Portsmouth-based novelist Christine Lawrence tells a poignant tale of family, immigration and reconnection with the past.
The plane banked, ready to descend from the sky. The bright sunlight beaming through the tiny cabin windows dimmed as we dipped into the cloud. I looked at my husband, he took my hand and held it in his. I glanced through the window once more and there it was – Poland. Miles and miles of dark forest and pale green fields sweeping below us. The tears flowed without even a thought of what we were doing or where we were. It was automatic, embarrassing, as I had no control over the emotions. Why had it taken so long to get to this point in my life, I wondered. I don’t know the answer but it felt like I was coming home at last.
In 1945, at the end of the war, thousands of Polish soldiers arrived in England. Given the choice of settling here, going to the USA, or returning home to Poland, many decided to stay here. The Soviet Union having ‘liberated’ the area where my Father had come from made going home a poor choice at the time, although leaving behind his sick Mother left him carrying a guilt for the rest of his life. Before long he met the woman who was to become my own mother and soon they were married with a child on the way.
Life was hard in England in the years after the war. My father had little education in Poland due to the German occupation. Polish citizens were treated no better than slaves and children had to leave school at a very young age. Now a free man with a new life here but with no trade or profession, he was a labourer for several years, working on projects such as the Fawley Oil Refinery. My parents lived in a number of different homes in the early years: a period of time with my nan, some time in a converted church in Fareham, and at the time that I was born, in a Nissen hut which had previously been used by prisoners of war.
I was still a toddler when we moved into our council house, newly built at the time. Money was still very tight and I remember going with my mother to jumble sales for new clothes and being given hand-me-downs from the woman my nan worked for as a cleaner. Her daughter had only the best so my clothes were often of good quality and lasted well.
During all those years of growing up sometimes Dad would tell us stories of his childhood in Poland. There was always a sadness in his tales as they were tinged with the knowledge that he would never go back to his homeland. There was this little obstacle at the time – the Iron Curtain.
As we grew and the years passed, my father was persuaded to train as a psychiatric nurse. This was mainly due to my mother who had always loved nursing and though she’d not completed her training before the children started to come along, she was working as a nursing assistant at nearby Knowle Hospital and, worried that labouring outside in all weathers was affecting my Father’s health, she talked him into giving it a go. He loved it and had a successful career in nursing.
When travel between the West and East became easier, in the 1980s, I finally met my uncle and aunt who lived in Poland – they came to visit us – my Father still would not, or could not go back to Poland for a visit. The country remained under Communist rule then and although some travel to the West was allowed, it was difficult and our relatives advised us not to go.
My father died over 12 years ago and had never been back to Poland. Since his death, more and more Polish people have come to England and many have settled in Portsmouth. Suddenly, everywhere I go in town, I hear my father’s voice – in cafes, supermarkets, on the streets. It’s somehow comforting.
When the plane landed in Katowize and we left the airport, it was uncanny. The people who greeted us, whilst strangers, were so familiar to me. The journey from the airport to Krakow, through country where my father would have possibly played and then fought during the war years, starving and cold in the winters with no fuel or money for food, played on my emotions. For all of my life to this moment, Poland had been a distant land, a fairy tale of my childhood, a place I thought I would never see apart from in stories and in my dreams. And yet, here I was, bumping along in a mini-bus, peering through rain-washed windows at the land of my family. These forests where my father may have picnicked and gathered wild mushrooms, these towns where my father may have visited distant relatives that I would never meet, the new roads which were not there when my father was a child, roads he had never seen.
Krakow is a magnificent city, it’s market square boasting to be the largest in Europe, it’s history rich and varied. It’s people are proud of their heritage and I could not find a trace of bitterness linked to their past. Just a determination to remain free and to make Poland a great nation again. For me, everywhere we went, I could hear my Father’s voice, my Aunt’s laughter and kindness. The people are gentle, courteous, and hard working. I felt truly at home.
For many tourists going to Krakow, it’s important to visit Auschwitz and Berkenhau, to remind us all of what we, as humans are capable of. For myself, it was chilling to think that there but for the grace of something, my Father might have ended his days there. A tour of the Jewish Quarter and Schindler’s factory, now a museum dedicated to the Jews of Krakow is equally harrowing. But the highlight of the visit was the free walking tour of Krakow Old Town. Our leader, a young woman called Gosia, was enthusiastic, highly knowledgeable and sensitive as she led us through the highlights and history of Krakow Old Town. It is recommended that you wear good walking shoes and as our trip was in early March, we needed raincoats and warm clothing. The tour took a couple of hours and was a whirlwind of emotions for me. We came away with a deeper understanding of Polish people. I felt I had found my true roots.
We only stayed in Krakow for a few days. It was enough for me for the first visit but we left with wonderful memories and the knowledge that I’d completed a part of the jig-saw that is me, reconnecting with the past, even though I have no family left in Poland.
The journey home to England was simply a journey from home to home.
Photography by Moshe Tasky.