Photograph of Krystyna Szopis

Krystyna Szopis

Born: 6th February 1931

Lwow, Poland

Date of interview: 16th May 2006

Map showing where Krystyna Szopis came from

Can you tell me where you were born and when?

I was born on 6th February 1931 in the most beautiful town of Poland called Lwow.

And can you tell me what your earliest memories are?

Well just living in my home town. Tremendous memories of town. My last flat where I lived and which I had been lucky enough to visit six years ago. Yes I was lucky enough to be allowed in and my school, my church, my mother's sister that lived in the same town. I do remember quite a lot even though I was taken out of the town by Russians when I was eight.

Tell me about that.

Oh, in 1940 when the Russians occupied the site of Poland they decided they wanted to take us out of our country and gave us a free ticket to Siberia. So on 28th of June in 1940 they just arrived and knocked at our door and told us that we have half an hour to pack a few things because they are taking us to the police station which we knew perfectly well wasn't right, so you could imagine how little one could pack in half an hour and there was a lorry outside of our building and they packed us there took us to the station shoved us into cattle trucks about sixty people per truck if not more and that was that. I do remember it was a very hot day. I have, we have, my mother and father and I we had I had a Chihuahua dog. We had taken the dog with us but being so hot and stuffy in the cattle truck which was completely locked but for a tiny, tiny window the dog had fainted so my mother let it through the window and asked a workman to take it back to my mother's sister which unfortunately he'd never done but what I heard later on from aunty the dog must have run away from wherever he was in two weeks time and arrived at aunty's flat.

So and since then we travelled for, I don't remember, I think it was six weeks and arrived in Siberia ... The place was Sverdlorsk but beforehand we have arrived in the little village town and then with all our possessions which was almost nil. I mean it wasn't just us there were quite a lot of people in the same position. We had to walk through the huge forest, to a place that was simply cut out in the forest, and once upon a time there were some kind of prisoners there but when we came it was unoccupied. There were huts made of wood and they had they just tell us that we had to share a room with another family and in the place I can't tell you how many people there were but there must have been 300/400 people.

We've lived there till ... um God knows ... that would be 'forty-one something, something 'forty-one, nearing the winter but winter there was most of the year. We only had spring summer and autumn lasting about two months and the rest was just sheer winter with the temperatures going up down to minus fifty centigrade. Well that's more or less you know in a quick session as we managed to be there in 1941 as the Russians started the war Germans started the war with Russia and immediately we were told that we could be free if we wanted to get out of there. They tried to persuade us to stay but certainly everybody had started to move out. At the very same time we know that somewhere down south in Russia, a Polish army was being formed. It means that all the men out of prisons and camps were released and the army was being formed so father, my mother and I and a funny little cat, that I somehow I don't know who gave it to me, how did I manage to get it in Siberia, we went to the nearest station, got into another cattle truck [laughs] and arrived in ... I wish I knew ... Tashkent. And actually it was Samerkand near and settled for a while in a small town called Druma and Druma in Polish is one of the most serious illnesses.

There we found quite a lot of Poles already there mostly from the prisons and from camps as we were, very ill, typhoid and so on and people were just dying like flies. My father was very ill but then after he recovered a bit he said that he would go and try and join the army ... he went to ... can't tell you the name of the place. Anyway he joined the army but we hadn't heard from him for the last, for about three or four months and probably that is a bit of a sob story, where the state we lived, it was Uzbekistan and with, what do you call them, the Uzbeks in a small, small room, but there was nothing to live on beside occasionally, occasionally there was centre where they were cooking soup for all the people and so on, but my Mama she had the last ring that she still possessed. She had a wedding ring an aquamarine ring and she went to sell it. She sold it to a wife of a high ranking KGB officer. I still remember the lady and on the very same night my father came already in the uniform ... and said to mother, 'Well'. She said 'I've sold all these' and that was that. The lady came and somehow she became almost a friend of my mother, always begging not to tell her husband and my mother said that my father came back and we are going away. So she said 'Probably you want your rings back' and she gave them back. That's my mother's ring there. My daughter has the aquamarine ring and I've got the wedding ring.

