Looking at any historical map of Poland anyone may see how its borders have changed over the centuries. Where will you find the Polish home? One answer must be that it is founded deep in the hearts of the Polish people who fought for the liberty and the integrity of the Polish homeland. Now consider the promontory of land around Vilnius, or Wilno as it was then known, which was contained inside Poland in 1921. It was an area in which the small market town of Hruzdowa, comprising some 52 buildings and just large enough to warrant a town hall, was situated. These wild borderlands –known as the Kresy-were fought over for centuries by Austrians, Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians and Lithuanians. It was here that Matthew Kelly’s great-grandfather, who had imbibed the values and élan of the dashing officer class, Rafał Ryżewscy, came to teach with his clever young wife, Hanna. They were deeply committed to progress through education and to peaceably raising their two little daughters. However, the dreadful and calamitous year of 1939, was approaching when Hitler and Stalin partitioned Poland in the most cynical pact.
The particular attraction of this tale is the engaging manner in which personal and family recollections are intermingled, with a detailed but succinct account, of the history. A tragic history too; its wide parameters were to have a sorrowful effect on the couple and their children. Kelly is a young academic who teaches at Southamptonand gives a thorough background to the action. To give just two instances concerning major figures; he accounts for the vacillations in the policy of the renowned Józef Piłsudski, who steered Poland through the difficult period after 1918 and General Władysław Anders, the leader of the Polish II Corps, is presented as a humane leader in the confused period after the German attack on Russia.. His authoritarianism is recorded and yet the respect that he inspired in the Polish officer class is also described. Kelly’s writing strives to give a fair account and this aspect of his prose engages the reader.
The progressive cultural and linguistic values of thePolish-LithuanianCommonwealth, based on what we might now describe as inclusiveness, are shown to stretch right back to the Reformation. Other strands of nationalism are indicated as well as the conflict that resulted in a temporary dominance of the Poles over the Soviets which resulted in the treaty of Rigain March 1921. This is the necessary background to the love story between Rafał and Hanna, comrades and settlers together in the wild lands. Photographs of their marriage add poignancy to the story as we see and read of Hannah and her two tiny growing daughters, Wanda and Maria. These three were to be so suddenly driven into exile, separated from their very affectionate father, and exposed to multiple dangers during their hurried and harrowing departure, in cattle wagons transported across frozen wastes, eventually toKazakhstan.
There are many moving vignettes which will remain in the reader’s mind long after completing the book. There is mention of an unfortunate small child who incurred her mother’s desperate wrath by spilling a small supply of flour during the severe Siberian winter. The sacred vigil that Wanda kept by the window on Christmas Eve waiting for the first star to appear that indicated the start of celebrations. Throughout, Matthew Kelly indicates the importance of Catholic Christianity in sustaining believers in dark times; these links with the historic concept of Poland as a martyr nation. Hanna, the long-suffering mother, had to be wrapped in layers and layers of clothing to labour on the construction of a railway or her back-breaking gleaning on a collective farm. Dire images of body lice being burnt during long evenings in crackling candle flames are recorded. Then finally, the moment arrives, afterGermanyattackedRussia, when Polish troops are assembled into a ragged bootless army. Most touching is, when after a hazardous journey across the Caspian, the whole family escape to the gentler, more fertile climes ofPersia. However this was still wartime, travel arduous and hazardous and their final destination inIndia,AfricaorMexicoundecided. This was in the uncertain hands of official authorities, American, British and Polish; once again, and for a long while the outcome remained indeterminate.
Well supplied with notes and reference material, the only lack is a map to supplement Nana’s sketch map on which to track the vast distances involved before the final return to Devon. Otherwise, ‘Finding Poland’ is a magnificent and constantly informative account covering everything from the Katyn massacre to the persecution of Kulaks, the organisation of the Polish army to allegations of anti-Semitism. Informative on these and many other issues, it highlights the background of the Polish struggle to establish identity. It is deeply stirring as it describes the cost of conflict upon the author’s family. It is also very well-written and, at this price, something of a bargain.