Michael Pollek

Born: 24th February 1954

Reading, UK

Date of interview: 13th July 2006

Map showing where Michael Pollek came from

Is it possible for you to tell us a little about your childhood?

I grew up in Newtown, road called 'Leopold Road' which was very much a working class area. There were lots of immigrants in that area, there were Irish in those days, Poles, Russians. There weren't any blacks when I grew up in 1954, although I remember seeing my first one when I was seven years old and I was quite surprised how curly the hair was. But my father, who was a painter, used to work down Oxford Road which is where a lot of the blacks in Reading settled, and he had friends within the black and Asian communities so that's how I got to meet with those.

What other early memories do you have of your childhood?

Well I learnt English at school, though I don't remember not being able to communicate with anybody in English, but I do know that I went to school at St. James' Primary School as it was known then, which is the school next to St. James Church by the Forbury Gardens. The Ukrainians predominantly that settled in Reading are of the Greek Catholic faith so that being the nearest, I was sent there. I remember going to school and not liking it and wanting to come home and I can only assume its because its I wasn't understood and couldn't make myself understood.

There was just my father, my mother and myself. We had two lodgers that lived in the house who were Ukrainian, single men and on a Friday night, there would be about four or five other single Ukrainian men would come round. My mother would do some sewing for them, or write letters, because a lot of these people couldn't write, she would write letters home for them. My father would play cards with them and I would sit under the table listening to their conversations and generally playing.

The Ukrainian community had a church service every two weeks where we would get together, I'd say there must've been about sixty adults living in Reading at that time of Ukrainian extraction and these people would've settled here after the war as displaced persons. There were camps just outside Oxford and one at Grazely Green for, as were known displaced persons, and of course there, there would be Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, all the former Soviet Union people. They had to stay in the camp until their papers, if they had any papers, were processed. They were given menial work to do in the area, and I remember hearing talk that in the early days there would be groups going out walking up the canals, clearing the ditches of weeds and branches, clearing out the mud, digging and that, and of course a lot of farm work was done. Then as these people were trusted more, they were able to mix in the community but had to come back home to sleep at that camp.

Gradually they were allowed to leave and find jobs again within the area. Reading was quite a good place for people to work because at that time there was quite a lot of industry in Reading.

You had the brewery, you had Huntley & Palmers the biscuit factory, you had engineering works, so they'd find jobs, would have to commute back home to the camp, then would have to make an application for them to find digs.

I know of one family who, well a group of five men got together, made application, they saved money themselves to buy a house and they bought that house in cash, then, they carried on working, that house would be paid for, signed in the name of one individual, they would carry on working until all five of those men had finally bought themselves a house.

They would have to report to the police station initially on a weekly basis and then on a monthly basis to have their papers stamped and if they were wanting to travel out of the town, out of the area of that police station they had to inform the police station were they were going and then inform the other police station at that destination that they'd arrived.

My father worked at the brewery, he worked there for twenty four years before he was, took, well in truth redundancy before the new brewery was built. The house that we lived in was rented and I remember when we went through the papers that in fact he paid via the rent, 'cos there was no mortgages then and these people would've never been able to get a mortgage, he paid 650 pounds for the house which was quite a big house, three bed roomed house with a cellar in Leopold Road.

As a consequence of that and the work that happened in this area he had a compulsory purchase and he bought another house elsewhere but it was funny that the house that he sold that he bought for 500 had made these thousands of pounds which he could only thank, he was always grateful for this country for enabling him to actually a) live here and b) be able to work here.

That's generally the key thing with a lot of the Ukrainians of the community, is the ability of being able to work without the fear that you're gonna get a knock on the door and sent to a camp because one of the problems after the Yalta agreement when Churchill, Truman and Stalin signed the accord, a lot of Ukrainians who came from Eastern Ukraine were deemed to be of Soviet status and had to be repatriated. A lot of these people who were repatriated were killed. They were either sent to Siberia or shot as traitors out of hand.