We went to ... Mmm where to? With father we went to Turkistan where the army was being ... there was a centre of, you know some kind of army centre. We'd been there for a while then moved to the south.

By this stage it was 1942. In 1942 we ... went to, yes we were allowed to be moved with the army as the families of the people that had joined the army, to Persia ... Iraq, Iran sorry. Today is Iran. We went through Krasnovodsk. It's the port in Russia, across Caspian Sea into Pahlavi. From Pahlavi, well in Pahlavi there was a huge camp of really, well you can hardly call them huts. There were mats placed on top of wooden poles just to shade us away from the sun. Well it's no good saying most of the people were sick, very ill, I had very, very bad malaria and so did my mother but we were not the only ones and eventually ... Eventually we were taken to Tehran. Again we stayed in the camps with ...

Was your father still with you?

At this stage no, father had already gone with the army. So from Pakhlevi to Tehran, in Pakhlevi we met father and then he went to Iraq with the army and we went to Tehran with the families.

Krystyna what was it like as a young child going/having this experience?

Probably it wasn't half as bad as it would have been for my mother being worried about the child. I don't know you just get used to everything. We were free we had food so this way we were happy. We were given some clothing, be it that it had never fitted you, and the funniest thing that happened to me when we came to Pakhlevi, quite a lot of girls and women were infested with lice and I had very long plaits and as we were, we came in and were told to go to have a shower and so on and there was a gentleman waiting with a plate or whatever to cut the hair off every child hair, and Mama said 'No you won't touch it' and he said 'But they're all infested with lice' and mother said 'No she isn't and I'm not?' So they looked through my hair and I wasn't, and I was an odd child out not being bald because I had long plaits and I had them up to the age of nineteen and eventually I decided that I wanted short hair [laughs] so ... you know it was so, it was different, we were free we were not hungry. Well as I child I was so very ill but it didn't matter. In Tehran there was a Polish school where I made friends.

Were there a lot of children in similar situations?

Well yes there were thousands of us there. By the time we reached Tehran where the Poles, there were one, two, three, four huge camps around Tehran and I mean thousands of us. I can't tell you for sure how many people were deported to Russia but there were thousands, or hundreds of thousands of Poles because Russians just wanted to get rid of intelligentsia of everybody and just push their people into our places.

Can I take you back to where the Russians came to take you away. You were eight years old at the time. What was your father's occupation?

My father was working for the Polish railway and Mama was an accountant. I mean mother worked till I was born and then she stopped working.

Any did you have any brothers or sisters?

No I was an only child.

And what about your grandparents, were they there?

No both grandparents were one lot, my mother's parents were living down south in Poland and Father's parents moved from Lwow when Granddad retired into a small place outside. So that's more or less what I remember of them. I do remember my mother's parents because we used to go there for holidays many a time. I did go and visit Dad's parents, I do remember Granddad very much, very much indeed. He was a very tall, very straight man and very gentle. The opposite to Mum's, Mum's father was stocky and very dark and I think I was afraid of him [laughs] I don't know why ... because he was so very dark.

Did you have any other cousins, aunties and uncles?

In Lwow there was my mother's sister. She had an only son but he was much older than me. He must have been about ten years older. I do remember him but he was no company for me.

Were they all deported?

No the others stayed. They were not moved. We were deported, the Russians came. We were deported simply because my father fought in the first war and they did know everything about him. When they arrived and they told him and asked him some questions and he just looked at them and said 'Look you know it all so why bother asking me questions ... '

So moving on then, you were in the camp in Tehran, your father was away ...

Yes well he was, then he was in the army.

And what happened next?

From Tehran, well Dad, after joining the army and so on and so on he was stationed in Egypt and he was a tutor in a mechanical school and we were moved from Tehran to Ahvaz in Southern Persia, not far from Basra. Well a lot of people from the camps went to India, Africa, etcetera, etcetera ... there was also a Polish military school for girls and boys in Palestine, Israel today, and I wanted very badly to join it but unfortunately I was too young so they wouldn't have me and we were, Mother and I, were very fortunate because we were moved to Lebanon. From 1944 till 1947 we lived in Lebanon outside of Beirut in a place called Ghazir.

Where did you live there?

