Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Adventures of a Young Pole in Exile - book review

Every now and then a book comes along which resonates with my family experience. The last such book was B.E. Andre's With Blood and Scars, about Poles living in 1960s Manchester. Now, a new book has appeared that tells in great detail the story of how Poles living in the Kresy borderlands before the war ended up in post-war Britain. Large chunks of this book are my mother's story.

Adventures of a Young Pole in Exile - Deportation, Exodus and a New Life, by Ryszard Staniaszek has much commonality with the story of many Poles washed up in the UK by the tide of war. Born the son of an osadnik - a soldier of Piłsudski's army, victorious in the 1920 war against the Bolsheviks, granted settlement land in eastern Poland, Mr Staniaszek describes in great detail how the osada (never a wieś - village) functioned. The osadnicy were given land - the Staniaszek family received 40 hectares (just under 100 acres) - but were left to fend for themselves. It was a hard life for the eight Staniaszek children, who had to walk 7km to the local secondary school.

The book contains a mass of detail of interest to historians and social scientists - first-hand memories to which the author has added a series of illustrations, drawn on an early computer graphics program. A wealth of family photos from a large family (all but one of the siblings survived the war - five are still alive today!) enrich the book and make it such a fascinating document.

The onset of WW2, the coming of the Red Army, the incorporation of north-east Poland into the Byelorussian SSR and finally the family's deportation on 10 February, 1940 (the same day as my mother's family was deported) marks the beginning of the first part of the book.

Deported to the north of Russia, the Staniaszek family's fate was similar to that of my mothers'. They were resettled to a lumber camp - lesopunkt - barracks, endless forests, long winters, bitter cold. Mr Staniaszek remembers many details, far more than my mother ever cared to discuss - the other Polish families there, the way work was organised, camp life, rations, bartering goods with locals.

This stage in the family's life came to an end with the 'amnesty' of August 1941, the result of the deal made between the Polish government-in-exile in London and Stalin, to release the hundreds of thousands of Poles taken forcibly into the Russian heartlands, and allow them to form a Polish army to fight Hitler. The author, then a teenager, made it out of the USSR with the Polish Army, and, like my mother, joined the cadet units for the older children in Palestine. The younger children, mothers and older men, were hosted in camps in Africa or India.

From Palestine to Egypt, and then - after the war had ended - to England. Here a succession of resettlement camps for Poles, followed by a succession of menial jobs, before becoming a carpenter and then builder's foreman, finally settling in Bristol and marrying.

The extended family trees at the end of the book show how the Staniaszek family prospered in post-war Britain, their numerous UK-born children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren - all with that shared past in the Kresy - eastern Poland before 1939.

As a family history, the book is extremely detailed, based on notes and sketches that the young author kept; it is amazing how many family documents and photos survived the epic journey from Chylin in what was then Poland to Bristol via Kotlas, Sverdlovsk, Novosibirsk, Tashkent, Samarkand, Krasnovodsk, Tehran, Baghdad, Jerusalem, Beirut and Cairo.

The book was also the fortuitous result of the author having an experienced historian and author as his nephew - Richard 'Ziggy' Brzeziński (who co-translated the English-language translation of Gen. Stefan Bałuk's Byłem Cichociemnym/Silent and Unseen with me in 2009). Ziggy and his uncle spent many years working on this splendid volume. The result is something rare in Polish historiography - a first-hand account that's perfectly written in English, full of detail and documentation and insight.

For me, the description of Polish exiles' life in post-war England was fascinating. Again, much squares with my parents' own experience. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of family holidays by car to Poland during the communist days - the contrast between the lifestyle of even modestly well-off people in the West and the drab reality of life in the Polish People's Republic.

For anyone who, like myself, was born of Polish parents in the UK, this book is an absolute must-read, something to go alongside With Blood and Scars on the bookshelf as a testament of what our parents (and indeed grandparents and great-grandparents) endured before they settled in Britain.

Adventures of a Young Pole in Exile, by Ryszard Staniaszek, is published by Askon, price 130 zł.

This time last year:
Ealing in bloom

This time two years ago:
Keeping warm in January

This time three years ago:
If you can't measure it, you can't manage it (health, that is)

This time four year:
Sten guns in Knightsbridge (well, Śródmieście Południowe, actually)

This time six years ago:
To The Catch - a short story (Part II)

This time seven years ago:
Greed, fear, fight and flight - and the economy

This time eight years ago:
Is there an economic crisis going on in Poland?

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