Back in 1947 I was an 8-year-old boy. My father was finally (honourably) discharged from the Polish Resettlement Corps in October 1948. By then he had had enough of war-ing – in 1918 Powstanie Wielkopolskie at the age of 18, in the Polish-Bolshevik war of 1919-1920, fighting for his life in Stalin’s GULAG on the Kola Peninsula at the age of 40, and finally, fighting in Monte Cassino with the Polish 2nd Corps under British command “for their freedom and ours”… Indeed, that was more than enough for a man of 48, and he decided to stay put in England and re-joined his family in the resettlement camp in Rivenhall/Kelvedon.
For a small boy like me at the time life was simply great – recently decommissioned military airfield, unexploded bullets, shells, even handguns .... so much excitement lost in the woods! All this was well before the time of digital cameras, so I don’t have photos from those days, but I have a “photographic memory” instead that inevitably brings a smile to my face. I am happy to share some of these snapshots with you; perhaps they will also light up some memories of our group members
KELVEDON CAMP SNAPSHOT - 1
"O jakie fajne miesce ten Kelvedon!" Yep, I like this place! What a funny barak we live in now, all metal like a concertina, not like the baraki from straw mats we had in Kolhapur, in India full of wasps! People call them “beczki śmiechu” – drums of mirth. And! Thick woods just at the back of our barak… When I decided to run away to the jungle in India where bigger boys were hunting for tigers, so they said, I was stopped by our neighbour and taken back to Mom. The neighbour said I was a bit too small, and tigers were hungry for little boys aged five! No messing around with Mom though! She tied one end of a rope to my leg, the other end to our heavy kitchen table and that was it! Pity - no tigers in England, but maybe… dead soldiers in the woods??
KELVEDON CAMP SNAPSHOT - 2
One day Mom said, “Your Tatuś (Daddy) is coming today – you must look smart.” Tatuś…? What or who could that be? I have never met one before.
A man came later in the day – black beret on his head, a proper uniform with what a belt (!), black boots shiny like mirrors (!) and… a tie around his neck! I was so impressed – good to have a Tatuś like that! Tatuś took my hand and we walked all the way to the school barak at the far end of the camp; I kept on looking around to see if my friends could see MY Tatuś. The school was for older and bigger boys, but why should this bother me – now. In India I only saw Moms of my friends, and grown-up women but here there are lots of men - must be a very good camp this Kelvedon! And Tatuś stayed, and we all lived together in our one-half of our barak – Mom, Tatuś, my elder sister, Mircia, and me.
KELVEDON CAMP SNAPSHOT - 3
I loved my pre-school in India but this one is even better. I really like “going” to school – it’s not far so me and other boys walk to school. There’s a deep ditch with a footbridge over it. So we climb onto the guard rails and jump into the ditch… there’s a huge pile of brown leaves for a very soft landing there and - great fun. By the time we are done, it’s usually time to go eat lunch at school.
Then I can go exploring the woods around the airfield. One day I was lucky – I found my first trophy! Just like the bigger boys told me – pick it up carefully by the casing, don’t drop it, be sure not to hit that flat bit at the end, gently loosen the head by twisting it and pull it out. Spill those grey little squares of grey powder onto the ground and put a match to it - it should go fzzzzz! And it did! I showed my trophy to my Tatuś and... Wow!! You should have seen him.
“Never touch anything like that in these woods! Never – Understand ?! I have seen so many men in the army get badly wounded, lose their finger or hands, even legs”.
"Bbbbut Tato…boys told me how to do it safely…"
But one of the biggest boys had real luck – I heard he found a real gun, a pistol; so obviously, I had to go see.
“OK, OK then, hold it by the handle, be careful”.
I held the handgun - heavy but …nothing happened! So I touched the trigger “by accident on purpose” and Wow! My forearm went up and the bullet went – somewhere; I shrunk in my body from fright hoping nobody got killed while my brain was furiously looking for a good excuse… So, if somebody got hurt and was bleeding, it wasn’t my fault - he must have been wounded or killed when he was in the army! Just as Tato said.
Lucky for me, a big boy’s younger brother had an air-rifle so we went target shooting instead… and there were so many targets perched up in the trees. I was a good shot and was showing off my trophies until some grown-ups told us off and threatened to take our air rifle from us. So we started shooting targets that were already dead - cans, bottles, twigs, but cross my heart – NOT BIRDS!
But we had to know how to handle handguns and rifles in case the Army will want us.
