As the UK embarks on a slightly surreal ‘coronavirus’ bank holiday weekend to mark the 75th Anniversary of the formal declaration of the end of the war in Europe, I find myself in a bit of a swirl of mixed emotions. Yes, of course, the end of a horrendous war needs celebrating and, yes, we need to keep remembering what it was all about, for fear of it happening again. But this is where we start to lose the plot a bit, in my opinion.
The sight of red, white and blue bunting and union jacks going up, and talk of abandoned street parties (due to covid-19), smack of misplaced British triumphalism and exceptionalism that deny the fact that the only indisputable reason we were the only European country to completely resist invasion by the Nazis (if you give up the Channel Islands), was not because of any exceptional military might, or brilliant generals, or plucky British spirit, but because of the simple geographical accident of being an island. Without being bailed out by our American ‘cousins’ even that would probably not have been enough.
Thus, our perspective on what VE Day means is somewhat different, I’d say warped, compared to that of most of the rest of Europe. For this reason, I want to mark this anniversary in a very personal way and share the story of how an 18 year lad from a small town in Poland found himself, more than a thousand miles from home, in the safe haven of the city of Glasgow on V.E. Day.
Jerzy Severyn Chyba was born on 29th November 1926 in Krotoszyn, a small agricultural town of about 25,000 people, about 100 miles from the German border. He was the middle child of seven, having 4 brothers and 2 sisters.
Jerzy was still shy of his 13th birthday on 1st September 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. The German Army swept to the outskirts of Krotoszyn County on day one of the invasion. On 2nd September, a train carrying over three hundred fleeing citizens of the town was bombed and all were killed. The Chyba family were sitting tight, and there was little resistance as the Nazis swept in to take full control of the town on 4th September.
The eldest brother fled town to join the military resistance, at the cost of his life at some point, but the rest of the family settled to some sort of routine under German occupation. Jerzy’s father, Severyn, was a ‘key worker’, becoming a manager of the water supply and sewerage system in the town, with the family wheelwright business in the hands of younger men.
At some point in the spring of 1941, the Nazis swept through the town rounding up young men for forced labour. Somehow, at the age of just 14, Jerzy was included in this group and was among the youngest, if not the youngest of the group. He wasn’t even particularly big or strong for his age, but was, by all accounts, energetic and full of mischief. This clearly did him no favours. He was not to see Krotoszyn again for about 25 years.
He had never been far outside of Krotoszyn in his life up until this point, so his hazy awareness of where they were taken is understandable. They were carted off in the back of trucks for an uncomfortable drive, for a few hours, to work initially on railway lines. Given the timing and the geographical range, this was almost certainly work on the train lines into Auschwitz.
The network of ‘death’ trains from the whole of north-west Europe (northern Germany, Benelux countries, Scandinavia via ships to Rostok) and the whole of France, all fed down to Breslau (now known as Wrocław). A single route then went from Breslau to Auschwitz (as the Germans renamed the Polish town of Oświęcim). This section certainly needed considerable upgrading and links building. Wrocław is about 50 miles south of Krotoszyn, and Wrocław to Oświęcim is about 140 miles. This work was completed in order to facilitate the first mass transit of Jews to Auschwitz in January 1942.
Jerzy’s story from here gets increasingly sketchy as what, initially, may have seemed quite an adventure, rapidly turned into a living nightmare that took its toll on him physically and mentally. With work on the railways completed by the end of 1941, the forced labour gangs were hauled off to various other activities that appear to have taken Jerzy ever more westwards towards Bavaria. The work included digging ditches in woodlands, which could only really have been for mass graves, and various quarrying and building tasks.
Jerzy consistently found himself as the youngest member of whatever gang he was assigned to, and this probably saved his life, as the older guys took him under their wings a bit and even the guards seemed to take pity on him. Thus, when he finally broke down into something of a gibbering wreck, he wasn’t despatched into a ditch like most that were literally worked into the ground, but somehow found himself in an asylum.
His memories of this were that the nurses included german-speaking nuns and that there was something ecclesiastical about the ‘hospital’, with very peaceful grounds. Putting these snippets together, my best guess is that he was at Irsee Abbey in Bavaria. A former imperial monastery, after 1849, the buildings served as an asylum and hospital for the mentally ill. Between 1939 and 1945 more than 2,000 patients, both adults and children, were transported by the then regime from Irsee to death camps. Jerzy recovered sufficiently after a few weeks/months here, to be discharged back to a working party. It was the summer of 1944.
