on 13 September 2013
As a 12 year old I travelled to Poland for the first time with my Polish father and Scottish mother and crossed the same borders as Mathew and was packed in, along with my 10 year old brother, to as small a space as possible, due to all the presents and goods that my Father was taking to his home town of Grudziadz. The car we were in was , like Mathews fathers, a Vauxhall Cresta, light blue in colour and also caused a sensation everywhere we went.
My father died as a result of a road accident in 1968 when I was 21 so I never got round to hear about all that happened to him and how he arrived in Kelso in the Scottish borders and I hoped that Mathews book would shed some light on this but his father came from a different area so this was not to be, but there must be many similar stories about what a terrible time it was to live in any part of Poland during WW2
I smiled , laughed and cried my way through this book and congratulate Mathew on what was obviously a very difficult and emotional book to write and sections of it were very close to my heart and my upbringing as the son of a Polish Soldier
on 11 February 2014
This remarkable account of Matthew Zajak's search to know more of his father's past enfolds in a fascinating odyssey, which takes him back to Eastern Europe again and again. The countries there have been ravaged by war, not only in the 20th Century but far into the past, resulting in changed boundaries and a mixture of nationalities and ways of thinking. Matthew discovers things about his Polish father which surprise him, but do not lessen his feelings of love for him. He meets many members of his family, some with Ukrainian backgrounds and goes to places which he had never dreamed of visiting. I think one of the most moving aspects of the book is the description of the warm welcomes which were extended to him and the feeling of belonging which resulted. I felt that the outcome of Matthew's investigation was that in discovering the truth about his father he had found a better understanding of himself.
I would advise the reader who is unfamiliar with Eastern European countries and Polish names, to start with a big sheet of paper to create an aide memoir of names.
on 26 April 2016
I finally got around to reading the full book version of what began as a play which won a Fringe First at a recent Edinburgh Festival. Matthew Zajac, the author, was its only actor (with a musician) and its director with Dogstar Theatre Company and no, I didn't see it, though I have watched a tantalisingly brief clip from a videoed performance on YouTube. The book also deserves some kind of award, perhaps one for casting a light on Poland before and after its period of Stalin-imposed communism, or perhaps for showing the readers just how immensely tangled the politics of Galicia is and was. An analogy could be made between Galicia and a part of the world where tectonic plates meet, bringing upheaval, death and destruction, and there was plenty of all that in the twentieth century. The area's overseers included the Poles, the Russian Empire (Tsarist and Soviet), the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Nazis and sometimes even the people who lived there - and who live there still - Ukrainians who were - and are, not surprisingly - of various faiths, loyalties and languages. This book contains plenty of musing on the politics and history of the past, but it is a long, long way from being a diatribe or a dry, dispassionate analysis: it is the opposite. The author was brought up in Aberdeen with a Scottish mother and a Polish father. His viewpoint is very personal. He writes about his emotional voyages of discovery, in an intelligent but unadorned style, usually as if he is speaking to us in an intimate space, like a small theatre, and the tone is that of someone who had to get something out of his system and wants to tell us about it.
His father Mateusz (Polish version of Matthew) told his son and others that he had arrived in Britain after the Second World War after being associated with the Free Polish Army, the ones who managed to make it to Britain, the heroic allies who flew Spitfires and reached the top of Monte Cassino, the monastery in Italy where many, Polish and non-Polish, met their deaths. His son did not question his account too closely for years, but at one stage recorded his father's reminiscences - about life in Poland, the war and his early experiences in Scotland. The transcriptions are in the book, and it is easy to hear his Scots-inflected voice. The typed-up versions date from four years after his death, and Matthew was starting to think that some things did not add up - he remembers that his mother was agitated when he was recording. He also remembers the trips by car to visit relatives in Poland in the sixties, when the country was slowly unfreezing from the Stalinist period, when he became acquainted with simple country food, witnessed farm life, and watched as his father engaged in vodka-driven sessions talking about friends lost in the war in conversations he did not understand. It was a real long-drawn-out pain to cross a border, life was spartan, the authorities very repressive, with a wtyczka (plug-in = informant) in most meetings and an odd monetary system in which American dollars had a kind of luxury cachet. I recognised plenty of aspects, having visited Poland (wife is Polish) many times myself, beginning in the eighties. After the end of communism in the country, Matthew visited again, to check the accounts in the tapes and other things not previously questioned. He found much more than he had expected, discovering many disparities in his father's versions of what had happened after 1939 and uncovering many forgotten and half-forgotten stretches of history in and close to Galicia - or rather in the present-day Ukraine, the product of post-war border re-drawings, easier to travel to nowadays, just a short flight away from Warsaw airport. His most significant discovery was of a previously unknown branch of his family, including a sister, all of whom had not been mentioned before.
He found that his father had worn military uniforms which he had not cared to mention because of the "never look back" attitude he had adopted in Scotland, relatively tolerant and democratic Scotland, where people are not so often murdered for their beliefs and affiliations, the uniforms of not only the Red Army but also the German Army. Confusing? Embarrassing? Hard to explain? His son makes the attempt: in many situations in the early forties it could have been, as the mafia might put it, an offer that was impossible to refuse. For example, huge numbers of Soviet (that includes Ukrainian) prisoners of war were just fenced off in camps where they were not fed, left to starve to death. Those who agreed to wear the uniform got a meal. On the other hand, some Ukrainians joined the Nazis (for example the Galician SS) willingly, thinking it might lead to national independence and freedom from Russian domination. The author looks at the background - a place where villages were often divided between Polish and Ukrainian speakers, Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, extremist, easy-going and so on. He is shocked and as diplomatic as possible when he encounters deeply-seated anti-semitism at a theatre festival in present-day Ukraine, and he is overwhelmed by the final emotional reunions.
There is a useful glossary of Polish and Ukrainian terms and place names at the back of the book. The native village of Mateusz is known in Polish as Gnilowody near the town of Podhajce in the Tarnopol region, and in Ukrainian (using Roman alphabet) as Hnilowody near the town of Pidhaitsi in the Ternopil region. So similar! So many things in common!
on 23 March 2015
The author was born in Inverness of a Polish father (The 'Tailor' of the title) and a Scottish mother. The story of the author's childhood with family holidays by car all the way to Poland is full of historic detail about things we no longer have to do: the long waits at the borders of East Germany and Poland. Later in his father's life he persuaded him to tell of his experiences in WWII and how he came to join General Ander's 2nd Polish Army Corps, formed from Polish soldiers who had been incarcerated in the Soviet Union after the 1939 partition of Poland, and their eventual release to join British forces in the Middle East following Hitler's summer 1941 attack on the Soviet Union. The author taped these stories and after his father's death he started to investigate further. To his great surprise he found that the taped stories were complete fiction, his father's inventions. In reality his father passed a quite different WWII as indicated by a photograph of him in Soviet uniform. The unfolding of his father's discovered story forms the climax of this excellent volume, involving visits not only to Poland, but to parts of Ukraine which had been Polish between the wars, but were gobbled up by Stalin in 1945. He even discovered that he had a sister from his father's first marriage, a marriage not mentioned in postwar Scotland. The author is an actor and writer and eventually wrote a play with the same title as this book, in which he took part and toured to many countries. There must be many stories like this one, stories of survival in times of stress and fear. Strongly recommended.