Sunday, 27 November 2011

My Grandmother

I'm sitting here this morning, looking at my grandmother's papers from her first years in England after the war. She arrived in England on 11 December 1947 with the Polish Forces from Egypt. (exactly one week after my mother arrived in Southampton from Mombassa). Her profession is described as Junior Nursing Sister.


She was born in 1906 in Lwow, Poland, (now Lviv, Ukraine). I have her school reports, the first one (see below) from 1914, during the Austrian Anschluss, in Austrian German, the later ones in Polish, after Poland became an independent republic for the first time in centuries in 1921, her reports stretching from 1922 to her graduation in 1926.

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She qualified as a teacher in Poland, married an army officer, had my father. She was working as a teacher in Poland when the second world war broke out. Her husband, my grandfather, died in January 1940 after interrogation by the Soviet army, and shortly afterwards, she and my father were deported to Siberia, in cattle trucks. From Siberia to Kazakhstan, to Pahlevi, to Isfahan, to Teheran, to Palestine, to Egypt. Finally, after the war, to England.

On arrival in England (with the Polish Army), she was with the Polish Resettlement Corps for a few months, and then moved to work at No4 Polish General Hospital, Iscoyd Park, near Witchurch (in Shropshire). This hospital cared for Polish refugees with TB and with mental health issues.



She remarried in 1948, an ill fated and short lived marriage, and moved to Bury St Edmunds. She is reported as intending to return to Poland in Dec 1948. As the news filtered back from Poland of what was happening to returning poles in now Soviet occupied Poland (terrible things, imprisonment and execution), the plan changed and she and my father decided to stay in England. By 1949, she was living in Oxford and working as a canteen assistant, and in October 1949, she moved to Birmingham, and to a job with W.W.Greener, a firearms manufacturer, as a factory worker. Although my grandmother died when I was eight or nine years old, I still remember her stories of working in the factory. She was trying to teach herself English, and her job was testing rifles, which meant working in a small booth, and firing rifles. She would have her books open in her lap and read and work at the same time. I often wonder how many faulty rifles went out into the marketplace as a result.

In 1951, she moved to Wheaton Aston in Shropshire. She is reported as "now employed at committee for the Education of Poles in Great Britain". In 1952, she moved to Fairford, and then in 1954 to Shepalbury Mansion, a boarding school for Polish orphans. The document ends here.

I was born in 1963, my brothers before me in 1955 and 1959. My grandmother lived with us in Birmingham when I was very small, then moved to her own flat, a mile away. She worked as a primary school teacher in Montgomery Street primary school, in a multi ethnic, working class area of Birmingham until her death, just days before her retirement at 60.

My grandmother was always a natural teacher, and taught me how to learn and be curious about the world in the gentlest fashion. When I think of her life, from Lwow - under Austrian occupation at the time of her birth - through Siberia, Persia (Iran) , Egypt and Palestine, then all those different places in England - such a peripatetic life, and yet, she was the steadiest person I knew. When people say that he or she is a "rock", I think of my grandmother, who was indeed a rock.



So today, I want to pay tribute to this fine woman, who survived so much, and gave me many of the building blocks for my life.

                                          Zofia Chobrzynska. My grandmother.

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