The diary extracts posted so far have covered the period from Józef being commissioned into the Polish army in 1938 up until the outbreak of war on 1st September 1939. Before posting extracts from the next stage of his journey, I’d like to describe briefly another European journey; my family’s trip in the early 1960s to meet our Polish relatives for the first time.
At almost 12 years old, going to visit my family in Poland for the first time was the biggest adventure of my life. Poland in the early 1960s behind the Iron Curtain, was a very different place from what it is today. Furthermore, this holiday which had been planned over many months, was my first trip abroad.
My mother, my sister and I were travelling together with my aunt and uncle (my mother’s sister and her Polish husband) and their seven children. We children ranged in age from 16 down to around 2 years old.
So, impossible though it sounds, the two cars were loaded up with twelve people, their luggage, provisions for the journey, and presents for our respective Polish families. We were waved off by several of our neighbours and set off for the ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland and the long drive to Poland.
My uncle had planned the route through Holland, Germany and Czechoslovakia (as it was then). The three adults took it in turns to drive both cars and my mother tells me that most of us children slept the majority of the way…I do have some recollections of the journey though. Funnily enough they are mostly of the places we stopped at to eat or to sleep for the night so perhaps she was right!
I do remember the unpleasant ordeal at the final border crossing into Poland. As we younger ones were shepherded through the dark into a building, our parents stood watching in the pouring rain as the cars were stripped (literally: seats were removed!) and cases searched. I recall that, in addition to the adults’ natural apprehension given their situation, my mother was particularly distressed at the disregard shown for our belongings; the clothes and presents from our cases were soaked by the rain. Nevertheless, we were eventually permitted to continue.
Once we were on the road again we headed to Chorzów where my mother, sister and I were to stay with my father’s brother, Janusz. Meanwhile my mother’s sister’s family continued on to meet their own Polish relatives – they would meet up with us again later in the holiday.
We were greeted so warmly by Uncle Janusz, his wife, Auntie Maja and my cousin Michał. They spoke English well and it was thanks to them that we had been able to keep in touch with Józef’s family after he died. They regularly wrote to my mother, sending photos and news of the rest of the family.
Most of the flats we visited were in very austere, grey buildings typical of the communist era, but inside they were bright and colourful with furniture and décor quite different from those seen in Britain. Even now I have vivid memories of my aunty and uncle’s home. The main room was cosy and had a traditional tall, tiled stove typical of many Polish and other east European homes. I remember pots of homemade yogurt and big jars of honey from my grandfather’s bees. And there were lots of books.
I also remember the cake and gifts my aunt and uncle surprised me with for my 12th birthday which fell during our holiday.
The most special present of all, though, was a small medallion and chain depicting Our Lady of Perpetual Help. My uncle gave it to me and told me that he had kept it hidden in his trouser turn-up all the time he was imprisoned during the war. I feel very privileged to have something that had been so important to him and I’m sure he gave it to me because of the very special bond between him and my father.
We visited Auntie Maja and Uncle Janusz’s daughter, Barbara, who lived nearby with her husband and daughter. Barbara’s husband made tiny, hand blown glass ornaments for me and my sister in front of our eyes – we were utterly captivated by this. I still have some of these along with several other souvenirs of our holiday.
Delighted as I was with these gifts, it was the loving welcome into our “new” family which was most significant in what was then a very different country from our own.