KELVEDON CAMP SNAPSHOT - 4
“One potato, two potatoes, three…”
Autumn is great! I have never seen an autumn like this in India. So much fun jumping onto those huge heaps of dry leaves in the ditch but there was also work to do for boys like me. Maybe not so much fun, and I would have to get up early.
Local farmers would come to our camp in huge army trucks and immediately women from the camp would dash out and try to clamber onto these trucks. Mom was there, and me too. It was chaos, an awful din, but fun watching these women hitch their skirts and try to clamber onto the back of the truck with their metal buckets or huge baskets getting in the way. But no messing around here, Mom lifted me up, and I was on, inside; she herself just made it too.
So where are they taking us today – Mom asked around? “kartofle zbieramy” - potatoes today. O hell – my bum was beginning to hurt from bobbing up and down on the hard seat as the truck went over farm-tracks; if that’s how Tatuś had to travel in the Army, then maybe I should join the Navy?
At last, we stopped. We were in a huge open field all ploughed-up and there… everywhere were rows and rows of huge potatoes, all dug-up waiting for us. And no messing around here either. Jump! Jump! Run! Pick up huge empty sacks and take your row! Oh yes, it’s OK for the grown-ups to jump but there was no heap of dry leaves for me to safely jump onto from the army track. Anyway, Mom took a row and I stood next to her. Some old women laughed seeing me getting ready with a big bucket in hand – “these potatoes are bigger than your head” they joked. Baah! I will show them!
And by the time the farmer came round at the end of the day to pay for the work done I stood my one, or two, or three sacks full of potatoes next to my Mom’s sacks! I was pleased with myself - now, I am a real Man! Alright – a small Man, but a Man! I can work; I have earned a shilling or two for a decent day’s work!. Sure, maybe it’s not fun like walking to school and it’s hard and dirty work but I did it, and I will work and work and save enough shillings and pounds to help Mom and Tatuś buy or build a better home than our corrugated “beczka śmiechu”… only… really, it’s such hard work… maybe when I am grown-up…
KELVEDON CAMP SNAPSHOT - 5
Peas, Peace, Piece, Piss…
One evening the word went around that the local farmer needs workers to pick “groch”. My friend, Bolek, volunteered - “groch” that’s pizz in English p-i-s-s… I knew he didn’t know English better than me, and he had that smug look on his face which made me suspicious.
So, next day I asked Mr Wnuk – he taught us kids Polish, English, history, geography, even French and Latin if you wanted to. He explained - “groch” is “pizz” p-e-a-s NOT p-i-s-s or p-e-e, that means “siusiać”. You see people from different nations had put the English language together with a great sense of humour. Wow! I better be sure to get it right… I will show Bolek! I will push him into the ditch when I see him.
Anyway, I was delighted with the news because I was a good worker; I have been gathering potatoes, picked strawberries and this year I will pick p-e-a-s and bins later in the year. By now grownups could see that I am a good worker; now they showed respect, and I was saving money to help Mom and Tatuś buy a proper house. I was so pleased with myself when I could put away safely my first £1 note – such a lovely green colour. But the work was really hard - backache, fingers got grubby and my face sunburned.
It was so nice to have to go to Mr Wnuk for English lessons - Mom and Tatuś needed me as an interpreter in our daily life. But now that I had my own money I could spare a few d’s and s’s to buy myself cakes in our camp’s little shop. I had a friend there, a grown-up proper Englishman – any cakes leftover at the end of the day he would set them aside for me and let me have them for half-price the next day and I would buy all he had. But sometimes I wondered if he had not eaten all the other left-over cakes himself – he was a big man in tight-fitting, white overalls, big tummy and ginger hair like burned sugar.
KELVEDON CAMP SNAPSHOT - 6
Sunday Lunch Special
I had to look smart! Mom tidied up my hair and let me put on my favourite outfit – a sailor’s tunic with that typical mariner’s collar. That dongle in front - “sailor’s tie” - was very important in my eyes; if Tatuś wasn’t looking, I would “borrow” his Army tie, put it round my neck too… and I was ready to go! My face radiated pride and happiness. Sometimes, as they passed me by, grownups would look “admiringly” at the two ties around my neck and smile, but I held my gaze steady as if I had not noticed but secretly in my heart I wondered – have they noticed that I am going to be a soldier but I have not yet decided whether to join the Army or the Polish Navy? And I marched on to the communal refectory to pick up and bring home our Sunday Lunch.
