The remarkable story of Jan Mokrzycki and his inspirational mum Janina took place during one of the most terrible periods of Polish history, when the country was occupied by Germany and then Russia.
Janina the doctor
Jan’s mum qualified as one of Poland’s first ever women doctors in 1931, having studied medicine at the University of Warsaw. After graduating and marrying a fellow doctor, she worked as a general practitioner in the Polish capital, treating all types of illnesses in the period before many familiar modern medicines had been developed.
Jan himself was born in 1932 into a fairly typical middle-class family. He lived in a huge flat in central Warsaw, along with his grandfather who was a very successful dental surgeon and who ran his surgery from the flat. The flat was so large Jan was able to ride the bike he was given for his sixth birthday (his first two-wheeler) around it!
Family photographs from this period show the happy childhood that Jan enjoyed in the first ten years of his life. Life in Poland was great for people like him during this time, as the country began to modernise itself and became successful following independence in 1918.
The terrible war years
All that changed, however, when World War II broke out in 1939 and all the men in Jan’s family were conscripted to fight. His mum stayed working in the hospital in Warsaw, which was now receiving soldiers who had been wounded in battle.
Soon, terror broke out across Warsaw, as German aircraft bombed and machine-gunned the Polish capital. This was a new type of warfare to anything seen before: everything and everyone was machine-gunned, including men, women, children and animals.
The Polish air force was very small compared to that of the Germans, meaning it was soon obliterated, leaving the Polish army and population with hardly any defence. Jan was moved from his childhood flat to the hospital where his mum worked, because she thought he would be safer there.
The Germans then brought in the heavy guns, and although the city held out for a month, Warsaw eventually fell to the invading force and the occupation started.
He moved back to his family’s Warsaw flat, where he was joined by the men from his family, who had managed to escape from captivity in other parts of Europe. They were hungry and dirty, but not injured.
Ahead of Jan was a bitterly cold winter with no glass in the windows of his flat and no coal for the stoves that heated his home. Christmas 1939 was spent huddling in the dark, with the flat windows blocked up with cardboard, and with food in very short supply. There were no presents and no traditional feast on Christmas Eve; they just sang a few carols and swapped ‘good’ wishes.
It was a frightening time for young Jan. The sound of German boots on the pavements was never far away and he and his friends had to make way for the rows of marching soldiers by flattening themselves against walls or even walking into the road. As access to public areas, including seating on public transport, was restricted for Polish citizens, sometimes the only way to ride a tram was to hang from the outside. But at least that meant you got to go free!
The invading German forces brought devastating consequences for so many Polish people – including Jan’s family. As had been the case throughout German-occupied Europe, Jewish people – and those who helped them – were targetted for especially brutal treatment in Poland.
One morning in June 1943, on returning from a walk near his family’s weekend villa in the settlement of Sulejówek (about ten miles east of Warsaw), Jan noticed a German secret police car (the Gestapo) disappearing into the distance.
When the Germans discovered that several members of his family had belonged to a secret underground group supporting Jews (called Żegota), the consequences were truly terrible.
His father, uncle and grandfather had already been arrested in Warsaw and the Gestapo had been to pick up his mum at the villa. All of them were taken to the Gestapo headquarters in Warsaw where they were interrogated and tortured in the most terrible way. They were then sentenced to death for being members of the Polish resistance army.
His father, uncle and grandfather were all shot and dumped in the sewers, but his mum avoided death and instead was sent to the notorious concentration camp at Auschwitz in Poland (she was later transferred to Ravensbrück camp in Germany). This meant Jan was left behind at the villa with some other family members, while his family’s flat in Warsaw and all their possessions were taken over by the Germans.
His mum survived one of the twentieth century’s most shocking examples of human cruelty and evil, simply because she was as tough as nails, and because she had a slightly better life in the camp, as she was a doctor. She worked in the camp hospital at Auschwitz for just over a year.
Jan was thrown out of his family villa by incoming Russian soldiers in August 1944. He then witnessed the gunfire and devastating fires of the Warsaw Uprising, which lasted 63 days and resulted in the death of about 200,000 people. He watched this from the safety of a tomato farm outside the city, where he was working with his grandmother and some friends. Most of Poland’s capital city was destroyed during this time.
He eventually returned to the original family flat in Warsaw, where he saw the efforts to rebuild the flattened city.
Two amazing rescues
Jan’s mum somehow managed to survive the terrors of the concentration camps for over two years and in 1945 was finally rescued by the Americans, who arrived in their Jeeps to liberate Ravensbrück concentration camp.
Remarkably, one of the soldiers who first met his mum was a Polish-American serviceman who had actually specialised in surgery with her husband years earlier!
Neither Janina, nor her son – now separated by hundreds of miles – knew if each other had survived the war years. But Janina was determined to find her son, so she headed back from Germany to Poland (which was occupied by Russian forces) in the hope of finding her 12-year-old son.
