I had my first experience of abuse when I was about four years of age. I remember being spat at by some of the other kids in the street where we lived.
Looking back, I guess it all started when my parents, who were originally from Poland, came to the UK after the war in 1947. Having experienced life in a free, pre-war Poland, their reluctance to return to a country which had been sold out to Stalin at Yalta was understandable. They very nearly ended up in Canada, but the decision to come to England was swayed by the fact that my father had a distant cousin living in Nottingham. It was a tenuous link, but living in a post-war world filled with the fear of uncertainties, it was a link nonetheless. It must have been such a daunting experience for my parents, trying to build up some sort of life in a new country amidst unfamiliar surroundings and people, especially as neither of them spoke English.
But then, the previous six years had brought with them unimaginable terror and hardship; that time between 1939 and 1945 when so many nations of our world took up arms, united in a common goal – the fight for freedom and democracy. It is a time that must surely be considered as one of the greatest blights upon the world’s history; a time when death and destruction reigned supreme and there was no hiding place or safe haven for anyone.
My parents were among the one and a half million Poles who were deported by the NKVD to the gulags in Siberia in 1939. Two long years followed which can only be described as a feat of endurance, courage and fortitude. They survived the sub-zero temperatures, the starvation, the heavy work and the appalling living conditions which brought with them a surfeit of disease and infestation. My father suffered frostbite in his chin, and my mother had to walk alone through miles of snow covered forests inhabited by wild wolves in order to reach the nearest town and get him medication. It sounds like something out of a novel or film, doesn’t it? During that time, my parents had a little boy, my oldest brother. Had he lived, he would have been in his seventies now, but the terrible conditions led to his death at only eight months old.
After they were granted amnesty by Stalin in the August of 1941, my parents travelled to the Buzuluk area, where my father joined the Polish armed forces in the East under General Wladyslaw Anders. The army was created in the Soviet Union, but in the March of 1942, it evacuated the USSR and made its way across the Caspian Sea to Iran. Thousands of Polish prisoners, men, women and children were forced to walk from the southernmost border of the Soviet Union (the present day location of Turkmenistan) to British hands in Iran. Many perished from the long walk. There were many Jewish people who joined Anders’ army, and amongst them was a man called Menachem Begin, who not only became a veteran, but was later destined to become the sixth Prime Minister of Israel.
The army crossed into Palestine where it passed under British command and provided the bulk of the units and troops of the Polish II Corps taking part in the fighting in Italy. My father became one of General Anders’ bodyguards and saw active service in Italy at the battle of Monte Cassino, for which he was awarded a medal. During that time, my mother was in different refugee camps and it was in Tehran that my now eldest brother was born. Mum has often told me how kind the Iranian people were to her. I would like to thank them for showing such goodness and compassion towards a lonely young woman of barely twenty-three and her child, a woman far away from home and family who had already endured so much, living with the constant fear that she would never see her husband again. I can’t even begin to imagine how terrible this must have been, not just for my mother but for all those who lived and continue to live through the horrors of war.
But my parents were destined to survive. The war ended and they came to England. They spent the following few years living in various refugee camps across the UK. My second-oldest brother was born in Wales and then, in the early Fifties, my family came to live in the south west of England, and I was born towards the end of that decade. After years of meandering around the globe, they were offered a home, the first proper home they had had in fifteen years. It was a local authority owned house made from breeze blocks and reinforced concrete but to my parents, it was a palace. It heralded a new beginning, a place where they could start again; a place where they could belong. They lived in that house for over fifty years. You know the old saying “home is where the heart is”. I think that’s especially true of me because even though I left the family home behind many years ago and went on to build up a nest of my own, that first little sanctuary from so long ago still is and always will be where I belong.
People endure so much in their lives. For many, merely surviving on a daily basis can be such a struggle, very much as it was for my parents and the millions of others like them. Just like it is today because times may change but sadly, people don’t.
Sometimes, when I think about all this, there’s just one thing I don’t understand. Why did those kids spit at us in the street?