Julie met Frank Pleszak at Polish Heritage Day back in May, and was fascinated to hear about the hidden histories he has uncovered, whilst researching his father’s experiences as a Polish refugee in the Second World War. Here he talks about his family, his research and his ongoing relationship with his father’s land.
I was born in Manchester and have lived and worked here all my life. I’m proud to be a Mancunian. I love it when people ask me where I’m from and I can say Manchester.
But my surname clearly isn’t local. My mum was from Salford but my dad, who died in 1994, was Polish. He never spoke much about his early life, I know he’d fought in Italy at the famous battle of Monte Cassino but it wasn’t until after his death that I began to think about why he was here in Manchester, why he’d been in Italy, and why he hadn’t gone back home to Poland after the war. I had no idea of the monumental series of events, together with World War Two, that had created me a Mancunian.
We all know about the horrors of the Holocaust, but the more I read about the Poles from eastern Poland, the more amazed and fascinated I became in this hugely significant and largely unknown piece of modern history. Not only the story of my dad’s journey, but also the injustice to the Polish nation that I, and many other Mancunians, are a product of.
It’s a story of war, ethnic cleansing, mystery, intrigue, murder, heroics and ultimately betrayal. It is a story that even now is so little known. For most of my life I was unaware of my dad’s story, it was only after his death that I researched it and wrote a book Two Years in a Gulag [available in our library! – Ed.] about his, and thousands of other Poles’, epic, cruel, and tragic journeys from eastern Poland to England.
It was at the start of WWII when my dad, who was 19 years old and living in the east of Poland (a region known as Kresy), was taken away by the Soviet secret police and exiled to Siberia. He was never able to return home and was forbidden to make contact with his family ever again.
After he died the Soviet Union had disintegrated and with the advent of the internet I was able to make contact with the village of his birth, which is now in the little known country of Belarus. Eventually I travelled there and met the relatives he never knew. It’s in a poor rural community and has hardly changed in the last 100 years. His sister was still living in the same house in which he was arrested.
I have now visited several times, but on the first visit we went to the cemetery in the nearby town of Naroch where my grandfather was buried and where we took some of my dad’s ashes. It was whilst in the cemetery that I noticed a huge and spectacular monument to the German fallen at the local World War One Battle of Lake Naroch. I embarrassingly knew nothing of this battle and when I returned home found little in books or even on the internet.
In fact, there is almost nothing written about this battle in the west. Eventually I obtained Russian and German documents that I translated, and was amazed at the massive, brutal, and significant battle that had taken place there. In short, the German army at the limit of its eastern front, outnumbered 4:1 by the Imperial Russian army, scored a massive and decisive victory over the Russians, contributing to the early withdrawal of the Russians from the WWI and arguably influencing the Russian revolution.
So a hundred years since WWI, while most people concentrate on the famous battles on the Western Front my focus has been on the Battle of Lake Naroch. I have given talks and later this year will be publishing the first ever book in the English language to document the events of that time, so that they are not lost to posterity.
Last year I was honoured to be invited to attend the centenary commemoration of the Battle in Belarus, which was held at the Narochansky National Park on the shore of the beautiful Lake Naroch. The event started with a wreath laying at the Military Cemetery in the capital Minsk and opening speeches at the Belarusian Museum of the Great Patriotic War. The conference moved on to presentations, battle locations and ceremonies to honour the dead from both sides around Lake Naroch and in the town of Postavy.
I was the only none Belarussian or Russian there and I was treated with the utmost respect and consideration. It was a truly wonderful few days in cold Belarus.
Going back to my dad’s story. During my research into his past I have become friends with many people of a similar background, and I have been helped by some great groups, such as the Manchester based Kresy-Family.
One good friend, now in his 80s, was exiled from the Polish town of Postavy as a child. For the last 15 years or so, since his retirement, he has been supporting (through his small charity Our Roots Trust) an English Language class at High School #1 in Postavy, running student competitions and presenting small cash prizes.
This year, following illness, he was unable to go and as I had already planned another trip to Belarus I was honoured to accept his offer for me to do the prize-giving. So on 16th March this year I with my son Oscar and friend Steve Delight, reviewed entries for the 2016 competition in the two categories of art and short stories.
The event was held in a packed school hall and after we had presented the prizes I gave a short presentation on Manchester, in which I described Manchester’s rich historical, sporting, cultural, and musical heritage.
The students, teachers, and parents in the packed hall were enthralled. I handed out some Swizzels sweets (made locally to where I live) and had some souvenir pens printed. Everybody put their name into a bag and we drew lots for the star prize – a Manchester United football shirt.
As a finale, Steve who is a musician sang an Oasis song to a rapturous reception and then performed a duet in Russian with my niece Katya Korobova: not bad for somebody who spoke not a word of Russian at the beginning of the week.
“Это все, что останется после меня” : “It’s all that remains after me”:
It was a fascinating and unforgettable event. The students were shy at first but their English was brilliant. Most had never met anybody from the west and they were captivated, asking about our weather and our food. We were treated like celebrities and showered with presents; in the poorest country in Europe this was very special. Some of the students comments on Facebook were really flattering, one described it as their best ever day in school.
Can’t wait to go back next year.