ZBIGNIEW Drecki was different to anyone I had interviewed before and his like will never be spoken to again.
As he handed me a cup of tea his finger brushed mine and a thought flashed through my mind: “I had made contact with a Nazi death camp survivor.” I can recall the shiver now.
Mr Drecki, an artist, was born in Warsaw and spent time incarcerated in Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
After surviving the Second World War he settled in Devon with his English wife and ran a painting school, also working as an artist.
He wrote an account of his life in his book Freedom and Justice, but people seem to prefer to read autobiographies of celebrities than the story of a man who had witnessed mass starvation and the murder of thousands.
It was a surprisingly unassuming, modest work that was reflected in the way he spoke to me in the mid-1990s, when he would have been in his early 70s, just a few years before he died.
His outlook, rather than being one of doom and gloom, was sunny. I would leave his house feeling somewhat ashamed at my own miserablism.
He smiled throughout our chat, even when telling a story about how he cheated death on a number of occasions, including at one point being the next in line to be shot against a wall when Hitler paid an unexpected visit and the camp’s plans for the day were altered.
He was one of the first in Auschwitz and escaped Buchenwald on a night train to Dachau, something that clearly weighed heavily on him despite his cheery demeanour. He felt he had to do something for those who did not make it through the war, so he wrote to world leaders, politicians and newspapers in an attempt to ensure the story lived on.
His take on events was probably well rehearsed by the time it reached me. The then Exmouth Journal editor David Bazell helped him document his life, but I’m not sure anyone could ever have really done it justice.
I doubt Albion Hill in Exmouth has ever housed a more worthy citizen. There was warmth in his words and the paintings he showed me exuded positivity. He even had nice things to say about some of the death camp soldiers — he held no animosity towards Germany and its people — and their occasional kindness.
I Googled him and, perhaps rightly, there is more information available about his art than his times in the two prisoner of war camps. Maybe he would have wanted that to have been the case — after all, he had a life before and after the war.
Sometimes when I have found myself moaning about something relatively insignificant, a recollection of my meeting with Mr Drecki has floated into my mind and told me to stop.
As humans though, we learn from our mistakes but we still make them again.
Maybe, instead of books about wizards, fairies, princes and princesses, everyone should be made to read Mr Drecki’s book.