with the North East England community of Hartlepool, my mother’s birthplace. How I regret this now!
I don’t really know how it came about, but gradually the communications home ceased. The Communists were in control in Poland, and must have been instrumental in disrupting the flow of letters. The family were scattered. Dad came to believe that he was the only survivor of 9 brothers and sisters. If only he’d known!
One January Friday night, 13 years ago, I returned home from a “Girl’s night” to find that Dad had phoned. I wasn’t to worry but I should phone him back as soon as possible. He could barely speak to me for excitement! He had received a phone call from Poland on behalf of his sister Anna. She wanted to speak to him urgently to confirm that he was her long lost older brother. A link had been established via the internet.
There began the strangest but most wonderful phase in our lives. Overnight I went from having one Polish parent to having 2 new aunts, 2 new uncles and 26 Polish cousins, with their husbands, wives and children! Emails in halting English went back and forwards and arrangements were made for a reunion. The excitement was immeasurable, but mixed with anxiety on my part. What would they make of me and how would I communicate? A crash course in Polish seemed called for.
My cousin Adam owns a bakery business in Krakow, and it was through him that all arrangements were made. Though not speaking English himself, this warm-hearted and generous man was determined that we should meet and finally know our Polish family. Our visit was planned with military precision to enable us to spend time with as many family members as was possible. On this first occasion I had but 5 days begged from my employer. Dad, of course, stayed longer, with a lifetime’s absence to make up for.
Stepping out at Krakow airport was one of the most emotional occasions I can ever remember. Among tearful hugs and kisses I mumbled “Bardzo mi milo”, a shortened version of “pleased to meet you”, which was the only bit of Polish I could summon. TV cameras followed our progress and my Aunt Anna calmly told the world that she had always known that her brother Aleksander was alive somewhere. If he had been deceased she would have felt his spirit- Polish people in the main are deeply religious. Anna was in poor health, but had lived for this moment.
What followed was to become a sequence of wonderful memories:- a stroll together in weak April sunshine through Krakow’s stunning Rynek Glowny (main square), Anna’s arm tucked through mine; a meal in the sumptuous surroundings of historic Wierzynek Hotel;
but surely, best of all, the moment when we arrived at Dad’s old farmhouse home. As we pulled through the gates into the farmyard, Adam blared his horn and a sea of family surged forward to greet us, many wearing name badges, for we had no hope of remembering them all.
Flowers were pressed into my arms with shy smiles as the introductions were made: Aunt Lusia and her family; my Uncle Jakub, 15 years younger and born after Dad left home so that this was their first ever meeting; Lodzia, the wife of my Uncle Zygmunt, nearest to my Dad in age and who tragically had died just weeks before- she now ran the farm with the help of her sons.
Then the many, many cousins and their children. These unfortunates were pushed forwards if they had even a hint of English, to engage me in conversation and an endless round of questions. Uncle Wlodek, living on the German border, had been unable to make the trip, but his son Wojtek, wife and children were there.
Dad, meanwhile, had recovered his native tongue as if by magic, and was gamely tackling the introductions head on. Anyone who knows the Polish people will know what comes next. Huge quantities of food and not a little vodka were consumed. It would have been impolite to refuse so in the following days, as we were passed from one home to the next, we ate and we ate and we ate! I realised where Dad’s sweet tooth came from as we sampled every variety of delicious cake, often before sitting down to a full meal.
And that’s where it all started. Sadly my Aunt Anna, seen here with Dad and her son Adam, died on 25.11.09. We made numerous trips before and since then, and I have so many wonderful memories. Dad died in October 2017, but my Polish legacy and the connections we made live on.