Showing posts with label Polish history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Polish history. Show all posts

The Last Lancer at Tidelines

 

My dad, his father and mother, in Dziedzilow c1928

I'll be at the lovely Tidelines book festival this coming Saturday, 23rd September, chatting about my new book, The Last Lancer, with Eleanor Thom and David Manderson. There are still some tickets available, so do come along if you can. 

If I'm honest, this book hasn't had nearly as much publicity as I expected - because although I researched it over a number of years, and mostly wrote it during Covid, it became all too horribly relevant, when Russia invaded Ukraine. 

I suspect some of this may be down to the sheer lack of perception of just how complicated borders are in that part of the world. Although my late dad was Polish, he was actually born and spent much of his childhood in what is now Western Ukraine, before successive occupations changed everything. That fact - and what happens under occupation - seems to be beyond the comprehension of most people in the UK where borders haven't changed for many years! 

I thought - and still think - that some understanding of what those shifting borders and allegiances might mean for a family caught up in the middle of it all would make interesting reading.

So if you can, why not come along and ask me some questions about it yourself! You can browse the Tidelines site here.

And if you would like a copy of The Last Lancer, you can buy it in paperback or as an eBook. 

The Last Lancer, Now Published in the USA

 


On 11th July The Last Lancer will be published in the USA and I'm really hoping that the Polish diaspora, many of whom are US based, will get behind it. This is mainly because so many of my Polish friends, here in Scotland, have told me that reading it reminded them of their own fathers and grandfathers, the pre-war childhood and tragic wartime experiences they seldom spoke about. People would tell me how they wished that they had asked their parents about the past, but so often hesitated, and now regretted all those stories left untold. 

These good friends were in my mind as I researched and wrote this book. I did ask my father, thank heavens, although he died much too young, back in 1995. I still miss him. Still wish I could chat to him. Walk with him. Hug him. Nevertheless, he wrote all kinds of vivid and fascinating details down for me. Later, I visited Poland myself, worked there for a year, and managed to piece together even more of the story. 

With my dad in 1950s Yorkshire.

My father, Julian Czerkawski was born in 1926 near Lwow, in Polish Galicia, on his father's large and fairly prosperous estate. He was the son of a Polish lancer - one of the celebrated cavalrymen who inherited the legacy of the famous 'winged hussars'. For hundreds of years, they had made their home in these heavily disputed borderlands. It seemed to me, hearing and reading about it later, as though these were people who were living on the slopes of a volcano. Dormant but rumbling away. 

The Czerkawski family in 1926 -
my grandfather in the centre.

 War devastated the family in ways which are seldom fully understood, here in the UK. Fortunate to   escape with his life, Dad eventually made his way to England as a refugee, an 'alien' as they were   called. Poland might as well have been outer space. His identity papers reveal that under 'next of kin' he had entered a Polish phrase that means 'closest family to nobody.' He was fortunate to meet and marry my Leeds Irish mother. (You can read about her family story in my book called A Proper Person to be Detained.) But an ache remained for the people and places of his childhood, even if he spoke of them only rarely.

In 2022, Putin's war in Ukraine and the sight of refugees passing through Lviv, formerly Lwow, added urgency to my desire to uncover something of what had been lost a generation before.

This book is the result, a book that Neal Ascherson, expert on the history of Poland and Ukraine, has called 'very moving and intensely interesting.'

Sadly, there is a sense in which Poland is still, for most people here in the UK, a 'faraway place with strange sounding names'. But perhaps for that wider Polish diaspora  (20 million people worldwide) especially in the USA, it will fill some achingly large gaps in people's family history. 

I do hope so. 

Meanwhile, I would dearly love to find a US and/or Polish publisher who would be interested in translating and publishing this book in Polish. Enquiries here in the UK have so far failed to elicit any interest. There seems to be an inability to understand the nature of the shifting borders in this part of the world, which results in an equally fixed inability to understand that this is a book about Ukraine too. It is also a book that goes some way towards explaining why Ukrainians fleeing Putin's war received such a warm welcome from Poles. We knew. We understood. We felt for and with them.

Please feel free to contact me for further information about the book.
If you're interested in translation rights, do please contact my publisher Saraband.  

The Winger Hussars by Alan Lees





Here Be Dragons? - Writing About Poland

 


First things first. My Polish historical saga The Amber Heart is free on Amazon Kindle for three days only, from Wednesday 29th - Friday 31st March. If you haven't read it, now's the time! It's available to buy in paperback too, if you prefer to read in that format. 

Given that my new non-fiction book The Last Lancer was published a month ago, the response to it has been quite low key here in the UK. So far, I've done a detailed interview for Emma Cox for her excellent Journeys into Genealogy podcast. You can read my short guest blog about the process, with links to the podcast here. You can listen to the whole podcast from the links at the bottom of that piece  - especially useful if you plan to research your own family history in Central and Eastern Europe. I'll also be doing a session at the Boswell Book Festival in May, alongside a Ukrainian refugee, of which more later.

Perhaps predictably, the most enthusiastic responses have been from my fellow Poles. Two friends brought flowers and chocolates. A lovely Polish writer friend spread the word - and copies of the book. I sent copies to Poland and elsewhere, to the friends and relatives who had helped with my research. Not the easiest process in the world since Brexit. 

Early days, of course. But I suppose it's inevitable that my Polish friends will 'get it' in the way that many of my UK friends perhaps never will, even when they enjoy the book. Or as Polish Leftists more robustly wrote, on Facebook, at the time of the Russian invasion of Ukraine - 'you will never understand us and how the experiences of multiple occupations shaped our societies and how that historical experience is present in our every day conversations and in our system of values.'

I fear that many of my UK friends might find the time and place I've tried to evoke in the Last Lancer just too foreign. Hic sunt dracones. Here be dragons. I had the same problem many years ago, when I first wrote the Amber Heart. 'Loved it, couldn't stop reading it, wept buckets' said potential publishers, among much else that was positive. 'But ... Poland?'

I thought times might have changed and maybe they have. We'll just have to wait and see. Meanwhile, if you've read The Last Lancer or The Amber Heart and enjoyed it - do please leave a review on Amazon or elsewhere, even a short one. Once we've done the hard work, good reviews are our lifeblood. 




A Salutary Experience.

