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Stasha Starzec's Story

POLISH CAMP – THE STARZEC FAMILY  - 1952 -1957

We moved to Petworth Camp in 1952, having had several addresses since arriving in England in November 1946.  I was born in Trani, Italy on 16th June that same year.  Looking at our Mothers’ Certificate of Registration we were a bit nomadic before then.

This photo shows our family after we had moved to Plaistow..

Back row: Left to right, Me, Stasha, our Mum Anna, our Dad Jozef

Front row: Left to right. Ryszard, Tadeusz and Krystyna. 

Mum's registration document.

We left Lower Froyle, Alton (where dad worked on a dairy farm and we had a tied cottage) to Hut 47 in the Polish Camp at Petworth because Mr Swienton was left alone with three little boys after his wife had left him.  Yes, we moved in, like family, to help in dire circumstances.  Actually, Mr Swienton was Krystyna’s Godfather, so we were close.  Still, all nine of us in one Nissen hut!  Just three rooms, a bedroom, a kitchen and a living room!  And a toilet, not en suite, but in a block a short walk away! At this time there were five of us, our parents Jozef and Anna Starzec, myself, Krystyna and Richard. Mum looked after us all, and  those boys, Andrzej, Michael and Joe, loved her as much as we did. (Joe who is still  in touch with our sister Krystyna) often speaks of our Mum’s chicken soup!  Eventually, Mr Swienton got a nanny for the children and we were allocated a Hut of our own.  No 64.  We were happy living adjacent to Lydia and Krystyna, Zofia and Maria Dulas, and Zigmund and Krzystof.

Above left to right: Zygmund Krawczyk : Me Stasha Starzec : Lydia Krawczuk  and an unknown boy. My brother says he remembers that his first name was Zbysiek. ( If you know who he is send me a message from the Contact page.)

On the right: Stasha and Lydia in front of Hut 65.

Going back to Trani  for a moment. It was there that a number of our parents first met, and one of the photographs shows a group of handsome young men and lovely ladies in Italy (I think) who were to remain friends for the rest of their lives. 

This was Stasha's Christening party.

Our mum Anna is in the back row in the white spotted blouse and our dad Jozef is to the right of her. Mr Swienton is middle front row and Mr. Zajac is just behind the Italian looking chap bottom right of the photo.

Our Dad is in the front row to the right of the man in the suit.

As youngsters in the Camp, we were one big family in and out of each other’s homes as all kids do and playing in the open spaces of the park, but there was an extra bond between us all as our blood relatives were miles away in Poland.  This was the only life we knew, and it would stand us in good stead.  Our parents had, after all, come to this country to make a new life after the War.

Whilst life might have been idyllic for the children, because in our community every adult contributed to raising us, things were tough for all of our parents.  There was rationing and wages were low. Clothes were mended, socks darned and shoes re-soled. This was true for everyone living in Post War Britain, but as immigrants the jobs available to our parents were not on a grand scale.  Every family had a vegetable and salad garden and most kept chickens, rabbits and even pigeons for the table.  There were plenty of pickled cucumbers and saukraut in barrels. Mr Cichy kept bees, so there was honey.  I remember Mrs Szczotka was a seamstress and also made Polish costumes with little black boleros and a myriad of sequins for the girls, our Mum knitted cardigans and jumpers (without a pattern!)  She also made crepe paper roses. Mrs Dulas did beautiful embroidery. I remember seeing her sitting outside of their hut in the sunshine stitching away usually flowers (I remember she liked pansies.)  Mr Krawczuk fished in the lake and I recall huge eels languishing in a tin bucket in their kitchen.  Mr Sczotka also had a car and he drove us to visit the Polish friends we left behind in Alton. (Mr and Mrs Bem who had also been in Trani.) …. There must have been some form or bartering going on between our parents. 

In November 1954 Tadeusz was born, making us a family of six, and as big sister I had many chores.  I remember helping as a matter of course with cooking, ironing and shoe cleaning.  The cooking was done on the black solid fuel range and/or on a primus stove,  precariously balanced on the table.  I remember lighting it (there was paraffin and methylated spirits involved.)  The iron which was plugged into the light socket often gave me an electric shock. But I am still here to tell the tale! 

Something else we did was to go through the perimeter fence to the folly on the hill, where amongst the pine trees grew mushrooms and toadstools.  We picked lots and brought them back to Mum, who sorted through them.  She knew which were poisonous, and after a while so did we.  Some were cut up and threaded onto string and dried over the range for use in soups and goulash.  There was always soup generally with homemade noodles.  I also remember the pierogi (stuffed pasta pillows), gołąbki (meat balls wrapped in cabbage leaves) – Mr Swienton loved those!  Barszcz made with beetroot from the garden, cakes made with fresh yeast (you can’t buy this today,) crumbly biscuits using up the soured milk and cream, poppy seed cake and cheesecake (homemade curd cheese was used and lots of eggs).   Plates of pancakes …  Oh, and compote with fruit in season. To this day I never throw anything away from the fridge!

There was a church, of course, which was always well attended and hymns sung with gusto. And I remember a patriotic and ‘roof raising’ one about Monte Cassino.  All the children went to catechism classes, and duly took First Holy communion and some of us were also confirmed.  A few of the boys were trained as helpers during Mass.  Ryszard was one of these, and I recall him learning the Latin responses. There was a shop selling Polish provisions, I think a billiards or pool table for the men and maybe a bar (but my memory is sketchy.)   In their spare time the men played cards with a stack of coins beside them.

