Today is the 79th anniversary of the start of the Second World War, and as I was pondering on that date, I realised that with one exception, there is no one in my extended family still alive who remembers those dark years.
In the early morning hours of Sunday, 1 September 1939, German armies crossed the Polish borders, attacking from three directions. On the Baltic coast, German battleship “Schleswig-Hollstein”, named after the two provinces annexed from Denmark in 1859, and on a supposedly friendly visit to Danzig, opened fire on the coastal defences. Luftwaffe squadrons, meanwhile, commenced bombing airfields and transport hubs as well as purely civilian targets, as armoured columns swept along the few good roads in a precursor of later Blitzkriegs.
In Great Britain, Poland’s reluctant ally, the government only become aware of the invasion when Winston Churchill, then still a backbencher out of favour with both the government and the opposition, called the Number 10 to inform them that the war everyone was dreading has commenced some six hours earlier (Churchill had received a phone call from the Polish ambassador to His Majesty’s government, Count Raczynski, who through Churchill’s decade in the political wilderness in the 1930s was one of his many sources of useful intelligence). Post-war interrogations of German military leadership have confirmed what many suspected at the time, namely that in September 1939 Germany was virtually defenceless in the West, with only skeleton units holding the line along the French border. Had Great Britain and France fulfilled their alliance commitments to Poland and attacked Germany instead of dropping leaflets on the bemused German population, history of the 20th century would have unfolded differently.
Just how differently we will never know. The Second World War consumed tens of millions of lives, and wounded and scared the body and the soul of tens of millions more. Europe from the Pyrenees to the outskirts of Moscow was devastated in a way not seen since the Thirty Year War three centuries earlier, yet much worse thanks to the modern technology of killing and destruction. Other parts of the world, from the Northern Africa and the Middle East to the islands of the Pacific, but particularly China and the south-east Asia, experienced varying degrees of carnage. Everyone’s life has been affected in some ways, big and small. Some did not get to see the end of it, others carried the memories with them for decades afterwards.
My great-grandparents’ generation was the first to go. One of my great-grandfathers died of pneumonia in the Gestapo jail in Krakow (his widow lived to be 97 until the mid-1980s). Another one was part of the great modern anabasis of the 2nd Polish Army Corp from the Soviet Central Asia, through Iran, Palestine and Egypt, all the way up the Italian boot, as a Major in the “Kresowa” Division, which planted the Polish red-and-white on the ruins of Monte Cassino in May of 1944. Count Raczko, as he was in the civilian life post-demobilisation, was sailing back to Poland in the late 1940s from Asia where he had made some money immediately after the war, when he died at sea, possibly murdered for his money, which vanished and didn’t reach his family in Poland. His estates in the Vilno region were all confiscated by the Red Army.
His daughter, my mother’s mother, predeceased him in 1945, when as the family legend has it, she lost her will to live. “I have lived through the Soviet occupation [of eastern Poland in 1939], then the German occupation [in 1941], and I can’t go through the Soviet one again,” she supposedly told her family, leaving my mother a 2-year old orphan. Her husband died a few months after I was born in 1972. His second wife, my step-grandmother is the only one left. I saw her again last year when visiting Poland after 15 years and she was as alert and charming as always if slightly less spritely. She is celebrating her 100th birthday this year. Happy birthday, grandma Irena.
My father’s father fought in the September campaign and was wounded. I still remember as a child looking at the bullet scar in his thigh. I was a few years old when he passed away, although he was almost shot by a drunk Red Army officer in 1945. After the war he was a railwayman; perhaps an subconscious inspiration for my novel “Night Trains”. My grandmother, who definitely inspired one of the scenes in the book, died soon after my family left Poland in the late 1980s.
When my mother’s father remarried after the war and started a new family, he sent my mother to live with his sister and her husband in Tarnow, an hour east of Krakow, where my mother completed her primary and secondary education. All my life, my great-aunt and great-uncle were therefore my de facto grandparents on that side of the family. I have described my grandfather Oprych’s war-time odyssey from Poland through Hungry to France, to French Africa, to Great Britain and then the Netherlands and Germany and finally back to Poland in my favourite and most popular blog post ever “Dreams from my grandfather on the bridge to far”, when two years ago I finally got a chance to follow his footsteps around the battlefield of Arnhem where he fought, was wounded and taken prisoner by the Germans. He was one of the few Poles who had fought in the West to come back to the communist Poland, which considered people like him virtual traitors and spies. He too, like my father’s father, was almost shot by the Reds, but lived to become a professional soccer player. Both him and my grandmother lived to see the free and democratic Poland in 1989 and then the dawn of the 21st century.
Earlier this year, my other great-aunt, who as a teenager was taken as a forced labourer into the Reich and after the war migrated to Australia instead of coming back (thus becoming the main reason why I’m sitting in front of my computer today in Brisbane’s inner north) passed away in her 90s. She was the last of the generation.
I’m glad they all told me their stories. I’m sad that I didn’t ask them to tell me more. Now they are all gone.
Soon there will not be any left alive, and what is now still memories will forever become only history. But lest we forget.
(Main picture: Polish soldiers during the French campaign in May 1940; my grandfather second from the right)