 


My latest non-fiction book, The Last Lancer, was published by Saraband, here in the UK, a couple of weeks ago. It's something of a companion volume to my previous book A Proper Person to be Detained, (the paperback is on special offer on Amazon right now) about the Leeds Irish side of my family, and the mystery of a murder in the family on Christmas Day, 1881. 

The other side of the family, the Polish side, was much more exotic, but even more tragic. I'd planned to write about it for many years, collecting material along the way. Fortunately I'd asked my father (that's him on the cover, with the goat) to write down what he remembered of his childhood on the family estate in rural Eastern Poland, a part of the world that is now Ukraine, all the borders having shifted. I'd done a lot more research since his early death in 1995. His anniversary is on 20th March, so he's very much on my mind as I write this. I researched and wrote in earnest during Lockdown. Then, last February, with the book almost completed and about to be submitted to my publisher, Russia invaded Ukraine. And the book suddenly became much more relevant in the saddest possible way. 

Our local branch of Waterstones in Ayr had very kindly hosted launches of my previous Saraband titles over many years. They had been joyful experiences, well attended, (local author and all that) and the shop had sold a lot of books.  Some of those attending had bought two or three copies as gifts for family members. However, since this year I've been invited to speak at the Boswell Book Festival, at Dumfries House in May, we thought that we might 'launch' Lancer at that event - for which Waterstones supplies books. All the same, because people have been asking me about copies, I'd assumed, in my innocence, that my local store would at least have a few in stock. 

Yesterday, finding myself on the High Street and doing my bit for bricks and mortar, I went into the shop, and had a brief look around. No sign of the Last Lancer. So I approached the young man absorbed in his computer behind the counter and asked - very politely - if they were going to be stocking my book. I had a handy copy in my bag. I may have waved it at him in friendly fashion. 

He glanced up at me and said 'Is this Boswell?' 

It seemed an odd response and I was a little taken aback, but I soldiered on. 'Well yes. I'm doing Boswell in May this year. But I wondered if you were going to be stocking any copies before then.' 

He shook his head.  'No. Just for the festival.' He glanced down at his screen. 'I could order you a copy if you like,' he said helpfully. 

I declined his kind offer. I have plenty of copies, ordered from my publisher's distributor. I've been sending them out to those who inspired the book or helped with the research and to a few close friends. That very morning, I'd received a beautiful postcard of thanks from one of my literary heroes, Neal Ascherson, whose novel The Death of the Fronsac had been an invaluable source of information. 

In fact I've been clinging to that postcard like Jack clinging to Rose's floating door, as evidence that I'm not some elderly imposter. 

Still processing the young man's 'just short of rude' response to me, I asked for a copy of HAGS by Victoria Smith - a book that has been widely praised and publicised across social media. This morning, Victoria was on BBC R4, speaking about it. I'd had a look for it while I was hunting for The Last Lancer, and hadn't seen it. 

'We should have it,' he said. 

As far as I could see, they had a single copy. We found it tucked into a corner, spine rather than striking front cover facing out, low down on the New Non-Fiction shelves. I bought it. 

Reflecting on this experience in the sleepless early hours of the morning, it struck me that there could be no better illustration of the thesis of this excellent book. I wasn't looking for recognition. Just a certain amount of interest and engagement. I hadn't become invisible. I had been all too visible, but as an older woman, I was utterly negligible. Or to quote from the introduction to HAGS 'You're still an object. You've just changed in status from painting or sculpture to, say, a hat stand.' 

Reader, I was that hat stand. 

By the way. You can find The Last Lancer, eBook and Paperback here. And if you'd like to read my novel on a very similar theme, you could try The Amber Heart also as an eBook or Paperback.

You could also buy HAGS while you're at it. I can recommend it. 




An Uncanny Image


Even though words are my business, I find it very hard to describe my feelings when I first saw this small animation of one of the few pictures of my grandfather in existence. 

My dad brought this tiny head and shoulders image with him when, at the end of the war, he ended up in a Polish resettlement camp at Duncombe Park, near Helmsley in Yorkshire.  This is the grandfather I never knew, the person I wanted to know more about, the man I occasionally fantasised might turn up on our doorstep in the Leeds of my childhood. 

He never did, of course. He was long gone by that time, another of Stalin's victims. But one of my reasons for writing The Last Lancer was to try to find out more about him, to get to know this person my father had loved so much. 

Then a friend posted a vivid animated picture of one of her handsome forebears online and thanks to her, I realised that My Heritage would allow me to do the same thing to this image of Wladyslaw Czerkawski.

I uploaded the picture, clicked and waited. 

My grandfather looked out at me and smiled. It is movement, however small, that brings people to life. 

It was the strangest and most spooky feeling. Not in a bad way. I knew that he was a kindly man. Had always known it. He had his flaws and faults, of course, but he was a man whom many people loved and so do I.

My heart still aches when I recollect what happened to him. But I feel a little closer to him now. 

   



In the Salt Mines.

Wanda and Karol Kossak in Ciechocinek

Back in the very early 1970s, as a young woman, I took a trip to Poland, to stay with my father's relatives in Warsaw, and in a place called Ciechocinek, where my great aunt Wanda and great uncle Karol Kossak (the last of the celebrated family of Polish artists) lived. The picture of them above is so vividly reminiscent of my time there that every time I see it, I'm back with them, sitting at that table. I loved them dearly. 

When I came to work on my new book, The Last Lancer, about the Polish grandfather I never met, his turbulent milieu, his family and his life, I found myself remembering them all over again. They were a link to a past that for many years was inaccessible to me. The book is currently with my publisher, and I'm working on all the other elements surrounding it. Meanwhile, it has suddenly become current in the worst possible way, since my family came from that part of Poland called Galicia, much of which is now in Ukraine. That instant 'relevance' is very hard to come to terms with, even though it has cast  a blinding light on the tragic past of my forebears.

One thing I keep remembering though. And I tell the tale here because it too is relevant, in the worst possible way. 

As part of my trip, my family had arranged a visit to Krakow. Among other things, they organised a trip to the salt mine at Wieliczka.  You can get some idea of what a beautiful and intriguing place this is from their website, but even back then, with the communist party still firmly in control in Poland, it was a wonderful place.

I went on a conducted tour with a guide who spoke in Polish and English. At some point during that tour, I became aware of what can only be described as a general sense of unease among the rest of the group. To this day, I can remember the feeling,  although at first, I didn't know what it was. It was just short of tangible. A current. A vibration in the air. The kind of feeling that makes you shiver. If I was a cat my fur would have been standing on end!

