HISTORY FEATURE: Heroic former Polish servicemen who made new lives in Rotherham

HISTORY FEATURE: Heroic former Polish servicemen who made new lives in Rotherham

By Gareth Dennison | 26/06/2022

HISTORY FEATURE: Heroic former Polish servicemen who made new lives in Rotherham

 

SOMETIMES they would be ordered out of their cells and forced to watch fellow prisoners of war being hanged as the Gestapo laughed.

Other times, they would be marched out and told it was their turn to be hanged — only to be returned to their cramped cells.

This was the town of Cieszyn, southern Poland, in 1940 and prisoner of war Antoni Jalowiczor was crammed in with 30 others in such a small space that they needed to stand up all the time.

Antoni, who was in his mid-20s, was arrested out of the blue by the Gestapo at 5am on February 5, 1940, and interrogated in a public house in Istebna, his home village.

He and 27 others were taken in trucks to Cieszyn, where they were beaten on a daily basis, and he was issued the number 8349 when they were moved to the Stalag VIIIB Lamsdorf prisoner of war camp.

On arrival, Antoni was immediately diagnosed with complete exhaustion, along with kidney problems from being kicked so often by Gestapo officers in Cieszyn.

He would later recall: “In Lamsdorf, the conditions were pitiful and we slept in a stable on bare concrete with no covers and often in wet clothing.

“No work clothes were issued and we wore the same clothing that we had left home in; we received clogs after our shoes had been completely worn out.

“Lamsdorf was a real trial of hunger. My daily ration was 240g of bread for dinner, a bowl of watery soup with potato peelings. In Lamsdorf, we also had a long-distance to walk to work, which involved regulating river flow.”

After three months, Antoni was transferred to a transit camp in Trier, Germany, and then to a penal camp in Alsace, France.

“The 1940/41 winter was a particularly hard one and we carried out many duties such as digging up the corpses of German soldiers who had fallen during the invasion of France,” he said.

“The bodies had been temporarily buried in a field in Sélestat near René.

“My other duties involved working briefly in Hausmanfabrik, a textile factory, and clearing the roads of snow.

“We suffered hunger, cold, had no overalls, no footwear and the lice were awful. The soldiers in charge were very cruel and punished the frozen, hungry and emaciated prisoners for the slightest shortcomings in their work.

“We had one blanket each and suffered greatly from the cold.

“There were no toilets here, only a latrine in the middle of the courtyard and this could only be used from 6am to 9pm.

“After these hours the soldier on sentry duty would shoot without warning.”

Once, a POW went to the toilet after hours and was shot and wounded badly. A fellow inmate responded to his cries of agony — and was hit with machine gun fire himself.

They could only be retrieved the next day — during the permitted hours — while the soldier on sentry duty was given a promotion and two weeks’ holiday.

Antoni remained at the Colmar camp, Alsace, until March 1941, when he was sent with 12 others to work for a landowner elsewhere in Alsace. The 17-hour working days worsened his health problems.

He was diagnosed with a hernia and emaciation that August but the doctor, who was also a Pole, advised him not to have the operation.

Antoni said: “He said that the Nazi doctors would leave me crippled and it would be better to wait until the end of the war.

“For that reason, I didn’t stay in hospital in Strasbourg and had to return to work.”

Throughout the war years, Antoni refused to sign the Volksdeutsche — a list of those living outside Germany but who considered themselves German, just without actual citizenship.

Antoni was a proud Pole. He watched friends sign the list and leave. But even persuasion from family members back home could not make him budge.

He continued the forced labour until April 1945, when he presented at the Polish army checkpoint in Paris, nearly a year after the city was liberated.

Antoni said: “From there, I travelled to the camp in Avion, then on to Marseilles before finally boarding an English ship bound for Italy to join the Drugi Korpus (Second Corps).

“After being examined by a panel of doctors, I finally had my hernia operation in hospital in Casamasina. I left Italy in 1946, bound for England together with the Polish army. October 1947 saw me demobbed and I registered for work.”

