Irena Kos­sakowski

A Home­land De­nied, In the Foot­steps of a Pol­ish Sol­dier

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS -

I re­mem­ber ask­ing my Dad many years ago, why he never com­plained about any­thing. Al­ways tak­ing things in his stride, noth­ing was too much trou­ble. His calm­ing in­flu­ence yet au­thor­i­ta­tive pres­ence grav­i­tated oth­ers to­ward him, a nat­u­ral lead­er­ship qual­ity which I learnt later had in part re­sulted from the tur­bu­lent and trau­matic years of his youth. Yet he had replied sim­ply that, ‘Hav­ing en­dured and been de­nied so much for so long, even the sim­plest of things seemed lux­u­ri­ous and in ret­ro­spect, there was noth­ing to com­plain about.’

With the ig­no­rance and self­ish­ness of youth, and not re­ally want­ing to learn more I dis­missed his re­ply from my mind; af­ter all, there were other far more ‘im­por­tant’ things to oc­cupy it.

I grew up re­garded as a ‘for­eigner’ in Eng­land, ten years af­ter the Sec­ond World War had ended. With a name I hated that no one could pro­nounce or spell, it was quite nor­mal for me to say it, then im­me­di­ately spell it. My Mother too, hav­ing been born and bred in the Not­ting­ham area with the very com­mon name of Irene Clarke, would be­come ex­tremely frus­trated when hav­ing to say and spell – of­ten re­peat­edly – her mar­ried name of Mrs Wa­claw Kos­sakowski. Dad’s name of course is pro­nounced en­tirely dif­fer­ent to how it is writ­ten and also one of the most dif­fi­cult of Pol­ish names; and so through­out his work­ing life he was known as Wal­ter.

Never one to talk of the past yet al­ways suf­fer­ing from ter­ri­ble night­mares shout­ing in Pol­ish in words im­pos­si­ble to un­der­stand, I grad­u­ally came to re­alise there was far more to my Dad than just a dif­fi­cult un­usual name.

How does one be­gin to tell the dra­matic yet poignant story that had brought this young Pol­ish stu­dent to Eng­land; an in­cred­i­ble jour­ney across

con­ti­nents, of hard­ship and suf­fer­ing, love and be­trayal. Per­haps it is best to start at the very be­gin­ning.

1939 was a time of po­lit­i­cal un­rest and in­sta­bil­ity through­out Europe yet few were pre­pared for war, cer­tainly not the eigh­teen-year-old Wa­calaw ‘Vadek’ Kos­sakowski. A first-year stu­dent of math­e­mat­ics and as­tron­omy at War­saw Univer­sity, the fu­ture, as he en­vis­aged, was al­ready pleas­antly mapped out. But fate was to in­ter­vene and for Vadek and the whole of Poland noth­ing would ever be the same again. That date would for­ever be in­grained in his mem­ory.

1 Septem­ber, and the in­vad­ing troops of Nazi Ger­many marched re­lent­lessly into west­ern Poland. Hope­lessly out­num­bered as the Ger­mans ad­vanced with over one mil­lion troops on sev­eral fronts with no dec­la­ra­tion of war and no prior warn­ing, the valiant Poles could do noth­ing to stop the in­va­sion of their coun­try and so Vadek and other young men all over Poland im­me­di­ately joined the army cadets of the Pol­ish Free Army, while mem­bers of the Govern­ment fled to Eng­land to be­come the Pol­ish Govern­ment in Ex­ile.

While still reel­ing from one un­ex­pected in­va­sion, just seven­teen days later the Rus­sian Army un­der the or­ders of Jozef Stalin at­tacked from the east and on the 19 Septem­ber, at the cadet camp next to the east­ern bor­der of Rus­sian con­trolled Latvia, Vadek was taken pris­oner.

Bru­tally thrust into a war he was both phys­i­cally and men­tally un­pre­pared for, Vadek knew only his wits and pres­ence of mind could keep him from be­ing mur­dered like so many oth­ers in the in­fa­mous Kozeilsk prison he now found him­self in.

Im­pris­oned and in­ter­ro­gated for sev­eral months, never know­ing which day would be his last, a har­row­ing hor­rific jour­ney lay in wait, tak­ing him far from his ru­ral home and the life he knew. Lit­tle did he know he would not set foot in his own coun­try again for al­most twenty eight years.

In over­crowded cat­tle trucks, crammed like sar­dines and un­able to move, dead men pressed against the liv­ing to even­tual con­fine­ment at the labour camp and Rus­sian gu­lag Camp Kola, on the very edge of the Kola penin­su­lar within the Arc­tic Cir­cle.

This was the new world Vadek now found him­self in. With each quak­ing step that brought him closer to those im­pos­ing dou­ble gates ringed with barbed wire, he felt he was walk­ing to his doom and was con­sumed by the de­sire to flee, to take flight, but as soon as the im­pulse en­tered his mind, in that same sec­ond he dis­missed it with the more ra­tio­nal thought, where? There was nowhere. For in this des­o­late frozen wilder­ness there could be no es­cape. Far from hu­man habi­ta­tion there was no pos­si­ble chance of sur­vival and only the mourn­ful howl of a soli­tary wolf broke the eerie still­ness. Death would surely be the only way out.

The Geneva con­ven­tion was not recog­nised by Rus­sia and so the pris­on­ers of war were treated in­hu­manely and without com­pas­sion. Forced to con­struct run­ways for the planned mil­i­tary air­base that failed to ma­te­ri­alise, the men had to walk sev­eral miles, bodies hunched against the bit­ing icy winds that never ceased to blow in tem­per­a­tures that could reach –50 to the area where Stalin wanted the run­way built. Hands so frost­bit­ten it was al­most im­pos­si­ble to hold the tools which failed to pen­e­trate the per­mafrost, men dy­ing where they fell, a man­tle of snow their cof­fin.