Then, I noticed that we had, as we moved forward, split into two parties. My group was a mixed bunch of mostly Polish tourists with a couple of English speakers. The other consisted of one grim faced and silent older man, flanked by two other men who occasionally muttered to him. If they had been wearing notices that they were plague carriers, the way in which everyone avoided them could not have been more obvious. We went on with our enjoyable tour, but at some point, an older man from our group bent down and whispered in my ear 'KGB'. 

I've never forgotten it. It flashes into my mind occasionally  - much more so over the past few weeks. That palpable sense of unease had another element to it, and it was only later that I realised what it was. It was hatred. Something I hadn't encountered at all in my life to that time: raw, primitive hatred. Because some of those Polish tourists had vivid memories of exactly what Russian soldiers had done to them and their families during the war. 

Nothing happened. We enjoyed our tour, the unwelcome guests got into a fancy car and drove off - and I resumed my holiday. But once you've encountered the reality of justified hate, you never forget it and the force of it. Like my father you can choose not to allow it to ruin your life, but there will be times when it surfaces, just as it surfaced on that long ago day, even though we were deep underground. 

The End. Well, no, not quite.

At Dziedzilow



 Yesterday, after a few months of intensive work, I typed The End. Cause for celebration, but it isn't really the end. Maybe it's the end of the beginning. I'm writing a book called The Last Lancer about my grandfather, his milieu, his family and what became of them. It's a real family saga, a labour of love and it has been extraordinarily difficult and painful to write. 

The research has taken years. I did some of it decades ago, stopped, started again, stopped again. Then, during lockdown I organised my previous research: documents, pictures, photocopies, books, emails, translations, letters. Found out where the gaps in my knowledge were. Did more research. Was helped along the way by a few wonderful Polish people whose generosity with their time and expertise is beyond price. 

Two factors were also important. All of the main protagonists in this story are dead. Some of it is so very personal that I doubt if I could have done full justice to it while, for example, my father was still alive. His voice is in the book because he wrote down so much for me before he died. I have wished time and again that he was still here, so that I could ask him about all kinds of things, but still, it would have been difficult to write about times that must have been painful for him, events he had tried hard to forget. 

About six months ago, I started writing the book in earnest. I've finished the first draft. Now, the long  revision process begins. 

I almost wrote 'real work' instead of 'revision process' there. But I've done the real slog. Revising is hard, intensive work, but I love it. Once I have the first draft on screen, everything becomes a lot less difficult for me. Now, I can 'see' the whole thing, I know where where the problems are and where I'm going. I write to find out and that's why the first draft is so often like pulling teeth, especially in a piece of complicated reflective historical non fiction like this, and perhaps especially so when the historical aspects are very personal. 

I thought writing my previous book of this kind, A Proper Person to be Detained, was difficult, and it was. But The Last Lancer is a whole other order of difficulty. And real, heartrending sadness. 

Flowers and Books

Flowers and books

 It has been a wretchedly cold spring, here in the west of Scotland, so that everything is happening in the garden a few weeks later than it should. The elderly and very cautious Golden Noble apple tree at the bottom of the garden, that is on a two year cycle anyway, now has lots of blossom on it. So perhaps we'll have apples in the autumn - lovely, big, golden cooking apples that are so sweet that they need no sugar. 

We've struggled on through Covid - and we're not out of the woods yet. We're both fully vaccinated now. Three cheers for the NHS and an efficient Scottish government. Brexit is still the misery that it ever was, but our government remains defiant, and I believe we really are moving towards independence and either rejoining the EU or an alliance with the Nordic nations, with whom we seem to have so much more in common than we do with our immediate neighbours to the south. But perhaps in time the whole upheaval will make us better neighbours than we are at present. 

I'm working intensively on a new book now. It's called The Last Lancer, all about my Polish grandfather and his extraordinary family. I'm hoping to have a good first draft finished by the summer. Meanwhile, as ever, there are other ideas hovering, and nudging at me. I say 'as ever' but that's not strictly true. For somebody who spends a lot of time inside my own head, with characters of my own creating, I've found lockdown a trial. I've missed meetings with friends and I've missed hugging them more than I can say. And that in turn seemed to make my brain sluggish and unimaginative. A worrying lockdown lethargy. 

Most of all, though, I've missed my son, whom I haven't seen since the Christmas before last. I go to sleep missing him and wake up missing him. We chat online, of course, but it's not the same. And it's certainly not the same as a hug. A couple of weeks ago, he moved to Stockholm from Barcelona where he had been working. 'Getting a bit closer,' said a friend. I think he already likes the city very much but more than anything else right now, we want him to be able to come home for a visit, later on in the summer. There are thousands, perhaps millions of us in this situation, missing children, parents, grandparents, and new grandchildren in other countries. And it hurts. Every time I hear somebody going on about needing a holiday, I think - well, you want a holiday, and so do I. Very much. But there are so many of us who need to see our much loved relatives, and time is marching on.

Meanwhile, flowers and books keep me sane. Many years ago, my dad painted some furniture for his and my mum's bedroom. After they died, I took the big wooden chest, with its bright Polish flowers. You can see it in the picture above. It sits in the room where I work. It's very useful - and I treasure it. It's good to have a link with the past, especially when, as I am now, you're trying to write about a family history that sometimes seems so exotic and bizarre as to be the stuff of fiction rather than fact. Working on The Last Lancer - coupled perhaps with the advent of spring, however late and chilly - seems to have triggered other ideas too. Let's hope it continues!

A Traditional Polish Easter


I have a vivid memory of my father - when I was very young - sowing a little tray of grass-seed, a few weeks before Easter. When it grew long and green, he trimmed it back with scissors, and sat a white sugar lamb on the grass. He told me it was what people did in Poland when he was a little boy. 
.



Every Easter, even though he died in 1995, I miss my dad with a great pang of sadness, because here in the West of Scotland - apart from the consumption of industrial quantities of chocolate - nobody takes much notice of Easter as a festival.

I was born and brought up in Leeds, although we moved to Scotland when I was twelve. My best friend at primary school, Olenka Jankowska, was Polish too, and her parents celebrated Easter with as much enthusiasm as Christmas. We always marked the day in our house and followed a number of Polish customs, but I would also join in with Olenka's family over the holiday. The scent of yeast cookery takes me back to that particular time and place, with another little pang of sadness, because Olenka, or Sandra as she was called at school, died when she was in her early 30s. 