On the Left: Father Bystry he was a nice man, with First Communion candidates. Left to right: Krystyna Bandrowska, Elzbieta Szczotka, Krystyna Starzec and we think Olek Ogrodnik.

Above:  I think Corpus Christi service.

Our mum Anna Starzec Stasha and Jozef First Communion.                         Krystyna Starzec on her first Communion.

Krystyna, Ryszard and Stasha outside our hut 64.

What I find amazing in retrospect is the Polish school.  Ran solely by Mr Cisek, our teacher, who taught us our three R’s  (if you can call them that in Polish) as well as some geography and history.  He was learned and skilful. Too skilful!  Our dad never learnt to read or write (as the youngest in a large family) because his mum died while he was just a toddler. He was brought up by his sister.  Our mum was educated but because she was so busy, I took dictation and wrote letters to dad’s many relatives in Poland. So many responsibilities, including looking after our youngest brother, a chore I shared with my sister.  Later, when we had ‘mastered’ English, our translating skills were called upon for correspondence and reading the Sunday Pictorial (*I think that was it’s title.) Our parents listened to Polish radio transmissions and were able to buy the occasional Polish newspaper.

Mr. Francisek Cisek shown sitting in the above photo was an amazing teacher. He taught All the children to read and write in Polish and organized Polish concerts to maintain Polish traditions. Apparently he was active in lots of areas where Polish children needed education and lessons in Polish traditions.

 

Top right photo is of Krystyna Bandrowska on the left dancing with Lydia Stefanska dressed as a Polish boy (none of the polish boys in our group could dance) and Stasha Starzec at one of Mr Cisek's concerts.

Bottom right is Ryszard Starzec in the same concert taken after a recital that he learned from Mr. Cisek.

Like all families, some were closer than others, and we were lucky to have Mr and Mrs Zajac.  Mr Zajac was my Godfather. (I believe he was also Godfather to Krystyna Sczotka.)  He was also a good story teller, and often had a semi-circle of children sitting enraptured as he told them yet another tale.  I can’t remember them, but I know they all had a bit of a moral to keep us on the straight and narrow! Mr Zajac was also a demon barber!  I know the menfolk of our family always had their ‘short back and sides’ done with his hand clippers and cut-throat razor!  Actually for as long as he was able, which was many years later.  Mrs Zajac was often in our hut sipping tea and gossiping.  She was Tadek’s Godmother. One day as she stood in front of the open grate, lifting her skirt to warm her legs, her skirt caught fire!  There was panic and much wafting as she screamed and ran around.  Richard, who would have been about five at the time, climbed onto a chair to the sink and filled a bowl with as much water as he could lift, walked over and threw it at her to much gasping followed by acclaim.  He would probably get an award for that today.

 

Yes, lots of memories.  The get-togethers with various families, where there would be nibbles (Polish sausage and bread,) vodka and beer and always pickled cucumbers.   There were Polish dancing lessons and performances by the residents and children in the hall, Christmas time celebrations and painted eggs beautifully arranged in a basket for blessing by the priest at Eastertime.  Making our own fun, the walks in the park, swimming in the lake, and going to school in Petworth.  There were three schools – one for the infants, and two for the juniors (one for girls and one for the boys.)  Looking back, we were welcomed into the community, although there were some difficulties with language, lots of pulling of our pigtails by the boys and laughter at the beige knitted stockings we Polish girls used to wear.  (Where did our parents get them from?!!)  All the girls from our school had to walk through the town daily in a two by two line to the boys’ school for lunch where the canteen was.   We used to walk to Petworth Park too for our games lessons (usually rounders) and for sports day, and often the Polish kids would cut through behind Petworth House to our Camp if it was the last lesson on the timetable.  We were in a group so felt safe, but one day we were chased by cows ….

 

Whenever our parents got together there was lots of reminiscing by the adults …. If only I had paid more attention.  What would they all make of our web site today?  The world has shrunk from the days when a letter from Poland would take weeks to arrive.  Communication is instant.    

As we were all resettled in local villages, and enjoyed our respective lives, I am sure we were all very grateful and have fond memories of the time we spent in Petworth Camp.  The Good Old Days!  Never thought I would hear myself say that!

Photo on the left: Our Dad Jozef Starzec with a friend who we don't know.

Above: Dad on his friend's Jozef Swienton's motorbike.

This photo on the left is taken in Plaistow, I assume during an Easter visit by Padre.

Back row: Mr Dulas, Mr Wladek Rudkowski. Mrs Zajac, Don't know, Mrs. Dulas, Padre.

Middle Row: Anna Starzec our Mum, Don't know. Mrs. Czarnopolska,

Front row seated:  Mr Czarnopolski, Mr. Zajac. Janka Kopiec nee Czarnopolska..

The photo below: is taken outside the church in Lower Froyle probably 1952- before Tadeusz was born

Many years later” (whilst our Mum was still alive) my husband Roger and I had a holiday in Italy which encompassed a half day visit to Trani.  A pretty harbour town with lots of shops, restaurants and churches.  We enjoyed a seafood lunch outside in the sunshine overlooking the harbour.  We soaked up the atmosphere of the place as we walked through the town, then as our coach drove us away, we noticed Army Barracks on the outskirts and wondered whether this was where we all hailed from.   Déjà vu …. 

 

Stasha Martin (nee Starzec)