‘Death would have been a luxury’: Manchester man reveals father’s WW2 experience in Siberian work camp

By Reece Lawrence

Most people will say that the stories about their father’s early lives are unremarkable, perhaps sprinkled with the odd memorable anecdote.

But for one Manchester man a foray into the past revealed that his father endured unimaginable hardship in the most barren of lands during a time of mass conflict.

Frank Pleszak decided to research his father Mikołaj’s story having never heard first-hand any of the tales that took him from a village in rural Poland to Manchester during World War II.

Now, after a lengthy period of study, he has had a book published about his life.

Frank said: “My father was born in Eastern Poland. He spoke very little about his early life and died without ever having any contact with his family again since the war.”

The book, Two Years in a Gulag: The True Wartime Story of a Polish Peasant Exiled to Siberia, details how, aged just 19, Mikołaj was taken from his family and deported to Russian labour camps with 2.5 million other Poles as the Soviets invaded from the East in 1939.

From there, he travelled across much of Asia, the Middle-East, and southern Europe before being brought to Britain.

Frank, 55, an IT technician from Marple Bridge, recounted how, a few years after Mikołaj’s death in 1994, he visited the place where the journey began – a small village called Szwakszty.

“We eventually got in touch with his family who were living in what is now Belarus,” he recalled.

“We took some of his ashes back to his village and his family were still living in the very same house he was brought up in and taken away from.”

His mother was pregnant at the time, and sadly Mikołaj would never get to meet his unborn younger brother, nor would he see his family again.

“There were three mass deportations and whole groups of families went but my dad’s family didn’t, it was just him,” Frank added.

Mikołaj was made to travel from Poland to Vladivostok – a monumental journey of 10,000 miles – by cattle train, then a week’s journey on a ‘slave ship’ up to the remote region of Kolyma.

“For most Russians, Kolyma was a death sentence. People in Kolyma talk about the rest of Russia as the mainland even though it’s the same landmass, because it’s so isolated.

Up to 20,000 Poles were sent there at the same time, and incredibly Mikołaj was among just 500 of that group who survived the camps.

Frank said: “The Gulags weren’t like German concentration camps. People went there to work, and if they didn’t work they died rather than being taken there to be killed.

“Death would have been a luxury to some of these people.”

A glimmer of hope appeared when Germany invaded Russia in 1941, and Soviet leader Josef Stalin had thousands of Poles released from Siberian captivity expecting them form an army against Hitler’s troops.

However the fractured history between the nations meant this was never likely to happen and so an agreement was reached to release the Poles – Mikołaj among them – to the British, after two years of imprisonment.

In 1942 he came under the control of British army and began to recover from the ordeal while adjusting to military life.

Along with his countrymen he resided in several countries – Iraq and the British Mandate of Palestine (now Israel) among them.

Mikołaj did see action with the Polish 2nd Corps, notably at the crucial Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944 in Italy as the war reached its climax.

Frank admitted that he and his family knew very little of the background to his father’s involvement in the military.

“We knew he’d been in the Polish army which was attached to the British army and fought at the major battles in Italy.

“The more we read the more we unearthed this unbelievable story of this Polish nation sent to Siberia.”

After the war they were part of the British army and so were allowed to come to England, and his division – the 2nd Warsaw Armoured Division – was allocated to York.

Churchill’s government aided their transition from a military life to a civilian life, and Mikołaj became a miner in Barnsley – a far cry from his previous exploits.

His love affair with Manchester began after he met his future wife Clara – a Mancunian – at a Christmas party in the city shortly after the war ended.

After getting married he lived in Denton for most of the rest of his life and worked in modest blue-collar labour jobs, but tragically was never allowed to return to his homeland.

“My dad had a lifetime ban like many Poles did. Poland had been completely subjugated by Russia, so for most Poles who came from that region it was impossible to go home, and that’s why they stayed in England.”

He revealed Two Years in a Gulag was originally written as a family memento for his children, entitled In My Father’s Footsteps.

Frank said: “I was thinking about getting it self-published and then giving the copies to my kids, but I had some friends read bits of it and they said I should send it to a publisher to see what they say.

“I sent it out to a few and a couple came back and said they were interested so I thought ‘why not?’

“It is an incredible story, not just about my father but the whole Polish nation – it’s so little known and people are astounded by it.”

Whereas Mikołaj largely kept his distance from his fellow Poles once in Manchester, for Frank the discovery of his father’s past has had a profound effect on his own identity.

“I’m Mancunian born and bred but I do now feel for the Poles and I do feel closer to them, but sadly I don’t speak Polish.

“Dad didn’t really take part in the Polish community, I think mainly because he married a Mancunian, and became separated from them.

“One of the common things I’ve found in talking to people is that their parents wouldn’t talk about their experiences – why would they want to remember all that horror?”

Much of Frank’s knowledge of the Manchester community was down to his involvement with Krezy-Siberia, a discussion group where people with similar backgrounds share their own experiences and research.

Frank says he is determined to one day visit the area of Russia his father was sent to.

Of the book itself, he confessed: “I spent so much researching it but I won’t make any money out of it – I didn’t do it for that reason.”

Two Years in a Gulag is available to buy on Amazon here.

Picture courtey of Amberley Publishing/ Frank Pleszak, with thanks

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