One of the discussions that used to happen at the camp, my father told me, when he was in Bicester camp was there'd be a long table with a white cloth and there'd be a, an English officer and a Russian officer and they would parade the people up and down and they would ask them the same question 'What's your name?' 'Where you from?' 'Why don't you want to go back to Ukraine, we've got a field there for you? We've got land there, your family's waiting for you?' In the early days it was a friendly gesture, later on it was threatening and the thing that was consistent about this was the English officer would never allow the Russian officer to be over-abusive.

My father, when Ukraine got its independence, I went to Ukraine for the first time and tried to arrange my father to come with us, he wouldn't, and I said, 'Well why? Why are you worried?' And he said 'No Hitler let me travel for nothing, I don't see why I should pay to travel back.' That was his sort of blasé way of dealing with it. I think he was frightened to go back 'cos he wasn't sure what was gonna happen when he went back home.

You said that you couldn't speak English, what language did you speak-

We spoke nothing but Ukrainian at home. I remember when I was I think nine, again I was quite shocked 'cos I'd never heard my father have this kind of an outburst, because generally, both my father and mother and generally Ukrainians, and I know I'm generalising but Ukrainians have a respect for authority, and I think most foreigners do have this, in my opinion sometimes a little bit too much fear of the uniformed person, but if you get somebody with an identity card they give more respect, but this particular time my school inspector came round to say that there was problems with my English reading at school and they asked my father and mother what help did they give me with reading English and my father said 'I can't read Ukrainian, let alone English, why do you think I send him to school?' [laughing] And my mother was the only one that was literate, my father couldn't read or write. And I was shocked and horrified by his outburst but I must admit I absolutely agree with him. That's why he sent me to school.

What was your mother's profession?

My mother, both my mother and father were born in 1922, they were born in the Carpathian mountains, they, of farming stock, my grandfather on my mother's side, my mother's father, he was a deacon in the church, so he would assist with the mass on Sundays. It wasn't an ordained position but it was somebody who would sing the chants, who would prepare the mass books, would prepare the documents, would be in charge of the writing process, and he taught my mother how to read and write. My mother only did two years of schooling because then she was sent out to work. She was the eldest girl of four girls and there was two older brothers but they died and we don't know what happened to them.

When she came to England she worked several jobs, all labouring. She was a cleaner, she worked at Crimpy Crisps, she worked at Ideal Casements on a packing line and then she became ill and had to give up work. My father, had a brother and a sister. He didn't go to school at all, he worked, my father's parents were butchers and therefore their knowledge was needed in meat and not in books.

My father left Ukraine 'cos there was, in, and I don't know the dates, the Germans had already invaded. They were looking for volunteers to work in Germany. There was hunger abound and when the Germans first came into Ukraine, they were greeted by the Ukrainians as liberators because what they were angry about, the Ukrainians this is, was the Russian oppression. So they were greeted as liberators and at first it was good, things did work out. And then of course the German position soon changed to what they always intended it to do, which was that the Ukrainians or the Slavs were only fit to be slaves or destroyed.

My father together with two others volunteered to work in Germany. His, the three of them were sent in cattle trucks, they were split up, luckily for my father he ended up in Austria, working in Austria for a very good family who were just ordinary farmers but not Nazis. When liberation came he wanted to go to Canada and again get as far away as he could from the Communists. He had an opportunity of settling actually in that farm where he was working, the farmer was willing to let him to marry his daughter 'cos they were very close and so on. My father was just too concerned about the Russians and everybody in those days was just moving away from the Russians. So he wanted to get to Canada and got on the wrong boat and ended up in England. But he obviously thought when he got to England that this was Canada, how he would've thought that only a couple of hours on a boat meant he was in Canada.

My mother on the other hand unfortunately, because of money problems, she was sent into the equivalent, I suppose in English of service. She was working for another family, between five and seven miles away, as a house, general house help. She was taken by the Nazis when they came to Germany. That part of the war my mother never really talked about. Neither did my father actually, neither of them really talked about the war. I know that my mother became mentally ill as a result of what happened in the war. I don't know what camps she was in but I do know that she looked after German children as a nurse maid, she was very good at that and one of the things that I suppose saved her from others, was that she was very good at looking after kids, she had natural affinity.