In the weeks before Easter, dad would also paint eggs, sometimes decorating them with pieces of coloured cloth. I have some of them still as you can see from the picture above. You can, of course, hard boil eggs, paint them and then eat them, but if you want to keep them from year to year, you have to prick a hole in both ends and 'blow' the contents out (to be used for your Easter cookery). It works, honestly!

In Poland, little baskets of produce, eggs, ham, bread, would be taken to church to be blessed by the priest. On Easter morning, people say 'Chrystus zmartwychwstał!' meaning 'Christ is risen!' to which the traditional response is 'Zaiste zmartwychstał!' - 'He is truly risen!'


Olenka's mum baked the best cakes I've ever tasted, especially at Easter: big trays of apple and plum yeast cakes, 'sernik' or baked cheesecake on a pastry base, dense and luscious .The Easter meal always involved heaps of hard boiled eggs, fat frankfurter sausages, rye bread with caraway seeds, big dill pickles, sauerkraut, soft cheese and salads of all kinds. It was probably my favourite meal of the whole year. Later, even when I was grown up, dad would make delicious pastries, called 'chrust' and 'favorki' (favours) like a cross between a doughnut and a biscuit.

On Easter Monday, known as 'Wet Monday' in Poland, dad would usually manage to get up early so that he could drench us in water. We would always forget what day it was. Back in the late 1970s, when I was teaching English conversation at Wroclaw University, it wasn't just water that you had to avoid. If you weren't careful, you would be drenched in cheap perfume, which would stay with you for days.



I try to replicate some of these celebrations each year and to some extent, I'm successful. I bring in greenery and put out my painted eggs. I do some yeast cookery. I've even invited some friends to an  Easter tea in the past  - but it's never quite the same and I just finish up by being faintly sad.

I've decided that the missing ingredient which I can't supply is belief. I myself can embrace the season and celebrate it. I can go along with the magic of it all. It still gives me a little thrill of excitement.
But nobody around me can. So I'm fighting a bit of a losing battle.





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. 



A New Project, Family History Pitfalls, and a Special Offer

 

If I didn't have writing, I think I would have gone mad by now. I have no idea how people are coping with a year of on and off lockdown, and Brexit too. Not well, I suspect. We are, let's face it, very lucky. We have a nice old house, (demanding but nice) we have a lovely garden (equally demanding, but also nice, especially now that spring seems to be on the way) and we are well used to working from home. I've been editing some old work, and researching a new book, centring on the story of my Polish grandfather. 

Truth to tell, I'm still not sure what kind of book this will be - not fiction, because it really happened and I don't want it to be 'based on'. But not a grim history either, even though this period in history was very grim for those concerned and this man's life was ultimately tragic. It's beginning to look like narrative, reflective non fiction. Whatever that might be. I don't know yet. I need to write it to find out.  


I've done a lot of sorting out of material that I've been sitting on for many years. Now I have a box of files that are, essentially, a book in kit form. Some of these files - one in particular - is labelled 'can of worms'.  The interesting thing is that coming back to this file some 30 years after I first engaged with the material inside it, shows me just how much I've matured over that time, and how impossible it would have been to tackle this project any earlier. It'll be hard, even now - but my understanding has grown, as has my understanding of a page full of notes, among the many pages that my dear dad wrote down for me not long before he died, far too young, in 1995. 

Rereading it, somewhat gingerly, it struck me that I must have filed it away without even reading it properly the first time round. Now, coming back to it all these years later, the wisdom of my dad's response to something I had discovered about my grandfather strikes me very forcibly. So much so that I keep wanting to go for a long walk with my dad, and talk to him about it all. But I can't. And back then, I couldn't either, because he was unwell, and besides, I simply didn't have the wisdom of experience myself. I just didn't know what I didn't know. 

So, maybe that's what the book will be. The conversation I didn't have. 

Once again, family history research proves to be a minefield. Nothing is what you assume it to be. You draw conclusions and then find out something that proves them wrong. 

Anyway - this is me prevaricating before diving into that box of problems again. Wish me luck.

'Where do you want to go, when we can go somewhere?' my husband asked me the other day. He didn't mean real travel. That would involve us seeing our son for the first time in more than a year. He meant when we can go somewhere that isn't five flaming miles from the house. We've been thinking about it a lot. Castle Kennedy in a couple of months time, when the azaleas and rhodies are in bloom will be good. 

Castle Kennedy

Later in the year, Skye, to visit our friends there, but that will involve an overnight stay somewhere on the way. 

Meanwhile, here's a special offer. My spooky little novella Rewilding is on sale for 99p for a week, so if you're reading this within the required time and love Scotland, myth and magic and slightly odd stories, grab yourself a bargain. 


Skye from Raasay


Old Photographs and Uncertain Times

 

The Czerkawski siblings, Meryszczow, 1926

As I said towards the end of my last blog post, I'm in the middle of researching my Polish grandfather's life story, for a new book. We're in the middle of a pandemic and enduring the hideous culmination of a Brexit that a large majority of people in Scotland (and many in England) didn't vote for and loathe more and more, the deeper Westminster drags us into it. 

All of which is keeping me awake at night.

The photograph above is in the book about the Kossak family that I also mentioned in that last post and that had been sitting on my bookshelves for some time. Wanda Czerkawska - the shyly smiling lady facing the camera - was going to marry artist Karol Kossak in 1927, so her story would become part of the much more famous Kossak family story. Wanda was born in 1898, so she was six years older than my grandfather, and 28 when this picture was taken. They must have believed that she would become an old maid, at a time when women especially tended to marry young. The book is in Polish. My command of that language is very limited, so I could do little more than skim through it, although a friend translated the chapter on Wanda's family for me. I thought I had looked at all the pictures, but when I was casually leafing through it a few weeks ago, the photograph above leapt out at me. I'm not sure why I hadn't noticed it, but perhaps it was because the book was still new and shiny, I had simply missed the page.

It excited and moved me.

I have only two other photographs of my grandfather. One is a small head and shoulders snapshot and the other is with my grandmother and my father as a young child. His hair is in a bob, and he's wearing a smock, as boy children did in those days. But until I saw this new picture, I had no group images of the siblings of the family and none so early. 

It's intriguing, that photograph. 