How to sur­vive, how to force a weak and starv­ing body to push it­self be­yond the lim­its of en­durance ev­ery day? Only in his dreams could Vadek es­cape the deep de­pres­sion and grim re­al­ity of a liv­ing death, with thoughts of his fam­ily, his fu­ture wife; and hope. Al­ways there was the hope that one day he would see his beloved home­land again. These were the thoughts that kept his spirit alive.

But in 1941, fate was to in­ter­vene yet again when Ger­many sur­prised Rus­sia by at­tack­ing their for­mer ally. Stalin now des­per­ately needed man­power and the Rus­sian leader had no op­tion but to change tac­tics. With the sign­ing of the Siko­rski-Mayski agree­ment the Poles were freed, but only free to fight for the Rus­sians on the east­ern front against the Ger­mans, de­spite their

piti­ful state and half dead con­di­tion. Yet Vadek was in lit­tle doubt that this mo­men­tous change of events saved the lives of hun­dreds of thou­sands of Pol­ish mil­i­tary and civil­ians.

Trans­ported to a re­set­tle­ment camp in South­ern Rus­sia to form an army gov­erned by Pol­ish of­fi­cers but un­der Rus­sian com­mand, con­di­tions were lit­tle bet­ter than those left be­hind for Stalin pro­vided very lit­tle equip­ment and few sup­plies. Gen­eral Wla­dys­law An­ders knew they would all per­ish un­less they left Rus­sia and so as part of An­ders’s Army and un­der an agree­ment with Win­ston Churchill the Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter, the for­mer pris­on­ers were trans­ported thou­sands of miles across the Rus­sian steppes and the Caspian Sea to the scorch­ing deserts of the Mid­dle East.

How­ever, this new coun­try brought yet more chal­lenges and hard­ship for men al­ready in a weak­ened state. Those that sur­vived the haz­ardous jour­ney now had to en­dure blis­ter­ing heat, sand­storms, malaria and dysen­tery. Yet for Vadek, all these could be over­come for now he was free. Free to fight with the newly formed 2nd Pol­ish Army Corp and part of the 8th Bri­tish Army. Al­ways his thoughts would turn to home and he could al­most smell the new mown hay and his mother’s freshly baked bread. It was these thoughts that sus­tained him in mo­ments of deep de­spair and per­haps it was bet­ter that he did not know what life was like in Poland and what was hap­pen­ing to those left be­hind. For how could he pos­si­bly know that now his fa­ther was a mem­ber of the Pol­ish Re­sis­tance and that his mother was forced to live in a mud bunker with his two young broth­ers when first the Rus­sians, then the Ger­mans, oc­cu­pied their farm­house, and his twelveyear-old cousin had been shot in re­tal­i­a­tion for the shoot­ing of a prom­i­nent Ger­man gen­eral by the Re­sis­tance? Noth­ing could have pre­pared him for what was to come and the ul­ti­mate be­trayal.

The stage had now been set for the Ital­ian cam­paign, no­tably Monte Cassino, one of the blood­i­est and drawn out bat­tles of the war where the Poles were to play an ac­tive part in the vic­tory of Cassino but with tremen­dous loss of life. Em­bark­ing in the Ital­ian port of Taranto in Fe­bru­ary, 1944, Vadek would never for­get the hor­rors he wit­nessed there. They were in­grained for­ever on his mem­ory and would haunt him through­out his en­tire life.

With his lan­guage skills and math­e­mat­i­cal mind, Vadek was now a 2nd Lieu­tenant with the 1st To­pog­ra­phy Di­vi­sion and this un­de­ni­ably saved his life at Cassino. Yet as they marched on to Pied­monte, An­cona and Bologna there was only one thought pro­pelling him for­ward; the de­sire to re­turn home.

But it was not to be. For de­spite all they had en­dured and fight­ing tire­lessly for their free­dom and home­land, it was all for nought. Un­der an agree­ment made at Yalta in 1943, the west­ern al­lies had sealed Poland’s fate and the coun­try was to be signed over to Rus­sia to be­come a pup­pet state un­der con­trol of a Rus­sian-con­trolled Pol­ish govern­ment. For­mer sol­diers who had given their all could not re­turn un­der fear of death or im­pris­on­ment, for any­one who had fought against Rus­sia was now con­sid­ered the en­emy.

Faced with yet an­other jour­ney into the un­known, the war-weary Vadek could only spec­u­late on what awaited him as he stepped onto English soil, for given the choice as part of the Bri­tish Army, of Canada, Amer­ica or Eng­land, Vadek chose the lat­ter for the sim­ple rea­son it was nearer to his home­land.

Un­der a scheme to help Pol­ish sol­diers Vadek was able to re­turn to his stud­ies at Not­ting­ham Univer­sity and it was here at a Tea Dance that he met a young fac­tory worker, Irene Clarke. Know­ing he had to leave his for­mer life be­hind, Vadek grew to love his new home, his fam­ily and life yet never for­got those still in Poland.

But it was not un­til 1966 that he was able to re­turn in safety and see his fam­ily again, though noth­ing could have pre­pared him for the state of a coun­try that was now un­der com­mu­nist rule with ri­ots and protests daily against the state.

Sadly his fa­ther was no longer alive, but he was able to meet his Mother for the first time since that fate­ful day when war had be­gun. Twenty seven years ago. At last he was home.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.