You've related about your primary education, what about your secondary education?

I went to school, I remember one morning, and there was paper on the desk and a new pencil, and that was quite impressive 'cos I didn't think I had qualified for a new pencil yet. And on the board was written in big letters 'eleven plus', I didn't understand what that meant either, and the teacher started talking about not to turn the paper over, and I did, and he threw the duster at me which hit me round the side of the head and that was the beginning of my eleven plus, I failed that.

I suppose I should have sued the school for that duster hitting my head and therefore helping me fail my eleven plus [laughing] but in all seriousness, the Ukrainian community's quite a tight knit community and the priest, when I was twelve asked my father if I would be interested in becoming a priest. This said 'Well we'd like you to go to Rome to be a priest.' Well I didn't want to be a priest either but I looked at my father and my father said yes, I looked at my mother and my mother was crying. I couldn't understand why she was crying and I said well I don't particularly want to go. 'No that's ok we'll talk about it,' then my mother stopped crying she said yes you will go. And so I said ok I'll go. That would've been round about March, February time. Come July and the papers are all in and things have been signed up and there's a list, 'cos don't forget, as I said my parents, while my mother could read and write Ukrainian she could read a little bit of English but not a lot. My father had none, so I would do all the English stuff. I mean I used to fill in my father's tax returns when I was a young boy. All this paper work is now coming along both in Ukrainian and a lot in Italian which meant absolutely nothing to anybody but there was an English translation to it and its giving us detailed instructions of what we were supposed to do about getting a passport for me etc, and a list of clothes they had to buy for me.

I seem to remember on that list apart from how many socks and shirts and stuff, I had to have a hat for the sun. Now I'd never worn a hat even when I was at school here I didn't wear a cap, that was a fiasco trying to find a hat for me. We didn't have much money and again in those days there wasn't, it wasn't as easy to borrow money as it is today. There was a new thing came up called the provident cheque which was were they would actually give you a cheque that you could only spend in certain shops and you paid it off, it was an early form of loan, but of course you were limited to what sort of shops you could go and therefore limited what you could buy.

They kitted me out and indeed I went to Rome, but before I went to Rome I said look if I don't like it can I come back home? And they said of course, give it till Christmas. Ukrainians celebrate Christmas according to the old calendar not the new calendar, so Ukrainian Christmas is January seventh, as opposed to December twenty fifth. I went to Rome, that particular morning it was an awful chilly morning, although it was summer, but a chilly morning, and the, my sister, I had a sister by then, this is in 1967, no six, 1966, so I would have been twelve. My sister, me, mother and my father walking to Reading station to get on a train to go to London, which was the second time I'd been to London, to go Victoria station to catch the boat train to go to Italy. And there were about 120, 130 other boys from England going to the seminary in Italy. The seminary in Italy had people from all over the world of Ukrainian parentage, the key thing was that you had to speak Ukrainian and you had to pass an entrance exam.

I'm not a priest, I could never be a priest. One thing that taught me, the training there taught me to lie, that's definitely one thing it taught me. It also taught me how unfair the world is and that, and in a way I suppose its thanks to that education I have, that I had that I do what I do now for a living.

How did it teach you how to lie?

Well because, for instance, if I, I was always upset about Judas. I don't mean to upset anyone's beliefs but I was always upset about Judas. If God is all knowing and therefore Jesus being part of the trinity was equally all knowing, he knew Judas was going to betray him in fact it was important for Judas to betray him because if he wasn't betrayed he couldn't have been crucified. But why? Why pick on this poor man? What had Judas done wrong? You knew from the beginning of time that this poor person would be picked on, would be victimised, would be, for the rest of humanity as long as Catholicism lives, would be treated as a inferior, even the term 'Judas' means betrayal now. Why pick on this one man? And I would ask these questions and the priest would say that's God's will, do you understand? If I said I didn't understand I'd be made to pray until I did understand.

