From Manchester to Belarus

I was born in Manchester and have lived and worked here all my life. I’m proud to be a Mancunian. I love it when people ask me where I’m from and I can say Manchester.

But my surname clearly isn’t local. My mum was from Salford but my dad, who died in 1994 was Polish. He never spoke much about his early life, I know he’d fought in Italy at the famous battle of Monte Cassino but it wasn’t until after his death that I began to think about why he was here in Manchester, why he’d been in Italy, and why he hadn’t gone back home to Poland after the war. I had no idea of the monumental series of events, together with WW2, that had created me a Mancunian.

We all know about the horrors of the holocaust but the more I read about the Poles from eastern Poland the more I became amazed and fascinated in was a hugely significant and largely unknown piece of modern history which is not only the story of my dad’s journey but an injustice to the Polish nation and from which I, and many other Mancunians, are a product of.

It’s a story of war, ethnic cleansing, mystery, intrigue, murder, heroics and ultimately betrayal. It is a story that even now is so little known. For most of my life I was unaware of my dad’s story, it was only after his death that I researched it and wrote a book Two Years in a Gulag about his and thousands of other Poles epic, cruel, and tragic journeys from eastern Poland to England.

It was at the start of WWII, my dad was living in the east of Poland, a region known as Kresy when at the age of 19 was taken away by the Soviet secret police and exiled to Siberia. He was never able to return home and was forbidden to make contact with his family ever again.

After he died, the Soviet Union had disintegrated, and with the advent of the internet I was able to make contact with the village of his birth which is now in the little known country of Belarus. Eventually I travelled there and meet the relatives he never knew. It’s in a poor rural community and has hardly changed in the last 100 years. His sister was still living in the same house in which he was arrested.

b1At the house my dad lived in until his arrest in 1939

I have now visited several times, but on the first visit we went to the cemetery in the nearby town of Naroch where my grandfather was buried and where we took some of my dad’s ashes. It was whilst in the cemetery I noticed a huge and spectacular monument to the German fallen at the local WW1 Battle of Lake Naroch. I embarrassingly knew nothing of this battle and when I returned home found little in books or even on the internet.

In fact, there is almost nothing written about this battle in the west. Eventually I obtained Russian and German documents which I translated, and was amazed at the massive, brutal, and significant battle that had taken place there. In short the German army at the limit of its eastern front, outnumbered 4:1 by the Imperial Russian army scored a massive and decisive victory over the Russians which contributed to the early withdrawal of the Russians from the WWI and arguably influenced the Russian revolution.

b2At a memorial plaque to the Battle of Lake Naroch 1916

So a hundred years since WWI while most people concentrate on the famous battles on the Western Front my focus has been on the Battle of Lake Naroch of which I have given talks, and later this year will be publishing the first ever book in the English language to document the events of that far off time so that they are not lost to posterity.

b3 On the left 1917, on the right Oscar and Steve 2017

Last year I was honoured to receive an invite and had the pleasure of attending the centenary commemoration of the Battle in Belarus which was held at the Narochansky National Park on the shore of the beautiful Lake Naroch. The event started with a wreath laying at the Military Cemetery in the capital Minsk and opening speeches at the Belarusian Museum of the Great Patriotic War. The conference moved on to presentations, battle locations, and ceremonies to honour the dead from both sides around Lake Naroch and in the town of Postavy.

I was the only none Belarussian or Russian there and I was treated with the utmost respect and consideration. It was a truly wonderful few days in cold Belarus.

b4Opening of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Naroch conference

Going back to my dad’s story. During my research into his past I have become friends with lot of people having similar backgrounds and I have been helped with my research from some great groups like the Manchester based Kresy-Family.

One good friend, now in his 80’s, as a child was exiled from the Polish town of Postavy. For the last 15 years or so, since his retirement, he has been supporting with his small charity “Our Roots Trust” an English Language class at High School #1 in Postavy, running student competitions and presenting small cash prizes.

This year, following illness, he was unable to go and as I had already planned another trip to Belarus was honoured to be accept his offer for me to do the prize giving. So on 16 March this year I with my son Oscar and friend Steve Delight, reviewed entries for the 2016 competition (http://www.ourrootstrust.org/postavy_2016_77.html )in the 2 categories of art and short stories.

The event was held in a packed school hall and after we had presented the prizes I gave a short presentation on Manchester in which I described Manchester’s rich historical, sporting, cultural, and musical heritage.

b5The start of my Manchester presentation

The students, teachers, and parents in the packed hall were enthralled. I handed out some Swizzels sweets (made locally to where I live) and had some souvenir pens printed. Everybody put their name into a bag and we drew lots for the star prize – a Manchester United football shirt.

b6With some of the students

As a finale, Steve who is a musician sang an Oasis song to a rapturous reception and then performed a duet in Russian with my niece Katya Korobova: not bad for somebody who spoke not a word of Russian at the beginning of the week.

Steve and Katya sing “Это все, что останется после меня” – It’s all that remains after Me

It was a fascinating and unforgettable event. The students were shy at first but their English was brilliant. Most had never met anybody from the west and they were captivated, asking about our weather and our food.  We were treated like celebrities and showered with presents, which in the poorest country in Europe was very special. Some of the students comments on Facebook were really flattering, one described it as their best ever day in school.

b7

Can’t wait to go back next year.

 

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