One hot summer day in the early 1920’s a man stepped aside onto the dusty tract to let pass an advancing chaise when he was suddenly stung… by the tip of a whip on his face and neck. Scum! Take your hat off when I am passing shouted the landlord. The man caught the hat as it fell off his head and held it clenched in his fist. His eyes gleamed hatred; one day… one day…
It took 1,865 years to abolish serfdom in Europe; another 50 years and WW1 before the serf begun to feel a rightful human being, and yet another 30 years and WW2 before the descendants of the same serf were able, and had the means and the right to fully participate in the life of the Nation – even to lead the Nation.
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‘’Brod, smrod i glod” I heard my father utter these words to whom, and on what occasion, I don’t remember but I know in my soul he was talking of his birthplace. I was a boy then but these words are embedded in my memory and will probably stay there forever. Is this the reason why I had never visited Wielowies? Never had the humility to visit my father’s birthplace even though on many occasions, while on business in Poland, I was only some 20 miles distant from it? Finally, at the age of 65, I overcame this spiritual barrier; I went to Wielowies; I met my cousins… and my tears of shame flowed beyond my control.
“Filth, stench and hunger” - these are my father’s boyhood memories of Wielowies. But his are tough people: big and strong physically, and stronger and tougher of spirit. Their welcoming embrace is like a bear hug; you feel the hard work they had put into life; no-nonsense, nothing soft or particularly emotional about them; you sense determination, their strong character. They are “Poznaniuks” My father was one of them, perhaps a little softer than most. So it is not surprising that after 200 years of oppression, intimidation and Germanization the Prussians still couldn’t break their spirit - and they knew it. As a child I read with passion “Woz Grzemaly” – when the Prussians forbade the building of homes on one’s plot of land, Grzemala built a house… on wheels - a caravan home!
My eldest two uncles were conscripted into the Prussian army in 1914 – they had no choice, they lived in Prussia. But the Prussians knew they could never trust them to fight where their Polish brothers might face them on the opposing side. Stories abound of shouts “nie strzelajcie my swoi!” as Poles from Prussian trenches tried to cross to their brothers on the opposing side… “Don’t shoot! We are with you!” But only very few crossed safely.
And so it was with my two uncles. Their orders and their destiny were to stop the first bullet; to be the battlefield fodder; to give Prussian soldiers a better chance… Both were killed – when, how, where, no one knows. Were they shot in the heart by their Polish brothers or in the back by a Prussian bullet while attempting to cross the lines? But my grandmother knew her sons’ destiny; she knew it in her heart; each day she would walk out onto the field behind the house to pray, weep and wait for the dreaded news… until she too died of a shattered heart.
My father wanted to escape the “filth, stench and hunger” of his birthplace; he wanted to do better, but his loyalty was forever to Poland. In 1918, still not quite eighteen then, he joined Powstanie Wielkopolskie (Uprising in Wielkopolska) and fought the Prussians, street by street to liberate Poznan and the region. He fought them hand to hand with saber, with bayonet, eye to eye - your guts or mine! Then, at the age of 20, he fought in the Bolshevik war: in the glorious advance all the way to Kiev, in the shocking shambles of retreat from Kiev all the way back to the outskirts of Warsaw, in the memorable battle of Warsaw, and in the final rout of the Bolsheviks… He fought for the creation of a new and independent Poland. And as if this was not enough! He survived Stalin’s gulag in Siberia and, once again, he fought the Germans in WW2 – in Monte Cassino, Ancona… under General Anders. He was 47 before he could begin to hope for peace in his life, but not in Poland now under communist regime – perhaps in the UK. A very high price to pay for the hope of a better life - in the past 30 years he had, at best, just eight years of happy family life in Postawy, in the new Poland of the 1920s.
The years just after father’s demobilization in 1947 are still very fresh in my memory. He was very much a military man and, in his eyes, I never could walk upright enough, never could squat properly, never could do anything well enough for a drill sergeant-major he was. I was just eight! Those were years when any job he could get would be great to have. I remember his coming home from work with “W.C. French” lettering on his wellingtons and on his coat… I was always there, eagerly waiting to pull his wellingtons off, to unwrap his feet… surreptitiously searching for that cold egg sandwich mother had made him for lunch… that he would keep for me because he knew I loved it! How could I hold his military mustering of me against him…? But I did… until very much later. I was just eight at the time and this was the first I saw of my father. Who was he? He was a man who, in my eyes, could do anything: make shoes for me from car tyers; take junked furniture apart and make new furniture for our space… bring a grey envelope with his weekly wages and, with a proud and loving smile, give it to my mother - whole, unopened - no beer money or cigarette money kept aside for himself… What better sign of total trust in his wife? And he was a man respected by others in the community – I could see that, even at the age of eight!
