A few months before my father died in May 2011, we discovered our long-lost relations still living in Poland. For seventy years, Wojtek had had no idea where they had gone, and they had thought him long dead. So my cousin Agnieszka came to visit us bearing a great pile of old photos which her mother had copied for us from their family album and labelled. We gathered around as she laid them out one by one and told us who they were. There was Wojtek’s mother as a child with his Aunt Jadwiga and Uncle Zdisław. There were his grandmother and his grandfather in his starched collar and with a fine waxen-tipped moustache. There were Wojtek’s great-grandparents, my own great-great-grandparents. There was also the Łazowski family, his cousins, whom Wojtek had once told me about: Zbyszek and his mother, his wife and sisters – those who were exiled to Kazakhstan by the NKVD. I finally could see what they looked like, and so put faces to the characters who populated my father’s stories…
“Did they survive?” Wojtek asked. “Kazakhstan, I mean.”
“Zbyszek and the family, you mean? Oh yes! They all made it back to Poland after the War. Zbyszek died only in 1997.” Agnieszka said with a smile, as she realized once again that Wojtek had no idea what had happened to his family for the last seventy years.
“And Zbyszek’s father, Władysław, who ran the pharmacy on Listopad Street?” Wojtek asked.
“You didn’t know?” Agnieszka asked. “He was taken by the NKVD before the rest of his family was exiled. Mother only found out much later through the Red Cross what happened to him. He was taken to the prison camp at Starobielsk. He had been a lieutenant-colonel in the Polish Army in the inter-war period. Although he was already sixty-four years of age and retired, they took him along with the other officers. He became one of the victims of the infamous Katyń massacres.”
The parade of photographs continued, from the ancient past right up to images of Agnieszka’s own children. As she laid them down before us, I watched them float by like the years. I pictured myself for a moment within the frames of this lost world, a hereditary time-traveller putting on the moustaches and pocket watches of the times, standing next to my great-grandparents. The wonder is all the greater for the fact that I am separated from them not only by time, but by geography, by politics, by war, and by exile.
“I think there are some here with your father.” Agnieszka said to me, searching quickly through the remaining photos. “Ah-ha! There they are!”
There were two photos of a family gathering in Wojtek’s grandparents’ house, during Easter, 1935. They were all there. Wojtek’s grandparents, his parents, his aunt Jadwiga, his grandaunt Mudzia, Zbyszek and his wife Wanda, Zbyszek’s parents and his sister Kazia. And there lying down in the foreground, resting his head in one hand, with a great beaming smile, lay a young Wojtek. I had to laugh.
“Are you wearing a sailor suit, Wojtek?” I asked.
“ That was three-quarters of a century ago. People used to dress up their kids like that back then.” Wojtek replied laughing.
“By the way, Wojtek, my mother asked me to ask you something.” Agnieszka said. “She knows your grandparents both died in 1941. She knows how your father was killed by the German Einsatzgruppen, and that your mother was deported to Kraków after the War. But she doesn’t know what became of your grandaunt Mudzia.”
“Oh, that was another sad tale.” Wojtek said. “She suffered a nervous breakdown. That was soon after the Germans invaded. My father had already been killed, my grandparents were dead. She went to the psychiatric hospital and died soon after. I think she was buried in the grounds of the hospital. Those were terrible times.”
I have a strange sensation looking at the photo below, at little Wojtek and the grown-ups around him. They have no idea what is about to befall them in the years ahead. Perhaps the photo is a microcosm of Polish history during the period. Wojtek’s father would be shot by the Germans, his cousin Władysław would die by Soviet hands, and Władysław’s son Zbyszek and the rest of his family would be exiled to Kazakhstan. Wojtek’s grandparents both in their eighties died in 1942, of ‘natural causes’, no doubt exacerbated by the times they lived in. His grandaunt ended her days later that same year in a psychiatric ward unable to comprehend what had become of the world around her. Wojtek, his mother and Aunt Jadwiga would be the last of their family to remain in Lwów. Then Wojtek would leave, an exile. Finally, his mother and aunt would be deported to Kraków in the Polish People’s Republic. And that, my friends, is history.