Bob Borsley is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Essex. He was formerly Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales Bangor. His most recent books are Welsh Negation and Grammatical Theory with Bob Morris Jones (University of Wales Press, 2005) and The Syntax of Welsh with Maggie Tallerman of the University of Newcastle and David Willis of the University of Cambridge (Cambridge University Press, 2007). He is also an editor of the Journal of Linguistics. Here Bob discusses Margery Allingham's The Oaken Heart and Matthew Kelly's Finding Poland.
Bob Borsley on The Oaken Heart: The Story of an English Village at War by Margery Allingham, and Finding Poland: From Tavistock to Hruzdowa and Back Again by Matthew Kelly
There are many more books on World War II than anyone would want to read, and that probably includes books about the experiences of ordinary people. But for anyone interested in the lives of ordinary people during the war these two very different books cannot be recommended too highly. Allingham's book was published in 1941 and recounts her experiences in the Essex village of Tolleshunt D'Arcy (renamed Auburn) in the run up to war and during the first year and a half of hostilities. Kelly's book, which appeared in 2011, deals with the wartime experiences of his Polish great grandmother Hanna Ryżewska and her daughters Wanda and Danusia (his grandmother) in Poland, Soviet Central Asia, Iran, Pakistan, India, and finally England.
I have reasons of my own for liking these books. On the one hand, my parents, married in 1939, probably had experiences much like Allingham's in their Warwickshire village, and I know Tolleshunt D'Arcy and the other places (all renamed) that figure in Allingham's book. On the other hand, my wife's mother comes originally from Eastern Poland. But you don't need to have such connections to enjoy these books.
In The Oaken Heart Allingham describes the steady drift towards war and emphasizes the absence of any jingoism at its outbreak:
... there was no band, no cheering, no noise; only this breathless feeling of mingled relief and intolerable grief. Poor Mother Peace was dead at last after all her sufferings. (p. 86)
She suggests that it might have been better if action had been taken against the Nazis earlier:
This is what comes of putting up with wrong 'uns. This is what comes of not interfering when you see something horrible happening. (p. 87)
And she is determined not to look back to peace with rose-coloured spectacles:
Whatever happens, whatever happens, never go pretending that things were going well before the war. (p. 87)
Later, she reports the well-known rumours about Germans disguised as nuns:
An order came through to Grog decreeing that all Wardens' Posts should be fully manned and that the men should patrol at dawn and dusk to keep a look out for parachute troops. Word was coming through from Holland that these were sometimes disguised as "nuns and other familiar figures." Now a nun is not a familiar figure in Auburn and the arrival of one by bus, much less by parachute, would have occasioned considerable interest, not to say suspicion, so the information had a touch of pure fantasy about it... (p. 175)
She describes the experience of dog fights in the summer skies:
To see a Spitfire attack a formation... was like watching tiny creatures in a pond, and it was only when suddenly a plane would come hurtling through the eddying blue, growing larger and larger and disappearing over one's immediate horizon that it came home to one with unbearable vividness that they were real machines with real men in them. (pp. 228-9)
She also talks about how the country was changing, noting that '[s]ophisticated drivel was going out of fashion fast' (p. 258). (I wonder why this made me think of the Guardian.) And she found that she too was changing:
If you have lived half your life's span without a passionate belief in anything, the bald discovery that you would honestly and in cold blood rather die when it came to it than be bossed about by a Nazi, and that freedom to follow your heart or not is literally, like air or water, an actual necessity in your life, and that you are not alone in it but that everyone around you, from the most obvious to the most unlikely person, is of the same mind – then that is something to have lived for. (pp. 163-4)
What a period! What an age to have been alive in! Oh thank God I was born when I was! (p. 276)
An understandable response perhaps, but I can't help feeling that it was good to be born after the war.
Matthew Kelly notes that the title of his book, Finding Poland, stems from his own experience of getting to know Poland. However, it could have been called Losing Poland since for the main protagonists that is what the story is about. Kelly writes that 'though shadowed by the millions who died under Stalinism and Nazism, this is primarily an account of a nuclear family which survived and went on to live a relatively ordinary post-war life' (p. 3). He is a professional historian, and he provides detailed discussions of the political and social background to his relatives' travels, but it is the travels that are his main focus.
His relatives were among over 300,000 Poles, deemed to be some sort of a threat to Soviet Power, who were deported from Eastern Poland to various parts of the Soviet Union. Generally they were given just two hours to pack and they took up to three weeks to reach their destinations, travelling in cattle trucks. (It wasn't only the Nazis who thought they were a suitable mode of transport for those they saw as their enemies.) So while Margery Allingham was watching the Battle of Britain unfold, Hanna, Wanda and Danusia were adjusting to life on a collective farm in Kazakhstan. Meanwhile Kelly's great grandfather Rafał was a Russian PoW.
Conditions in Kazakhstan were of course appalling. Kelly notes that in one settlement of 450 families 180 people died between 1940 and 1942, with a death rate for children of 50–60 per cent (p. 116). However, he also notes that the experiences of the Poles were comparable to those of ordinary Soviet citizens (p. 94), and the book includes photos of Wanda and Danusia from this period well wrapped up and smiling (pp. 106-7). The book makes it clear that the girls were resilient and their mother resourceful.
A bit later Hanna worked on the construction of the Akmolinsk-to-Kartaly railway as part of a 'workforce comprising political dissidents, old men, a few Russian workers, and large numbers of women and children' (p. 121). Then the family were moved to Kyrgyzstan, where Danusia learned from the old men how to express contempt by spitting through clenched teeth 'like a camel' (p. 125), and where Hanna had to decline politely when an affluent Kyrgyz neighbor wanted to buy Danusia as a wife for his son (p. 127).
Everything changed when Hitler attacked Russia in 1941 and Poland and Russia became allies of a kind. After lengthy negotiation it was agreed that the Poles in the Soviet Union should leave the country. And so in the summer of 1942 Hanna, Wanda and Danusia, temporarily reunited with Rafał, crossed the Caspian Sea to Iran, where, after a two-day journey in appalling conditions, they arrived with feelings of 'euphoria and relief' (p. 168). From then on life was a lot better, and numerous letters provide fascinating details. In late 1943 they were moved by the British authorities to Karachi, leaving Iran 'with an indelible impression of the beauty of the country and the riches of its food and culture' (p. 200). In Karachi, according to Danusia, the family had to cope with 'scorpions, tarantulas, huge centipedes and desert dwelling insects' (p. 208). Of course, people had to cope with much worse things back in Poland.
Meanwhile the politicians were discussing what would happen at the end of the war to all the Poles, many of whom had no wish to return to a Communist-dominated Poland. In October 1945, they were moved to Kolhapur in India. Finally, in 1947, first Rafał and then Hanna, Wanda and Danusia arrived in England, and they settled in Devon, where many years later Matthew Kelly spent his childhood holidays, enjoying the delights of Polish cuisine and wondering about where he came from. Kelly concludes by noting that while his four relatives were able to build a new life in England, other members of the family perished in the War (p. 297).
This is a fine book. It allows the reader to meet a Polish family with many admirable qualities and it presents an important aspect of the history of the 1940s in all its complexity. There are probably other equally interesting stories about this period which have never been told. It is good that Kelly has told this one.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]