Seeking refuge

My father was stranded in England after World War II. So he wasn’t an immigrant, exactly – he hadn’t made a plan to leave Poland for better things. I suppose, technically, he was a refugee.

What he had done, before the world went to war, was to leave his homeland in 1938 to work in Toulouse, in south-western France, for a year. He was an agricultural economist, and at 25, had no ties to prevent him from going. He worked for the Ministry of Agriculture, and they assigned him to the Polish consulate in Toulouse, to give him some gravitas. His French is excellent, although the regional accent of that corner of the country can be hard to understand.

Daddy ToulouseI have a couple of photos of him from that time. Here he comes, strolling along a French street, sporting a beret, hoping to blend in. But the camera in its leather case that swings from his wrist tells the world he’s a tourist. He’s wearing a suit and tie – there’s a gleam on his shoes and a smile on his innocent young face. Perhaps he’s on his way to buy that bottle of Violettes de Toulouse perfume to give to his mother when he returns home. He is there to study local farming methods so he can return to Poland and help his country increase production. Poland has only recently regained its independence from Germany, Austria and Russia, so now the Poles have to make their country work.

You might think he’d wear more casual clothes when working, but no.

My father was a bit of a dandy, I suspect. Here he is again, standing in a field outside Toulouse, his right hand shading his eyes while he tries not to squint at the camera. He has his left hand on the hip pocket of his tweed jacket. As my eyes move down the photo, I see his jodhpurs, ending at the top of his pristine leather riding boots. If there was one thing my father always insisted on, it was well-polished footwear.

When not working, he hiked the Pyrenees, and passed the time in cafes and bars with other young people. He visited Lourdes, a shrine not far from Toulouse, not because he needed a miracle then, but because his older brother was a priest, and the gift of a small bottle of Lourdes water could cure all kinds of ills. He managed to hang onto that bottle no matter where he went.

When Hitler marched into Poland, my father joined many of his compatriots who were living and working in France, to form a Polish Army. They fought the Germans side by side with the French, only to find themselves backed up against the English Channel at Dunkerque, praying for a miracle.

They got one. Almost everyone was rescued and delivered to England by a flotilla of small fishing boats, dinghies, and yachts, which volunteered when the troopships couldn’t manage alone.

My father arrived on the south coast, with only the uniform he stood up in, to be put on a train along with his comrades, bound for Blackpool in the north of England. As the train stood hissing and puffing before it began to move, bevvies of women walked up and down the platform handing up thick china cups of milky tea and buns for the new arrivals. My father thanked them in English, and was rewarded with smiles and shouts of “Good luck!”

The Poles ended up in Scotland, and began to prepare for active duty. They knew what they were fighting for – the right to return home to a Poland liberated from the Germans and Russians who were using their country as a battlefield. His brothers showed up in Britain, too. His older brother, an army chaplain, was delighted with is bottle of Lourdes water. Dominic, who was younger, served as a rear gunner in the Royal Air Force.

At the end of the war, anyone who’d served was offered a free (one-way) ticket to Poland, now an officially Communist country. They could stay in Britain, and become miners, foresters or agricultural workers. If they turned that down, they might be offered passage to some part of the British Empire, where they could start again. Their last option was to take the £25 and the suit of clothes they were given on demobilization, and start their own business.

My father had met my English mother by then, and fallen in love. He was faced with a heartrending decision. To travel back to his family – parents, siblings and cousins, whom he hadn’t seen for six years, in the knowledge that the Government would be unlikely to let him leave in the future. Or to stay in Britain until the Communists left. His older brother went back to Poland to tend to his congregation. His younger brother had been shot down over Belgium during the Battle of Britain, and was buried there.

He decided to stay. It wasn’t easy. His homeland now had a new name – the People’s Republic of Poland, and his old consular passport was of no use. After he married my mother, he applied for a British passport, hoping this might let him visit Poland, but the British didn’t want him either.

My father became a stateless person. He had Displaced Persons’ papers, so he was allowed to travel in Western Europe, but he died sixteen years later, without a country, and without seeing his mother again. She never got her bottle of French perfume, which stood in my parents’ closet until it became too old and lost its fragrance.

I hope my sisters and I made it up to him. He never let on for a second that he was homesick. Only as he sat on my bed telling me stories of his childhood in a small log cabin where they had to dig a tunnel to the well when it snowed – only then did I get the feeling that he was back there again.

My life mirrored my father’s, in a way. I didn’t have to survive a war, but I, too, met a foreigner, fell in love, and moved to a foreign country (the USA) to be with him. My mother always said she understood perfectly, and I’m sure she did.

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20 thoughts on “Seeking refuge

    • In writing the memoir about my husband and me (still rewriting!), I wrote many other pieces which were important in my figuring things out, but which didn’t belong in the original. I thought I’d post some of them here for my friends…

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  1. Loved reading this, Gabi! I have memoirs that my father dictated years ago, and I would like to return to revising and editing them in order to share with family members. Please keep sharing your writing, as I find it so interesting.

    Too bad about the book group ending, but we certainly had a good run. If Margaret ever comes this way, I would love to host you and her for lunch. Please keep me posted on your plans.

    Fondly, Justine

    Justine N. Hawley 820 Silver Spring Road Fairfield, CT 06824 203-255-4336; 203-414-1109

    >

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  2. Well done Gabi! I have several fond memories of Uncle Stefan – including how he let me have a go at driving his car down Baronsmead, with near catastrophic results, when I was thirteen. A great and kind man. 🙂

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  3. I visited a memorial to Polish soldiers in Scotland, in Arisaig on the west coast … it was for Polish men training to be intelligence … interesting … and my dad was stationed in Dornoch on the other side …
    Frances Gilbert

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    • I sometimes think that the most important event of my life happened before I was born – World War 2. My parents’ lives were so completely changed by it, and their character, circumstances, way of life and outlook too. I think it was the same for anyone alive then. I wouldn’t have been born if not for the war…

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  4. Pingback: Westport Writers’ Rendezvous – July update | Gabi Coatsworth

  5. Gabi, I am going to see the new movie Dunkirk today. Quite a different spelling than yours.
    Interestingly, my wife Ann is half Polish on her mother’s side. Must be something special about half Polish women. Ann’s father was Italian. I hope all is well with you!
    Nick T

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  6. It’s difficult to imagine what it would be like to be forbidden to travel to the country of our birth. I can’t remember if our mothers’ precious freidship began because they met in Scotland during the war or if our fathers met first.
    It was lovely to read this, and the other posts you’ve written about your parents. Cx

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    • Our mothers met first, Carolyne, in the FANY in Scotland. I think our fathers met through them. Your father had some hair-raising experiences during the war, I seem to remember. All their wartime experiences had such a huge effect on us, the children they had after the war, just because they were traumatized but had to keep going. They were lucky to find love; I’m sure that helped them through. I must remember to write about your mother. 🙂

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