Category Archives: WW2

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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SURVIVORS

jim sears

Jim Sears

Sadly one regularly reads the obituaries of those who were deported to Siberia. These are the last survivors, the children who endured two years starvation and hard work in the Soviet Union following deportation by Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, from their home in Poland.

What I enjoy reading about is the full and productive lives that these Poles made for themselves in a foreign country after missing much of their schooling. This blog was inspired by the obituary of a complete stranger, Zbigniew Sierpinski better known as Jim Sears, that was posted in the Kresy-Siberia Discussion Group.

Jim was one of the 733 Polish children offered a home in Pahiatua, New Zealand in 1944. He became a photographer and produced 31 books about New Zealand and the Pacific. Jim was also an adventurer who sailed a traditional outrigger canoe from Kiribati to Fiji to challenge Thor Heyerdahl’s theory of Polynesian settlement. His second voyage nearly ended in tragedy when the outrigger broke off leaving the crew to drift for 16 days in a small lifeboat, before being rescued by a Chilean tugboat. Having lived his life to the full he is survived by children in New Zealand, Fiji and Kiribati (Gilbert Islands). Read the full obituary at

http://www.pressdisplay.com/pressdisplay/viewer.aspx

IRENA SENDLER

Irena SendlerThere is facebook post on the go, with the intension to ‘Make it Viral’ (and I support this), telling the story of this amazingly courageous woman Irena Sendler https://www.facebook.com/pages/IRENA-SENDLER/58503787046?fref=ts
In 1949, at the age of 29, Irena started aiding Jews in German occupied Warsaw. Her work for the Social Welfare department provided a permit to enter the Warsaw Ghetto to check for typhus, a disease that frightened the Germans. She and her helpers smuggled 2500 children out of the Ghetto in bags concealed in their transport, provided them with false documents, and buried their true identities in jars so that they might be reunited with their families. Known by her nom de guerre Jolanta, her actions, inspiration and courage led to her becoming the head of the children’s section of Zegota, the underground Polish Council to aid Jews.
Irena was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, severely tortured with both arms and both legs broken, and sentenced to death. Listed as dead on the public bulletin boards, she had actually been saved by her friends who bribed the German guards on the way to her execution.
In later years she received many awards. She was recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous among the Nations, and received the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest civilian decoration. In 2007 Irena was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She was not selected, Al Gore won for a slide show on Global Warming. Irena died the next year at the age of 98. She is an inspiration to us all.

MY DAD’S AN ALIEN

czm alien identity

Yes an Alien with fresh complexion, hazel eyes and dark hair! As with all red tape, four copies were required.

  • Immigrants to Britain who arrived between 1918 and 1957 were known as aliens in the legal terminology of the time.
  • British-born wives of aliens lost their British status upon marriage.
  • Aliens were legally required to register with the police until their application for naturalization was granted.

Alien status did not hold Dad back as he achieved a degree in electrical engineering and started work designing radar components for British Thomson-Houston (BTH) at Rugby. He stayed with radar design, never changing his job, but his employer’s name changed several times to Associated Electrical Industries (AEI), English Electric Valve Co (EEV) and finally The General Electric Co (GEC). His department won the Queen’s Award for Industry and by the time he retired he had risen to be manager of Lincoln Division of GEC.

Having shown that missed schooling and a foreign language were no barrier to a successful career, he also demonstrated that two years of hunger and forced labour on the collective farms of Soviet Kazakhstan did no long term damage to his health. Wanting to celebrate his 80th birthday with him I had to fly to Ecuador, where he was doing voluntary work for 3 years and living with a new partner from Canada! Having gone out to replace the bathrooms in a seminary he went on to design a solar powered herb drier and fit the electrical system in a new village school high on the slopes of Mount Chimborazo. He returned to semi-retirement in Lanzarote and died when he was 83. I am very proud of him.

If you want WW2 military records for a Pole they are available from Ministry of Defence, APC Disclosures 5 (Polish) Building 60, RAF Northolt, Ruislip HA4 6NG. Tel:020 8833 8603 Email: NOR-PolishDiscOfficeAsst@mod.uk

DAD’S WW2 AFTER ESCAPE FROM KOLKHOZ IN KAZAKHSTAN

Muskus 1946

Zbigniew Muskus 1946

Dad was lucky not to have been sent to the gulags in Siberia when he was deported from Poland. From Kazakhstan he reached Persia (Iran) in April 1942. He convalesced in Teheran for 2 or 3 months to recuperate and gain strength after two years of starvation rations. Then in British Army lorries he travelled to Palestine and, wanting to become a pilot, he volunteered for the Polish Air Force based in the U.K.

He boarded the Aquitania in Port Said as one of 300 guards for 2000 prisoners from Rommel’s Africa Core. The British thought that the Poles might shoot the Germans so issued them with very old rifles, five rounds each, and only enough rifles for those on duty. At the end of each watch they had to go around a corner and hand the rifle to the next guard. There were however, two machine guns covering the exercise area manned by British sailors.  They sailed through the Suez Canal and stopped at Madagascar, Cape Town and Freetown before heading for the U.S.A. In mid Atlantic they found themselves in the middle of a large German fleet spread out on the horizons. Sailing under full power (very uncomfortable with engines throbbing and life jackets on) they zigzagged between the German warships for three days.  Dad has no idea how, with four funnels, they were not recognised!  Leaving the ship and prisoners in Boston he travelled to New York and waited for embarkation on Manhattan Island.  Sailing on to Halifax they waited for a convoy to form and arrived in Liverpool in the autumn of 1942. We pinpointed the timing of this trip because he remembers seeing the three great liners (Aquitania, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth) in New York at the same time. This appears to have been the first few days of September.

While doing his induction for the Polish Air Force it became apparent that Dad was still under 18. This prevented him from training as a pilot, an occupation with a short life expectancy and set in motion a different military career:-

  • 316 Squadron where he loaded machine guns and prepared Spitfires for flying.
  • RAF school at Halton he learnt English and qualified as an electrical fitter.
  • Training at No. 9 Radio School RAF Yatesbury as a RDF (Radio Direction Finding) mechanic.
  • Posted to RAF Exminster
  • Posted to RAF Hope Cove in February 1945. It had been reduced to a skeleton staff as the war moved eastwards, but it was kept alert to watch for any threat from German planes or submarines. There were no raids and it was a very relaxed posting, almost like a holiday camp.  It was here that he met my Mother. In July 1946 he was responsible for closing the station down, padlocking the gate and sending the keys to Group 60 Command.
  • Posted to RAF Sandwich he was made a Corporal in charge of two mechanics, and put the station back on air after the operations room had been burnt down.
  • Enlisted into the PRC (Polish Resettlement Corps).
  • Released from the PRC/RAF to study at Woolwich Polytechnic on 12th July 1947.

To be continued.