Did you do your secondary education in Rome

I studied in Rome till I was fifteen, and then I came, when I came home, I finished my education here at secondary school. I started secondary school at Hugh Farringdon, when I came back I finished at Alfred Sutton because I really didn't want anything else to do with the church. I had my education that I had from Italy that bore no, at that time, no, had no bearing on my skills that I needed here. It certainly didn't teach me other than how to be devious and deceitful, how to do anything else. I worked in an engineering firm, I, for a time I was assistant manager of a shoe shop in Reading, I worked in a foundry in Langley. And then I met a girl and, kids I suppose 'cos that's all I was, I was just eighteen. We fell in love, we got married, and had a young son and I needed to have a proper job and I started working in Courage's in Reading, which is a brewery.

You said you didn't have a proper job before?

Well it was a proper job in as much as it was a job that paid me a proper wage, I didn't consider it a proper job because I would stay as long as I wanted to and if I didn't want to I'd leave. Like I said in those days it was easy to find a job, there were jobs everywhere. Now, I needed a job I could commit myself to and therefore to look to develop a career, because I had a family to raise and bring up.

So I got a job at Courage's and that was thirty two years ago. I worked for Courage for thirty years from the old brewery, and I'm sure you'll be talking to people who worked there, there are some other Ukrainians that I'm gonna try to persuade to talk to you who worked down at the old brewery, 'cos again it employed quite a lot of foreigners, and then at the new brewery here.

As a result of working at that brewery I got involved with the trade union movement. And then went through the, I was elected as a shop steward as a branch secretary, I was elected to sit on the constitutional bodies of the trade union, and really got about as far as I could go within the union movement and I, as a lay person, decided that I ought to put something back, both into the trade union movement that gave me the opportunity to do the things that I did and also to assist people that were not in the position to help themselves. So I applied for a job as a trade union official and that's what I do at the moment.

How was it that work, working amongst fellow Ukrainians?

Well it was funny because again, being white, we don't stand out and in those days people were very concerned about Asians and about blacks and really left us alone until we spoke. And then when people spoke in Ukrainian or you heard the Ukrainian accent being mentioned, everybody would be called 'Johnny the Pole' for a kick off, that's everybody's name 'Johnny the Pole'. People would sort of congregate on their own, I must admit in the early days I didn't like that, I didn't like that I was standing out in a crowd and I wouldn't mix with the Ukrainians. Made up for that since mind. I put that down to young stupidity, I just wanted to belong, I wanted to be normal, what I thought was normal. When I was a youngster growing up amongst the Ukrainians I used to pretend to friends of mine at school that I was Irish.

Again at St. James, a catholic school, you would have on St Patrick's day, the majority of the kids there were Irish, there were some English kids there, as I say there were no blacks, there were a few Poles, and there was me, a Ukrainian, I was the only Ukrainian there. St Patrick's day everyone would be wearing shamrocks except for a handful of us who didn't have shamrocks, and you stood out in a crowd and it was awful, it was awful, we'd be taunted, they'd take the piss out of us, they'd call us foreigners, I said I had a brother who was Irish, I clearly remember that that I had a brother.

My mother would come and see me at the gate to bring me some sandwiches and I'd hide 'cos I was embarrassed, I didn't want people to know she was my mother, much to my shame. As I say I, perhaps a little bit too far now seem to have tried to alter that position. But I can, this is again with the trade union movement, this is why I feel it's ... when a group of people are joking about, whether it's a racist joke or whether its about somebody's appearance or somebody's look, the group will join in with that laughter. That doesn't necessarily mean that everybody's included in that laughter, and sometimes the butt of the joke of that laughter will laugh as well, and then will start to make those kind of jokes themselves about others, and that's the awful side of, but I mustn't paint the wrong picture.

Reading is a very tolerant town, always has been. Its greeted its migrant workers, its greeted its immigrant residents with open arms. I remember back in the early '70s, how the national front tried to campaign at the local elections in Whitley, 'cos they thought the Whitley area was a place where they could get friends. And they were ran out by the Whitley people. So no, Reading, but nevertheless you do feel that, not that, difference is too much to actually handle.

You said when you worked at Courage's with the Ukrainians, did you feel you were part of the Ukrainians?

