In Search of Danuta



As anyone who has done any kind of historical research knows, it generally throws up more questions than answers. I don't write historical fiction exclusively, but I've certainly written a lot of it, and I love disappearing down the rabbit hole of research. Sometimes, though, it's more personal. My last book, a Proper Person to be Detained, was mostly about my Irish forebears, about a murder in the family and the terrible repercussions. 

Now, I'm embarking on a book about my Polish grandfather. And there are lots of questions to which I'm slowly but surely discovering answers. But one question that is exercising me right now is 'what really happened to Danuta?' 

Many years ago, while my father, Julian Wladyslaw Czerkawski, was still alive, I started researching the Polish side of my family. This was before the internet, but even so, I managed to find out all kinds of things. My dad wrote extensive memoirs for me, and translated other material from Polish. I even wrote a couple of Polish themed radio plays.

Then, occupied with other writing, I set it aside for a while, but last year, I decided that the time had come to pick up the threads of my Polish research again, especially since I'd written about the Irish side of the family. Now I really wanted to tackle my Polish grandfather’s story. 

Wladyslaw Czerkawski had estates called Dziedzilow and Meryszczow, now Didyliv and Mereshchiv in the Western Ukraine. He was imprisoned in the USSR, sent to a Gulag, was released when Stalin changed sides, but died in 1942. His son, Julian, my father, came to England at the end of the war, via Italy, with General Anders’ Army. I was born in Leeds, but we moved to Scotland when I was twelve years old.

During lockdown, sorting through a huge box of old material, I found a letter in Polish from one Jerzy Hanakowski, buried among a great many other much older papers. This letter was dated 2002, and to my shame, I realised I had filed it away and forgotten all about it. One of the reasons why I couldn’t write back to him was that he hadn’t included a return address in Lviv and I simply couldn't find him! But I was intrigued, because I had learned more in the intervening years and quite suddenly the letter seemed very important indeed.

I now know that my great grandmother Anna Brudzewska von Brause of Meryszczow, (previously of Korabniki - and I've blogged about her here) had been married twice: first to my great grandfather Wladyslaw Czerkawski, and then after his death, to a man called Jan Hanakowski. I know that my grandfather inherited Dziedzilow from his great uncle Julian, a rather famous politician and surgeon. I know that eventually, Anna and Jan moved close to Dziedzilow, to a place called Feliksa, (now Velyki Pidylsky), and that they had a daughter called Danuta. Although Danuta was essentially my father’s aunt, she was only a few years older than he was. Anna died in 1925, and is buried in the cemetery at Dziedzilow. After her mother’s death, Danuta spent a great deal of her time with my grandfather’s family, where – after he was born in 1926 - she was treated very much as my father’s older sister. She went away to school, but spent holidays at Dziedzilow. 

I had never heard of Jerzy. And my late father always believed that Danuta had been working as a nurse, and had been killed by the Nazis, during the war. That was what the whole family believed. It was what I grew up believing. 

This year, a Polish friend very kindly translated the letter for me, and I was astonished to discover that the writer, Jerzy, back in 2002, had been Danuta’s younger brother, born to Jan and his new wife whose name I don’t know. When he was a little boy, Jerzy – still living at Feliksa - had also spent time with my grandfather, and had loved him very much. He too had been sent to Siberia, had spent 18 years there.

The extraordinary revelation was that contrary to everything we thought we knew, Jerzy’s older sister, Danuta Hanakowska Czerkawska, had survived the war, had escaped to the US, and had become a surgeon before returning to Poland. How sad that my father never knew!

I was also intrigued to learn from this same letter, that she had two sons, Romek and Witek (Roman and Witold?) but sadly, Jerzy didn’t give me Danuta’s married name, and without that surname, it is very hard for me to find them. I only know that in 2002, they were living and working in Gdansk, Roman in customs, and Witek in computing.

My father came to the UK with a tiny handful of pictures from Dziedzilow but none of Danuta. Back in the 1970s, I visited my great aunt Wanda and her husband Karol Kossak in Ciechocinek, and saw many old Czerkawski family photographs. Some of them would almost certainly have been of Danuta, but unfortunately I don’t know what became of them - although above is a picture of Danuta’s mother as a young woman, Anna Czerkawska who became Anna Hanakowska. 

I would love to contact her children or grandchildren. She seems to have been an amazing woman, and I would love to know more about her. 



Comments

gz said…
Something will turn up...it took us twenty years to find my father's mother, in London...and five years later I met my Maori third cousin once removed.
Things happen..like little cosmic chuckles, happening to be in the right place at the right time and an unplanned unknown meeting ....
Becca McCallum said…
Family history can be so fascinating. I love looking over old family photos and finding out what people did for a living. My Grandma's family came from Darvel and were working in the lace factories there - some of the older children worked as lace darners. We also discovered that my great grandmother had a brother who died at age 16 from TB - we managed to find the record of his death online. My grandma loved telling stories about her childhood and growing up, and I wrote some of them down in her own words.