By Colin Smith
ALMOST 71 years since they were teenagers wounded fighting alongside each other in the Warsaw Uprising, two Polish veterans – one of them a Nicosia resident for the last 20 years – are astonished to discover they have become neighbours in a South Devon care home.
An old piece of shrapnel Andrew Borowiec carries near a knee he was skiing on until his early seventies has recently been causing excruciating pain. But when I visited him at the wooded Ilford Park Polish Home, where inquisitive deer sometimes nuzzle up to the wire mesh boundary fence, it is one of Andrew’s better days.
From his wheelchair he gazes contentedly across the little lawn beyond the open back door of the small bungalow he now lives in with his English wife Juliet whose language he begam to learn from the British soldiers he met when he was 16 in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Within ten years, having acquired a Masters at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, he would be a reporter on the Associated Press and anglicise his by-line from Andrzej to Andrew in deference to his American readers.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said pointing to an identical back door and brown picket fence. “Over that little patch of English grass is the man who recruited me into the resistance in the first place. I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming and I dream a lot nowadays. I just can’t believe that Tadeusz is so close. We never expected to see each other again.”
The Tadeusz in question is Tadeusz Stopczynski, Ted to most of the English speaking friends he acquired after the best part of a lifetime spent working in the sales departments of major pharmaceutical companies. Tadeusz, a tall, elegant, laughing man who has been in a wheelchair for the last 15 years with a form of multiple sclerosis, arrived at Ilford Park with his wife Halina in January this year from the home in Epsom which they had shared with their daughter and grandchildren.
Six months later, after 20 years in Nicosia, Andrew and Juliet moved to the same 95-bed care home. Run by the Ministry of Defence, Ilford Park is the remaining legacy of the 1947 Polish Resettlement Act, a conscience stricken piece of legislation that came into force after the victorious Allies consigned post-war Poland to the Soviet bloc. Many of the Poles had fought with distinction under British command. They felt betrayed and there were several suicides. The act gave them the right to remain in the UK.
Andrew had an exciting post-war career as a foreign correspondent reporting, as he puts it, other people’s wars including Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus. Sometimes he produced non-fiction books about them but only once had he ever touched on his own story when he wrote an historical overview of the Uprising for Praeger, a US academic publisher. And even then one Polish-American reviewer reproached him for providing ‘the barest details of his own experience’.
Then last summer, and much to the surprise of some old friends, Viking-Penguin published to glowing reviews Warsaw Boy – A Memoir of a Wartime Childhood, a detailed autobiography it turned out he had been secretly working on for years, starting with notes made in captivity on Red Cross lavatory paper.
“The best-ever account of what it was like to be young and fighting in the Warsaw Rising,” declared British historian Neal Ascherson. In May this year Warsaw Boy, which has been translated into Italian and Greek as well as Polish, won Borowiec Poland’s Bene Merito award for promoting his country’s image abroad.
Tadeusz had seen the book, in which he is frequently mentioned. But the brief biographical note on the author said he was living in Cyprus. It fell to Romuald Ossowski, a male nurse from a more recent Polish migration who tended to the veterans in their separate quarters, to break the news that they were now living within 20 yards of each other.
“Romuald asked me if I knew Andrzej Borowiec?” said Tadeusz. “I said I knew him very well. Then he asked me if I knew we were in shouting distane of each other? At first I refused to believe him. I assured him there must be some mistake. After all, I had read his book and it clearly stated he was living in Cyprus. I was astonished and of course very pleased. After all, we’re coming up to the 71st anniversary of the day we were wounded together, our last gunfight and we’re still here to talk about it.”
“It was great to bring them together,” said Nurse Ossowski, who is 36 and has been living in the UK for the last ten years. “I love hearing their stories. Poles of my generation can hold our heads up in thanks to people like Andrew and Tadeusz.”
They called themselves the Home Army and had expected to be relieved by the Soviets but Stalin preferred to keep the Red Army east of the Vistula and give the SS time to finish these pesky nationalists off. After seven weeks fighting they lacked everything except courage. On September 25, 1944, exactly a week away from the surrender they would agree to because the Germans granted them prisoner-of-war status, Andrew Borowiec and Tadeusz Stopczynski were hit almost simultaneously by grenade and mortar bomb fragments.
The previous day was Lance Corporal Borowiec’s 16th birthday. Sergeant Stopczynski, whose father was a senior civil servant, was six months short of his 18th. The older boy had recruited Andrew, a Colonel’s son, when they met in a clandestine classroom they attended, the Nazisi having forbidden education for Poles over 14. By the time they were wounded both of them had already shot their way through several close quarters firefights, crawled through sewers, seen their friends killed and killed themselves.
Only a week before they had staggered firing out of the ruins of a house that, as the prelude for an infantry assault, had been partially demolished when the Germans managed to park a Goliath next to it. These wire guided tracked mines – suitcases on tracks – packed with 60kg of explosives that knocked devastating holes through bricks and mortar.