In Ghazir well it was the first time ever since Poland that we lived in a well normal house be it only had one room but we lived in a house not in a hut not in a shack not, you know but, that would have been the happiest time because Lebanon is a beautiful country. People were tremendously friendly towards us, not saying that people in, that Persians were not because they were really, really friendly towards us, but Lebanese people were marvellous. Tremendously clever people because within a year you could go to any shop and speak Polish and they knew it. The main actually language was French because they were occupied by France for a while. Through Tehran and Ahvaz and Lebanon I went to school because in every place there was a Polish school on every camp and so on.

Were these set up by Polish people?

They were set up by Polish people. So by the time I came to Lebanon I was already transferred to a grammar school and I managed to do three years there and in 'forty-seven ... sometime in June/July. In July we were told that we were going to England. We went through Egypt where my mum found her sister, her younger sister and her husband. We stayed with them so we were not moved immediately. We stayed with them on the camp for all of it was camps, if not army camps civilian camps, for about a month or so outside of Port Said and then in 'forty-seven September/October probably we came to England.

Who told you you were going to England?

Well it was all arranged with the army. Don't forget we had nowhere to go back to. That our country was cut in two during the war and then my place, my home town was somehow given away to Russia because our eastern part of Poland the Russians couldn't give back. They gave us some places on the western side from Germany but my home town has never returned to Poland, and it's not in Poland now it's in Ukraine now. So there was nowhere to go. England had accepted refugees and then from England we had a great choice, there is no way about it, we could go to America, to Mexico, to Southern America, to Australia, to anywhere we wanted to and they would have transported us and hopefully given jobs and so on.

Somehow England was the nearest to our own country and we always hoped that one day we will go back which has never happened. Well probably some people did go back but Poland, Poland's government was so communist that a lot of people who went back were just sent back to Siberia and there was no, we had nowhere to go. Our home town, our home, the house, everything was in Russia.

So we stayed, my parents stayed on the camp outside of Reading. Well we actually arrived at the airport and my father was in Kingswood Common Camp outside of Reading. There was still army camps, they were still in uniforms then, so my mum went to join him and I was fortunate to go to the school. At this stage in England there were four grammar schools, two for boys, two for girls. They were supported by Polish Education Committee [sighs] well I can't tell you for sure but there was some money that belonged to the Polish Government before the war and don't forget that in England we did have Polish Government in exile which was situated in London, and it has existed quite a longish time, but then you know politics are politics and that has ceased to exist even though we did have one to the bitter end, till Poland became really free and independent as it is now. But the money for the schools, at the beginning, was the money that belonged to our country. Then later on probably the English Education Authorities has taken over. But I was fortunate to be there go as far as to Higher Schools Certificate, so called Matura, in Polish. We did first we did some kind of GCSEs and then higher. By the time I have reached lets say the sixth year we were told we have to sit English Certificate of Education, was difficult because in most of our lectures lessons were in Polish some we have tried to learn English language but is not an easy way to learn a language, you know, being surrounded by Poles. Anyway we did our best. And so my year was the first year that had to sit English GCSE and at this stage you had to do five subjects. If you failed one you couldn't repeat it, you, it was nullified. You had to do it over and over again and fortunately enough I've managed to do it and then we didn't, what year that be? 195...1. I went, in 1951 I went to Leicester, City of Leicester Teachers Training College.

What was it like living on the Kingswood Common Camp?

It was an army camp. Well I didn't live there I used to go there for holidays, was full of lovely young soldiers. [laughs] So it was OK! Even though I was only sixteen/seventeen. But I thoroughly enjoyed that. [laughs]

Where were you living then, at that time?

Well there were huts all the time you know army barracks. Have you ever seen a Nissan hut, well our school all was in Nissan huts ... It was OK, it was as cold as hell during the winter, as hot as anything during the summer but you know it was the freedom, being fed, not too well in school, but being fed. Being surrounded by your own people. It was OK. I don't grumble. [laughs]

Did you visit Reading town centre?

Well I used to come to my parents for my holiday and Reading was as dead as dead could be, I do remember. [laughs] This time you could see people on Saturday nights or on Sunday, were the people that went to the pictures, nothing else. It was a tiny, tiny, dead place but now have a look at it now. Mmm.

So did you go to the pictures?

