Today’s note is not about current emigration. In this interview Eva is telling her family story that was strongly influenced by the 20th century history. Two World Wars, deportation, journey through three continents and lack of chance of ever coming back home to Poland – common struggles for an older generation of Polish emigrants. They have found themselves in UK not because they wanted a better life here – they flew here on the wings of history. Now, Eva focuses on keeping the history of those who survived Siberia alive through the Kresy Family organisation.
My name is Eva Szegidewicz. I was born in Manchester, down the road from this building. I was born in 1961. I am not actually an emigrant, I am a British citizen but my background is that my family came to UK from Poland. My mother was born in Wolyn in a place called Krzemieniec in 1923. My grandfather was a military settler and he was a Pilsudski legionnaire. He joined the Polish army…actually it was not a Polish army at that time because Poland did not exist, it was the Austrian army. He was born in 1897. He was just 14 years old and he was desperate to join the army. He went somewhere, he asked if he could join and they said: “come back in two years, you are too young”. My grandfather was not happy with that response. He had to join the army, so he went somewhere else, and they asked how old he was, “I am sixteen”. “Yes, that is fine – ok.” I do not think it was that simple but I think in those days they did not ask for many documents. So he joined the army and like I said he was a Pilsudski legionnaire. He was a cavalry soldier, he was a good horseman. He fought at the Battle of Warsaw in 1920; it is called the “Miracle on the Vistula”. Apparently Our Lady appeared to the soldiers in the sky and helped them to fight the war against the Bolsheviks. You can imagine: Russian army – huge compared to the Polish army, I don’t know how they did it. I heard stories that the Bolsheviks were firing at the statue of the Madonna of Czestochowa and the bullets were backefiring on to the Soviets. How true that is I do not know but I have heard that story quite a number of times. By this miracle the Poles had won the war against the Bolsheviks.
For helping to take part in that war my grandfather was awarded eleven hectares of land on the Eastern side of Poland which is know as “Kresy”. He was still young in his twenties and he did not know what to do with this land. He was not allowed to sell it, he had to settle there. He was placed there for a reason to protect Poland against any further invasions from Russia. He was not a farmer, did not know what to do. His background was that his father was a blacksmith. He was a city boy, did not know anything about farming at all. And there were stipulations…there were various rules about this land. Not everybody got land for free. Some people were allowed to purchase the land depending on who you were in the army, what rank you had, what part you played in the army. I think my grandfather got his land for free because he was a young soldier basically fighting on the front line. So like I have said he had to actually do something with it and he did not know where to begin. My grandfather liked a little bit of a drink, he liked Polish vodka. Probably he went to a Polish bar somewhere and then he met my grandmother’s father and brother. They were totally in awe of him that he was a soldier; he actually fought as a Pilsudski legionnaire in this big battle. They just were totally in awe of him. He actually built a little stable for his horse and he slept with the horse in the winter time in between the horse’s legs to keep warm. He had no provisions at all, I just really do not know how he managed and for how long he actually did this but this was the story that I have been told as a child. My grandmother’s father and brother felt sorry for him and said “come to our farm!”
They had a small farm a distance away from where the land was that my grandfather had and where he was staying. He gladly went because he thought ok, he might have a chance of a hot meal. He arrived there. In the house was my grandmother and she had sisters and brothers. She was not happy when the guests arrived. She was a young girl in her twenties and there her father was ordering her about “go get some food”, “bring this, bring that”, as I say, she maybe did not look like it but she was not pleased, she had to look after the guest.
My grandmother’s mother had died when my grandmother was eleven I think, shortly after giving birth to a child so the girls in the family were like the mothers and were looking after the place. So grandfather comes and he is quite taken aback that a young girl is actually looking after his horse and giving the horse some hay….anyway I do not know over how long a period of time this was going on but the visits became more frequent and he took a shine to my grandmother. I have to tell you that my grandfather was called Adam and my grandmother was called Ewa….it was like a match made in heaven basically.