The Poles had managed to repulse the attack, but the building had some of their wounded in it under the basement’s collapsed ceiling, and the more they pulled at the rubble the more hopeless it got. Andrew felt particularly sickened because he had been the sentry at one of the basement’s ground level windows, spotted a strange object approaching in beetle like stops and starts and, though he had never actually seen a Goliath before, raised the alarm. “But nobody would believe me. It was like one of your worst nightmares. What shark? One of the doctors even reprimanded me for alarming his patients. The blast was enormous. I remember the heat of it on my face like it was yesterday. All the carbide lamps hanging from nails on the walls flickered and died and there was this choking cloud of dust.
“Tadeusz and I got up to one of the upper floors just as we heard the first bursts from the Germans. We returned fire. I was using a bolt action rifle and got one of them with my first shot. That didn’t happen often enough. Anyway, we saved the building but we couldn’t save the people in the basement. I remember this silent, badly hurt boy, staring at the ceiling and sucking bits of orange peel. Whoever he was he didn’t stand a chance.”
Many of the Home Army never did get to know their companions long enough to learn their real names or backgrounds. Once in they had to adopt an alias and use it at all times. Tadeusz was Mietek and Andrew became Zych after a cynical old soldier he admired in an historical novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz whose biggest English language success was Quo Vadis. When they get into their war stories they still call each other by these names.
On what would be their last day in action they were in one of the city’s southern suburbs. Within easy walking distance was the flat where eight weeks before Andrew had said goodbye to his mother. Now it was well behind enemy lines. It had been decided to retreat to the city centre where the Home Army was concentrating for a last stand. Andrew and Tadeusz were part of the rearguard. Their immediate task was to help protect the open manhole of a sewer through which the first of the evacuees would shuffle and sometimes crawl to their new positions taking a party of walking wounded with them.
Recently attached to them as the platoon’s medic was a doctor’s daughter of not quite 15 who called herself Lidka. Like many of the Home Army, Lidka wore a captured Waffen SS leopard spot camouflage smock with a white and red Polish armband. In the early days of the uprising the Home Army had seized warehouses supplying the Russian Front full of this last word in Nazi military chic though there were never quite enough to go round. Andrew took his off a corpse.
Despite her age Lidka (actually Lidia Markiewicz-Ziental) had probably seen more action than the rest of the platoon put together. Early on she had been in the fighting in the narrow lanes of the 18th century Old Town where a drunken SS penal unit had raped and murdered nurses and patients alike, ignoring pleas to stop from wounded German prisoners, their very existence proof of Polish chivalry. Now in these last days, with the Germans squeezing the Home Army into an ever-smaller perimeter, Lidka’s stock of dressings and antiseptics was running low. In her Red Cross bag with its large pair of scissors for cutting away bits of bloodied clothing she had long been making do with paper bandages.
They had come under machine-gun and mortar fire, some of them airbursts, and the braver of their adversaries were creeping into grenade range. Tadeusz went down first. “I’d gone forward and spotted the silhouette of one of the grenade throwers as he briefly showed himself in an open door way,” he said. “I waited for him to do it again and gave him a burst with my Sten. No more grenades after that. A mortar bomb landed close enough to put a splinter straight through my right hand and one or two other places and that was the end of my fighting war.”
Meanwhile, Andrew was also nursing hand and leg wounds after a grenade found him as he crouched below a low wall returning fire. “I noticed blood dripping from my right hand; it also appeared to be trickling down my right leg into the German boot I was wearing. Neither of these injuries seemed to hurt very much. I was vaguely aware that Lidka was attending to Mietek (Tadeusz) and decided to stay put until she could get to me. I squeezed off a couple of more shots and was feeling rather pleased with myself. Not for long. Suddenly there was a loud series of cracks, louder and much closer than the grenades: airburst mortar bombs.
“Immediately I felt this stinging blow on my right leg, just below the knee. It hurt like nothing had ever hurt me before. This is my knee shrapnel. It hit a nerve ending. At the time, the only way I could reduce the pain was to roll about on the ground. I think I managed to restrain myself from screaming.
“Lidka appeared and immediately tugged the boot off my hurt leg. Then we started arguing about whether she should cut or pull down the damaged leg of my grey German uniform trousers with its spreading red stain. The trousers were a prized possession. I’d started the Uprising in summer shorts that made me look even younger than I was. And to be honest, perhaps it had something to do with a certain innate modesty. I doubt whether my underwear would have met the exacting standards most mothers demand of their sons in case of accidents.
“Anyway, whatever discussion we had on the subject ended with another airburst and Lidka jerking backwards with a little scream: hit in the face. Another female medic rushed to help. But Lidka, who Tadeusz and myself are still in touch with and is without any disfiguring scars, told her she would sort herself out and to look after me first.
“The other medic stopped the bleeding with paper bandages, no more foolishness about my trousers. She told me that she didn’t think it would need amputation.This was reassuring but it didn’t stop it hurting like hell. Bad days it still does.”
Recently he has been prescribed liquid morphine for the pain but Juliet is trying to wean him off it because she finds it gives him bad dreams. “I wouldn’t mind if they were happy ones.”
Warsaw Boy – A Memoir of a Wartime Childhood by Andrew Borowiec (Edited by Colin Smith) is published by Penguin UK in paperback and kindle editions. It is also available as an audio download or audio CD