Click here to read part one. Part two below.
During our stay in Chorzów my uncle took us to Kraków and showed us the wonderful, historic places there. The magic of Kraków definitely made a lasting impression on me even as a child.
We then drove further south to where the rest of the family lived. My grandfather, my father’s other six brothers and sisters and numerous cousins mostly lived in towns and villages towards the Czechoslovak border.
Everywhere we went we received the warmest, most effusive and emotional greeting you could imagine. All the while Uncle Janusz and Auntie Maja acted as interpreters for us; they were the only relatives who spoke English.
My father’s sisters greeted me with hugs and kisses and floods of tears. At the time I found this quite disconcerting though of course I realise now that for them it was a reminder that their beloved brother would never visit them again. The sorrow they felt must have still been quite raw but at 12 years old I didn’t understand how emotional it was for them.
Despite this underlying sadness, everyone was determined to give us the holiday of a lifetime and it seemed as though we just went from one big family gathering to another, staying a few days with different families. While the adults sat deep in conversation at tables laden with food and vodka, my sister Charlotte and I were having a whale of a time exploring gardens, the countryside and woods with our new found cousins. Somehow we all managed to communicate quite well despite the language barriers.
I’m afraid that at the time I didn’t comprehend how very difficult life was in 1960s Poland. As well as living under the repressive communist regime, the standard of living was well below that of western European countries and there were often food shortages. I only realised later what huge sacrifices the family must have made in order to shower us with such hospitality and generosity – it was the kind of welcome that anyone invited into Polish homes today will certainly still experience.
There was one final part of the holiday to come.
Together with Auntie Maja and my auntie, uncle and cousins from England we travelled to Zakopane, a mountain town and ski resort in the far south of Poland. Having spent most of the first 12 years of my life in Suffolk this was the first time I had ever seen mountains! I remember being quite overawed by the views, as well as the sight of the enormous ski jump visible as we drove into the town.
Zakopane is now a popular winter sports destination and is packed year round with tourists from all over the world wanting to explore the Tatra mountains. In the 1960s however, it was a much quieter place. This holiday destination was primarily enjoyed by Poles and other East Europeans plus of course, other families like ours making their first visit to Poland after settling in the West. However there were tourist attractions already emerging: the funicular carrying holiday makers up into the mountains, souvenir shops and stalls and the giant “bears” greeting tourists on the streets and posing for photos.
Our first Polish adventure was almost over at this point , but from then on I knew that Poland and my Polish family were absolutely part of my life and who I was.
Back home we often talked about how much we would like our Polish family to visit us in England and the places we would like to take them to see. But with the situation in Poland as it was, it would be almost 20 years before a single one of them was able to make that journey.