After a period of time he proposed to her but she did not want to marry him and the story goes again I do not know after how long, he got frustrated and basically said to her: “Look! Are you going to marry me or not?!” and he took out his rifle and shot through the ceiling of the house. My grandmother panicked and said ok, ok, ok, I will marry you!
So they got married in 1922, in November. So that then started off the whole scenario of building the farm house on the land that he was given. Where my grandmother lived there was a forest where they could chop lots of trees and they were transporting all the wood to the farm. It took them I think over a year to build the farm. During that period my mother was born, in August 1923. So they took a few animals from my grandmother’s farm, transported them there and they were doing quite well. They were self-sufficient, they grew wheat. You know they hired labours after the summer to gather all the crops. They had a nice and quiet life on the farm. Just a normal life, hard work, getting up early to feed the animals, but basically it was a good life.
My mother was an only child. They did not have any more children. Things were going very smoothly, they had a nice life for the next sixteen years. And then in 1939 on the 1st of September Germany invaded Poland from the West and just over two weeks later on 17 September the Soviets invaded from the East…. I wish I knew what my grandfather was thinking at the time. I do not think they were actually panicking too much. I do not think they thought that anything would happen to them. Obviously they knew things were going on from the reports (in those days they did not have television) but they did have newspaper reports etc. My mother I think she was in the Scouts and she was on watch duty sometimes looking at planes going by, when the Germans were flying over but still I do not think there was that great a panic that they would be affected that much, War would be over pretty quickly….but that unfortunately did not happen.
A few months later on the 10th of February 1940, at 3 o’clock in the morning they get unexpected visitors. The NKVD came knocking and basically saying that they have 5 minutes to pack warm clothing and to evacuate their property. The reason was that my grandfather was a threat to them as a Pilsudski ex-legionnaire. Obviously he was a reservist but he was protecting that part of Poland. He was one of the first that needed to go. There were four waves of these deportations. The first was the 10th of February 1940, then they had another one in April 1940 and in June 1940, and again in June the following year, 1941. It was estimated that 1.7 million people were deported to Siberia. So as I said he was the one targeted because of his military background, he was a huge threat to the Soviets, as were policeman and Government officials.
So my grandfather was held under gun point, he had a pistol or a riffle aimed at him. He was trying to calm them down and say “Look, we can talk about this. Let’s sit down and have some vodka…”. The NKVD did not want to discuss anything with him. Basically they just said “Pack warm clothing. You cannot stay here. We are going to take you to a safe place”. They did not know where that safe place was going to be. It was the coldest winter on record; I believe it was something in the region of -40 C, huge snow outside. My grandfather even said than he had a cow that was about to have a calf and he kept watching it overnight so he asked “what about the animals, I have this cow…” and they said” oh do not worry about animals. We will look after all this for you. You just cannot stay here as the war is happening. You need to go!” So they had no option.
They packed what they could and there were horses outside (I am not actually sure as I have heard different stories but it might have actually even been their horses). From other stories I have heard they came with their own transport other times they used what was on the farm already. So they made their way then to the nearest railway station and were loaded onto cattle trucks that were already waiting for them….very uncomfortable journey. They were crowded in this cattle wagon, there were maybe 50/60 people in the wagon. They were locked in. It was dark. There was just a small window I believe at the top, nowhere to sit. There was a stove in the middle apparently which they used for the journey to melt snow to drink. There was a hole in the floor that had been cut out for toilet facilities. The journey I believe took about four weeks to get to Siberia. They did not know where they were going. The train would just sometimes stop with no warning or anything. People would try to get out just to get some food, to get some air, to get out of that train. And then again with no announcement or anything the train would shoot off and leave people behind. Some were lucky enough to catch another train a few days maybe later, some just stayed there and I really do not know what happened to them. It was awful. People would die on these trains – babies, old people…they were basically thrown out of these cattle wagons in the middle of nowhere. They were just left in the snow. Terrible, terrible conditions. People were ill, nobody was looking after them. There was no food. Occasionally, if they were lucky, they might get some watery soup (really disgusting, horrible fish soup or something like that). If they were lucky they managed to get a little piece of bread. I remember my mother saying once, she looked out of the window and she saw a Russian soldier with a sack of bread and she called out to him in Russian. I do not know where she learnt the Russian language from but she said something like “Give us some bread. We are dying in here.” He looked up and maybe with her accent, I do not know, or maybe he thought she was a Russian girl, he actually opened the sack and threw up a loaf of bread. When the people saw it they were going absolutely hysterical about it. Started ripping the bread apart. She ended up with a few crumbs basically of this bread. Not enough to survive, not enough to do anything.