Like all good soldiers, I had to cope with all the problems met on the way. The biggest obstacle was the large carrier-bag in which I placed a container with soup, another with the main dish and yet another with desert; to bring these army provisions intact home was like moving mountains for a boy-soldier at heart. Luckily Tatuś made the bag himself so it was soup-tight and anyway, any soup spilled along the way stayed in the bag until Mom poured it all back into the pot. It was my sorry luck if the dessert got spilled too, but that made our chickens very happy. And I didn’t really mind as I loved our chickens and treated them like pets when they were still chicks. Normally, Mom had six, sometimes even ten egg-laying hens fenced-in in our garden plot and, by some accident our chickens got a cockerel – he was really nasty and was ready to murder any hen that would not cooperate. But even worse; he was very jealous and would readily challenge any boy-soldier that dared enter the pen – “bez kija nie podchodż” (always have a stick handy) Mom often cautioned me.
I couldn’t let my hens go hungry, of course, so I grabbed the carrier-bag and ran to the refectory – surely there will be leftovers on plates; not everybody ate all the mashed potatoes soaked in gravy or these brown, skinless sausages so… quick, quick skim all this mess into Mum’s big bowl – Sunday special for my chickens too! I loved that sausage Mom could get for me in India – that one was from pigs – but these brown sausages here are from beans?! as some people say. Still I loved these brown ones too so, in fact, not all sausages I had skimmed off lasted all the way back home.
But I did have a favourite recipe of my own – take a slice (thick if possible) of white bread, generously spread margarine on it (preferably butter), take two/three slices of Kraft cheese you get from UNRRA, cut it into small cubes and sprinkle on your slice, sprinkle lots of sugar onto the cheese and… bite into it –no leftovers, ever and my recipe was goof-proof!
KELVEDON CAMP SNAPSHOT - 7
If it’s good for the king it’s big enough for us too
One day Tatuś was waiting for a van; it delivered a lot of metal parts and some old furniture. I watched in fascination as he put the metal parts together, and like magic – we had a huge bed with metal netting for the mattress and a lot of metal knobs and rods that Tutuś polished and polished until they shone like gold. Tutuś was very pleased with the bed and it was now my job to keep all brass parts shining like mirrors. I was wondering why Tatuś is so pleased to see so much polished brass but Bolek knew instantly –
“teraz wypnie im wszystkim swój tyłek” (now he can bare his arse to all the military brass).
I mentioned this to Mom and… !!! She took the leather strap off its peg and dangling it at me said slowly and clearly
"If I ever hear you use this word again...!!!"
I knew what she had in mind; and now I also knew that what is on your lips is not always what is on your mind…
But we were happy and comfortable in bed – me on far left by the wall, next my sister when she was at home on holidays from school, next Mom then Tatuś; and all was well except when Tatuś had his bad dreams… And he was good with that old furniture too – first he would take it all apart and rebuild it into cabinets and shelves or whatever we needed. But all that was easy in comparison with his skill in repairing our shoes and boots, and mine in particular - I watched with admiration as he cut out new soles for my shoes from an old car tyre or a piece of leather and sewed it onto my shoe – just like new!
KELVEDON CAMP SNAPSHOT - 8
When bells ring
Everybody went to Church on Sundays – no excuses. The priest was big and loud and he always trimmed his fingernails into sharp points, not rounded like normally. Bolek knew why - our priest was the Devil in disguise. In India when I was 4-7 it was different, but now, Bolek, Lolek and me were10 years old; we were careful enough not to get sent to Hell but we had no intention of being too good for Heaven.
Being an altar-boy at Mass on Sunday could be fun; we, of course, had to memorise the prayers and the routine, but the trick was to get into the sacristy early so each of us could get a swig of the altar wine straight from the bottle before the priest transforms it into the Blood of Christ and drinks it all himself.
The other trick was to be first in line for the altar bells. Bells were important, they give you power – ring once and everybody pays attention; ring three times and they all go down on their knees! The evening Mass, especially in May, was exceptional – if you were quick and got the bells first then you could ring and ring till people’s (and your) ears ached!
But some Sundays were extra special. On one such Sunday Mom let me go on an excursion to Battersea Park Funfair that had just opened. A whole bus-load of people from the camp left in the morning and we had a strictly fixed time for our return. But the three of us had a hell of a good time and we forgot all about going back to Mamusia and Tatuś. By the time we got back to Liverpool Station to get on the bus home it had gone!