My grandfather
Firstly there's the focus on my grandfather, Wladyslaw Czerkawski, in the middle. He was more handsome than that in other pictures, but here, he is the main figure in the picture, with the rest of the family slightly out of focus, grouped around him. He looks solemn and thin and under a certain amount of stress. And he's wearing a black armband. I'm fairly certain that he is wearing it for his mother, Anna, who had died in 1925. This had left Wladyslaw central to the family in all kinds of ways. His widowed mother had made a second marriage, one of which, for various reasons that are becoming clearer to me, the family disapproved intensely, and which seems to have been less than happy. There was a child of that marriage, Danuta Hanakowska, born in 1920, and Wladyslaw must have known that her care and upbringing would be left to him and his young wife, again for reasons that are becoming clearer to me. I'd been wondering about the starched lady at the back of the picture, the one turning away from the camera as though she doesn't quite belong. But of course she would have been Danuta's nurse.

Of the others in the picture, the lady in profile with thick, dark, bushy hair (hair that she passed on to me) is my grandmother, Lucja. She was only 20, though she looks older, and the little bump she is showing would have been my father, who would be born in May of that year. At the back, between my grandfather and grandmother, you can see the profile of a pretty young woman, fashionably dressed in white. That would be Ludmila, or Ludka, the beautiful, spoilt baby of the family. I remember seeing a picture of her among Wanda's possessions, when I was in Poland in the 1970s, dressed in silk lounging pyjamas and sporting a cigarette in an elegant holder. It was, of course, difficult to copy photographs back then, but if anyone out there still has them, I'd be delighted to have copies of them. I think they may be with the Kossak relatives in Sweden, with whom, sadly, I lost touch. 

I don't know who the others are: the lady with the cloche hat at the back ('she looks like you' says a friend) or the tall, good looking man on the right, or the slightly self satisfied man on the left. But since the caption says 'Czerkawski siblings' they may be Wladyslaw's reckless elder brothers, Zbigniew and Boguslaw. Zbigniew died of consumption in 1932, while Boguslaw (Bogdan) was killed during the war in 1943.

The picture was taken at an estate called Meryszczow, but at this time, Wladyslaw and Lucja were living at another estate, some kilometres away, called Dziedzilow, which is where my father was born, so they must have been there because of the death in the family and its consequences. Wladyslaw would have fallen heir to Meryszczow as well, had war not intervened. 

Old photographs are always mysterious moments in time, caught like fossils in amber. This has a momentous quality to it, because it was a turning point for all of them in more ways than one. 

I look at this picture and see that none of them had an inkling of what was about to happen, a little more than a decade later. Only two of them would survive, three if you count the bump, and of those, only two would go on to have a fulfilling and happy life after earlier turmoil 

Which leads me back to thinking about the uncertain times we live in now. We're here at what feels - not like the culmination of something, although it is - but at the start of something worse. Unless Scotland can find a way of extricating itself from the hard right Eton Mess that has infiltrated the Conservative party (never my party of choice, but - at other times - never ever as mad and bad as they seem now) we are in for some miserable years. The notion of a sovereign and thriving UK is proving to be the jingoistic mirage we always suspected it was. Personally speaking, if we were younger, we may even have left by now, and taken our chances in mainland Europe or Ireland, much as many of those in this picture might have been better to move away, head west, possibly to America, where they would at least have stood a chance of survival. 

But we don't, do we? We have loyalties and allegiances, homes and friendships. And in our case, we have a Scottish government with a certain level of competence and care and the possibility of independence. So we hang on and hope for the best, even as we fear the worst.

These were people who knew all about the reality of difficult borderlands, where life could be short and violence was never very far away. Maybe like people living on the edge of a volcano, they thought it wouldn't happen to them. Maybe, like my friends and relatives here who keep shrugging and telling me that nothing will or can be as bad as all that, they thought it better to sit it out. Maybe they'll be right, although this small group of people were wrong.

Who can say? All I do know is that as a writer of historical fiction and non-fiction, I've learned a great deal over the past few years, lessons I would rather have avoided. I've often found myself wondering what it would have been like to live at a time and in a place where things had begun to fall apart around you. What would it have been like to try to maintain your footing, and a certain moral compass, amid those shifting sands. 

We read books or watch movies about Nazi Germany and we think 'Why didn't people do something?' 
We read about the dreadful fate of the Jewish people, and we think 'Why didn't they see the signs? Why didn't they move away while they still could?' 
We look at these people in the picture who must surely have had some small inkling of impending doom. 

Well, maybe they didn't. Whoever does? Whoever really believes that things will fall apart? That human beings will be careless and cruel?
I look at my grandfather's face, and I think that of all of them, he was perhaps the only one with any kind of prescience. But in uncertain times, we cling to the hope that things will and must get better.

Sometimes, they get much worse first. 


Julian, Wladyslaw and Lucja













An Extraordinary Christmas (or Two)

Aunty Wanda
 
This is a picture of my great aunt Wanda Kossak. She was the elder sister of my grandfather, Wladyslaw Czerkawski, the grandfather I never knew, and about whose life I'm writing a book.

I first met Wanda in the1970s, when I travelled by train to Poland and stayed with her and her watercolourist husband, Karol Kossak, the last in a line of distinguished Polish artists that included Karol's grandfather, Juliusz, and his uncle, Wojciech. My enchanted autumn with them is a subject for another post. My Polish was about as basic as their English, but my French was better, and as with many Poles of their generation, their French was good, so that was how we conversed most of the time. Over the weeks of my visit to their apartment in a spa town called Ciechocinek, I got to know and love them.

They were no longer young, and by the time I returned to Poland to spend Christmas there, Karol was dead, but Wanda had a long life, from 1896 to 1983. In fact, I had two Christmases in Poland, although they have somehow become fused in my mind and I will have to rummage through my box of old letters before I can properly distinguish one from another. 

The first time was when I was teaching English in Finland. Flights home to Scotland were very expensive so I travelled across the Baltic to stay with my Polish relatives. The second time was in the late 1970s, when I was working for the British Council, teaching English at Wroclaw University. Our longish winter vacation was in February, which meant that, once again, I headed for Warsaw, to spend Christmas with my father's cousin Teresa Kossak, her partner Andrzej, her mother, Wanda, and a whole heap of Kossak relatives, with whom, sadly, I have since lost touch. (If any of you are reading this, I'd love to hear from you!)

Those Christmases have become a series of vignettes of a time long past. So here's what I remember.

Warsaw was cold. Colder than Wroclaw, so much further south. There was frost and snow. There was a cheerful covered market, smelling of apples and dill pickles and cheap tobacco and that wonderful smoked 'mountain' cheese that I've only ever managed to buy in Poland. 

