Monthly Archives: July 2014

KONSTANTY STARZEWSKI’S MEMOIR

kostek starzewskiI love the first paragraph of this memoir where Kostek, as he was known, describes himself as a loner. By the time you finish the manuscript you will not be surprised that someone who had to be so mentally strong and self sufficient withdrew into themselves as a survival mechanism. This story gives a fascinating insight into life in eastern Poland, mostly in the area south of Wlodzimierz (now Volodymyr Volynskii, Volyn Oblast in western Ukraine) between the two world wars.
Kostek was born in 1925 to Polish parents who had fallen on hard times following an upbringing among the aristocracy. He experienced much hardship and hunger as a child as his father struggled to find work as a labourer on farms and the railway. His mother was good with animals and when savings allowed they would buy a pig, or a cow that had to be grazed on the roadside verges, to supplement their food and income.
His parents felt bitterness against the Polish land barons and ruling classes who exerted control over the peasants by preventing them from improving their lot without sponsorship from ‘above’. Changing jobs within a locality was impossible because the land barons had an agreement not to hire a labourer who had been employed by another. Eventually Kostek’s dad, who had won the Virtuti Militari cross in the 1919-21 war with the Bolsheviks, received sponsorship from a judged after he had been wrongly accused of an assault, and this led to promotion on the railway. However this improvement in living standards was short-lived when his dad refused to pay his boss a bribe. The Polish ruling classes ganged up on the family, and Kostek’s mother described them as “a cancer to society”.
On eviction from the station house the five Starzewskis moved into a two room house already occupied by a Polish family of nine. Throughout the late 1930s and first years of the war, life for the family remained hard, with periods of starvation between easier spells, as his father found labouring jobs and Kostek did chores and attended school when possible.
Kostek had a close shave with death at the beginning of the OUN-UPA uprising against the Polish community in 1943, so the family quickly moved to the town, and from there were taken as slave labourers to work on a farm in Germany. Probably due to an accidental error on his first day of tractor driving Kostek was transferred to a concentration camp. Here he describes the most awful conditions in graphic detail and came as close to death as possible without actually dying. He was saved by the arrival of the British army and the fact he had been there only a few months.
Once he regained his strength Kostek found his family, who had continued working on the same farm until the end of the war. He then lived and studied in various displaced peoples’ camps in Germany for five years until he emigrated to a new life in the USA where, sadly, he experienced some racial discrimination. Initially he had difficulties finding a rewarding job, but he married a beautiful and wonderful girl who supported him and together they raised a family. Now they are “in the twilight of their lives”.
This manuscript should be of great interest to historians as a first hand description of life in Poland/Ukraine and Germany 1920-50. If life could be so hard for Polish peasants under Polish rule, with self advancement almost impossible, it makes me wonder what it was like for the majority, the Ukrainian peasants. (According to a 1939 census, Volhynia was inhabited by 68% Ukrainians and 17% Poles.) It is acknowledged that this manuscript needs serious editing, but this did not distract from the understanding or interest of the content. I recommend it to all those interested in this period of Polish history. It is freely available at
http://kresy-siberia.org/hom/element/konstanty-starzewski/memoir-of-konstanty-starzewski-2/

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THE TAILOR OF INVERNESS

tailorofinvernessThis one-man play, written and acted by Matthew Zajac, tells of his journey to discover what happened to his father during WW2. It took the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe Festival by storm and went on to win many accolades. A memoir of the same name was launched in 2013. It is an excellent book and has prompted this blog. The play is brilliant artistically and brilliant historically, and I say this because it highlights the dilemmas faced by the many of mixed race living in eastern Poland (Kresy and Galicia) at the start of WW2. Children of different genders, born into mixed marriages, were recorded by different registrars, boys as Polish, girls as Ukrainian. There were also many Jews, other minor nationalities and several religions to add to the melting pot.

Matthew’s father was always hesitant to say what had happened to him during WW2. He claimed to have been deported to Siberia, joined General Anders’ army and fought with the British in Italy. Following his father’s death in 1992, and the collapse of the Iron Curtain three years earlier, Matthew visited his father’s home village, now in central Ukraine. There he met many relatives and more in western Poland. Many thousands were deported by the Soviets in 1945 from what had been eastern Poland to what had been eastern Germany, Poland’s borders were shifted westward. It emerged that his father’s story was a fabrication. The most likely scenario is that he fought in the Polish army in 1939, returned to his village, was conscripted into the Soviet army, was taken prisoner by the Germans, joined or was forced into the German army, was taken prisoner and joined the Polish Second Corps under British command. Wow! All this just to survive when all he wanted to do was work as a tailor! It highlights a complexity of dimensions not known or understood in post war Britain.

The full story includes family complications which I will not mention as I don’t want to spoil a good book! Read it for yourselves and do try and see the play.