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

Invisible Fictions (And Non-Fictions Too)



‘Many women complain the moment they turned 50, people stopped seeing them. People push past them in queues, men look through them, and shop assistants ignore them.’ 

I came across this excellent post only the other day. It’s well worth reading in full. 

I’ve blogged about this phenomenon before – you can read my most recent post here – but at that time, I concluded that I wasn’t (yet) invisible. Just able to be ignored, like a piece of furniture. Now, I’ve changed my mind, bowed to the inevitable. I am invisible.

50 was certainly when the process started. A bit like that wonderful Tove Jansson story, the Invisible Child, except in reverse. In Jansson’s story the child starts off invisible and gradually becomes visible when she is treated kindly.

For older women, it works the other way. You just grow ever fainter, until people ignore you altogether. Men certainly notice you when they want to tell you that you’re wrong, but in the publishing industry, many young women also tend to ignore older female writers as far as possible. I sometimes feel that there's a weird sense of embarrassment on their part, as though they have no idea what to make of you and would rather you didn’t exist at all.

Writers are so afraid of repercussions that we tend to keep quiet about our experiences. But since, professionally at least, I have now achieved almost complete invisibility, I may as well shout into the void.

Here’s what happened just this year.

In February, I had a new book published. It’s called The Last Lancer and it was very close to my heart, a companion to my previous book about a murder in the poverty stricken Leeds Irish side of my family: A Proper Person to be Detained. 

This one is about my grandfather’s eccentric and tragic family history in Poland and Ukraine. I’d researched most of it throughout lockdown although my late father had also written down some of his memories. The story would – I hoped – be entertaining, harrowing and informative. But with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it suddenly became all too horribly relevant as well. Or so I thought.

Dad was born into the szlachta – the Polish nobility, more Mitford than Downton, I always think. After an idyllic country childhood in what was then Polish Galicia, but which is now Western Ukraine, he lost everything in the war (although he was luckier than his father who lost his life as well.) My father arrived in England as an unwelcome ‘refugee alien’ at the end of WW2, with nothing but a handful of photographs, a tiny silver mirror that had belonged to his mother, and his army identity papers, on which, under ‘next of kin’ he had written the Polish phrase meaning ‘closest family to nobody.’ He literally had nobody and nothing.

You would think, given Ukraine's current fight for existence, alongside our preoccupation with migrants, that the book might have received a modicum of attention. It was praised by no less a person than Neal Ascherson, who has forgotten more than most of us will ever know about Poland and Ukraine and the complex, troubled history of that region.

Well, you’d be wrong.

On publication day, back in February, nothing happened. No reviews, not so much as a postcard to mark the day.

In fact, if a couple of Polish friends hadn’t turned up with chocolates and flowers, whereupon we opened a bottle of cava and ‘wetted the book’s head’, there would have been nothing to make the day special at all.

I had launched a number of previous books in our local Waterstones, so I was hoping for another launch there, because lots of friends and acquaintances always turn out and buy books, but no word came from my publisher, who had organised previous launches. To be fair, if I’d known, I would have organised my own launch party - almost certainly in this village. But I didn’t know, because I had made assumptions based on past experience. Silly me.

Meanwhile, I was doing my best to promote the Last Lancer online. I did a long interview for one of Emma Cox's excellent genealogy podcasts, which you can listen to here. The book is only tangentially about genealogy, although the podcast is certainly interesting for anyone researching their Eastern European family history. I wrote blog posts and shared them. I posted photographs and links on social media.

Spring and the brilliant Boswell Festival came along. Like Brigadoon, I became happily visible. I spoke about my father’s experience, sharing the stage with a young Ukrainian woman, a refugee as my father had been. She related her heartrending escape from her home, under Russian bombardment, with her five year old daughter. The event was well attended, well received and very moving indeed. Afterwards, somebody said to me ‘I could listen to you speak all day.’ Which was a relief, because I had begun to wonder if I had become boring as well as old. But I think we could have listened to the Ukrainian woman all day too. And wept with her.

After that came silence except for another all too brief period of visibility on stage at the excellent Tidelines festival in Irvine.

I tried contacting my local libraries, offering to do talks. No response. Not one. I sent out a great many copies of the book, at my own expense, including some that should have gone as advance copies to people who would have reviewed it. So much so that I’ve almost run out of my own copies, and now – hilariously, if it wasn’t so irritating – my book orders have been ignored as well. Emails and phone-calls remain unanswered.

I had high hopes when my publisher went to the London Book Fair, but when she reported that the focus there was all on Ukraine, I wondered if anyone had pointed out what the book is actually about: the terrible, troubled history of - you know - Ukraine, as experienced through the eyes of one family.