No, I, no I didn't. They were, although I was eighteen, nineteen, and they would have been in their forties, they seemed to have always been old, they were always old. And they would just get on with their work, do their work to the best of their ability, do some more, 'cos this was labouring work, this was menial work. They would do their work, they wouldn't muck about, they wouldn't joke, and then they'd go home. I would see my father, I was alright with him, but he was unique. I know every son says their father's unique but, he was unique. He was generally a cosmopolitan man. I remember him bringing home Asian sweets the Gelabi. I remember him bringing those home when you couldn't buy them in the shops and he was saying try it. My father respected everybody and said everybody's entitled to a chance and everybody's entitled to be respected, irrespective of colour, creed, in fact he said some of the worst people he knows are Ukrainian [laughing] just because you're Ukrainian doesn't make you a good person, its who you are that makes you a good person.

But, getting back to the purpose of this, the Ukrainians were able to settle in Reading because there was the employment and then we set up a community home, which I must admit in the early days I wasn't part of, but later on I did get involved and I'm now the club secretary, and there's talk about me being head of the association here in Reading which, given the pressures of work I'm not sure I'll be able to do, however, unfortunately, our youngsters don't seem to be, they seem to become too cosmopolitan [laughing] they don't appear to be wanting to take as much interest in things Ukrainian, other than when Ukraine are playing football, or at Ukrainian Christmas. [laughing]

Wasn't it difficult for you that you didn't belong when you were at school and also when you were working?

Yeah, yeah that was a problem and its only just recently, funnily enough, or maybe that's why I'm member of a trade union because that's my desire to belong to something grand. Although as a young person, I certainly didn't like my own company, were now I quite enjoy my own company [laughing]. But the, no that's absolutely true, I've always been singled out even amongst the Ukrainian community here in Reading. We would get together, 'cos there are kids my age around and, there was a dance group, there was a choir, I haven't got a musical inclination but I can remember things so I used to recite poetry. So we would go on, we'd have festivals in Leicester De Monfort Hall there on an annual basis take part in like aconcert, and I would go up there and that was quite, 'cos I was the only one in Reading that did that although we had a dance group, we had a choir, I was the only one that declaimed vershes (ph), 'vershes' - that's a Ukrainian word, er, poems and that was deemed to be a high brow thing to do which was something that my mother said I was always born to do. {laughing)

You've also mentioned about meeting a lady and getting a steady job.

Part of the wanting to belong, and not really wanting to belong to the Ukrainian movement, I suppose, she was English, she was Irish actually, half Irish, half English. One of the things, there weren't many Ukrainian girls around and those Ukrainian girls that were around were obviously ... monitored closely by their parents, and as when I was when I was a child growing up in Newtown, I couldn't do anything wrong, whether it be English parent or Ukrainian parent, you'd play out in the streets, you do something wrong, eventually it gets back to your father 'cos everybody knows who you are. It's the same in the Ukrainian community, you're a tight knit community, even though for instance we've got a big, big group in this country in Bradford, Manchester, all that area, I just wanted to get away from everything Ukrainian.

And that's, I think that's a sign of my immaturity and not yet coming to terms with who I was. So I married this girl, we lived at home for a while, till I was able to get a house. Unfortunately that didn't last, again we married too young, we had two children. But my two boys have taken on an interest in things Ukrainian, although they were born here. They knew my mum and dad, but other than that, but they've taken an interest in things Ukrainian so much that we went to Ukraine for Christmas, my eldest lad enjoyed himself very much over there [laughing].

Why do you think your relationship did not last?

I think we were just too young and shouldn't have got married. Its nothing more than that.

Ok. And what about your experiences while you were still working within the trade union itself, when you were still employed?

It was just a standard, nothing at all to do with my background as a Ukrainian, it was just me being an ordinary guy working in an ordinary environment defending people from a lay position, disciplinaries that sort of thing. Of course now, as a union official, I play a much bigger role in that and part of my duties now, my Ukrainian background is helping 'cos its not just about Ukrainians, I'm able to help Polish people, a lot because Polish and Ukrainian's very similar, the language, so we can communicate. So I'm helping Poles to try and integrate and actually helping them not become the new abused.