Back with a working party, he was, at age 17, still the youngest of the group. This particular party seemed to spend as much time marching country lanes as working sporadically on assorted minor projects. Their accommodation was more often than not locked up into barns for the night. Security wasn’t the tightest and as autumn set in and the weather started to deteriorate, the men plotted to break out and run for it overnight.
This they duly did. Initially there was a small group of them together, 3 or 4 perhaps, but as their escape was noticed and a commotion and gunfire followed, they splintered and never saw each other again.
Jerzy just ran and ran until he collapsed, muddied, cut and bruised from stumbling through woods in the dark. He awoke after dawn to find himself near the edge of woodland bordered by grazing land, but with otherwise no idea where he was or which way he should go. He was aware enough to deduce from the sun roughly where west was and decided that was the way to head. This was a life-saving decision.
Several days later he had not seen a soul, giving the occasional farm or hamlet he spotted a wide berth, but was getting increasingly starving. Such was his hunger that at one point he stumbled across a recently deceased sheep and managed to rip out its liver, still slightly warm, to eat raw (which explains his aversion to offal throughout my lifetime). A while after this, he ventured into a bombed out farm to see what he could scavenge. What he found was a dead German soldier. This took a bit of processing, but it clearly suggested some resistance forces, and perhaps some form of sanctuary not too far away. He ’stole’ the soldiers knife and pressed on after resting up awhile.
Near complete exhaustion, and semi-consciously hiding in a ditch somewhere, he was eventually picked up by allied soldiers. Given what is known of the allied advances at this time, I’m guessing this must have been around November time and near the German/French border, not far north of Switzerland. He was severely malnourished and pretty much delirious, probably as much from relief as anything else. He found himself passed back through the lines and eventually on a boat. By the time he was fully aware again, he found he was in a convalescent hospital in Glasgow, probably the Glasgow Convalescent Home, used as a military hospital and soldier convalescent home during and immediately after the war, later to become Woodlilee Hospital. He was uncertain as to whether he was there for his birthday, but was there for Christmas in 1944, having just turned 18 years old. The aerial shot shows that it was a majestic complex of buildings, surrounded by fields, just outside the city as it was then. The second shows that there are few building left, with the hospital now gone and the site part of the sprawling suburbs of Glasgow today.
This is where Jerzy still was on V.E. Day itself. The celebrations were enjoyed by one and all, with Jerzy getting used to being called George by the nurses he was now up to flirting with, and a little more. He was to track down and renew his friendship with a couple of these nurses almost 60 years later. It is not inconceivable that he is in this photo, below, somewhere.
As a postscript, after being discharged from the convalescent home, he joined the Polish Resettlement Corp (PRC) when it was set up in May 1946.
The PRC was an organisation formed by the British Government in 1946 as a holding unit for members of the Polish Armed Forces who did not wish to return to a communist Poland after the end of the War. It was designed to ease their transition from military into civilian life and to keep them under military control until they were fully adjusted to British life. It taught George to drive (pretty badly), for example. This is a picture of him in his PRC uniform.
George was torn as to whether he wanted to return to his family back in Poland. On the one hand he was desperate to see them all again after all he been through, but on the other hand he was being encouraged to stay put in his mother’s letters, as life under Soviet control was still proving very harsh back in Krotoszyn. George had sampled the taste of freedom and some frivolity here in the UK and was happy enough to bide his time.
The Polish Resettlement Corps was being wound down by the end of 1948 and there would have been some pressure on George to make his mind up. Despite the urgings of his mother he secured a ticket for a repatriation ship sailing from Sheerness in Kent, of all places. I can find no record of any such official passages, and I suspect it was a dodgy operation, given that when he missed the boat due to public transport still being a shambles, he found himself stranded in Kent, with no alternative but to look for work and lodgings.
Thus, he ended up working in the Bowaters Paper Mill near Sheerness. Some time later he was transferred to their mill in Gravesend, where he became the room tenant of Mr and Mrs Whiffin and their young son Derek. He spent the rest of his life in Gravesend and Mrs Whiffin became Mrs Chyba in 1959.
I share this with you all as I want to put it down before I start forgetting it, but also feel that it is a story worth reflecting on, on this day in particular. The sense of relief at the end of the war must have been that much greater across the mainland of Europe than it could be have been here. We should not lose sight of that, and this is why I am flying the Polish flag instead of the Union flag (aka ‘butchers apron’) today. The British certainly cannot take the moral high ground when it comes to blood-stained conflict.
Anyway, na zdrowie Jerzy/George Chyba!