They arrived in Siberia and there were already wooden barracks set up where they shared accommodation with other families. They were immediately set to work. Again freezing cold temperatures out there, it was -50C I think. They were given manual work to do outside, whether chopping down trees, digging holes in the ground (it was absolutely frozen solid). They were told if they do not work they will not eat. Fortunately my grandfather was a strong man. They were given norms – an average what they had to produce that day – and if they did not meet that norm they would not get their slice of bread or whatever they were given by the end of it. So my grandfather would do his share of work and then he would also help my mother to do hers because she was only at that stage – 16/17 years of age….she could not do the work terribly well. On top of that sometimes he would do extra. Ha managed to get extra ration…My mother could not complete hers… My grandmother had the job of cutting down the trees. I am not sure if she even managed to complete her work. But people just did not have the energy to do it. You know they did not have the food to sustain them to actually do that work and they were just dying off. It was just impossible to complete that work. How they went through that I really just do not know. I do not know how they could have survived it all.
So they did two and a half years of this slave labour and in 1941 Germany invaded Soviet occupied Poland. So basically Stalin panicked because now he had a war with the Germans. Whereas one time he thought he was friends with the Germans and he could get rid of all the Poles and be ok. Now Germany were attacking him. So he panicked and released those prisoners, those people that he had in the work camps. It was called an amnesty, but it was no amnesty. Those people had done nothing wrong. They were living a peaceful life, were not trying to cause a war or anything. Stalin released those people in the hope they would join the Red Army, help him fight the Germans…. The Poles had a different idea. They did not want to join any red army – they wanted their own army. They heard at the time that General Anders who had been in a prison in Moscow had just been released. They heard that there was a Polish Army being formed in Persia (which is now Iran). Immediately people like my grandfather needed to get out of there as quickly as possible and then they started making the journey south. That journey was probably even harder than the deportation because they were on their own. Before they were being told where to go. Now they were just let loose, with no money, with no idea where they were going to go. They was a mass exodus out of there. They had to cross the Caspian Sea by ship. That was a horrendous journey in itself. People were packed on these cargo ship type things I think. Again they were ill, were dying, terrible conditions. Not all of them made it out of there. The idea was Stalin wanted to make them Russian citizens as well. He wanted them to stay there. The ones that wanted and could get out got out as quickly as they could. Some people still live there and think of themselves as Poles which is great. I think there are movements now that are trying to get them back to Poland but that is another story…
So my family made it out of there and my grandfather joined the army and was immediately taken because of his background. My mother thought of joining and they would have accepted her but they did not take my grandmother. She was ill and they said she could not go. So my mother then had to choose what to do.., does she join the army with her father or does she go with her mother. She did not know what to do and then she made a decision. I am not going to go to any army. I cannot fight; I do not know what to do so she stayed with my grandmother. So the women and the children and some men – the civilians – were taken to refugee camps. My mother and my grandmother ended up in East Africa. A lot of orphan children ended up in India, some of them went to Mexico, some of them went to New Zealand, scattered all over the world.
