My summer '17 trip has come to a close, pausing for time to reflect on the past and dream for the future. Rocky River's Lake Erie café where I now sit seems far away from Poland's mountains and England's Lake District, but vivid memories linger with the scent of coffee, enabling me to reflect on what's truly important: family, the need to preserve our past, and learn for the future.
Here's just a few thoughts as I close this latest sojourn and chapter into Captured in Liberation:
There may be no place on this earth more chilling than a visit to the Auschwitz museum. The infamous Nazi death camp stands as a stark reminder to the evil and destruction that man is capable of imposing on fellow humans. Here, large groups follow tour guides, silently listening to indescribable atrocities that were committed on these grounds, viewing icons and rooms where unthinkable acts were performed to systematically eliminate an entire race of humanity. In areas of the camp where the absolute worst atrocities occurred, visitors are asked to remain silent to honor the dead. They file along as if in another world. I somehow got separated from my English speaking guide, so wandered alone for over three hours, going at my own pace to read and learn the history of this nightmarish reality. Among the many things I was interested in learning was the fate suffered by a family member, Tadeusz Lekki.
My fathers cousin and close friend, Tadeusz Lekki, was one of the earliest arrivals at Auschwitz, arrested in Bochnia early 1941 for allegedly plotting against the German occupiers. As mentioned in my book, he was sent away with no trial the day after his arrest and never seen again. I learned that anyone accused of sabotage against the Germans were treated particularly harsh, even by the camp's sadistic standards, and Tadeusz did not survive the year. He was admitted to the infirmary for x-rays on 23 July, likely the subject of experimental studies, and died on 6 September. I visited block #18 where these gruesome experiments occurred, right next to a stark courtyard where prisoners were unceremoniously rounded up, shot, and killed. I left a note for Tadeusz in a guest log, letting him know that he is not forgotten. If you could, I ask that you say a prayer for him and all the lost souls whose lives ended in such dark cruel helpless fashion. .
While there may be no place more sobering that Auschwitz, there is no place on earth more peaceful than the top of a mountain. My final day in Poland was spent hiking up to this mountain peak, lagging behind Michal and Gaba who were kind enough to slow down and keep me going. Lots to reflect on.....
This photo was taken immediately following a productive meeting in front of the Press Building for Jagiellonian University in Krakow, one of Europe's oldest and most renowned Universities. My cousin Michal and I were feeling good, the Press representative expressed a strong interest to work with me on an updated edition of my book, including a Polish translation. It was clear to me while in Poland, particularly following the talk in Bochnia, how important it is to the people of Poland to preserve their history with stories of the past. There may be no country who has suffered more than Poland in recent history, who fought so bravely to help defeat an evil empire, only to lose their own freedom. Fortunately, the pride and perseverance of the Polish people prevailed and their freedom now restored. We must all learn from the past to ensure that the same mistakes are not repeated.
So ends this latest journey into the story of my family. Just as my mother looked out in wonder to the sea from the same bluffs behind me in this photo, I now return in some wonder of where the next chapter of Captured in Liberation will take me. Thanks for allowing me to share my travels with you.
Before this trip, I last visited England in my late 20's. At that time, I knew little of the circumstances surrounding my parents meeting at the dance in Haverigg, and starting a new life together in my mother's birthplace. Now enlightened with their story, the Lake District landscape appeared more vivid, the people of Cumbria more connected to my past, and family members closer.
The road to Millom, with the Sea's tide visible in the Bay.
The cemetery where my grandmother Mary "Minnie" Graham is buried. Here I fulfilled a promise that I made on the last page of my book's epilogue.
My Uncle Wilf. The family lost touch with him shortly after the War, and nobody learned of his whereabouts or fate. But his colorful spirit lives with us forever.
Over two dozen locals from Millom showed up at the town library for my book talk, most of them with a Polish friend or family member who settled in Millom after the War. Unfortunately, I have no photos during the talk, but this group showed up about 30 minutes early. During the talk, tea was served and the group sat perfectly silent until I completed, followed by warm applause and enthusiastic discussion.
This is Ida, the friendly girl who befriended my mother upon her arrival at the new school in Millom, as told in the book. She was surprised when she met me, apparently thinking that the son of Iris would be much shorter. I don't think she wanted us to leave.
The tide is out along the Haverigg shore. My mother and her cousins spent many hours together on the bluffs in the background, where the Barrow shipyards sit across the Bay and the Isle of Man is visible on a clear day.
The church spire in Millom was a comforting landmark to find my way on the walk from Haverigg.
Following Danusia and Nick (with Molly) for a morning walk.
When not carting me around Millom and the Lake District, cousin David was helping with research, getting us into some humorous situations, and acting as my partner in crime. As they say in England, "well done ol' boy"
On Tuesday, July 4, the audience from my father's hometow of Bochnia arrived early to hear a presentation of my book, Captured in Liberation. Seated in the front rows were family members from Bochnia and surrounding cities, and filling the room (and adjoining room) were townsfolk. As the head librarian introduced me to the audience with a copy of my book in hand and my interpreter to my right, it started to feel surreal to me that I would soon share a story that I only learned about 4 years ago in the location where so much of the story takes place.... the story of my father during World War II.
