Tuesday, 3 November 2015

My mother - a life in documents

Sifting through my mother's documents gives me a sense of how the Poles led out of Soviet captivity by General Anders received the framework of education and military service from emigre Polish then later British institutions, thanks to which this significant group of migrants came to contribute so much to the UK's post-war economy.

My mother has no documents at all surviving from her pre-war life, birth certificate, baptism certificate, childhood photos etc. The earliest papers date back to the mid-1940s, by which her life had regained some semblance of normality. Deported on 10 February 1940 to a labour camp in Russia's Vologda Oblast (near a place called Punduga), the family was set to work along with other Polish deportees in chopping down trees. My mother, 12 at the time, was spared the physical work of the adults, but had to look after the family - cooking and cleaning for her parents and elder sisters.

After journeying to Tashkent from the lumber camp with her family following the 'amnesty' of August 1941, my mother and her middle sister Irena managed to leave the USSR along with the Polish divisions led by Anders in spring 1942. A total of 41,000 soldiers and 74,000 civilians made their way to join the British High Command in the Middle East. The boys and girls of 16 and up were educated in two schools in what was then Palestine - the boys in Szkola Junaków (Polish Young Soldiers' School) and the girls in Szkoła Młodzych Ochotniczek (SMO - in English, the Polish Young Women's Auxiliary Service School).

Below: my mother's school legitymacja, issued by the SMO in 1946, giving my mother the right to wear the school's insignia.


Below: the front and back cover of the document, depicting the schools' (SJ and SMO) insignia - a Polish eagle standing on a globe with crossed rifles and a book (with a cross on it).


Below: my mother's school Identification Card, valid from 23.9.1945 to 23.9.1946. Note her date of birth is given as 8 September 1926; she gave a false date of birth so as to be over 16, the age from which Polish children could join the British forces in the Middle East. Younger children (the few that survived the Siberian deportation) were shipped to centres in India and Africa.


Another document in the collection is my mother's matura certificate - the equivalent of A-levels, issued by the Polish Ministry of Religions and Public Enlightenment (in exile, of course), issued in 1945. My mother remained in the Middle East for two years after the war, being shipped to England in August 1947 as part of the UK's resettlement of displaced persons who had been part of the Polish Second Corps. So she enlisted in the Polish Resettlement Corps:

"I, the undersigned, undertake to enlist in the Polish Resettlement Corps, on being offered the opportunity of doing so after my arrival in the United Kingdom, on the understanding that I do not thereby in anyway prejudice my chance of being repatriated to Poland should I wish to return there.

Signed: Bortnik Maria,
Unit: PWAS Base Holding Unit ME [Middle East]
Formation: PWAS Base Holding Unit ME"

(Proforma of Undertaking to be signed by Polish personnel of Middle East Land Forces before moving from the Middle East to the United Kingdom)

Left: the cover of my mother's Army Book 64 Soldier's Service and Pay Book. She enlisted in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (Polish Resettlement Section) as Private W/3003654 Bortnik Maria, based at Witley Camp, Godalming, Surrey, from 21 August 1947 to 20 August 1949, when she was discharged (with Military Conduct 'Good'). Medical classification Grade 'A'.



During this time, she studied the Senior Commerce Course at the county Technical College, Guildford. Her end-of-term report for the year 1948-49 states in the General Remarks: "Outstandingly good work in many respects." She got 94% for Accountancy, 70% in English ("Assiduous work. A very good effort), 79% in Shorthand ("Excellent") but a mere 34% in Commercial Arithmetic ("Needs to pay more attention") - which is ironic, because this is where my mother ended up earning her salary, as a comptometer operator.

Later, my mother went on to pass Royal Society of Arts (full name: Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce London) commercial exams in English, Shorthand ("50 w.p.m"), Bookkeeping and Typewriting.

In March 1952, she received a certificate that "Miss Bortnik has completed a Course of Instruction in the use of the "SUMLOCK" all-British Calculating Machine at the Sumlock School for Operators at 102/8 Clerkenwell Road, London E.C.1."

Below: my mother's National Registration Identity Card, issued at Witley Camp in November 1947. Each change of address was noted; two private lodgings in Guildford, then two addresses in south-west London (Roland Gardens SW7 and Coleherne Road, SW10).


"1. Always carry your Identity Card. You must produce it on demand by a Police Officer in uniform or member of H.M. Armed Forces in uniform.

2. You are responsible for this Card, and must not part with it to any other person. You must report at once to the local Registration Office if it is lost, destroyed, damaged or defaced."

How strange this official tone sounds today. Not only does the individual have a number (DNN 7391288), but the ID card has a number (GT 492391). A bit like Poland today, then.

Another interesting document is my mother's first National Insurance contribution record, for the year 1950-51. Issued by the Ministry of National Insurance, it shows 51 weeks covered by Class 1 contributions, and one week not covered.

My mother paid in to National Insurance from 1950 to 1986 with a ten-year gap for motherhood; she lived in retirement for 29 years. [Certainly suggesting, if more proof be needed, that retirement age needs to go up if society is to pay its way.]

On the 28th day of June, 1952, my parents married, at the Chapel of the Assumption Convent, Kensington Square, in the District of KENSINGTON, Royal Borough of Kensington (Metropolitan Borough). My father lived on Sinclair Road, W14 at the time. Most of their friends also lived in what today are exceedingly posh parts of London. But then, a decade on from the Blitz, most Poles dreamed of leafier suburbs. And so, in 1955, my parents moved to Croft Gardens, Hanwell W7, the setting for my Grey Jumper'd Childhood.

Chronologically, the final document is my mother's Certificate of Naturalisation. On the 5th day of January 1957, nine months before my birth, my mother swore by Almighty God that she "will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her Heirs and Successors, according to law." And she was, to the end a monarchist, with much to be grateful for. The British state had given her security, stability, excellent, free healthcare, educated her sons (for free, but that was a long time ago), a generous pension.

Perusing these mementoes from the 1940s and 1950s, I can see a world that has greatly changed, in organisation, in tone, in look and feel. Perhaps the second half of the 1960s saw the fastest change in this respect. Technology is the main driver of change today, but the mid- to late 1960s saw social change happen at a pace far quicker than at any time in the history of mankind.

But technology too - in  pre-war Horodziec, the village in eastern Poland in which my mother grew up, there was only one car, a Ford; there was no mains electricity in her house; my grandfather had to go to the nearest larger town, Antonówka, to charge the battery he used to power the wireless that he listened to. Reflections upon a life interrupted by turmoil; we can only ever expect change.

This time two years ago:
Golden autumn gives way to dismal grey autumn

This time three years ago:
Hopes fade for S7 to relieve Puławska

This time four years ago:
New office - first impressions (ul. Nowogrodzka)

This time five years ago:
The topography of dreams

This time six years ago:
A regular interchange