Antoni’s new home was Rotherham, where he worked as a miner. He became a British citizen in 1962 and visited home to see his mother for the first time since the war the following August.

His wife Maria joined him in Rotherham in April 1964 and they had a son, Peter, a year later. Antoni died from a stroke in 1971, age 56.

Their home, on Station Street at Masbrough, became a thriving hub for the Polish community, which swelled in number around this time and was full of heroes with similar stories to Antoni’s.

Veteran Pawel Gazur — also from Istebna — was among those to stay there, and his son Michael remembers well the toys he would play with at Station Road.

“The house was always a hive of activity,” added Michael, now of Rawmarsh.

The place was like a drop-in centre. People brought food, had a catch-up and used it as a base before heading to the shop units on the corner nearby, where there was a well-used dance hall on the first floor.

Michael said: “This venue was used by the Polish community for socialising and entertainment. A band of Polish musicians played at such events.

“Again, food would be brought to Station Road during the day and then carried over to the dance hall at the allotted time.

“The floor of the dance hall was often sprinkled with talcum powder to make it slippery for the dancers.

“This was always an excuse for children to use the floor for sliding before the dancing started.”

Anna Zalesna recalled: “The residence on Station Road quickly became the place for Polish people coming from hostels. In those times, everyone helped each other, and the level of trust was very high.

“Very quickly, the residence became one for choir practice. Fr Stelmach played the piano and the choir practised about an hour before the mass.

“On the ground floor, two rooms were knocked into one and a large rectangular room resulted. There could be up to 20 people in the room.

“When Peter’s mum arrived from Poland there were changes, because she wanted more privacy.”

The last two veterans to live at Station Road were Stanislaw Hasiuk and Leopold Majewski, better known as Stan and Leo.

Stan came to Rotherham to work down the pit, and ended up joining fellow compatriots at Herringthorpe Valley Road Miners’ Hostel before living at Masbrough in the 1970s.

Leo had been force-conscripted to the German army during the war but escaped, changing his name to avoid being shot for desertion if captured while fighting for the other side.

He also became a miner in Rotherham after the war — and both he and Stan died in December 1991.

The house has now been celebrated with a blue plaque — the 24th erected by Rotherham District Civic Society — in memory of the many ex-servicemen who called the place home.

“Many could not and would not return to Poland because of the Soviet occupation,” said Peter, who still lives in Rotherham.

“Had they returned to Soviet Poland they would have had many problems; at the very least being locked-up with a set of false charges made against them.

“The house in Station Road became a hub of the community, just as the miners’ hostel at East Herringthorpe was beginning to close.

“The house was very conveniently situated a stone’s throw from St Bede’s Church and many activities took place within the walls here.

“Downstairs two large rooms were knocked into one larger room in which a piano and a harmonium were installed. This room was used mainly for choir practices and other meetings.

“Several ex-servicemen lived there. Some married and others remained single, eventually moving out.

“Many used the house as a place to find their feet in the town before moving on and settling down with families, usually nearby.”

There are surviving sound recordings from the 60s, which feature discussions, interviews and singing — giving a flavour of the Station Road house’s atmosphere.

It was even visited by General Bor-Komorowski (below) in 1962. He had been a prime minister of the Polish government-in-exile during the 40s and his trip to Rotherham came at the invitation of the SPK — the Polish ex-servicemen association in Great Britain.

Rotherham District Civic Society treasurer Bernard Fletcher said: “We have erected 24 blue plaques around the town and borough since 2012 and we are very proud of our achievement.

“We believe it is important to recognise the part played by this house in the 20th century after the Second World War, when many ex-servicemen made it their home between 1948 and 1991.

“The war taking place in Ukraine makes us all realise the debt we owe to the men and women who fought for our freedom in the Second World War.

“The part being played by Poland today in taking in over three million Ukrainian refugees is remarkable. It is a tribute to the caring nature of the Polish people.”

Forgotten Heroes by Peter Jalowiczor is available to buy from the Rotherham Visitor Centre inside the Makers Emporium on High Street.

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