I’m told it’s a ‘niche market’ but a Polish diaspora of 20 million people worldwide is a pretty big niche. You'd think somebody might want to publish a Polish language version, but apparently not. 

This is just the tip of the invisibility iceberg. There are so many examples of my current invisibility that it would become monotonous to continue to relate them. So I won’t. Like a passing comet, or a blue supermoon, I may become briefly visible again at some point in the future, but I can't say when. 

Most people in the book trade will tell scathing tales about ‘needy writers’. Very few will admit that there are invisible writers. Well reviewed writers. Older female writers. Angry writers. But it’s OK to be angry when you’re invisible, because nobody at all will notice. 




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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. 




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. 

Spooks Week: Meeting Great Grandad?

 

My paviour great grandfather, wearing a waistcoat & moustache,
next to the bearded man with the tar barrel. 


One of my more recent projects was a book called A Proper Person to be Detained, about the murder of my grandmother's uncle, John Manley, on Christmas Day 1881. It describes the milieu in which these people lived and worked, but it also examines the way in which that single shocking act of violence changed the lives of those who witnessed it and those who came after. 'Like a pebble dropped in a still pool' a friend described it to me afterwards. 

Like my book about Jean Armour, it involved intensive immersion in a time and place and I thought about little else for almost two years. Just as now, when I'm writing about my Polish grandfather and wishing I had known him, I found myself wishing I could have met my Irish great grandfather, but he died before I was born. 

He was born in County Roscommon in Ireland, he had come to England as an adult, to work on the roads, he was a skilled paviour and a kindly man who loved children. He sang, making the traditional 'mouth music' and he had a fund of old songs and stories. 

He was also, in many ways, the saviour of the family. He was my great grandmother's second husband after her first one died tragically young, leaving her and her children in penury. He was a person who managed to haul the family out of the extreme poverty into which they had been born. Yet he was so generous that if he saw a beggar in the street and he was wearing a good coat, he was as likely as not to hand it over to the more needy man. 'He couldn't keep anything,' said my aunt Nora, who remembered him. 'He would give things away when the family could ill afford it.' 

So what's spooky about that, you may ask? 

None of it, except that I think I may have met him in Morrison's car park, one morning when I had just finished writing the book, but was still, somehow, immersed in it. 

It happened like this. I had parked my car, and was heading towards the store. It was a chilly, misty morning, but there was a low winter sun shining in my eyes, dazzling me. I lifted my head and was surprised to see a man standing in front of me. 'Excuse me, madam,' he said. I hadn't seen him coming at all and, surprised, I stopped on the lane between parked cars. 'Oh, be careful, madam!'  He reached out and very gently ushered me onto the pavement. 

He was dressed in working men's clothes, with an old wool coat over them,  and he was covered in mud or dust or some combination of both. 'You see I'm very hungry,' he said. 'But I have no money for breakfast. Do you think you could give me just a little money for my breakfast?' His voice was soft, his accent was unmistakeable. Not Dublin, not Cork, but the soft rural accent of Mayo or Roscommon. I should add that the sudden appearance of Irish labourers isn't particularly common here - or not nowadays anyway. The Belfast ferry is some miles down the coast, and we are more likely to meet summer visitors with Northern Irish accents. 

Even before Covid, I didn't carry much cash, but I took out my purse and gave him a £5 note which was all I had in there. 'Thank-you so much,' he said. 'And God bless you!' 

He walked away. The sunlight and mist seemed to swallow him. It was my own response that surprised me. My legs felt suddenly weak. I had to go into the supermarket cafe, sit down and drink coffee till reality resumed. I still remember the feeling - a weird combination of excitement, exultation, disbelief and the inevitable 'don't be daft' rationality that always intrudes sooner or later.

Still, it's one of those things that has stayed with me. I can see him still, emerging from a glorious combination of light and mist, can feel his gentle touch on my arm. 'God bless you!' he said. 

I hope he managed to get some breakfast. 






Three Cheers for Citizens of Nowhere - and My DNA Agrees.




Citizen of Nowhere.

Back when ex British Prime Minister Teresa May called those of us who objected to Brexit 'Citizens of Nowhere' it struck a chord with many of us who saw it as a compliment rather than the insult she intended. I would still rather be a citizen of nowhere than a citizen of an increasingly xenophobic little island with delusions of empire. But I don't expect everyone to agree with me.