Teresa's tiny apartment was beautiful, with her collection of porcelain cups, her bright textiles, her books and artworks. In fact it sometimes strikes me that much of what I've decorated or planned since then, in our own house, has contained an echo of that time, in that warm, cramped, hospitable flat that I envied and wanted to emulate. She and Andrzej kept dogs that were much too big for the place, and since I was extremely allergic, they borrowed another apartment from a friend for me to sleep in, so that I shouldn't have to wheeze too much! 

I remember visiting the studio of one of their friends, an artist in amber, and the pungent scent of old forests from the polishing. He took me for a magical walk round the newly rebuilt old town. He must have been in his fifties, although he looked younger. It was evening, one of those clear, cold evenings, when the light leaches slowly out of the sky, and trees and buildings are sharply silhouetted against a golden sky. We walked and talked. His English was fluent and he told me something of the history of each place. He told me that he had taken part in the Warsaw Uprising when he was very young. Many corners of the rebuilt city held sad memories for him, where this or that friend or colleague had fallen. 
'I can still see them,' he said. 'Ghosts everywhere.' 

Warsaw was not bombed from the air. It was blown up from the ground, erased from the map. But it was rebuilt, and I was privileged to see it for myself, and to see it through his eyes as well. 

I had a proper Polish Christmas Eve at the Kossak house in - I think - Zoliborz. This is always a lengthy meal with many meatless courses, and makowiec - the most delicious Polish poppy seed cake - at the end of it. 

The house was crammed with Kossaks of all ages.  These included autocratic, intelligent Aunt Joanna Skarzynska, Karol's sister. She spoke excellent English, seemed to me a little like Lady Bracknell and quite as unnerving. She had worked in the American Embassy as a young woman, which was her post-war undoing, since she had survived, only to be imprisoned by mad, bad Stalin as a western spy. She survived that too. I got the impression that she could have survived almost anything. 

I remember a son - Wojtek? -who had been working as an archaeologist, I think, in the Gobi desert. He sailed sand yachts and gave me a little bronze Tibetan Buddhist platter with a sun symbol etched into it. There was a scientist daughter-in-law who worked her socks off in the kitchen, and there were assorted teens and children, and other more remote family members. 

The Kossak house was old and spacious and had survived the war relatively unscathed. There were polished wooden floors, lights, warmth, the inevitable pictures - and a tortoise that clip clopped about the floor, and tried to avoid being trampled underfoot. 

My dear, sweet, loving Aunty Wanda was my saviour, especially on the days following Christmas Eve when we went on family visits. I don't think I have ever met anyone whom I loved so completely after such a short acquaintance. She carted me about with her, while I felt the need to protect this fragile little lady on Warsaw's rickety trams. We laughed a lot. We visited relatives of whom - at this distance in time - I have completely lost track. But I know that, like the book of Genesis, or those Gaelic clan recitations, I could see that they were intent on fitting me neatly into the family genealogy. I was Wladyslaw's granddaughter, Wanda's great niece, Julian's daughter, the one who had fetched up in England after the war and married an Englishwoman. 

And I remember bigos. Every house offered bigos and every bowl was slightly different  - much as you'll be offered mince pies or Christmas cake here. It's good in reasonable quantities, but I also remember Andrzej who was brisk and sexy and very kind to an awkward young woman, who was a little in love with him, saying 'Poor, poor Kasia. Not MORE bigos!'

Only a few years ago, one of Teresa's friends wrote to tell me that she had died, and she sent me a book that Teresa had written about her family, including a chapter about her mother, Wanda Czerkawska. By that time, both my parents too were dead. This year, a Polish friend translated Wanda's chapter for me, which added another, even more intriguing dimension to what I already knew about my Polish family. 

But you'll have to wait for my next book to find out more! 








Digging into Family History: My Great Grandmother Anna Brudzewska

 

Over the past few weeks, I've started work on a new book, although I'm still very much at the ferreting about and following bits and pieces of information down the wonderful rabbit holes of family history stage. 

This is something I've been thinking about writing for a very long time - a piece of narrative non-fiction about my Polish grandfather who had what you might call an eventful life. I'll probably tackle it in the same way as I researched and wrote A Proper Person to be Detained. Except that you couldn't get much further from my forebears in that book if you tried.

Anyway, I thought I'd blog a bit about it here - not to pre-empt the book, because I'm still not quite sure where that will take me and it will be about more than just family history. Nevertheless, I'm happy to blog occasionally about the process of researching it and the feelings it inspires. I did quite a lot of research on this topic many years ago, long before the internet, and I have a big box full of paperwork: letters, pictures, notebooks and photocopies from that time. It's invaluable. But now, there's so much more online and I'm only just beginning to realise how much there is still to be discovered. 

Above is a picture of my Polish great grandmother Anna Brudzewska. 

She figures in a wonderful and very detailed Polish genealogy, worked on by one M J Minakowski. Her full name before her marriage into the Czerkawski family was Anna Brudzewska von Brause and she was born circa 1870. Her father was Edward Brudzewski von Brause, born in 1838, and her mother was Zofia Katarzyna (that's my own name - Catherine) Moraczewska. 

Edward is intriguingly described as 'landowner and insurgent'. 

He served in the ranks of the Prussian cavalry and took part in the January uprising against the Austrian authorities. He was exiled to France, as were so many insurrectionary Poles, but when things settled down, he returned to Poland and became a friend of the playwright, painter and poet Stanislaw Wyspianski. For those who know nothing about Polish literature and art, it's a bit like finding out that your great great grandfather was bosom buddies with Ibsen or Chekhov or - since he was a brilliant artist - Renoir or Manet. Edward apparently features in one of Wyspianski's dramas called Liberation. He lived near Krakow at a place called Korabniki where Wyspianski was a frequent visitor.  And here it is. The original house was built in the mid 16th century, oddly enough by a remote relative of a different branch of the family. Edward bought it in the 1880s, so Anna would have been a girl here. 


The Brudzewski Manor House at Korabniki 

When I stopped salivating over such a very beautiful house, I started thinking about my great grandmother, Anna. You look at that slightly prim and proper picture of her - it was included in a book that one of my father's cousins wrote about yet another branch of the family - and what do you see? What would you expect from that firm mouth, that neat hair, that slightly hostile stare and withdrawn expression? Or - as a friend said - somebody who was saying 'Don't tell me how to live my life!'