My grandfather joined the second corps and went with gen. Anders. He trained in Palestine I believe and then ended up in Monte Casino fighting the big battle. They had no contacts with each other. The whole six years that my mother and grandmother were in Africa they did not know what happened to grandfather, whether he had survived, whether he was killed. There was nothing. No notice. You can imagine as well the total culture shock that they experienced arriving in Africa. From the freezing cold temperatures of Siberia to the heat in Africa, and to actually see black people for the first time…you can just imagine. They read about black people in history books but never saw them. Not just a black person but a naked black person. That was just too much. A lot of Polish ladies did not like it because there were small children and they were asking black people to cover themselves up. And actually they did. The Africans were really good to the Poles. They found sacks and turned them into dresses. They tried to speak Polish to them. How that was I really cannot imagine. They lived in little huts with the rooves being made out of banana leaves…I have a photograph of my mother outside one of these huts. They could not leave the campsite without wearing a helmet because of the heat….it was basically a jungle out there. You could not go far because there were wild animals, so they were warned not to go anywhere or do anything. Just to stay in the camps. Typically they are Poles; they have to do it their way. They set up schools, scouts, all sorts of things. They turned it into a mini Poland while they were there. Celebrated Christmas the way they do. But food obviously was not brilliant. They just wanted to go home. They did not want to stay there. I have a photograph of my mother (I think it was a passport photograph) and obviously she was a teenager and she just looks so miserable, she just wanted to go home.
So what happened next…..? So the Poles played a huge role at the battle of Monte Casino. They had a victory but then where do you go. What happens next? There was no way to go back to Poland. The second corps actually became a part of the 8th British Army and my grandfather was fighting alongside British soldiers. So after the War all the British soldiers were coming back to the UK and the Polish soldiers came with them. Lots of them settled in Scotland and various places. I believe there were over 250 Polish resettlements camps here in the UK. This was 1946 when he arrived. I believe he arrived in Liverpool. There were lots of ships bringing the soldiers. We actually cannot find any records of any soldiers or a list of the soldiers. There must be a list somewhere that probably exists in Sikorski Institute but at the moment we cannot find a list of which soldiers actually came here. But there were a lot of them. Thousands of them spread across the UK in these Polish resettlements camps. The families then were trying to contact each other, make contact to see where they were through the Red Cross and my grandfather found out that my grandmother and mother were in Africa and it took two years for him to make that contact and for the British to allow the families to come over here.
My grandfather was in various camps in the Cheshire area. The last camp was Calveley Camp in Nantwich. That is where my mother came and joined him in that camp. My mother and my grandmother arrived from Mombasa in Southampton in December 1948 and when they arrived my grandmother had been ill the whole time she was in Africa. She had contracted TB and spent the whole six years in Africa in hospital. She was gravely ill. As soon as she arrived they sent her to a Polish hospital in Wrexham and they operated on her lungs and they actually removed one of her lungs. She would have been in her early fifties at that time and they said to her that they did what they could for her. That she would either live or die. She had one remaining lung. She was quite poorly. I don’t know how she did this but my grandmother survived and went on to live to the grand old age of “Sto Lat”! One hundred and 8 months. She survived Siberia, survived Africa, all the journeys and operation here in the UK and she lived another nearly fifty years with that one lung. Amazing woman! Everybody said she was a saint; it was a miracle how she got to that age.
My mother was in the camp with my grandfather and the camp was closed down after a short while. The soldiers being demobbed were than left to find work and to settle. There was no way that they could go back to Poland. No way at all. Some Poles tried to go back but they found it very difficult. Poland had become a communist country. The farm that they left behind was taken over by the Russians, Ukrainians (the land now is in Ukraine). The poles as well, the huge contribution they made during the Second World War They helped to fight the Germans and fought alongside British and when it came to the victory parade in 1946 in London the Poles were not invited to take part in the victory parade for fear of upsetting Stalin….I just cannot believe these things happened….unbelievable.
