When I was a child, my grandfather used to tell me Polish fairy tales about the Baba Yaga, who was a witch who lived in the forest,” says Barbara Young. “Although I was born in Britain, we were brought up on traditional Polish foods, such as beetroot soup, dumplings and cutlet schabowy, a breaded and fried pork chop.”
Barbara’s grandparents were called Wladyslaw Minorczyk and Bronislawa Kokoszka. “I spent a lot of time with them, but they never spoke of their wartime experiences. Through researching their lives I have been shocked to discover that they suffered immensely under Nazi rule.”
Bronislawa was born in 1917 in Connecticut. Her parents had emigrated to the USA a few years earlier but in 1920 they returned to their village, Łysaków, near the Polish city of Mielec. Wladyslaw was born not far away in 1923.
“Their everyday life would have been one of inconspicuous agricultural labourers, until the German invasion in 1939. Mielec’s large Jewish population was slaughtered by the Nazis. They also considered the Poles to be an inferior race, and many Polish Catholics were forced into slave labour in Germany and Austria, including both of my grandparents.”
Barbara is unsure of when Wladyslaw and Bronislawa met, but it may have been when they were deported in 1940. “They were rounded up by guards and sent to Austria, where they toiled on farms seven days a week, and were given starvation rations.”
The Nazis didn’t want Polish forced labourers to have children, so pregnant women were made to have terminations or were given inadequate maternity care. Many women and babies died. “Somehow, my grandparents survived forced labour and my mother was born in July 1944.”
The family subsequently managed to escape, and ended up in a camp for Polish refugees in Italy. Barbara is unsure of how they made the journey, but found out that many former prisoners had to cross the Alps on foot.
In total, by the end of the war some 11 million people had been displaced from their home countries, including survivors of the concentration camps and forced-labour farms. Most were malnourished and prone to illness.
Wladyslaw could have been repatriated to Poland, but he feared persecution by the communists. In 1945, he enlisted in the Polish forces and served under British command in Italy.
A year later, he was sent to Britain and in August of that year Bronislawa and their daughter joined him. “I have their original Certificate of Registration (shown above), which has a beautiful photo of my grandmother, smiling at the relief of being reunited.”
The family went to live on an old army camp on Blackshaw Moor, near Leek, which housed 2,000 displaced Polish people. “The children enjoyed picking bluebells in the countryside, and roaming the moors.”
Wladyslaw and Bronislawa married in 1948, and had two more children. The family settled in Manchester, where Wladyslaw had a long career as a carpenter.
“My grandparents were wonderful, hard-working and caring people. They integrated well while maintaining their Polish traditions. Unfortunately Wladyslaw passed away suddenly in 1985. Bronislawa, my ‘Nana Mini’, died in 2005 aged 88.
“Discovering more about our family history has opened my eyes to the trauma my grandparents endured. I am extremely proud of their resilience and courage.”
Gail Dixon is a regular contributor to Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine