Waldemar Januszczak: Searching for the father I never knew

    When Waldemar Januszczak's mother died, he inherited an envelope containing his father's last remaining possessions. But was he ready to face the truth about the man who had died when he was a baby?

    Somewhere up ahead is the scruffy wooden hut through which I had passed in the opposite direction early that morning. This will make you laugh, but I had only been let through because Ukraine recently won the Eurovision Song Contest, and as its reward was now hosting the next event. So, to attract international song lovers in greater numbers, the entry restrictions into Ukraine had been temporarily lifted for EU citizens. Unfortunately, nobody had bothered to explain this clearly to the border guards at this particular godforsaken chicken run, and it had cost me plenty to get through. Now here I was, 12 hours later, mission accomplished, desperate to get back into Poland, armed only with a scruffy, handwritten permission that ran out at midnight. And I’m in some very weird company.

    The woman on my left is frantically shoving packets of fags into her knickers. Her friend up front is forcing the fags down her bra, transforming herself into a tottering 68DD. Everyone squeezing their way slowly down this grotty, concrete chicane is bulging. Except me. I’m not here to make a grim bob or two by smuggling cheap cigarettes into Poland.

    Making it all worse is a horrible scratching and screeching that floats spookily across the no man’s land. Turning a corner at last, I see a chap pressed against the chicken wire, crazily selling roll after roll of Sellotape. The screeching is the sound of lots of people simultaneously wrapping lots of Sellotape around their waists as they make themselves fat with concealed fags. Pushing hopelessly forward through this mass of bulging Polish lowlifers, I asked myself for the zillionth time that day what the hell I was doing here. But I knew the answer. I was looking for me.

    I come from Basingstoke, Hampshire. I enjoy telling people this because it surprises them. They look at my name, with all those Zs and S’s in it, and they imagine I must hail from somewhere like Przemysl near Rzeszow, or from Bydgoszcz. But no. It’s Basingstoke. My parents were among the hundreds of thousands of Polish refugees and former servicemen who fetched up in England after the war with badly disfigured lives. The drawing of the iron curtain across the middle of Europe was an unforgivable political sin that spoilt an uncountable number of European lives. Certainly it spoilt the lives of my parents. And probably it spoilt mine.

    I have before me as I write this a brown paper envelope. Torn along its edges, and grubby, it has two labels on the back stuck there by “The Superintendent, Hampshire Constabulary, Police Station, Basingstoke, Hants”. Handwritten on the front in red ink are the words “Property of Dead Pole”. There’s a number too: 8316. I can’t look at it without getting tearful.

    I found the envelope among my mother’s papers when she died two years ago. I knew it must contain the final possessions of my father. He was run over by a train at Basingstoke station in 1954, the year I was born. After my mum went too, I couldn’t open the envelope. I kept telling myself I was too busy; that I needed some clear mental space to deal with it. But there was more to it than that. My mother never talked about my father. She was only 33 when he was killed. The war had taken her childhood and trampled on it, as wars do. But he was 57, and must already have had another life behind him. Yet I had only ever seen one picture of him. It was hanging on our living-room wall. If he came up in conversation, my mother would change the subject or mumble some platitude about his handsomeness. One night, a gang of his friends came round, and I overheard that he’d been a policeman before the war, hunting down communists. It was just about the only thing I knew about him.

    I should add that not having a father had never felt particularly tragic to me, or disruptive. But one day I realised that the reason I wouldn’t open the envelope was because I knew where I was without him. His absence had been a defining feature of my life, and I preferred it that way. And that’s a lousy reason not to open an envelope.

    Inside was an account of his death prepared by the police; a yellow newspaper clipping from the Hants & Berks Gazette; and his wallet, stuffed with papers. Among the witness reports was the declaration of Douglas Roy Smith, a detective constable with the British Transport Police stationed at Basingstoke, who was in his office at noon on September 6, 1954, when he received information that the body of a man was lying between the rails of the down-through line: “I proceeded to the spot. Upon examination I noticed the body was badly mutilated, the whole of the lower members being severed and strewn on the line. Upon turning the body over I recognised it as Mr Januszczak whom I knew and who had been employed by the railway co. at Basingstoke for some considerable time. He was a cleaner of carriage stock.”

    My mother was also interviewed, briefly, as she did not speak much English. She told them my father had been working for the railways since February 1949. Albert Edward George Smith, a wagon-oiler at Basingstoke station, had known my father for several years, and had seen him walking along the track that morning with his broom and his sack. “I noticed deceased start to cross the running lines towards the stock of the 11.14 train. Just after, my mate remarked to me: ‘The Pole’s been hit,’ and I immediately went over and saw his body lying in the centre of the down through road.” Edward Biddiscombe, sergeant No 16 of the Hampshire Constabulary stationed at Basingstoke, described in detail the bits into which my father’s body had been cut. He was the one who procured a hearse, and had the body taken to Basingstoke public mortuary.