But he did not forget Wielowies; he didn’t abandon his family left behind in Poland, and there were many of them: two brothers and five sisters still alive. When Poland opened up, even just a little, he wrote to them often. They needed help, and I remember many packs, 25 kilograms and larger, of food and clothes, or parcels of medicines going to Poland. There were times when father could help only so much but many in communist Poland thought that England was a land overflowing with milk and honey… while for us, back in the 1950’s and 60’s, life was still tough.
And when I, at long last, knocked on the door of his family, my cousins, in Wielowies and Ostrow I could see he was remembered well. His kind letters and parcels gave them hope knowing that they had not been forgotten. Sadly, by the time I first came to Wielowies, in 2004, all my aunts and uncles had gone and it became difficult to see in my mind the life in Wielowies as it was in my father’s boyhood and in the war years.
On the 1st September 1939 he was not in Wielowies; he was in the north-east, in Postawy called up to fight the German threat. There was no panic there, only determination and willingness to shed blood, and life.
Everyone knew war with Germany was imminent but hoped it wouldn’t come… just yet… not today… please. In Wielowies panic spread like wild fire. Carts and wagons were loaded up with their owner’s meager possessions of food, bed sheets, eiderdowns, chickens, pigs, utensils, children, expectant mothers… their one cow hitched to the wagon and the whole miserable cavalcade rushed at cow’s pace to… where? No one knew exactly; away from the Germans… go east… into the woods… towards the bridge over the river Prosna in Radachow… or in the opposite direction over the bridge in nearby Olobok?
But they didn’t trudge far or for long: the German war machine, like a blast of hot air had already traversed the few kilometers between Wielowies and the border and was way past the cavalcade. Babies were being born in the wagons… Women, old men, children, cows… were all exhausted… There was no sense in what they were doing… Two cyclists rode up to the cavalcade: hey don’t be stupid! Germans are saying we should stay on our land, live like normal, work like always, they won’t hurt us… And so they turned back the next day. But life wasn’t like normal.
Krystyna was twelve years old at the time – she remembers those early days of German occupation. When the war broke out, all our young men had already been called up and the Poznan Army went to fight in Warsaw. Germans dropped leaflets onto the streets of Warsaw saying that all soldiers who would lay down their arms and surrender will be free to go home to work as normal. And, in fact that’s what happened. After the capitulation of Warsaw our men came back by train to Ostrow and then walked home. Life was good then; we worked on our plots of land; we were never short of food. Of course we had to give hefty contingents of food and crops to the Germans; all horses were taken by the Germans; all livestock listed; heavy penalties if you dared slaughter a pig - you were likely to be executed yourself. But we always found a way to get around this… We lived… much better than ever before in the years of Pilsudski regime - those were truly years of utter poverty and hunger.
Her son-in-law must have seen the surprise in my face. Now my dear Sir, let me tell you straight how it was. Around here the land was owned by Mr. XXXXX a very rich landlord. People worked for him on his land – for them it wasn’t so bad. But all others tilled their little plot of land, perhaps had one cow, few chickens and little else… their life was one of “brod, glod i smrod” When Pilsudski was here, life was awful. In a family I know, the husband worked as a train conductor – that was a very good job indeed and they had money. His wife was persuaded to donate all their gold coin savings towards the Polish cause; a little later he died in a train crash and his wife was left with five children and nothing! No savings, no state compensation, no pension – she was destitute! She had to work wherever… in a brick factory… just to earn a pittance to save her five children. That’s Poland for you! When the Russians came, they said they will leave soon… well, they didn’t! But at least they brought and left some good here. They introduced the PGRs (state farms), introduced better cultivation and husbandry methods, new farm machinery… Peasants learned from them, bought old farm machinery from PGRs… At long last, peasant life started to improve!
Krystyna continued: Oh no, you couldn’t build a house or anything else in those days without permission from the Germans. No one went to school - it was closed. They housed German youth at the school (when Allied bombings of Germany started) to keep them safe; there was a German administrator to look after them; they never mixed with us. And of course we had to give more to the Germans to keep this German youth well fed! But it was good life (in comparison with Pilsudski years).
But not every man tilled the land. Others continued to fight the German occupier in groups of partisans or as saboteurs. Gun fire was often heard in the local forests. But traitors will always be found amongst even friends. One night a man knocked on the door of a house in Ceglana Street in Wielowies. He carefully and persuasively explained his need to contact the local partisan group; the two men inside the house agreed to show the way; they stepped outside and… straight into the hands of the SS. They were led to the back of the house and shot dead on the spot.
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And who would have foreseen in the 1920’s that the third generation of the same “scum” of Wielowies will be, in year 2005, the doctors, physiotherapists, engineers, economists, accountants, agro scientists, environmentalists, teachers, administrators… The same “scum” will be saving the life of the descendants of the landlords of Wielowies; taking care of their wellbeing in homes for the aged in Poland, USA, England…
Who would have thought that the same “scum” will, in 2005, be the good citizens and voters in the new society of the new Poland in the new Europe of the first decade of 21st century?
The “scum” always knew whom to blame for the misery of the past centuries, where the salvation lay, but whom should we thank for the quality of our life now?