So my grandfather had had enough of traveling, of fighting and a lot of the younger Poles on arrival here did not like the UK. “We do not want to stay here!” A lot emigrated to America, Canada. My grandfather had two nephews who fought alongside him during the War and they emigrated to Canada. Both of them. He did not want to. Grandfather had enough. He got a job at Crewe Railway Station repairing old steam locomotives and somehow he managed to get some money together and eventually bought himself a little terraced house in Crewe and he settled there. My mother found work in Manchester. She was offered a job in one of the big restaurants in Piccadilly Manchester. So she moved there. She then met my father who was also Polish. He was a soldier of general Maczek. They got married and settled quite close to the Polish church on the place where the dental hospital is at the moment. They had my older brother and my sister George and Rozalia and they settled in Withington. They lost contact a little bit with the Polish community because it was a little bit of a distance away. In those days in the 1950’s there were not many cars on the roads. When my brother started school he could not speak a word of English. All he heard at home was what my parents and grandparents spoke so it was hard for him. Obviously as a five years old child you pick up the language very quickly but it was not good. He had a funny name…you get teased at school for having a funny name. No-one could pronounce it. You cannot talk the language, you have an accent, although he was born here, but still. He had the Polish accent. Children laugh at you. Like I say he picked up the language fairly quickly and then he was coming home talking to my sister in English so she found it very easy when she started school. She was already speaking English and actually my parents and grandparents picked up a little bit of the language because they were struggling with that. And again, when they came here to the UK there was absolutely nothing here for them. There was nothing Polish as it is now. Every corner shop is a Polish shop “Polski Sklep”. There was not a church here. The Polish community, the Poles that had settled here bought the church, it was an English church, converted it, made it Polish, brought a priest obviously. They set up a Saturday school. There was a headmistress of the school that was one of these people that came through Siberia. What the Polish community has now is what they built fifty years back. When they came they had nothing themselves, had no money, they had to integrate into British way of life and it was not easy – it was not as it is now. They had to learn how to read and write. There was no help whatsoever. They did not choose to come here and they did not have any choice than to settle and integrate.
I was born ten years later and already then I was hearing two languages at home. It was much easier for me. My parents did not force any of us to go to Polish school and to learn the Polish language as they did not think it was going to be of any use. They did not think they would ever go back to Poland. I regret not speaking the language. I can read an odd word here and there but I do struggle with the language and the pronunciation. I am good speaking Polish with the older generation because they seem to accept my mistakes, they do not laugh at me but with the new generation I am very shy. I am part of the Friends of Polish Veterans association here in Manchester. I am actually a vice president of that organisation and I go to their monthly meetings which are conducted in Polish. I understand what is being said around the table but when it comes to answering I always reply in English.
So that is how it came that I live here in UK. I thought I knew who I was until ten years ago when my mother died and then things started going through my mind. I had a lot of questions that I never thought of asking before. I questioned my identity. I stopped speaking those little bits of broken Polish that I spoke at home. She was the last one left…. I did not know if I was Polish or English. I struggled. I did not know what to do with myself. My mother’s last twenty years of her life were hard. She had osteoarthritis, she was in a wheelchair. She got it from an accident she had in Siberia. She was crossing an icy river in a little boat and the boat capsized and she was in freezing cold water for over an hour. She could not swim. Some of her friends that were in the boat with her could swim and got on top of the boat. She was clinging on to the edge of this boat with her finger tips. Some Russians were sat having their lunch on the side of the river watching this and basically said to her “You must believe in God as you should be dead right now. You should not survive that freezing cold temperature”. Next day she had to go back to work…no work no food. She died when she was 84 leaving a huge hole in my life. I did not marry; I have not got any children. I started to go through photographs of her from Africa. I found her passport from Teheran and started to think about her and my grandparents’ life and wanted to know more. Only then I realised I have not asked them any questions e.g. to my grandfather ”How was it being 14 years old in the army?” I had heard these stories so many times but never actually stopped to ask…I took it for granted. He was an important person my grandfather but he was not anyone special. Just a regular guy that fought in two World Wars. He had no special rank. He was not a corporal or a sergeant but that is only because he refused a sergeant’s rank as he did not want to tell his colleagues what to do in war. Just wanted to be with them.
Four years ago I helped to set up a Polish World War II history group called Kresy Family and we are doing extremely well. We are going around the UK trying to promote this history to the British public. We exhibited in the world’s largest family history show called “Who do you think you are” – a three day event. There is an enormous need from people to gain information. To find out who they are.