Oh yes I did [laughs] and being here you know there was some boys in the Kingswood Common Camp. [laughs] Yes I only did go -

Which cinema did you go to? Where was it?

It's funny. It's the Odeon, is it still where is the cinemas, I don't go to cinemas any more. There was Granby, Granby on Cemetery Junction and there was one somewhere Shoot Lane on the side and one going down almost towards Oxford Street. Mmm. But I can't remember the names anymore. I know it was Odeon and Granby the other side that I remember. I'm not a picture girl anymore.

So you went to Leicester College and what did you do there?

I went to study sciences and I was accepted for science and my notion was I'm going to teach secondary children because I for my A Levels I did all the sciences. Anyway I was accepted and a month into the first year at college the Principal called me and said 'Look, as my policy is that all the foreign students', and she did have some Polish girls before me 'have to take English literature and English language.' So I said 'What about my sciences?' I said 'Look I have been accepted for science. I don't like languages. I don't like literature. I'm going to fail' And she said 'No Polish girl had ever failed so you won't.' So I can't say I loved it, I didn't like it and they had given me Chaucer to study. I couldn't understand the girls, how could I understand Chaucer? [laughs] But I've managed. [laughs] By hook or by crook I have managed to finish it. It was quite a tough college.

What was it like leaving your family and going to Leicester?

Well I left my family to go to the Polish school, it was outside of Cheltenham so actually from the age of sixteen I was a boarder and I did go home for every holiday. Being in college, being in school, and probably in the beginning when I came to England, each time I had to go back to school maybe I shed a few tears. But altogether can't say it was bad. It was OK.

How would you describe yourself as a young person?

Naughty. [laughs] Constantly smiling. Full of beans. A person that could get on with people. Being in trouble in school many time for whatever reason but, but I was never rude. I was taught to be polite to people, respect people. But I never was told not to do any pranks or be in trouble this way. I was always quite a jolly person, hopefully still am. [laughs]

So from Leicester College where did you go then?

To Birmingham. My first school was in Birmingham in Harbourne and it was, I do remember I was accepted by Birmingham City and but then given the address of the school and it was St Peter's C of E School. So I came and I haven't had a clue what C of E meant. It was Church of England. Just next door to St Peter's was St Mary's Roman Catholic School. Nobody wanted me there probably I don't know. [says, laughing] Anyway I've been there for two years meanwhile I got married and I was married at, wait a second what would it be, before the end, yes I was married in March and I've decided to carry on teaching in Birmingham.

What year was that?

[laughing] Don't ask me. Fifty years ago I see 'fifty-five. 1955 and at the end of it all my headmistress came to me and said Krystyna I will get a supply for you if you have a job, to move to Cheshire, because my husband lived in Cheshire and we decided we would start, we will live there, well simply his parents were there and so on. So I moved to Northwich in 1955 in, May probably and taught there in St Wilfred's School, for the next seven years.

Where did you meet your husband?

I met my husband in Lebanon, actually in Persia first time because then he went to the, to Palestine, was in cadet school but his mother lived in the same place in Lebanon as we did and he used to come for holidays to Mama. Then I met him in England. It was a romance on and off, on and off and finally he managed to catch me, I don't know how. [laughs] So I been there till 1961 [mumbles thirty years] 1961 and he went as a mature student to college.

The camp we used to live in Cheshire was being slowly demolished. His parents were given a council house but I had a child and work, and with him going to college, well my money was badly needed so we moved to my parents down south, to Woodley actually we bought a house in Woodley. My parents joined us and my husband was in college for three years in Alsager in Cheshire or is it Lancashire now I don't ... and I stayed in Woodley with my parents and immediately got myself a job in Woodley, and since then I haven't moved from Woodley and it's a long time you know.

Where did you get the job in Woodley?

