Imagine if you were a frightened 10 year old boy, fleeing with your elder brother and parents in a hastily-packed Army Staff Car across a war-torn landscape, passing scattered groups of weary, bedraggled, defeated soldiers.
That was my Dad, Wojciech Stankiewicz, in the early days of September 1939 at the outbreak of WW2. His Father, my Grandad Teofil Stankiewicz, was a Major in the Polish Army. He was also a superb linguist, at that time with 7 languages under his belt (including Latin and Ancient Greek). With his flawless knowledge of German and Russian, Teofil was also in Polish Counter-Intelligence – and on a ‘Wanted’ List of both the Gestapo and the Soviet NKVD.
In 1939 they were living in Kielce, then in SW Poland not too far from the border with German Silesia, where his Regiment was also based. With the Wehrmacht advancing at speed, the Regiment arranged for his and his family’s escape in the first days of the War.
Fast forward to the spring of 1940 and imagine an older 15 year old girl, also very frightened, packed with her parents and thousands of others into cattle trucks, on a seemingly-endless journey eastwards to the wilds of Siberia. That was my Mum, Irena Beaupre (French origin – we’re nothing if not a diverse European family!) whose family lived in Krzemieniec (now Kremenets in W Ukraine) in the ancient province of Wołyń (Volynhia), part of the ‘Kresy’, the old eastern borderlands, still of great sentimental importance to many Poles. Her Dad, Jan Beaupre, was the last Polish ‘Burmistrz’ (the direct equivalent of the German ‘Burgomeister’; there isn’t a UK equivalent) of Krzemieniec. He must have been very highly regarded as, in April 1939, he was elected for an unprecedented 4th term.
When the Red Army marched into Krzemieniec on September 19th 1939, Grandad Jan was one of the first to be arrested. He lived to the ripe old age of 94 and died in St Helens in old south Lancashire (now Merseyside) in 1978, when I was 26. I was very lucky to have known him as an adult. And also that, unlike many people, he was willing to talk about his wartime experiences. As was his wife, my Granny ‘Luda’ (born Ludmilla Voloshanovich – Father Russian, Mother Polish), a veritable ‘Force of Nature’ who kept the family alive in Siberia by flirting with the Camp Commandant (a basically decent man called Nikitin) and trading her nice clothes and other things she’d managed to smuggle out of Poland for food and other life essentials!
In the spring of 1940 Teofil and his family, after 3 months in Romania (with language no.8 under his belt – ‘a doddle’ according to Teofil, ‘basically Latin with some Russian, Polish and German thrown in!’) were in the relative safety of Paris in a small flat in the Ile de la Cite. Dad and his elder brother, Uncle Maciek, were pupils at a Polish School on the Boulevard St Michel on the Left Bank.
Teofil had language no.9 more or less under his belt – though French had proved a little more difficult! And then in mid-May 1940 France fell and the Gestapo were yet again breathing down Teofil’s neck. And so off they had to go once more, this time crabbing their way south-westwards, eventually finishing up at Leverdun, near Bordeaux, on the Garonne estuary. On the way to the Atlantic two suitcases had to be ditched at a farmhouse near Tours – never to be reclaimed. From Leverdun they were evacuated on a Scottish Coal Steamer, the ‘Clan Ferguson’, which was strafed and bombed by a lone Stuka, but happily not hit, as it chugged out into the Bay of Biscay.
They landed in Liverpool on June 27th 1940, spent the summer in London (including the Battle of Britain) and then Teofil’s Regiment (part of the free Polish Army in exile) was sent north to Scotland in the autumn. The Regiment was based in Edinburgh, helping to discharge the specific remit the Polish Army had been given of guarding the east coast of Scotland from the Fife coast up to Inverness. Teofil, who had been wounded in WW1 and had never been in good health, died in February 1946 and is buried in Corstorphine Hill Cemetery in Edinburgh. And as for language no.10?…Though he eventually managed it, English caused him the most difficulty of all!
His wife, Granny Małgorzata (Margaret), was, like Granny Luda, a trained Red Cross nurse. They had met after the ‘Miracle of the Vistula’ battle in August 1920 where Teofil had been wounded fighting the Red Army. In 1947 Granny Małgorzta was nursing wounded men in the Polish Military Hospital in Whitchurch in Central Cheshire. There she met Stanisław Piasecki (our dear ‘Wujcio Stasio’, ‘Uncle Stan’) who was to become her second husband. Uncle Stan had been taken in a body bag from the battlefield of Monte Cassino… until the bag started to move!! It took him 5 years to get back to decent health, including a spell of rehab in Whitchurch under the capable supervision of Granny M!
Around the time Małgorzata was nursing Stan in 1947-48, my Mum and her parents were coming to the end of their epic wanderings. The Polish word is ‘Tułaczka’ – which implies both a difficult journey and ultimate exile. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Poland and the SU became allies ‘by default’, with Nazi Germany as their common enemy. The Camps were eventually opened; Mum remembers a train suddenly appearing in the early summer of 1942 at the nearby village station. She asked where it was headed – ‘South’ said the driver, vaguely waving a hand in a southerly direction! And so it was – weeks and weeks of travel in the merciless summer heat through Kazakhstan, Uzbekhistan (where Mum, having somehow survived 2 years in Siberia, nearly died of typhus) and Turkmenistan till they reached Pahlevi in Persia (Iran) on the southern shore of the Caspian. There followed 3 good years in Isfahan (Mum and 2 friends later wrote a book about this happy time called ‘Isfahan, City of Polish Children’ (on Google if anyone is interested) till they had to leave in June 1945. Next stop Lebanon – again 2 very happy years. In both Persia and Lebanon these large numbers of Polish refugees (115,000 in Persia in late 1942) were extremely well treated by nations that themselves were by no means in the Premier League of prosperity. When Lebanon, very reluctantly, said it could no longer sustain large numbers of refugees the Family were given the choice of France or Great Britain. They chose GB – and landed, also in Liverpool, in Feb 1948.