Throughout the presentation, my father, mother, sisters Julie and Celia, and daughters Brittany and Lauren watched through Skype. Following the formal talk, we put them on the big screen so the audience could see them and ask my father questions. I was then presented with beautiful symbolic gifts from family members and the librarian, who obviously read the story to realize how much her gifts would mean to me.
Following an hour of signing books with hugs and laughs mixed in with a few tears, some family members from Bochnia of course suggested that we top off the evening at a local restaurant. It was an evening that I will forever remember, and many others echoed the same sentiments.
The town of Bochnia lies about 30 miles east of this mound outside of Krakow. looking south are the Carpathian Mountains, the Tatras are the highest range that can be seen toward the right of this photo. My father and Artur began their quest to join Anders Army from Bochnia, and it took two days to reach these mountains. From their, they crossed the mountains, into Slovakia. In two days, I will share this story to the residents of Bochnia.
My cousin Marian greeted me in Bochnia, and immediately took we on a tour of the town, where I soon began to realize the significance and meaning of the presentation he has arranged. He seems to know everyone in the city, and everywhere we went he broke into conversation, introducing me and explaining the upcoming talk. Many people were quite interested and other mentioned that they were already aware and planned on attending.
This gentleman was walking across the street, and shouted over that he has seen me on the internet, and also the video with my father. He walked over to share the importance of preserving Polish history, and told me that he would also attend. He was both surprised and pleased when I told him that I'd like to take his photo.
Thanks to the hard work and persistence of my cousins in Poland, we are all prepared for a book talk on the evening of July 4 in Bochnia, Poland, the hometown of my father. Here is the poster that they prepared. We have also arranged to skype in my father for the evening, so that he can watch and participate in the presentation. I'll be sure to share some photos, maybe a short video, and of course photos of my cousins and family members who are making this special day possible.
It's been two years since I left Europe and last updated this blog... lots have happened since the summer of 2015. My book, Captured in Liberation, was published in December of 2016, and that has opened doors that I could never have imagined. Just last week, I spoke in my hometown of Elyria right in the shadows of where I grew up, with my father in attendance. That and other speaking engagements have reintroduced old class mates and acquaintances (some who I've not seen since my childhood), old friends of my father, and many more. Soon I will be going back to Europe, visiting England and Poland, to complete yet more unfinished business. I have a talk scheduled in my father's hometown of Bochnia, Poland. The local library has scheduled two hours for the evening, my young cousins to help as interpreters. I will also go back to England for the first time in over 30 years, where a reunion with family members is being planned. Among my visits will be a lonely cemetery in Burgh by Sands, to do what I promised in the last page of the book's Epilogue.
I welcome you to join me in this new adventure.
Following graduation as Lieutenant in the Polish Army, dad and a few others stopped in Rome before reporting to duty back near Ancona. They were fortunate to stay in a hotel next to a group of Polish students, and joined them in daily tours of Rome. It was an opportunity to learn more of an historical city that still showed remnants of civilization centuries before the birth of Christ.
From the inside of St. Peter's, dad and the students took a staircase to reach the dome, and from there climbed ladders to reach an observation point above the dome. Today spiral stairwells climb 360 steps from the domes base to its top, where spectacular views of Rome and the Vatican greet the climbers.
Often after visiting a venue, dad returned in the evening. A common visit was to the Colisium, where he visualized spectacles in front of roaring crowds below him. 'panem et circenses' the promise of bread and entertainment kept the crowds in line. Such promises would not subdue the people under Russian occupation. However Stalin now held company with victorious Allied leaders. Surely, they would see through his ruse.
Every victorious general was marched through Rome with his throng of warriors, captors, and exotic spoils. The long march wound through arches along the old streets and ended atop Palatine Hill. It was the only time in Rome that any mortal was considered a god, until the general stood face to face with their true god Jupiter atop the hill. The Polish soldiers returning to their bases looked forward to marching along the liberated streets of Poland.
Fortunately, they had a two week break before reporting for duty. Dad tried to talk Stefan into going with him to Rome, but Stefan had other plans. His fiancée Sonia, a young lady from Rome, was awaiting his return near his base. She lived in a rented house on the Sea with her sister, who also married a Polish soldier,
Like my father and uncle before me, I'll leave Matera with warm memories. I mostly stayed away from tourist areas, lived 4 days with new friends from the Sassi.: the local cafe owner and my neighbors. This elder gentleman lives across from where i stayed, and invited me in their shared cave storage area where he stores his wine. We shared generous offerings of moscato. The young man lives above where I stayed and was housing a couch surfer from the Ukraine. People don't have much but he invited me up and insisted I try his pasta with a cold Italian beer the night before I left.