In school. I'm a teacher. [laughs] Yes it was Beechwood Infant School. Then my career went from Beechwood Infants to St Dominic's Primary. I was Deputy Head there ... from St Dominic's Primary to William Grey Primary and then I have applied for headship at St Dominic's and I was a head for ... [sighs] oh God seventeen years, something like that, it might be a bit less. Because my daughter had a child and somebody had to look after a child. I was given early retirement, stayed with my granddaughter for two years. My daughter gave up her job. I was free which I didn't like and I went back to teaching. I supplied, first I supplied in any primary infant school round Woodley and there are eight of them and then I supplied in Hugh Faringdon Comprehensive for two years and then back in Beechwood, till I was sixty-five. Probably I would have gone a bit further longer but Education Authority doesn't cover a teacher beyond the age of sixty-five and there was no insurance. I did go occasionally you know just to help out but that was that and so I had taught from, God forty-odd years ...

Did your daughter marry a Polish man?

She actually married a boy what from a Polish family, you know, born here. My daughter was born here. Yes and they do live, they do live in Reading, Lower Earley. They haven't done it for the last year because they had the notion of moving to America.
Unfortunately my daughter couldn't take it, couldn't stand it and they are coming back home, so they are going back fortunately didn't sell their house. They'll be back within a few months. My granddaughter is in Liverpool University, has just finished her second year of veterinary studies ... so that's my life story ... What else do you want to know?

Is there anything else that you haven't told me that you would like to say?

Probably masses of things. [laughs] Not really.

You're involved with Polish community now.

Always have been. Always have been yes. When we came actually when my husband finished his college we came here and we've always been very active, very busy, in the club, in the community, still are and hopefully still will be for a while.

And are there many people who came when you came from Lebanon that you still know?

From Lebanon here in Reading. Funnily enough not a lot of people I do know from my home town ... but

Oh yes you were going to tell me you'd been back.

Yes, I've been back. Yes ...

What was that like?

I've been there for four days. I cried most of the time ... the town is still beautiful. It's the most beautiful town architecture wise and so on. Very neglected because it was under Russia till Ukraine became independent country ... I did go to my flat but unfortunately the flat was divided into two and on one side they allowed us in the other side didn't. I went to my school. They've been very kind, very nice to me but the Head wouldn't come out to see me only the deputy head. Well the school it, I didn't remember a lot of it but I did remember where there was the Head's office and I thought I know where my classroom was, but you know I wouldn't be sure. I did go to the cathedral where I was confirmed just before Russians took us. I was simply, I went to the First Holy Communion in the morning and I was confirmed in the afternoon because everybody know there is going to be a next transport of people were going to Siberia for a jolly ride.

What else, well I did go to the huge cemetery where because of, you know, in 1920 there was a war and Poles, well Poles from Lwow, the Poles were fighting Ukranians unfortunately and masses of them were just young boys, young girls from schools and there was a huge cemetery where my father was fighting. So I did go there. It was still in a very, very sad state but I hear, and I hope to go this year, I hear that everything is forgiven and forgotten and so on and the cemetery has been beautifully rebuilt.

When it comes to churches of Lwow, well my parish church unfortunately is not a Roman Catholic church anymore. Where I went for First Holy Communion but very fortunately it was being redecorated or something. Inside, you couldn't get inside. That would have been a very, very deep emotional trauma for me. Oh I did go to the theatre in Lwow. It's a huge opera house. That was very emotional simply because I did remember being there with my parents.

You've travelled in many countries.

I've been everywhere. [laughs]

But you've lived here for a long time.

Most of my life, 'forty seven, it's got to be sixty years next year, sixty years.

Do you still feel very much Polish?

Oh yes, Oh yes. There's no way about it ... you do, I remember the first time ever I went to Poland. Well I couldn't go to my side of Poland but I went to my mother's sister. When I came back some of the teachers asked me how do I feel, and I said I feel I don't belong there at all but it's still my mother, the country is still my mother. I said this country is the best foster mother but the other is a mother. You can't change. I've brought up my kids. They feel they're Poles. I mean all of them speak Polish even my grandchild. We are different there's no way about it, we are completely different from the people from Poland now. Are we better are we worse? It's for whoever to judge but we are different. We've been through bad times, good times. We do respect this country that given us a chance to get educated and I hope very much that the country realises that we have given something to it ... I don't know, I've given forty years of education to it, which must have been, must have been quite good [laughs] yes.

Came across Szopis interview by chance.It stirred memories. My experience was similar.Born in the same place,now live some 50 miles from Reading!!

Tad Podolski, 25 September 2008

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