Fortunately, an older boy was with us too and he still had enough money left to pay for four rail tickets to Witham. The station policemen were not very pleased to see four more Polish refugees but in the end they understood and let us spend the night sleeping on benches in the waiting room. Mamusia and Tatuś must have been so relieved to get me back the next morning that they forgot all about the leather strap waiting for me on the peg, and I wasn’t going to remind them of it. Tough guys all four of us – no one cried!!!!
KELVEDON CAMP SNAPSHOT - 9
Friends need friends - Bolek and Lolek, and “Bobby”
Everybody in the camp knew that the English Bobby is their best friend. And so it was for me too. It was one early evening but already quite dark. I got my bicycle out from the shed at the bus stop, swung my leg over and had in mind to cycle home, but…. an English Bobby was right there, maybe by chance or maybe on purpose to collar little boys like me. No lights?? No, no, not allowed - not in England… and he WALKS me all the way home, half a mile or more, to tell my mommy and daddy that, in England, we must have cycle lights ON when cycling in the dark. Mom agreed and said – “sank-u” getting a bit red in the face; I had no choice but to accept the verdict and said – "soorrry", and thankfully, that leather strap remained on its peg. And seventy years later I still turn the cycle lamp ON if and when I try cycling in the dark.
A couple of days later I see Bolek and Lolek wearing a very grim face; they gave me the sad news – their parents have decided to go to Canada! Hej you can’t do that! Who’s going to play with me – you are my best friends; go talk to your dad - my Tatuś says he is staying put! And that was true; I overheard my Tatuś talking to some friends – No! He’s not going back to this communist Poland and he’s not going to Canada to shift muck, deep to his knees, on some bloody pig-farm! No – he’s staying put! He wants to give his kids a better education and a better life, and he will always find work here.
It didn’t work, and Bolek and Lolek left just like that on some big adventure in Canada – never saw or heard from them again; Tatuś used to say – they must have drowned in a pile of g****. Fortunately I still had one friend left – that ginger-haired shop keeper… OK he can be my friend as long as he doesn’t eat all the left-over cakes himself” And, of course, there’s always our English “Bobby” as long as I have my bicycle lights on in the dark – but I promised!
And Tatuś was right – he always had work like that at the Crittalls windows factory and at W.C.Fench Construction. He would come home from work, take his big coat off and sit on a stool to take his Wellies off; I could see he was tired so I pulled the Wellies off and unwound his foot wrappings while Mom made him a drink. And so often, he would reach for his coat again, look for the pocket and take out and give ME his last - sandwich! He didn’t eat it for his lunch at work – he kept it for ME! He knew I loved a fried–egg sandwich cold. And then I knew … surely, he must love me… all those sit-ups and all the rest – that’s nothing.
And on Fridays, he would come home, reach into his breast pocket and pull out a bluish envelope and give it to my Mom with obvious pride – his entire weekly wages – nothing kept for himself - nothing for beer or cigarettes or anything else – the whole lot! All his weekly earnings. I was so proud of him! And, as he promised, I was now going to get proper education, the best we could get – I was now ten and a half and will be starting at a proper English primary school in September 1949.
KELVEDON CAMP SNAPSHOT- 10
The storks are coming
I knew storks were white with black wings, had red beaks and spindly red legs but I have never seen a real stork; so I was quite excited to hear our neighbours saying - the storks are coming… will be here any day now.
This sounded quite exciting – maybe I can catch one live like boys used to trap goshawks in India?? And I was still waiting for the storks to come when Mom showed me a bundle saying – "This is your baby brother - George."
"What this? My brother? But Mom, he’s so small that even my smallest trousers will be much too big for him! "
"Oh you will see, he will get bigger very quickly, and it’s your job now to look after him."
Maybe with all this excitement about my baby brother, I missed the storks, or maybe they never came but now I had my own brother!
Dad got a perambulator from somewhere for baby George to live in and it was my job to shake him to sleep if he was crying. I soon got used to having a brother and, actually, I quite liked to show him off to my friends. Funnily enough one of our hens got to like him too – this young black hen would fly onto the handle of the perambulator and keep on googling George so much so that I was afraid she might decide to give him a peck in the eye! I couldn’t risk that – he was MY brother. Tatuś was also getting a bit worried by this cheeky little hen’s affection for HIS baby son… so, though very reluctantly, I had to chop this little hen’s head off; actually maybe Tatuś did it in the end.
