Article: Catherine Czerkawska

Reflections on a Polish Heritage

As Adam Zamoyski says in his history, The Polish Way, ‘The Poles are the nation who really lost the Second World War.’ They suffered equally at the hands of their eastern, as well as their western neighbours. Six million civilians as well as half a million soldiers died. By the end of the war, there were a million orphans, and half a million invalids. They lost homes, land, history, and heritage. And they were well and truly stitched up by the winners. An alarming number of people in the UK today have no idea of these statistics, and things are unlikely to improve as long as the press, to say nothing of the BBC, continue to refer to ‘Polish death camps’. Once Hitler had finished with Jews and Gypsies, his intention had always been to move on to the Slavs, whom he regarded with only a little less loathing. In the time available to him, he made a good start.

My grandfather Władysław was a cavalryman from an ancient family of Polish horsemen. He was imprisoned by the Russians early in the war, but when Stalin changed his mind and his allegiance, was released, and left to trek east, along with large numbers of his countrymen, to join the Allied army that was mustering on the border. Before I ever knew that he had made that impossible journey, I would sometimes look at the map of what was then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and think how very big it was. I used to imagine that one day there would be a knock on the door and my unknown grandfather would come walking into the room but he was dead long before I was born.

Over the years, my father had told me about his past. He was always reluctant to speak about the war, but he was much more forthcoming about his childhood. I had even been to Poland, and spent several weeks in a spa town called Ciechocinek, with my great uncle Karol Kossak and his wife Wanda, the only one of my grandfather’s siblings to survive the war. Two elder brothers were killed in border skirmishes, and another sister, Ludmilla, died in Auschwitz, where she had been sent because her husband was an Army officer. I’ve seen a pre-war picture of her, pretty in silk pyjamas, smoking a cigarette in a long thin holder and smiling flirtatiously at whoever was behind the camera.

Later, I realised that I needed to explore these things further, to write a play, perhaps even a novel, with a Polish background. When you set out to write fiction based on fact, there comes the insidious temptation to substitute the considerable work involved in researching the facts for the quite different work involved in a piece of creative writing. Research is the perfect displacement activity. You can visit libraries, buy books, spend hours on the internet, all on the perilous assumption that in assembling these fascinating bits and pieces into some kind of order, you have actually produced a work of fiction and that the truth of such a work is the same as the truth involved in a piece of creative writing.

Most of us have read historical novels in which research has been used as a substitute for literary exploration. This is theme-park fiction where beautifully authentic models in period costume pass before your eyes, but there is an underlying sense of unreality, it’s all peculiarly painless and the sound quality is awful. I don’t necessarily exempt myself from my own charge here. In fact when I began researching my family history, I found out just how easy it was to dig a large and enticing pit into which it was then possible to tumble.

My ‘Polish’ play, called Noon Ghosts, my attempt to recreate lovely Ludmilla, was produced on BBC Radio 4 some years ago but the novel has been evolving (along with much else) ever since, into its present incarnation. Called The Sorrel Mare, it is set in eastern Poland in the turbulent years between 1820 and 1880. I had lived and worked in Poland for a year but still found myself wondering how I could write about people living in a time and place so remote from me as to seem like a fairy tale?

My father came to Yorkshire via Italy, with a Polish unit of the British Army. Before that he had been in a prisoner-of-war camp, and as a boy had acted as a courier for the resistance. He was born in the Polish wild east at a place called Dziedziłów, where his father Władysław had a house, unexpectedly inherited from his great uncle Julian. Władysław married Łucja from Lwów, and my father, another Julian Czerkawski, was born. The marriage was far from happy, and when Julian was ten or eleven, the couple separated. My father sometimes admitted that he would rather have stayed with Władysław in the countryside, but instead he had to go to Lwów with Łucja, only visiting Dziedziłów occasionally.

When war broke out, Julian – in his early teens – was still living in the city with his mother. He remembered that he would have to trek to Dziedziłów to fetch cheese, fruit, vegetables and meat back to Lwow, where food was scarce. By now Władysław was in prison and the house itself had been commandeered by the Russians. Julian’s much loved Polish nursemaid was married to a Ukrainian Bolshevik, who could have betrayed him on many occasions. Instead he gave the boy food and shelter, and made sure that he got safely back to the city with as much food as could be spared.

Having survived the war, and reached the UK, Julian had a choice of jobs – he could work in the mills or the mines. He worked as a textile presser in Leeds, while he went to what was known as ‘night school’. (Eventually, he was to become a distinguished research scientist.) He met my Leeds Irish mother at a dance. Later, somebody said to her, ‘I think they should send all those awful Poles back home, don’t you?’

‘No’, she said, ‘Seeing as how I’ve just married one.’

This was in the early Fifties and he was classed as an ‘alien’. Whenever a crime was committed in the city, and the perpetrator was thought to be a foreigner, the police would come hammering on the door in the middle of the night, waking me – a small baby – in the process. At least it relieved some of the perennial pressure on another branch of my family – the Irish immigrants. After this had happened a couple of times, my mother went to the door instead of my more conciliatory father and gave them a tongue lashing. They never came back. Presumably they reckoned that if he had such a strong-minded wife, he wouldn’t be out on the town committing alien crimes.

But all this was simply the background to my life. I needed to know more. I began with half a dozen tiny photographs which my father had brought with him, and a handful of very hard facts. I read whatever I could of the history of Poland. I wanted to know how the huge political upheavals of the time had impinged on my own family’s history. I also encouraged my father to write a detailed family chronology, complete with sketches of the house where he was born, and the village where he had lived.