The extraordinary story continued when Janina arrived just before Christmas 1945 at the flat in Warsaw, where Jan had been living with his grandmother. She rang the doorbell and Jan answered, but he didn’t recognise the grey-haired, little woman who was shouting ‘Jan’ at him with tears in her eyes!
When he finally realised it was his mum, the joy was indescribable. And he had something special waiting for his mum: a silver cup, which he had been due to give her as a name day present the day after she was captured by the Germans, two years earlier.
It was still not safe for his mum to stay in Poland during this period, as she would have been sent to Siberia by the communists in charge of Poland. So she planned a daring escape from the country, whose borders were still strictly regulated.
The pair of them would travel by train to the border town of Cieszyn. From there, they would cross over the frozen Olza river to Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic) at night on New Year’s Eve 1945, when the border guards were drunk from celebrating the arrival of the new year!
An amazing walk to freedom took place that night and they took a bus to the occupied Czechoslovakia’s capital Prague (now Czech Republic), where his mum had a friend from her Auschwitz days. From there, a passport and visa for travel further west in Europe could be arranged.
A new life in Britain
Jan and his mother's incredible escape from Poland eventually brought them to Austria, then to Germany (where she met her second husband and worked as a doctor for the Allied forces), and then finally to Britain in the autumn of 1947, where Janina’s medical skills were much in demand two years after World War II ended.
Jan and his mum were first directed to a camp in Sherbourne, Dorset, that had been made in a clearing in a forest. His mum received additional training in her specialist subject, chest diseases, and then got her first ‘proper’ job in the UK at a hospital in Chepstow, Wales. Jan (still 12) was sent to school in Bolton, Lancashire, where he boarded with a couple,
Mr and Mrs Walker, whom he called ‘mum and dad – much to his mum’s annoyance! Mr Walker took him to his first football match (Bolton Wanderers), which started his lifelong love of the game. He went on to complete his secondary education in Bolton.
When Jan’s mum and her husband came to join him in Bolton later, the family bought a house in the town. It was their first taste of ‘normal’ family life for many years. He generally found people in his new home to be very welcoming in these years after World War II, despite speaking no English when he arrived.
Although he was one of only three Poles in his school, he was able to focus on his studies, picked up English quickly and did well academically. He was eventually offered a place at Newcastle University to study dental surgery, which he started in 1955.
While at university, Jan became heavily involved in the student Rag Committee – a team that raised money for charity every year. His imaginative ideas led to record-breaking fundraising for local charities, and this spurred him on to further voluntary work.
He was eventually elected as President of the Student Representative Council at Newcastle, and in his final year at university he served on the executive committee of the National Union of Students.
He qualified in dental surgery in 1959 and headed first to London, as he wanted some Polish company. He met his future wife, Magdalena, at church and they married in that same church nine months later. Jan tells the amusing story that his wife claims she actually fell in love with his Austin Healey Sprite sports car, not himself!
The couple soon moved to Coventry in Warwickshire, where he set up the first of two dental practices. During his long and successful career as a dental surgeon he treated many thousands of patients and employed numerous people in his dental practices in England.
He and Magdalena went on to have two children (Jan and Wanda) who both speak fluent Polish, and they now have six grandchildren. One of his granddaughters is a high level gymnast, who has competed in international competitions.
With his wife he started a radio programme in 1991 on BBC Coventry & Warwickshire radio called ‘Poles Apart’. The programme, which ended a few years ago, after being the station’s longest-running series, celebrated Polish culture.
A very active retirement
Jan has always been very interested in voluntary work and politics, and he was able to channel this interest during his retirement by getting involved in various charitable and other organisations.
This included a period as the President of the Federation of Poles in Great Britain. One of the highlights of this role was being invited to a dinner hosted by Her Majesty the Queen, during an official visit to the UK by the then President of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski. Jan is also currently the President of the Anglo Polish Society (Bristol and the South West).
His work with the Federation of Poles in Great Britain really gathered pace when Poland joined the European Union in 2004 and thousands of Polish people arrived in the UK. Jan took a very hands-on role during this period, helping these newcomers find somewhere to live and get work, as well as advising on the importance of joining a trade union. He was motivated during this period by the need to help Polish people integrate into British society.
He has received several awards for his work, including the Polish Order of Merit and the Cavalier’s Cross of the Polonia Restituta Order (one of Poland’s highest awards).
Jan continues to support work that helps promote Polish culture in the UK, and is a trustee of the Polonia Aid Foundation Trust – a charity that gives grants for projects focussing on Polish history and culture (including this book).
His remarkable mum Janina went on to give many more years service to the NHS as a specialist in diseases of the chest, before retiring in 1983. She finally passed away in Jan and Magdalena’s home in February 1995.
COPYRIGHT AUGUST 2016 - BRIN BEST & MARIA HELENA ZUKOWSKA
Many more stories of Polish people in Britain can be found in 'POLES IN THE UK: A STORY OF FRIENDSHIP AND COOPERATION', which was published by The British Polonia Foundation (UK charity 1168711) in August 2016. To download the free eBook PDF version click the link on the home page.