THE LOST HOMELAND
It was not only the Canadians, British and Americans who helped to liberate our country — in October 1944, some 16,000 Polish troops crossed the border into Brabant from Belgium. En route from Baarle-Nassau to Moerdijk, they retook towns including Breda. Where did the Poles come from? And where did they stay?
On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. This was followed, two weeks later, by the Soviet Union, which did the same. ‘Thank God, they’ve come to help us,’ thought the Poles. Henryk Rećko was one of those who expected great things from the Russians, and he had no idea that Hitler and Stalin had secretly agreed to divide Poland, something that only became apparent when the Russians summoned all young men for transport to distance places. Henryk too, had to leave his home, just fourteen years old at the time.
Moscow was nice, but after just six weeks, Henryk and his peers departed for Vladivostok on the Pacific coast on the Trans-Siberian Express. ‘When we arrived we thought to ourselves ‘we can grow old here or we can run away.’ The three of them decided to escape, heading back to Poland, but their journey back was so cold that they took a detour to Afghanistan and Iran. There they met a group of Australian troops who took them to Baghdad and on to Damascus, Palestine, Egypt and finally New York, by boat.
Three months later they crossed to England, a temporary refuge with other displaced Poles. In their thousands, they were making preparations to liberate their country. At just sixteen years of age, Henryk joined the 1st Polish Armoured Division under General Maczek and in June 1944 participated in the Normandy landings at the wheel of a Sherman tank. His experiences were gruesome. Two of his friends were shot to pieces in front of his eyes and twice his tank caught fire. ‘You feel afraid but at the same time you realise that you get nowhere by running away.’
Some of the division entered Baarle-Nassau from Belgium but Henryk didn’t even notice. ‘What did I know about the Netherlands? The only thing I was thinking about were Poles.’ Since he couldn’t get beyond the Moerdijk bridges to Rotterdam, he was billeted in Dongen, which had been liberated, and was taken in by local butcher Snels and his family. It was here that the wandering Henryk finally felt relaxed and at home again.
A close friendship developed between the Brabant family and the Polish liberator, but Henryk’s goal remained Poland. En route through northern Germany, he experienced the end of the war, but Henryk and his comrades were unable to return to their homeland. ‘We couldn’t liberate our own country.’ So where to then? Until they had an answer, they bivouacked on a piece of land near Oldenburg. As time passed, each of them finally went their own way. In 1950, Henryk returned to Brabant, somewhere he still retained very fond memories of, and never saw his home in Poland again. He became a Dutch citizen, got married and later led a ‘quiet life in an Amstelveen apartment.’ He died in 1999 aged 74.
First there was the deal between Hitler and Stalin. At the end of the war, the Allies divided Europe into spheres of influence. The new communist regime in Poland now had no need for the former soldiers from the west. Deprived of a homeland, thousands of Polish soldiers were lost as exiles, spread out over numerous countries and bearing exotic surnames as silent witnesses of the diaspora.
Henryk (left) on the roof of his house in Dongen. Next to him, Cornel Snels, the son of butcher Snels. (Image: private ownership, Snels family, undated)