In 1948 both families had the ‘status’ of ‘Stateless/Displaced Persons’ – the posh term for ‘War Refugees’. Both Grandads had served in the Allied Forces (Jan, though too old for active service and shattered by Siberia, was, nevertheless, a sergeant in the NAAFI) and this service legitimated their stay in the UK. That was enough – no applications for ‘Settled Status’ or any nonsense like that! Jan was demobbed in late 1948, and given the obligatory dark grey suit and £200. He spent £150 of this on a house in Longsight in Manchester (and still had change ‘for fish and chips’ as they used to say!)
Mum and Dad met on Dad’s 21st birthday (April 21st 1950). They got married on July 21st 1951. The rest is history as they say… Twin brother Mike and I appeared on May 12th 1952. My Birth Certificate shows 11.59pm…Just squeaked in! Apparently, as soon as I (the second twin) appeared, the Consultant dashed to the window of the old St Mary’s, from which you could see the Refuge Assurance Clock – the most accurate timepiece in Manchester at the time – and that showed 23.59. ‘Good enough for me!’ he was meant to have said.
Mum and Dad became naturalised UK Citizens in 1958; for both of them one of the proudest moments of their lives. There was never any problem about their working as ‘Stateless Persons’ beforehand, Dad as an Electrical Engineer and Mum as a Teacher of History and English, first in Manchester, and then in St Helens near Liverpool at the other end of the dear old East Lancs Rd, where we moved in December 1959. Both Mum and Dad died in this second Family Home, staunch Polish and UK patriots in the truest sense of the word to the end, without a trace of prejudice or intolerance in either of them. Grandad Jan and Granny Luda lived with us to the end of their long lives. Though they never mastered English they took a keen interest in their ‘new’ homeland and were always ‘on my case’ to translate the Six O’clock early evening news for them, so they could stay on top of things! I can also remember brother Mike and I sitting and translating for them all 25 episodes of the original ‘Forsyte Saga’ transmitted in 1967!! Meanwhile Granny Małgorzata and Uncle Stan continued to live in their house in Longsight, just round the corner from our first Family Home. They died within 7 weeks of each other in the late summer of 1979.
I am privileged to have this rich, diverse, civilised and tolerant family legacy. I hope I have done it – and the people who passed it onto me – justice. In the UK Census of 2011 there was an optional category for ‘self-classification’. I classified myself as a ‘British Pole’. If you can have a ‘British Asian’ or ‘Afro-Caribbean’, then why not a ‘British Pole’! That’s exactly how I felt and saw myself then – and, despite the wretched, miserable catastrophe of Brexit – that’s how I feel and see myself now – and to the end of my days. At 66 this is set in stone!
As for the UK and Brexit, Mum once said ‘nasty, bad political regimes come and go but the country and its culture, customs and history endures’. She was actually speaking about Poland in the dark days of the Cold War but these words are equally apt for the UK of today, as I’m sure she would agree. Both Dad and her were committed Europeans and would be devastated at what is happening now.
I am now permanently in NW Poland with my dear wife Ania and her family, in their home town of Slupsk with a population of 88,000 – and I might just be the only Brit here! My 2 lovely (step) daughters and their 4 sons are very fond of me – thank the Good Lord for that! They are impressed at how laid back I am – though back in the UK unkind people occasionally referred to me as the ‘emotional and unstable Pole’… I suppose it’s all relative!
I’m currently in the process of applying for Polish Citizenship, and though I am ‘de jure’ Polish by Ancestry, ‘de facto’ I still have to prove this. And so I’m in the process of sifting through, and putting together relevant family documents. A fascinating process! Thank heaven for my British patience and forbearance. And my stocks of Assam and Darjeeling tea for a decent cuppa! Oh, and above all, BIG, BIG thanks for ‘InLimbo’ and all the kindness and support we get from all the lovely people on this splendid Site!
Written on 04.08.18
UPDATE ( written on 26.11.2021)
This very day (Nov. 26th) 4 years ago was my last full day as a permanent UK resident. I recall waking up and thinking – in fact for a moment being overwhelmed by the thought – that my 65 years 6 months and 2 weeks in the UK (all my life, in fact) had ‘funnelled down’ to this very last day.
Early the next morning we locked up, pushed our key through the letter-box, and were taken to Chorlton St Coach Station in Manchester. As the Coach made its way down Chorlton St straight ahead was the University Building where my Mum and Dad first met on his 21st birthday – April 21st, 1950. Somehow it seemed a fitting way to ‘top and tail’ things in the UK.
We fetched up in Słupsk at 2.30 p.m. on Nov. 28th – a Tuesday. Since then I’ve gradually become ‘part of the furniture’ – I see myself as the comfortable ‘fotel/armchair’ in the corner! And I’m very pleased and proud that I acquired Polish Citizenship in April 2019. I finally have ‘official’ confirmation of both my identities – a term I prefer to the more impersonal Nationality. However, both my old and new countries are going through a deal of turbulence and dysfunction – quite a lot, sadly, self-inflicted. And enough to keep me ‘in Limbo’ for quite some time yet…
© Krzys, British Pole, 69, left the UK 2017 after 65 years to move to Poland
First published on the In Limbo website March 2022
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