Dad arrived several hours early to board the train for Matera. While waiting, he heard a familiar voice among a group of fellow Polish soldiers also waiting to board. He approached the group and simply said to the stunned soldier, "hi Stefan." After recovering, Stefan grabbed his brother and they visited the nearest cafe to talk over a bottle of wine. I believe the station was Fermo/Porto San Giorgio, where this cafe sits just outside the station.
Unfortunately I'm unable to upload a photo of Stefan from my smartphone... His path to this unlikely reunion was most fascinating and daunting. Capture by the Russians, it took 6 days before they broke him to sign a false confession to being a spy against Russia, 6 year sentence in Siberia, amnestied to fight for the Red Army, instead he joined Anders Army in North Africa and was part of that liberation, before flying over the Mediterranean in a glider to help liberate Italy. His story leading to this reunion is paralleled in my book... He was recommended for the same officer training in Matera.
Dad and Stefan spent 6 months together in officer school, and would spend nearly a year together in Italy, some places I will capture in future posts. Following 6 years facing death and uncertainty, it was a most memorable and fun filled year. Together they explored Matera, the old town built into canyon walls, the Sassi. This is the oldest living city in the world, people still inhabit cave homes. The entire region is fascinating.
My B&B is at the top of the Sassi, my private entrance guarded by a most unexpected roommate. She will not leave me alone, making blog updates somewhat difficult. I left my tablet in Venice (will get it back) making updates even more challenging with only my smartphone, so I'll simply update pics here before creating a new post when I leave for Rome on Wednesday.
The region outside of Matera remains largely barren, olive trees and rock formations dotting the countryside. Perfect for artillery training... Dads team of four typically hit their target, up to 10 kilometers away, by the third attempt. They were preparing to liberate Poland while teaching Stalin's Red Army a serious lesson.
While in Matera, dad and his brother Stefan found a favorite cafe at the bottom of the Sassi. The cave entrance offered comfortable temperatures year round, and the setting was the perfect place to catch up and discuss family matters after six years of separation. I stopped for a meal and glass of wine at this cafe, located at the bottom of the Sassi. Straight ahead through the opening is the bar area.
Directly behind the dining area is another smaller room. Dad and Stefan met in the cafe often, purchasing wine and often pickled herring. They did not write home to communicate their status and news, in fear that Russian authorities would intercept the letters and impose punishment on family members.
There was good reason that dad and other Polish recruits were sent to Ancona, Italy. A charismatic leader survived brutal imprisonment at the hands of Russia early in the war, and surfaced to lead large numbers of Polish troops in the liberation of Northern Africa and Italy. His victories are commemorated all across Italy today, and his band of Polish fighters were known then, and still today, as 'Anders Army'.
The region of Ancona is particularly proud of the contribution of Anders Army. He liberated the city and region from German occupation in fierce battles, and the history is preserved today through museums, immaculate cemeteries honoring fallen soldiers, statues, and beautifully written historical books.
My airbnb hostess Angie (left) has been amazing, making countless calls to learn of people who were part of the Polish liberation of Ancona. Her research has gotten me in contact with people from Rome to London. She arranged a visit with this amazing couple. Beata and Raimondo, who have authored two absolutely beautiful books on the subject; hundreds of pages of stunning photos and colorful stories. At the end of the evening they offered their books (which are in extreme limited supply) as gifts. These books are priceless. Dad, you are going to enjoy these!
Following German defeat and surrender, General Wladyslaw Anders plan was to grow and prepare a powerful Army to liberate Poland from Russian control, using the Ancona region as the base of his operations. This view from the top of Fermo has a birds eye view of many the Polish bases, and is typical of fertile rolling hills all along the Ancona region.
Dad and Artur were now separated. Dad was assigned to heavy artillery, where basic training took place in the coastal village of Porto San Elpidio, which was than a quiet fishing village. Artur trained in infantry. Today, this region along the Adriatic Sea is endless miles of beaches where lounge chairs with wide umbrellas dot the coastline.
Without question the most spectacular beach in the region is Portonova, where chalk white pebbles replace sand at the base of a rocky cliff which cuts into the Adriatic. I made it to this fabulous beach (seen in the distance from where this photo was taken) the day before leaving Ancona; was not easy to reach but well worth the effort.
From the day he arrived in Italy, dad would stop to visit the many military cemeteries that populate the country. Fallen soldiers were buried in sections by their nationality, so he always felt a sense of angst upon approaching the large section of Polish grave sites. Every visit ended the same, relief that his brother Stefan did not die on this battlefield, followed by continued uncertainty in the unknown of his whereabouts.
p.s. To dad: every November, surviving veterans meet with dignitaries to honor and celebrate fallen soldiers from Anders Army at one of the Polish military cemeteries. This year is in Matera, and Mr. Wojtech Narenski, who is 95 and still the organizer, personally asked me to extend to you an invitation. I have his contact info.
Author - Andrew Bajda
I've been working on writing the story of my father for two years, his adventures during WW2. I will retrace his steps and use this blog to share stories and images of the places that make up his fascinating story.