    Most of the other papers stuffed into the wallet concerned my mother’s subsequent attempt to claim negligence on the part of the railways for the accident. It seems the 11.14 was late arriving that morning. And that the carriage my father was sent to clean had been parked in the wrong siding. But an opinion from a London law firm, sent along with their bill, declared that she didn’t have a case. A second letter confirmed that she’d been denied legal aid. A third, from the railways, refused to consider any assistance.

    But the most upsetting document in this sad heap of widow’s refusals was a summons from Basingstoke county court demanding that my mother appear there on January 11, 1954, the day before I was born. She was being evicted, accused of nonpayment of rent by Sidney Francis Bastow Lee, of Goddards Farm in Sherfield on Loddon, near Basingstoke, where she had worked as a dairymaid and been granted a worker’s cottage as part of her pay. It seems that on October 30, 1953, she had stopped milking Farmer Lee’s cows — she was seven months pregnant with me. So I made a promise to myself that one day I would seek out the grave of Sidney Francis Bastow Lee, and spit on it. But not just now. Just now, I needed to find out more about my father.

    Squashed into the wallet were his divorce papers from an earlier marriage. On August 22, 1922, Michal Januszczak had married Bronislawa Lech at the Roman Catholic church in somewhere called Stary Sambor. They’d had two daughters: my sisters. At the bottom of the divorce papers was his signature. This was the first time I had seen his writing. It was so neat, so careful. Nothing like mine.

    When Churchill and Stalin repositioned eastern Europe after the war, Stary Sambor turned out to be in a part of Poland that is now Ukraine. People say bad things about these former Polish lands. If you park a car around here with four tyres, they warn, you’ll drive it away with none. Providing the steering wheel’s still there. That’s why I was on foot.

    I had made a deal with a Polish priest I’d found on the internet to meet me on the Ukrainian side of the border and taxi me around. Although he was ethnically Polish, he had been born and raised in the repositioned Ukraine, and was now the custodian of three Roman Catholic churches in what used to be the eastern edge of Poland. Among these was the one in Stary Sambor in which my father had married for the first time.

    Anyone who thinks the Balkans are ethnically complex should try sorting out the racial and religious toing and froing that has brought us to the current configuration of the Ukrainian west. Have you heard of the Boyks and the Lemks? Me neither, until I found that my father had bits of both in his blood. The Ukrainian west is also the Belarus south and Slovakian north and, of course, Ukraine is the gateway to Russia. Throw in the elephantine historical memory of the Poles and you have a very agitated human goulash.

    Yet here I was walking into the middle of it, armed only with a vague description of the priest’s car. “A red VW Caritas,” he had shouted down the phone. The priest said he’d be waiting at the border, parked on the Ukrainian side. Back in England, this would have constituted the kind of dubious internet arrangement I had spent many hours warning my daughters about. Right now, it was clearly God’s handiwork, and I remained enough of a Catholic, and enough of a Pole, to trust the priest to show. Which he did.

    Caritas, I now recalled, is Latin for charity, and this priestmobile was an advertisement for better, older Christian values. So too, in a beaming, portly way, was the priest himself: 6ft 2in of pale and lardy Slavic heartiness, a Ukrainian Friar Tuck with a crew cut, who turned out to be in his mid-thirties, though I’d have added 10 more years. He thought nothing of driving an hour and a half to meet me, and showing me his caritas for the day. The offer was made so casually: as if people around here were always being approached by strange blokes on the internet jabbering on about lost dads. Perhaps they are.

    These days, modern Poland looks pretty much like everywhere else, but as soon as you cross the Ukrainian border you whiz back 30 years. The large birds with pointy beaks you see standing on the roofs, as you career through the chicanes of wooden village houses, are real storks. The priest’s favourite driving position turned out to be the no-hands-on-the-wheel stance, trusting to God. He would wink impishly at me as we swayed across the solid white lines in the middle of the road to overtake tottering horse carts piled high with straw, and advised me to unbuckle my seatbelt. It only gets in the way, he roared.

    We were met outside the church at Stary Sambor by a man with one leg who had the keys. Inside, it smelt fiercely of d you could tell nobody had been there for years. The altar was a floor-to-dome affair, covered with peeling gold. In front of it, Michal, a policeman, had married Bronislawa, a teacher, 83 years ago. They’d had two children, Zofia and Marysia. The priest had looked up Bronislawa Januszczak for me in the parish records and found she had moved back to Poland after the war, to the village of Kostowice. She apparently taught at the school there.