I've always felt that I didn't quite belong anywhere. Or - more accurately - that I belonged almost everywhere. So in Ireland, I felt Irish. In Poland, there seemed to be a significant part of me that responded to Polish culture, art, food, music - something quite viscerally Polish. Working in or visiting Scandinavia I felt at home. But this has, over the years, also made me feel oddly homeless. Or at least completely a-patriotic, if there is such a word. So when Mrs May hurled what she saw as an insult, I think many of us seized on the phrase with a sudden leap of joyful recognition. That's exactly what we are. Citizens of Nowhere.  

Back in the early spring, a friend came along for a glass of wine or two in our garden. She had just had a DNA test from My Heritage (other sites and tests are available). She has a Scottish Italian background and the test had not only confirmed what she already knew, but identified a few other interesting elements to her DNA. 

Reader, I tried it for myself. 

Test Kit

Because I'm in the middle of researching and now deep into writing a new book about my Polish family background, The Last Lancer, I opened an account with My Heritage, and when a 'special offer' popped up on the site, I couldn't resist giving it a try. In due course the neat box arrived complete with the test kit: a couple of glass phials, swabs, an envelope and precise instructions. 

Basically you have to swab your cheeks, put the business ends of the swabs in the phials, seal them and post them. I was a bit surprised to find that the packet was heading for Texas, complete with special customs stickers. My only advice to anyone who is about to send off their test would be to pay a little extra for track and trace. My packet spent weeks in the post.

However, just when I was despairing, I got the message that it had arrived. I could follow its progress through the various testing stages, until last week, the email I'd been waiting for dropped into my inbox: my DNA results were ready. 

I already knew that I'm Irish, Polish and quite likely Scandinavian via my Yorkshire grandfather. If any of those were missing, I'd have been very sceptical. I needn't have worried. There were a few surprises but in fact most of them served to confirm things I had long suspected to be true - and the rest were fascinating. 

The Results

I am: 35.4% Irish, Scottish and Welsh - which in my case almost certainly means Irish. My grandmother Honora was of Irish parentage on both sides, and those parents were Irish as well. I've written about that side of the family in a book called A Proper Person to be Detained

I am 17.5% Eastern European. As the site says 'People of Eastern European descent trace their roots to Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and Hungary. The early Common Era saw the region largely populated by Slavic and Baltic tribes with later Roman, Mongol, and Ottoman invasions.' Not unexpected, given that my father's family, whose surname I still use, were from the Polish part of what is now the Ukraine and - as I've discovered in the course of my research - had been settled there for hundreds of years. 

I am also 17.2% Ashkanazi Jewish, something that I had always suspected but never known for sure. Ashkanazi Jews originally migrated eastwards escaping persecution in Germany and France. They were a close knit group - but perhaps not so close knit as all that. My Polish grandmother's surname was Szapera, and although she came from a Polish Roman Catholic family, my father believed that the family had originated in Hungary. I had long wondered if at least some of those relatives may, at some point in their history, have been Jewish. 

I'm 12.8% Scandinavian. So my big auburn haired grandad Joe, who came from a family of lead miners in Swaledale, almost certainly was, as we suspected, a genuine Viking, a descendent of those early settlers who arrived on our coasts and moved inland, leaving their place names and their DNA behind them and then staying in the Yorkshire Dales until the industrial revolution drove them towards the big cities of the North. 

I'm 7.4% English. As the site explains, that might include people of Celtic descent too, those who were in England before the Anglo Saxons came along. More likely though, is that those Swaledale forebears who had moved to the big cities, married outside that narrow Dales demographic, where, as I discovered when I researched that side of the family some years ago, a single surname cropped up everywhere in a few small communities. A much needed stirring of the gene pool, I reckon. 

There is 1.1% Baltic DNA in there, which might be expected, given the proximity of that region to Poland and the Ukraine.

There is 4.4% North African. I'm intrigued. But of course those Norsemen did a lot of trading with North Africa, and people from North Africa have migrated just about everywhere, over many hundreds of years, so perhaps it's no big surprise after all. It always irritates me that politicians and their complicit media talk about 'economic migration' as though it was somehow criminal. But it's how most of us got where we are today, including those very politicians who deride it. 

Much less surprising is the 2.7% Central Asian, given the close trading and migration connections between Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Oddly enough, my Polish grandfather died in 1942 and is buried at Kenimech near Bukhara on the Silk Road, but that's a sad story for another day.

And finally there's 1.5% Nigerian, which is again hardly surprising with such an ancient culture - and may well be what many people worldwide find in their DNA as well. 

So there you have it, as the chefs say, when presenting the audience with a well cooked dish.

Not only was the test pretty accurate, according to what I already know, but with a few intriguing surprises thrown in. 

It also confirms what I have long suspected. I am a proud citizen of nowhere. 

Or should that be 'of the human race'? 

Oh, and mongrels are the greatest. 








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!

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













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 WaƂbrzych 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.