But Mom was right – baby George grew bigger every day and soon he was confident enough to take over Tatusia’s chair and sit on it like it was his. Really, I didn’t mind that and liked showing him off to friends and neighbours. And when they saw George they all said
”Oh, jak kropla wody do ojca podobny” – he’s a spitting image of his Dad…
and I couldn’t help but wonder, will George, when he becomes father, tell his kids to stand up straight, shoulders back, squat properly… or will he be like Mom, nice but take no nonsense and with that leather strap always on hand but never actually applied.
By the time Georgie was two years old, he was much too big for the perambulator so Tatuś let me take off the cradle, collapse the frame and now I had an excellent 4-wheeled trolley to play with. Perfect! When autumn came I could see a chance to earn some money! I knew pigs like to eat acorns, and there were many oak trees in the camp. So I got all the smaller kids together, got a couple of sacks and set out with my team to collect acorns fallen on the ground. Then two sacks full of acorns go onto the perambulator, George was sat on top of the sacs and then push and pull the whole lot to the farmer with pigs. He was a proper businessman and paid me quite a few pennies, maybe even one shilling! Fantastic but not really enough to share with my team, so I kept some money for fireworks on Guy Fawkes Day and the rest went on cakes, - true – I ate most of them but the kids had fun watching the pigs gobble up the acorns after a good day’s work and could enjoy the fireworks if their moms would let them.
This Guy Fawkes thing was something special. The English had some great ideas – they knew how to make good cakes, and like this one with the Guy. They made a huge bonfire, sent off masses of fireworks, stuck this Guy into the fire and watched him burn! Lucky this one wasn’t live. I have read some comics about Red Indians dancing around a huge bonfire but nothing like this.
But we, in the camp, also had some great ideas, I really liked what our Polish friends did at Easter. It was called Lajkonik – a man dressed like a Tatar sitting on a (straw) horse prancing around and ready to whip you if you had nothing to give him – so colourful… and then on Easter Monday we would chase girls and try to pour buckets of water over them, that was probably the best part of Easter. Pity the priest was never there to get properly soaked.
Our Christmas was good too, people dressed as the three Kings and shepherds would come to knock on your door and sing Christmas carols; they would also have a huge paper star lit up inside… all this was rather beautiful but too holy for boys like me, especially with the priest there too…
That's all good fun but nothing like what the English do with their Guy!
One thing began to unsettle me a little: I heard Tatuś being very critical of my posture and spine “pokręcona w esy-floresy” (twisted like the letter S); Mom tried to explain that it’s not his fault, that, when still an infant, I suffered severe malnutrition and sickness in the kolkhoz in Kazakhstan … but Tatuś was going to fix it, like they do it in the army. He is too old now to go to war again but, you never know, I may have to grow up very quickly and join the army to fight the next war! Fight, fight, fight… drummed in my head. So… I had to learn new tricks: to stand up straight, to squat, to touch my toes, to jump up and down, to march on the spot… and to do it PROPERLY, like in the army, like he told his soldiers to do! Evidently, I wasn’t very quick to learn but maybe I had enough time - I was only 9 -10 at the time and they won’t take any boys younger than 15 into the Polish Army….
Regrettably, there were times when I had to do dreadful things, but as an aspiring soldier, I did it – I killed! Sometimes Mom sent me to buy a chicken for dinner from our local farmer. He had a knack with hens - first, catch the unfortunate hen, hold her tightly under his arm, stick his little finger up the hen’s bum to see if she had any eggs to save her life; and he would then do this trick – take her neck between his second and middle finger give it a twist and pull… and that’s it! I could now have the hen.
I was never able to use this trick on my hens but I found another way – I would put the hen’s neck on a stump and chop!!! the head off with my axe. I had to be careful though - it’s not the squirting blood, it’s just that if the hen got out of my grip she would now run faster than with her head still on and it wasn’t so easy for me to catch her. I don’t know what happened to the cockerel; I think my Tatuś must have fixed it but he didn’t want to talk about this, same as he didn’t want to talk about the War.
The only thing we three were not keen on were the processions, especially at Corpus Christi – always, long, slow, hot and tiring – just boring Bolek said.
The SNAPSHOT of my Tatuś repairing my shoes is still so clear in my mind perhaps because I have similar snapshots from other, such different parts of the world.
click on images to enlarge
click on images to enlarge
From UN Archives - a workshop in Italy for Polish servicemen to prepare them for life in the civvies - is this where my father acquired his skill in repairing shoes, rebuilding furniture, beds....?
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