    ()

    I made it back into Poland through the pedestrian portal with a few minutes to spare. It cost me twice as much to leave as it had cost me to enter. The next day I bought myself a map and eventually found Kostowice. It was a stork’s flight away from the Ukrainian border. By the time I got there, the school was closed, but an old boy pottering around the back told me where the headmistress lived. She’d been there for 20 years and yes, she did remember Bronislawa. There were almanacs from the old days kept at the school. If I came back tomorrow we could look through them together. But there was something else I needed to follow up first.

    Back in England, I had sent away to the War Office for my father’s military records. And one miraculous morning they had plopped through the door with some friendly advice appended to them about visiting the Sikorski Institute in London for more information.

    The Sikorski Institute turned out to be some sort of home-made war museum packed with medals, weapons and books, a warehouse of tottering Polish war information, trapped in the irreducible atmosphere of the 1940s. If any of the Harry Potter stories ever involve the exploration of a Slavonic time warp — HP and the Origins of Voldemort? — Ms Rowling really must check out this location. Housed in a white stucco town house on Prince’s Gate, the institute has never allowed computer culture to penetrate its typewritten defences, and never will. Going through the archives involves taking countless folders off countless shelves, shaking off their dust, and ploughing for hours through the correspondence preserved here in triplicate.

    It seems my father was owed a medal. He had been arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, in 1941, somewhere in northern Ukraine, and then sent to a Siberian labour camp. When the Russians changed sides a few months later, he was released, and eventually walked to Tehran, where he joined the British forces stationed in Persia. No surprises so far: the same thing happened to my mother, and all her family, and just about every Pole who ever came round to our house to reminisce, which they did a lot.

    In 1943, my father was sent to Kenya, where he managed to wangle himself a position as the senior policeman at a Polish penal camp in Makindu. The Sikorski Institute had some stuff about it. The Makindu camp was set up to house Polish troublemakers, “persons whose influence is subversive”, who weren’t behaving like good refugees. My father was the special police officer in charge. He’s not mentioned by name in the minutes to the meeting in Nairobi convened to discuss if the unhappy campers at Makindu should be allowed visits by prostitutes, but I imagine his opinion would have been sought. After Africa he was posted to Palestine, where he rejoined the British Army. In 1947 he finally arrived in England. And soon after, he began cleaning the carriages at Basingstoke station.

    It was in the war records that I found out that Michal Januszczak had been born on February 18, 1897, in somewhere called Siemuszowa, near Sanok, in eastern Poland. On the internet, I quickly found two mentions of it. One described a holiday house to let in this picturesque hamlet near the Ukrainian border. The second was on a genealogical website set up by a Ukrainian-American called Mike. Mike had spent 20 years tracing his family roots to Siemuszowa.

    I contacted him immediately. Congratulations, e-mailed Mike. I had come to the right guy. His grandmother and my grandmother were cousins. He knew all about the Januszczaks. They’d been very helpful to him in his research. Why didn’t I contact Alex in San Diego? She was a Januszczak.

    Alex, who was studying for a doctorate in physics at the University of San Diego, turned out to be my father’s great-great-niece. Her mother was the daughter of my father’s sister. Michal Januszczak came from a family of nine, she remembered, and was the eldest. Everyone wondered what had happened to him. Alex had phone numbers for more relatives in Sanok. There were lots, she warned. Stopping only to pick up one wife and two daughters, I wrestled us into a taxi for Stansted, and we were on the next Ryanair sardine express to Warsaw. In Rzeszow I hired a car, and Schumachered it down to Sanok, which turned out to be a pretty Polish market town across the border from Stary Sambor. We checked into the best hotel in Sanok — a one-star affair. My wife, who is Japanese, found the setup incompatible with her sense of feng shui, so we moved things around, and settled on the newly positioned bed to plan tomorrow. That’s when hotel reception called. There’s someone downstairs who wants to see you, giggled the girl. They say they’re family.

    I haven’t told you yet about the school at Kostowice, and what I found in the almanacs about Bronislawa Januszczak. From 1950 to 1957 she’d been the headmistress. It was the height of the cold war and, according to the school reports, she had prepared for the annual government inspection; Comrade Januszczak had put a huge effort into ensuring that the school remained on the right Soviet tracks. The winter of 1950, when she took over, was a particularly hard one. They’d had to burn the furniture to keep the pupils warm. In 1952 the children volunteered to clean the graves of Soviet war heroes; and in addition to teaching geography, history, Polish and drawing, Bronislawa began teaching Marxist-Leninism and Russian. In 1953 the school was in mourning because Stalin had died. In 1954 she started the boy scouts and began teaching the Russian constitution. Two years later she fell ill from all the walking she did to attend meetings of the Russian-Polish Friendship Society. And in 1957 she left the school and moved to Rzeszow, to be nearer her daughters.