Do you feel that you've been accepted here-

Oh yes, oh yes, yes. One thing again in Reading, Reading didn't have a problem with me as a Ukrainian as I thought it did have, the problem was always me and mine, so I've been accepted everywhere I went and any perceived slights were my own. So the interesting thing now though is that the Ukrainians seem to have accepted me as a Ukrainian, this is the old Ukrainian hierarchy, they've forgiven me for not being their priest and they've, they seem to accept me more readily than what they did before [laughing] because when I first came back from Italy they were quite angry 'cos they had high expectations of me being their priest.

One thing they would say, and this is where I'm not sure if its specific to Ukrainians or generally [laughing] all people that live in a foreign land, they would call me English, they would say what do you know about Ukraine? You weren't born there, you were born here, you're English. Well of course that's true in that, not that I'm English, I'm British, but what do I know about Ukraine? No I've never been there, this was at the time when I was younger. But then when I'd go amongst my friends, they would call me the foreigner but now, I would be insulted by it but they wouldn't.

I mean my surname Pollek, my actual real name is Pull-yek. The trouble is that my father, 'cos he couldn't spell, when he was asked his surname, said Pollyek, the immigration official couldn't spell the sound that he was making so he spelt P-O double L E-K, not even a C in it, so all my life I had to try and teach people how to spell Pollek without an O on the end, without a C in it, and that it isn't a swear word. So I had as much trouble with my surname as an indicator to my difference from the ordinary people. But the Ukrainians said that you're not Ukrainian and my story would be that if a cow is born in a pig sty, does that make it a pig? No it doesn't, its still a cow and therefore were as I was born here, I'm still a Ukrainian.

You've spoken about your sons and your own background, that you spoke Ukrainian. Did you speak to your children in Ukrainian?

I did in the early days and fortunately when my youngest, my eldest son started speaking and he spoke in Ukrainian and his mother couldn't understand him, she got very angry, and said look, 'cos obviously he's growing up in the Ukrainian community and a Ukrainian home and she was saying that if he learns Ukrainian before he speaks English I'm not gonna be able to speak to him. Well I was stupid for listening to her because from then on I spoke to my lad in English and asked my parents not to speak to him in Ukrainian. Now he regrets that, he regrets that because, and funnily enough he's got a son who we're teaching Ukrainian so its skipped a generation but the youngster's learning Ukrainian.

Ok. How do you see your role within this society?

Well I ... I've got a sense of gratitude to England, specifically for allowing my mother and father to stay here, for allowing, and I know I suppose that sounds silly really but of course if they hadn't let my mother and father stay here I certainly wouldn't have been born here. So I have a multiple, lots of reasons of being grateful for that.

However that said, we have new Ukrainians coming into this country who are for what ever reason, finding it difficult getting work permits etc, there is a subculture appearing where they will become Poles, or they'll become, generally they'll become Poles in order to be able to work here and then send money back home because of the problems that are happening in Ukraine. Now I see my responsibility here to try and actively change that in what limited way I possibly can, certainly within the auspices of the Transport and General Workers Union, not just about Ukrainians, although that would be my specific thing I'd be looking at, but generally the principle of all workers being able to come over here and freely work and contribute to the society that they live in.

I'd like to be able to thank, by that way thank the English people for allowing my Ukrainian family to stay here, in turn get the Ukrainian people to understand their obligation to other Ukrainians and therefore develop that. Not to be in an insular, 'I'm alright Jack, I'm fine, I'm not worried about you.' So my, and that then would develop further on because I'm not a one-trick pony I'm not blinkered its not just the Ukrainians although that's my specific field of interest, that's an accident of my birth. But generally, and of course assist my family, to be able to take a bigger interest in all things Ukrainian.

Michael, I really enjoyed reading your history. My dad was Ukrainian and I recognize some of those 'characteristics'. Great that you're helping new immigrants to feel welcome. Happy Xmas.
Liz Monaghan

liz, 31 December 2009

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