I find myself browsing through Wyspianski's paintings and wondering if he painted her. 

I'll tell you what you wouldn't quite expect. That she gave birth to my grandfather Wladyslaw in winter, in a sleigh. And that as a widow, she scandalously married her estate manager, much against the wishes of her family, and gave birth to a daughter. 

So there you go. Today, I've been thinking about that a lot. Aren't photographs deceptive? Or, when you dig deeper, informative. Are you intrigued yet? I know I am! 




What Next? Poland On My Mind.

Juliusz Kossak
By Juliusz Kossak, Karol's grandfather.

I've spent a large part of lockdown prevaricating. Mind you, I've been doing a lot of writing, struggling with an ongoing short project that I must - and will - finish, editing a ridiculously long novel into something more manageable, killing a few darlings along the way. 

But I realised the other day that I've been indulging in all kinds of distractions to avoid the thing that life, the universe and everything is telling me that I really have to write - the story of my grandfather, my great uncle, and my dad's Polish family. A hundred little nudges and reminders seem to have come my way. 

This, they whisper. This is what you need to do.

No photo description available.The other day, I posted this little sketch on Facebook, and lots of people responded. That's me, very young, in a droshky. My famous great uncle, Polish artist Karol Kossak, sketched it when  I was visiting him and my great aunt, back in the early 70s. And come to think of it, that's a story all by itself, of a time when I went travelling across Europe by train, through the GDR with its terrifying borders, its guards with their big guns and bigger dogs. Karol was in his eighties by that time and his sight was failing, but you can still see the artist he once was - a fine watercolourist, specialising in equine studies, the last of a line of distinguished painters who worked on a grand scale, like his grandfather Juliusz, above.

Some time last year, I wrote myself a note. It said, when you are looking for the box with all the Polish historical paperwork in it, it's under the bed, you fool. Now, I've lost the note, but because I wrote it, I remembered where the box was. I got it out the other day. Two boxes to be precise. One contains an old green folder with a sheaf of Kossak sketches, many of them dedicated to me, some of them funny little caricatures of wealthy 'party members' who were visiting the spa town where he and Aunt Wanda lived. He would draw them for me on paper napkins, in the cafes where we went for coffee and cognac in the afternoons.

The other is a box full of words. At least some of them were written down for me by my dad, before he died, descriptions of his childhood in a place called Dziedzilow, now Didyliv in the Ukraine. There are maps and a few photographs as well, although now - incredibly to me - I can put Didyliv into Google maps, look at street view, and take myself along the road through the village, passing the service bus that has stopped to pick up a few people, passing the tantalisingly impassable side roads that I may not go down. I always find myself wondering if dad would have been able to bring himself to do it. Maybe, maybe not. 

I dragged them out the other day, both boxes. I dusted them. And there they sit, accusingly, enticingly. Go on, they say. You know you want to do it. 

I do. 

Almost four months of lockdown and I might finally be sure of what I'm going to write next. 

Great Uncle Karol 


Happy Birthday to My Lovely Alien Dad

Last year, when my new book A Proper Person to be Detained was published by Saraband, and when I began to do various book events I realised that as many people were asking me questions about my Polish dad and how he came to Britain, as about the Leeds Irish side of the family, which is mostly what the book is about. My refugee father came to Yorkshire at the end of the war, via Monte Cassino, having lost most of his family and almost his own life. There was nowhere to go back to.

In that book, I wrote: 'Dad was an alien. It says so on his papers. I have them still, stored in a box in the room where I write. I've been sifting through them more than once, recently, in the hope of reinstating the Polish nationality I acquired at birth, by blood rather than location, and then lost again. ... * When I was born, dad's status made me half-alien too. Actually, it made me three quarters alien, given that my mother was half Irish. As soon as she married him, my mother acquired her husband's nationality as well as her own. So there we were, aliens by virtue of birth or assimilation in this brave new post-war world. The borders had arbitrarily shifted and my father's home wasn't even in Poland any more.' 

Today would have been dad's 94th birthday. He died in 1995 with my mum following three years later, and I still miss them. Earlier today I took a little posy of garden flowers up to the cemetery outside the village: aquilegia mostly in shades of pink, blue and purple, because we're between seasons now, in that time between spring and early summer, when winter is still capable of putting in the odd appearance, even in May. It was a chilly, blustery day and I was in my winter woollies and padded jacket, but it was a good walk, past sweet scented may blossom, cow parsley, pink campion in the hedgerows and an accompaniment of birdsong all the way. Dad would have approved. He loved the countryside and made me love it too.

It's been a funny old day. We're in lockdown here in Scotland, but the county is in turmoil with - not to mince matters - a regular shitshow of a government at Westminster. I've spent half the day in a rage, and half of it remembering my warm, wise dad. But Dad, who knew a fascist when he saw one, always cautioned that totalitarianism could happen anywhere and at any time if conditions were right. After all, Stalin was responsible for his father's death, while the Nazis saw off most of the rest. Dad was not at all bitter. He had, I think, taken a conscious decision to live his life with love rather than hate. But injustice - that was a different matter. I never once saw him lose his temper at home. He was the most generous and kind hearted of men. But injustice, greed, cruelty and bullying: those were things that he found intolerable.

I've been thinking about him a lot today.

If you want to read the story of my Irish family history, but of so much more - you can buy the paperback of a Proper Person to be Detained from the publisher, Saraband, or download the Kindle version, here.

Dad and his grandson at a very happy time.

* I regained my Polish nationality last year.

Food Parcels and Fags: My Polish Grandmother

Lucja Szapera 
This is a picture of my Polish grandmother. I met her very briefly when she came to spend a couple of weeks with us in Leeds. I can't even remember the exact year when she came, but I think it must have been when we had moved from my grandparents' house in Whitehall Road to a chilly flat in an old vicarage in Bellevue Road, which would place it some time in the late 1950s. You can read about some of this in my recent book, A Proper Person to be Detained, because although that book is about a murder in my family in 1881, I moved the story forward into my own childhood, in an effort to get some perspective on those long ago events.

What I didn't tackle though, was the troubled relationship between my father and his own mother, Lucja.

My middle name is Lucy. I was named for her.

One night last week, I woke up with a start and remembered the food parcels. It may have been because I had just said - not entirely in jest - that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, we might have to ask our son, working in the EU, to send us medicines. Perhaps that had triggered the memory, because I hadn't thought about Lucja's food parcels in more than forty years.