    The present headmistress had heard from her dad, who’d been a pupil of Bronislawa, that both the daughters were now dead. The first one had perished giving birth to her first child. So the same husband married the second Januszczak daughter. But she too died. Nobody knew what had happened to this peculiar husband that my sisters had shared. As for Bronislawa Januszczak, the Polish register of births, deaths and marriages records that she finally passed away in 1986 in Rzeszow. For the first 42 years of my life, had I ever bothered to look, she had been around.

    Back at the hotel in Sanok, I was a bag of nerves. The family situation that had made me what I was, was about to change ineluctably. The state of fatherlessness was curiously precious to me. It was my geography, my star chart, my cosmos. Instead of feeling uncomplicated joy at the prospect of the new relatives waiting for me in the bar below, I began feeling extra-fidgety, and tiptoed down the hotel stairs as nervously as a naughty boy called before a headmistress.

    I opened the door. Rushed in foolishly. And there, staring at me, was a roomful of people who looked just like me. Not sort of like me. But exactly like me. The nose. The eyes. That line around the jowls. At the end of my rainbow, I had discovered a pot of mini-mes. The oldest of them, Bronek, was in his seventies. He was the son of my father’s younger brother. And remembered my father as if it were yesterday: tall man, very upright, walked like a policeman. It was in honour of my father, claimed Bronek dubiously, that he too had joined the force.

    My father was the only one of the nine children who’d been sent away to be educated: in Stary Sambor. The rest had stayed at the farm in Siemuszowa and worked. My grandfather was the second biggest landowner in the village. He’d married a Ruthenian girl, what we’d now call a Ukrainian: Zofia Hatalek, my grandmother. The Ukrainians had outnumbered the Poles in the village, and when the war came, the Januszczaks had had to flee not only from the Russians but, more dangerously, from the Ukrainian nationalists. One of my father’s brothers, Stanislaw, was shot in the kitchen at Siemuszowa as he ate his breakfast. The Hataleks and the Januszczaks, my grandmother’s family and my grandfather’s, had become lethal enemies.

    My father never came back from the college in Stary Sambor. He met a girl and became a policeman, a detective, seeking out communists. When the fighting started, and the Russians appeared, he was the type they most wanted to catch and kill. That was when the Januszczaks of Siemuszowa lost track of their eldest son. His wife Bronislawa moved elsewhere; the last they heard of her, she’d become a Stalinist, and was teaching somewhere up north. Michal, they assumed, must be dead. Having a pre-war policeman in the family was something you kept quiet about. Me, they’d never heard of. So Michal Januszczak had a son. Well, well, well. How exactly did he die? Nobody knows, I replied.

    The yellow newspaper clipping in the envelope from the Hants & Berks Gazette has a noisy headline: “Two Polish Sisters Widowed by Work Accidents”. The report beneath it tells the tale of two sisters who lived in two workers’ cottages at Goddards Farm, in Sherfield on Loddon, near Basingstoke; both were widowed within three weeks of each other. The breathless report marvels at the unlikeliness of it all.

    The older sister, Aniela, my auntie, had arrived in England in 1948 and was married to Stanislaw, her childhood sweetheart. “One day, Stanislaw Ð then 40 years old — was milking cows in a field,” explains the Gazette, “when he was kicked by one of them and died shortly afterwards. At an inquest it was decided that his death was accidental.” There were no witnesses.

    Three weeks later, continues the report, the second sister, Regina, my mother, lost her husband too. “Michal was working as usual at Basingstoke station when he was struck by an express train and killed. An inquest into Michal’s death decided that he had been killed accidentally.” There were no witnesses.

    Both sisters had been left with three children to bring up. But not for long: 18 months after my father was killed, my older brother, Krzysztof, who was six, went into Basingstoke hospital for an appendix operation, but something went horribly wrong and he died. I’ve only ever seen one photograph of him as well. My mother hung it in the living room one day, next to the photo of my father. He didn’t look like me at all. He had blond hair and sticking-out ears. People used to joke that he looked more like my auntie’s husband, Stanislaw. Which he did. When I was a kid, my auntie Aniela used to come round to our house a lot. But after my mother put up the photograph of Krzysztof, she stopped coming. They stopped speaking. I once heard someone telling my mother that Aniela had been calling her a whore in the street.

    According to the Hants & Berks Gazette, the death of Michal Januszczak did not present any legal complications. “It was difficult, however,” continued the report, “to understand how, seeing he had been employed at the station for three or four years, Mr Januszczak should have missed the train on the running line. In three or four years he should have had a fair idea of the traffic arrangements.” Everyone agreed it was baffling.