The family were part of the old Polish nobility, with a coat of arms and a family tree that stretches back to the fourteenth century. My long lost grandfather seems to have been an eccentric and engaging character, who was born in a sleigh, one icy January night, and continued throughout his short life to live up to this intriguing start. Piece by piece, I began to match family chronologies with what had been going on in the outside world. Once I began to arrange events, filling in dates and times, assessing when something happened and how, I often discovered why something had happened as well.

I found out that my great-grandmother, Anna, had been married at the age of seventeen to a much older man, my great-grandfather Henryk Czerkawski. He had died while his wife was still in her late twenties, killed, as two of his sons would be later, in some border skirmish. He too had been a cavalry officer and this was a very uneasy marchland, much too close to Russia for comfort. Anna was left with five children to bring up. She lived on another Czerkawski estate at a place called Przemyślany, but I knew that my father had been born at Dziedziłów, some thirty miles away. And I knew something else. Anna had – to the disapproval of her children – married for a second time. Quite unexpectedly, she had married her Ukrainian estate manager. Why?

Some research, most of it done by post (this was well before the days of the internet ) coupled with more close questioning of my father, brought me some answers. Julian Czerkawski, after whom my own father was named, had been a wealthy man, one of the Polish representatives to the Austro-Hungarian Parliament, and a medical doctor. When he died unmarried and childless, he had left his estate of Dziedziłów to his favourite great-nephew, Anna’s youngest son, my grandfather, Władysław.

A little research on birth dates showed me that my grandfather had inherited Dziedziłów when he was only eight years old. An estate manager was employed to look after things until the boy should reach his majority, which explained why Anna became a frequent traveller between Przemyślany and Dziedziłów. The fact that a young widow was thrown together with a capable young man made the subsequent marriage much less surprising. They had a daughter who, after the death of her parents, was brought up in my grandfather’s household. My father remembered viewing her as an older sister although she was, in fact, his aunt.

My father’s past had always seemed so remote and exotic that I had already, in my daydreams, fictionalised it. My grandfather had a mythical quality, like a hero in a fairytale. The more I began to know about him and his forebears, the more difficult it became to move on to the fiction I was planning to write. To broaden my understanding, I wrote to the Polish Daily Newspaper, published in London, asking for information about life in country houses in Poland before the war. I was sent letters, accounts, photographs, all kinds of fascinating information, evocations of a long-dead way of life. These seemed to be exactly what I needed and it was at this point that I took a deep breath and began to write my novel, but it was as if I had to give myself permission to do it, to move from the safe haven of the known chronology to the precarious seas of fiction: a difficult and mysterious process.

Working on The Sorrel Mare, which was always intended as the first novel of a trilogy, has been a voyage of unexpected discoveries and I have found help in the most unexpected places. For little or no cost, the Austrian Parliamentary Archive sent me copies of speeches made by Great-Uncle Julian. Libraries in Poland too were obliging with the small means at their disposal. I was even sent copies of Julian’s very fulsome obituaries from both the Polish and the Austrian newspapers of the day.

I discovered unknown branches of the family, and relatives in London and in the USA. I found out about a six times married antecedent who had died in a hunting accident at the age of ninety-six and this too supplied me with one of my more satisfying fictional characters. Finally though, I was thrown back into the real world with a jolt when a letter arrived from a previously unknown cousin who was able to tell me what had really become of my grandfather. He must have been utterly debilitated by his spell in prison, because the journey east proved too much for him, and he died of typhus, as did the vast majority of his companions, and is buried in a place called Bukhara, where beautiful rugs were – and probably still are – made. I am told that his grave still has an inscription which reads Lancer Władysław Czerkawski. He was thirty-eight when he died.

At one point I also wrote, not very hopefully, to the historical museum in the Ukrainian city now known as Lviv, asking for archive information about my family, since I knew that their estates had been some forty kilometres to the east of that city. A letter arrived from the young museum curator telling me that he would be delighted to travel to my father’s birthplace and tell me what he found there. He took some photographs of the house, now used as a nursery, the grounds, the village, even the old ice house. This is what he wrote to me, later, in English, about that journey: ‘I arrived at Didyliv with my friends. The first who we met was an old man. Fancy that he remembered well your grandfather and even your father whom he called Julek! This man told us your grandfather was very kind to the nearby smallholders and helped them to keep farming. Then he told us where to find your grandfather’s estate…’

For a complete stranger to find such a connection in a village that had known such upheavals was amazing and I realised that in trying to fictionalise the fact of my own family background, I had also succeeded in making real something that had, for the whole of my life until that moment, seemed as vague as a fairytale and just as fantastic.

Meanwhile, as Poles flood into Britain in ever greater numbers, or so the tabloids tell us, always with that dangerous edge of chauvinism, I remember my dear, wise, unembittered father, his ‘alien’ status, and the woman who thought they should all be sent back. And sometimes, as when somebody recently asked me which side the Poles had fought on in the war, I surprise myself with the visceral nature of my own reaction to such ignorance.

Author Note

Catherine Czerkawska has written poems, novels, short stories and plays including Wormwood, The Price of a Fish Supper and Burns on the Solway. Her novel The Curiosity Cabinet (Polygon 2005), was a finalist for the Dundee Book Prize; God’s Islanders, about the history and landscape of Gigha, was published by Birlinn in November 2006. Catherine’s website is at http://www.wordarts.co.uk.

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