After the war, when my refugee dad was in a resettlement camp in Yorkshire, like so many displaced persons, he hadn't the foggiest idea whether any of his family had survived. For many years, we believed that his father, Wladyslaw, had been sent to Siberia and had died there. As it happened, that wasn't the case, but it took a great deal of research before we found out the true story. He didn't survive. He was never going to come knocking on our door. His tragic story is one for another day, another post. Maybe the book or books I seem to be edging towards writing if I can find a way into them.

Aunty Wanda
But in those post war years, the Red Cross did sterling work in trying to reunite families. Eventually, we found out that dad's beloved Aunty Wanda had survived and was still living in Poland with her husband, artist Karol Kossak, in a spa town called Ciechocinek. I visited them and their daughter Teresa in the  early 1970s, and immediately felt at home with them.

In the late 1950s, we also discovered that Lucja was alive, living in a town called Wałbrzych in the south west of Poland. She and my father corresponded, and because times were hard in communist Poland, especially for elderly ladies of very limited means, we sent food parcels to her. I remember the shopping, the careful wrapping, my dad filling in endless forms, taking them to the post office with my mother, hoping that the things actually got there, because pilfering at the borders was rife. As were food shortages.

And then Lucja came to visit.


It was not, on the whole, a success. I find myself digging around in my memory, trying to analyse the tensions that I, as a little girl, could only have been dimly aware of. The word that best describes it might be disappointment. I think she was disappointed, had been disappointed and angry for years - angry and unwell and disappointed. She had expected more from the visit. She had expected much more from life. And she had lost everything except her life.

She was, I believe, the child of a wealthy pharmacist, in the prosperous Polish city of Lwow, when she met and married my grandfather. You can see them together in the picture below, possibly taken in the summer of 1929 when my dad would be about three: handsome Wladyslaw, who always reminds me of Maxim in Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca and pretty, plump Lucja in her early 20s, with her summer dress, her pearls and her hat and her little son, Julian, still in his traditional girly baby clothes and haircut.




Spoilt Lucja who got her own way in everything.

She had always expected more from life. The picture at the very top of this post shows her at about the same time or just a little earlier - newly married, well made up, glossy in her fur coat. Uncannily, I recognise myself in her eyes, and her hair. She certainly gave me her hair.

The family were ostensibly Catholic, but the name Szapera suggests a Jewish heritage somewhere along the line. The family also claimed Hungarian forebears. Wladyslaw, who had a reputation for immense charm, must have met her socially in Lwow and swept her off her little feet. He was wealthy too - on paper at least, although not so much in hard cash.

The family were 'szlachta': the old, minor aristocracy. Wladyslaw's mother, Anna Brudzewska, had been from an even more distinguished family. Wladyslaw had inherited the estate from a wealthy uncle and stood to inherit another place in Prszemyslany.  He had a nice house, a ruined mansion, an ice house, the only car in the district, plenty of land, prospects - and a pet monkey. Lucja must have thought that all her dreams were coming true.

They were very young: Lucja was born in 1906, and Wladyslaw in 1904, which made her only twenty when her son was born. I'm sure for a while they were madly in love.

But she was a city girl, and I imagine that she soon found the countryside not at all to her liking. I suspect she didn't like the mud or the flies or the horses or the dogs or the guests that stayed for days on end. Besides, Wladyslaw was not quite as rich as she had believed. He was always thinking up ways of making money: growing mushrooms in the cellars of the old manor house at Dziedzilow that had been burned down in some previous conflict or inventing perpetual motion machines that - of course - didn't work.

She had probably been used to city life and entertainments, nice clothes, a little luxury, and here she was, marooned in the country, and then doubly marooned after my dad was born.

I suspect too that my grandfather found that he had fallen for a pretty face but, like Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, had found himself married to a rather foolish woman. This seems harsh, but my father once confessed, reluctantly, that he had always been much closer to his father and his aunt Wanda than he ever was to his mother. They seemed to have very little in common.


Pre war Lwow.


Nevertheless, my parents went through the complicated and stressful process of inviting Lucja for a visit. From the start, it was clear that she disliked postwar Leeds intensely. When I think about it now, I'm very sorry for her. She could speak no English and my mother no Polish, so communications were difficult. At home, she worked in one of those little kiosks that sell cigarettes and bus and tram tickets. She suffered badly from arthritis and lived with somebody we knew as Aunty Nusia. I think, although I can't be certain, that this was her sister but it may have been a cousin.

She had expected us to be rich. We were very far from that. She missed Nusia. She didn't like the food, she didn't like my mother, I'm not even sure that she liked me very much. She must have been very homesick, even though she didn't like her home much. Children bored her. The fortnight was spent mostly playing cards with assorted patient Leeds relatives, while she smoked cigarettes and grumbled. She went back with more food and more cigarettes, as many as she was allowed to take. The correspondence continued, as did the food parcels and the medicines for her arthritis that my dad managed to acquire. I believe she died in 1971, just before I went to Poland myself, and met my other surviving relatives.

Julian at Dziedzilow.
Many years later, dad told me all about his childhood, but said very little about his difficult relationship with Lucja.  I think it saddened him. He had been a country child, heart and soul, brought up among the trees and flower meadows of this part of Poland, loving dogs and horses, riding almost as soon as he could walk, ski-ing in winter. Reading a great deal.

He adored his father, but at some point in the 1930s, Wladyslaw began an affair with the wife of a local schoolteacher. I think my dad saw this as a betrayal, naturally enough, although he was too young to articulate it properly.

Just on the verge of war, Wladyslaw and Lucja separated, and Lucja took my dad, Julian, back to Lwow. He didn't want to go. I recently found the address among his old papers and looked it up online. The apartments are still there, and seem quite smart. Wladyslaw visited them there as often as he could and as a boy Julian would often travel back to Dziedzilow to spend holidays there. He was always happier in the countryside than in the city. Always happier with his father or with his Aunt Wanda and Uncle Karol and other family members who lived nearby.

Later, more precariously, when the city of Lwow and the house at Dziedzilow were under occupation and his father was in the army and then in a Stalinist prison, Julian would travel back to the village to stay with his beloved nanny. She was a Polish girl married to a Ukrainian so he might have been in extreme danger, but he was never betrayed. Instead, the local Ukrainians sheltered him.

In due course, he would come back to the city with eggs, apples, meat.

More food parcels for Lucja.