My Inspirational Polish Dad - Julian Wladyslaw Czerkawski


My late mother used to tell the story of how, as a young woman in postwar Leeds, she went into a local shop where a casual acquaintance said to her, 'Now that the war is over, I think that they ought to send all those Poles back, don't you?'
'Not really,' said my Leeds Irish mum. 'You see, I've just married one.'
The one she had 'just married' was my lovely dad, Julian Czerkawski.

My grandfather, Wladyslaw Czerkawski


Dad was very young when war broke out. That's him, the toddler with the girly hair, at the very top of this post, with his rather aristocratic parents, Lucia and Wladyslaw. I always think my grandfather, whom I never met, looks like Laurence Olivier playing Maxim de Winter in Rebecca. I only have two pictures of him, but I love that wavy hair, those wide-set eyes and high cheekbones, that clear, direct and somewhat daunting gaze. I wish I had known him but - although we didn't know it at the time, because he had simply disappeared in the war  - he was dead long before I was born.
There's my dad again,  just a little later, on the right, in his velvet 'Lord Fauntleroy' suit and wrinkled tights, looking much more boyish.The billy goat was called Goat, plain and simple, and for some reason he loathed women. He would chase and butt any woman who ventured into his paddock. Lucia - plump and pretty - was afraid of him, but he rather liked Julian. Poland was, of course, caught between the rock of the Nazis and the hard place of Joe Stalin. If one of them didn't get you, the other did. My grandfather was imprisoned under Stalin, released when Uncle Joe changed sides, but sent - as so very many Poles were - on the debilitating long march east across Russia, to join the army units on the Persian border. Like so many Polish soldiers, (and so many civilians too) he died of typhus and is buried in Bukhara on the Silk Road.

My father, meanwhile,  had been through a string of deeply harrowing experiences, but eventually he had made his way to England, via Italy, with a Polish tank unit, as part of the British Army. He was initially stationed at Duncombe Park near Helmsley in Yorkshire, and when he was demobbed, he worked for a while as a textile presser at a mill near Leeds. The choice of jobs for refugees was strictly limited at that time: mills or mines, and no arguments.




While there, he met, courted and married my mum, Kathleen, (on the right of this picture, holding my hand - her elder sister, my Aunt Vera, is on the left) and soon after that, he went to nightschool and began studying the sciences which he loved. Had the war not intervened, he was destined to be trained as an artist, by his uncle-by-marriage, distinguished Polish watercolourist, Karol Kossak. Julian dabbled in art all his life, and it remained a much loved hobby for him, although he always doubted if he could have made a career of it.
Me and my dad. Note my ringlets. I think I look like something from the 1920s or 30s - but dad was always handsome!

By the time my father retired, many years later, he was a distinguished biochemist with a double doctorate - a DSc as well as a PhD. He always wore his learning lightly, was the perfect gentleman, the best dad a daughter could wish for and in spite of, or perhaps because of, all that he had suffered in the war, he was never bitter.

Perhaps because dad had married an English speaker, and perhaps because of his background, which was rather cosmopolitan, we were only on the fringes of the Polish community in Leeds. I remember wearing a traditional Polish costume, with embroidery and ribbons. I remember eating Polish food - my best friend at school was Polish too. But we seldom went to the Polish club. Because he was studying, dad wanted to learn English as quickly and as well as he could so - to my great regret - I didn't learn to speak anything but the most basic Polish.

All the same, dad had a fund of stories - and he told me all about the Poland of his childhood. He had been the son of a landowner, who had an old estate at a place called Dziedzilow, near the ancient city of Lwow. The family even had a coat of arms (oddly enough, it includes a goat!) It all seemed strange and enticing: nothing like my typically working class Yorkshire childhood. For me, back then, and for many years after, the Poland of my imagination was as exotic and enchanting as a place in a fairy tale - and with the same faint air of unreality. I knew that I wanted to write about it. In fact, I did write a couple of radio plays set in Poland, which were broadcast on BBC Radio 4. But I wanted to tackle something much longer, and I thought even then that it would be a novel. I began to research the background material many years ago, and one of the main sources of inspiration for me was my father. After he retired, I asked him to put down everything he could remember of his early life in Dziedzilow. I have his notebooks and sketches still. By the time he was born, the old manor house, which inspired a somewhat embellished Lisko, in my novel, was long gone, burned down in some previous conflict, although the cellars and ice house were still there. The family lived in what had once been the old Steward's House. The landscape of Lisko, in the novel, is the landscape my father described to me. This may be one reason why writing The Amber Heart was such a pleasure - it was written straight from my heart!

Dad, in his father's car - the only car in the district

Comments

Jenny Harper said…
Fascinating family history, Catherine. Your Dad and grandfather are really dashing! And I love the snowy watercolour, really evocative. Brr. I'm really looking forward to reading the book.
Thanks, Jenny. They were really handsome, weren't they? The watercolour is by Juliusz Kossak - my great aunt Wanda was married to Karol Kossak, who was his grandson. I met him, (Karol) when I was young - he was like Danilo in the Merry Widow - very charming and still attractive, even though he must have been almost eighty by then.
CallyPhillips said…
I'm just so glad we only have to wait for you to get this up on Kindle rather than for the vagaries of some publisher.... life's too short and this story too compelling... Waiting.. not very patiently! But knowing it won't be long now.
George Dudzinski said…
I'm putting together a family history, and in the process I Googled for Duncombe Park and came across your post. I, too, was there, having arrived from Edinburgh with my mother and younger brother, in the freezing cold (it was the famous winter of '47) -- the following morning we had to be dug out!
My father was the commanding officer of the 4th Armoured Regiment (4. Pulk Pancerny), so your father must have been in the same regiment.
After the camp was closed down, we settled in the Ampleforth area, and in fact I and my family have moved back up to Yorkshire and now live in Slingsby.
What I don't have -- and I wonder whether perhaps you do -- is photographs from Duncombe Park from those days, ideally some general views.
It's a long time since I last encountered anyone who had even heard of the army camp! I'll be interested to hear from you.
(Jurek Dudzinski)
How fascinating! Leave it with me. I'll have a look in the old family album I have somewhere and see what I can find. I know there are lots of pictures from Italy there, but not at all sure about Duncombe Park. I'm about to embark on a piece of writing about my Yorkshire childhood, so this has come at just the right time.
George Dudzinski said…
Thank you! I look forward to hearing from you when you're ready.