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Looking For My Father

Tracing a wartime past

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

It had been a hot, stuffy journey from Warsaw, and not a tremendously interesting one: most of this central part of Poland appeared from the train to be a featureless plain. So I was delighted when we finally approached the city which is now called Toruń, but which during the Second World War was called by its German name, Thorn.

I had come here with my son, Richard, and his Polish partner, Joanna, to research a book I was writing. It was loosely based on my father’s experiences: he had been a prisoner of war in Thorn for five years.

Dad, a lorry driver in the Royal Army Service Corps, had been captured in France. His convoy was heading towards Dunkirk – and the hope of rescue – ahead of the German advance. But his engine overheated and he had to stop and wait for it to cool down. This apparent misfortune saved his life, because soon afterwards, the convoy came under mortar fire. The lorry in front of Dad’s was carrying petrol, which exploded: Dad’s vehicle, now at the back of the convoy, crashed into it, but he managed to leap out — into a bed of nettles, as he would later recall. Only four men survived. They set off to walk to Dunkirk, but were captured eight miles from the coast.

For years Dad didn’t talk about the war. Then gradually, usually after a whisky or two, he began to tell us a few stories. There was the time they made ‘hooch’ out of potatoes, and got some of their guards drunk on it. There was the delicious pea and ham soup that a farmer’s wife made when they were on a work camp. And there was the guard who used to be a violinist in the Berlin Philharmonic, who would stand under a tree playing an imaginary violin and forget all about the prisoners he was supposed to be guarding.

Dad was a very good storyteller and at the time I enjoyed what he chose to tell us and didn’t notice how much he left out. He wasn’t bitter about what had happened to him. He certainly didn’t hate the Germans: he said some were good and some were bad, like people anywhere. But just occasionally, something much darker would slip out. Once, I remember him gazing into the fire, a brooding look on his face, as he said: ‘You have absolutely no idea what you’re capable of when you’re really, really hungry.’ And occasionally he spoke about the bitter winter of 1945, when the Germans evacuated the camps and marched the prisoners across the north of Europe, ahead of the advancing Russians. To this day, no one knows exactly how many men died on that march.

He was twenty-one when he was captured — just a young man with little experience of life outside the mining town he came from. He had a lot of growing up to do, and he had to do it in captivity, far away from home. It was such a contrast to the experience of the generation now growing up in Britain in the twenty-first century: I thought there was a good chance that some of those young people would be interested to read about how it had been for him. I write books for children: writing a book based – loosely – on his experiences seemed the obvious thing to do.

But first I needed to do some research. There were gaps to be filled. I needed to find out much, much more.

The first thing I did was to speak to someone from the Imperial War Museum. They suggested I should go the records office at Kew. At the end of the war, they told me, prisoners had to fill in a form, they said, about their experiences. These forms were held at Kew. The records, however, were incomplete, and so I prepared myself for disappointment — of course, I told myself, Dad’s wouldn’t be there.

But it was. There was his familiar handwriting, the answers to the questions short and terse. I felt as if I was there in the room with him, sensing his impatience to be done with it, to be allowed to go home. The record included a list of the main camps he’d been in—Thorn, Marienburg and Fallingbostel; of the work camps, and of the escape attempts he’d made, only one of which he’d ever mentioned.

I read books, of course, and I found a wonderful resource on the BBC website – archived now – called WW2 People’s War, full of first-hand accounts, some of them from prisoners who had followed the same route to captivity as Dad. Slowly, I fitted his stories into a wider context: it was all coming together.

But there was something missing. I’d recently written a book about Alfred the Great, and it had helped enormously to visit the sites of battles and other important events in Alfred’s life — seeing the places had brought the whole thing alive. I wanted to do the same thing for this book. I wanted to go to Poland.

‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man’ — or in this case, the woman: Joanna. She and Richard offered to meet me in Warsaw and travel with me up to Thorn/Toruń, the first of the camps Dad was taken to. Her help in translating and helping me find my way about would be invaluable.

And so here we were, at the station Dad came to in the summer of 1940. Had he even known what country he was in, I wondered? Quite possibly not. He certainly wouldn’t have had a clue where Thorn was — only that it was a very, very long way from home. The station looked as if it hadn’t changed much since the war years; grass grew thickly between the tracks, rusty trains stood marooned under metal gantries, a large station building covered in faded pink stucco crumbled gently. We had only come from Warsaw: the prisoners had travelled many times that distance. They had marched – or stumbled – from Dunkirk to Trier on the western border of Germany, and then been crammed into a train consisting of windowless cattle trucks. They often had to stop to let other, more important trains past — it must have been a long, slow, miserable journey, with far too much time to brood on what was ahead of them.

We headed across the River Vistula, broad and silky smooth, and into a city of copper roofs and cobbled streets, the city where Copernicus was born. A beautiful place, but I knew that the prison camp had been on the other side of the river: quite possibly Dad had never even entered the city itself. I wanted to visit the camp, to see what he had seen — but it wasn’t going to be easy. I knew that the Germans had used a series of forts built during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, as well as an encampment surrounded by barbed wire somewhere outside the city, and I had a rough map which I’d found on the internet. But there seemed to be no mention of it in the tourist information centre: no-one knew anything about the prison camp. Then Joanna suggested hiring a taxi. Perhaps, combining the map with some local knowledge, we might at least be able to trace where the forts had been.

And here we hit gold. The driver of our taxi knew exactly where the forts were. His father had been imprisoned there, as many Poles had been, and as a boy, our driver had played in one of them. We forced open a pair of tall rusty gates, and there it was: I recognised it instantly from descriptions I’d read. We stood in the base of a disused quarry, gazing across at a red brick building with arched windows, hemmed in by trees, surrounded by a moat. Not much light filtered down: it was a dark, gloomy place. This was where Dad had started his captivity. Later, our driver took us to the site of the barbed-wire encampment: all that remained of it were one or two tall concrete posts, angled at the top.

I could have written the book without going to Toruń. I had read the eye-witness descriptions. But walking into that quarry, seeing what Dad and the other prisoners had seen, I felt I had a much better sense of how they must have felt.

I wrote the book, and I hope that one day it will be published. But even if it’s not, I don’t regret the years I worked on it. We none of us know the people our parents were before we were born. But after that journey to Poland, and the much longer journey of writing the book, I feel very much closer to the young man my father had been, ten years before I was born: and I think I also have a better understanding of the man he became.

Sue Purkiss lives in Somerset and writes books for children: her most recent publication is Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley, set at the end of the eighteenth century against a background of plant-hunting in the Himalayas. She also writes historical fiction.

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