A Homeland Denied, In the Footsteps of a Polish Soldier
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.