A SAD STORY OF A POLISH SOLDIER BY HIS DAUGHTER Celina

 
I lived in the village of Diddington from the age of 4 till nearly 11. My father, Ryszard Dębiński, was Polish or so he said and it wasn’t until I was older that I began to see the curious synchronicity of events that took us there.

I came across the story of Polish Resettlement Camps and Tweedsmuir Military Camp on an idle trawl through the internet searching around ‘Diddington’. This website provided me with an understanding of some of my Father’s puzzling and vehement attitudes, and the background to the events which precipitated many Poles on foreign shores and stranded so many far from home. As a very young child I was mostly oblivious to the history surrounding the shattering events that disintegrated his life and laid the foundations for ours. Reading through the material written by Zen and Wies Rogalski and the historical material on other linked sites, all of the half-remembered details from my Father’s disjointed outpourings, began to slowly fit the picture that was being painted.

 

My Mother was Irish and came to this country before the war with one of her sisters. Eventually my Grandmother and other two Aunts also came over and they settled in Suffolk contributing to the war effort as Land Army girls and in the WRAC. My parents must have met in the factory where they both worked in about 1952. They married in 1954 and I was born the following year. They left Ipswich for rural Suffolk before I was born and presumably my father went into farm labouring as work came with a tied cottage.

 

There was at least one more move to Essex before arriving in Diddington in either 1958 or ’59.  Although people were very kind to us, we were very much the outsiders: foreign and Catholics. As time went by he became more withdrawn and he was at best regarded as eccentric and at worst, someone to be avoided.  In the church graveyard were the graves of two Polish soldiers or airmen. My father would sometimes go there but not for any stated reason that I am aware of. The village church is situated very close to the A1, the site of the old Hall and its grounds, and the site of the ‘camp’. For us children, it was a magical and mysterious playground. The place was overrun with lupines, shrubs and very climbable trees. There were strange concreted areas with the broken remains of ceramic toilet bowls (something we were not familiar with at the time!) and brick water tanks over-flown by beautiful dragonflies: a truly wonderful but highly dangerous playground.

 

My father had a battered old suitcase which was filled with, presumably, the only possessions he had from his life as a soldier. These consisted of photographs of Polish soldiers, himself in uniform (wearing sergeant’s stripes), groups of Italian acquaintances, memorabilia from Naples, a pressed, thornless rose from a bush in Assisi in which St. Francis was supposed to have rolled and some large contour maps of Monte Cassino written in Polish. There were also a number of medals and ribbons. I have looked at web sites displaying WWII Polish medals and some of them are easily identifiable: a Monte Cassino cross, a bronze coloured circular medal with the Polish eagle on one side and several lines of writing in Polish on the reverse, other crosses and, if I remember correctly, some stars.

 
Unlike many people I have met since, my father had little or no contact with any of the Polish communities in or around the various places that we lived so trying to get a picture of where he came from and his/our history was difficult and not helped by his disintegrating mental health. However, what we could piece together has similar components to the Tweedsmuir and Polish camps stories culminating in being wounded at Monte Cassino and winding up at some point at Diddington Camp. Whether he attended it as a patient or for some other reason, I don’t know. At the time, we believed the camp was an American hospital camp and that he was there because of the bullet wound in his hip. I have no clue or knowledge of his life in the five or so years before he met my Mother. He occasionally mentioned, when pressed, that he had older siblings including a sister called Filomena but mentioned no more names – not even the name of the place he came from. He did say that he learned of his father's death at some point during the war but not when. My mother was convinced that somebody tried to trace him through the Red Cross as he received a letter from them around 1967/8, but never told what was in it, possibly even another wife and children.
 

He was fiercely passionate about Poland and the virtues of the Poles particularly compared to the rest of the world! Any other place or people, apart from Italy and the Italians, came a very poor second. The Polish Soldiers’ Daily was a feature but always a mystery to us as he refused to teach us Polish. On the other hand, he wasn’t keen to let us girls get too educated either.

 

I have to say that life with him was very difficult and dangerous as he became more unstable and violent and eventually, around 1969, we ran away from him. He had refused to go to work and eventually was evicted from the last tied cottage and became homeless. He was arrested for petty theft about 1972. I found out about this as a friend who read a local paper was intrigued by the story of a tramp claiming to be of aristocratic descent, being arrested for stealing a packet of biscuits from Woolworths in St. Neots.  She tried to protect me from hearing about this but other people told us about it. However, this was the last I heard of him. I visited Diddington some years ago and there was almost no trace of the camp. It has probably been built on now.

 

Clearly my fathers’ story is a sad one but I have met many ‘old soldiers’ with harrowing histories. I don’t think I am alone as a child of a displaced Pole, in not previously knowing or understanding just how cruel, inhuman and tragic their experiences must have been. My Father was incapable of sharing with us what happened to him, calmly, coherently or in any detail. He did however, make sure that we were left in no doubt about the evils of Hitler and particularly Stalin, or the anger he felt towards the British. I didn’t until recently, fully understand why. The internet sites dedicated to DP camps and the wider aspects of WWII history, have gone a long way to providing many missing pieces for me. I just wish I had known a long time ago.

 

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