My father died on the 23rd November This is what I said at his funeral. It gives a tiny flavour of what he was like….
96 years old and he was still my Tatus. My first memories of him are when he was in his late thirties and I was about three or four. He looked just the same. Grey hair swept back off his forehead, bright blue eyes that always twinkled with fun, a sharp nose belying a strong sense of curiosity and a ready laugh. We were on our way by train to Littlehampton. Little lumps of coal were flying in through the open window – summers were hot back then – and he had bought me a magic painting book. My wetted paintbrush would be smeared over the page and lo and behold a coloured picture would appear. I remember being so proud of my art work – and then the coal landed on the page. But my brave Tatus picked up the burning lump with his bare hands and chucked it straight back out of the window. He thought nothing of it of course, but I knew.
As I was to know in the ensuing years a lot more about him. His whole life seemed to be a sheer act of bravery. Born in Przemysl near Lwow just after the first world war ended, to a father who spoke little Polish (being a veteran of the Austro Hungarian army) and who was adept at fathering children but then gambling his pension away and making his sons work for his living, and to a mother who did her best for her stepsons and her own child, he lived and studied in Lwow till the war broke out and the soviets took him with mother and brothers to live a life of extreme hardship.
There he combated starvation and penury by doing odd jobs on various kolhozes, the most profitable of which was cattle herding on horseback. In effect he was a cowboy – until he lost a horse. He used to tell this story with such verve and laconic description that I could imagine myself there – and it wasn’t nice. I don’t know if he ever said what happened next. He had a talent for glossing over the horrors, and yet they had a profound effect upon him, as for everyone of that generation.
When the so called “amnesty” came about he joined General Anders’ army as an officer and finally came to England via the middle East and Italy in 1947. In Italy he was awarded medals for action. Yet what I like best about his war experience in Italy is that he thought about the needs of his soldiers in a more comprehensive way. They were all struggling to make themselves understood. So he quickly compiled a Polish Italian dictionary and had it published, so that they could all go into town. And from what I heard, go to town they did, especially in Rome, where he studied for a while. It was in Italy that he met his best friend Zbyszek, who was to become my godfather.
Then England. Six months in a camp in High Wycombe of all places and then back to university. I was born when he was still a student and he was a man very ahead of his time. He was an unusual father for those times because he would spend a lot of time looking after me. Saturday mornings we would go to the North End Road, string bags in our hands to get the weekly shopping, go to the laundrette and the post office – every few weeks my father would send parcels to Poland trying to honour his father’s pre-war debts and then he would indulge in watching one of his favourite sports – boxing – through the radio rentals window, while I would be allowed a few minutes in the toyshop next door.
Tatus was a man of many passions and interests. Lwow was first and foremost. He had a phenomenal memory, for the city, its architecture, its history and its people. He seemed to know everything and everyone. He remembered everyone he had ever met, everyone he had been to school with – a few weeks ago he was still able to recite his class list in alphabetical order – and when he actually visited Lwow for the first time in 60 years he knew his way around better than any cab driver. Every photograph he took then was meticulously recorded – place, time and who lived where, before the war. He organised reunions, indefatigably keeping in touch with all his school friends and teachers, until there were none left,
His passion for sport came out in so many ways – he played tennis till his hips gave out, he ran and swam and walked. He loved football – he religiously read the sports paper from his birth town Przemysl and knew the name of every team player over the years. He treasured his 1948 Olympics programmes and didn’t have a television in the house for many years because he didn’t want to be distracted by the sports programmes. He relented for a fortnight in 1956 so we could watch the Olympics. Then he sent the machine back to the shop! What willpower!
He tried very hard very hard to interest me in sport, but I think that was his one great failure, though I do remember enjoying skating with him and some friends at Queens Ice Rink. He was happiest then in the intervals, when he could show off his ice dancing skills with the lady instructors.
My father was a real educator. He taught me to read and write and count before I went to school. He took me to the South Kensington Museums regularly, in the days when they were almost empty and he talked about history and geography. He wore his cleverness lightly – his range of knowledge was vast – he was no art lover or connoisseur of music however, but he recognised any piece of classical music that came on the radio – before changing it to something more danceable – and could hold his own with any conversation about paintings. This came in useful whenever we went on holiday and to galleries together.
He loved the sun and it was a source of great pride to him that he was always tanned – naturally of course. Whether it was in the park or on the beach or skiing. He was always active and joyful and funny. Friendly to a fault, he loved parties and meeting new people. He grabbed life with both hands, never waiting for things to happen to him. This could be embarrassing. Let me explain:
He was so proud of me when I passed the eleven plus. He took me to Barkers of Kensington to buy me a gold watch. Now I didn’t really want a gold watch but I was too shy to explain. So I chose the smallest and least gold one I could find and the time came to pay. While I was choosing Tatus had made friends with the assistant. She was from Canada. He immediately guessed she was from Edmonton. Her name was Linda. He told her it meant beautiful in Spanish. She simpered and giggled. Then he asked her if he could pay by cheque. Of course . Would you mind writing it out for me? he said. Of course, she smiled. Then she asked him to sign it. He took his fountain pen out of his jacket pocket and solemnly drew a very uneven cross. She looked at it – then at me – I was frozen with horror – and then she said she had to take it to her manager. As soon as she was gone he burst out laughing. I didn’t. I was furious. He was just trying to prolong his conversation. And then they came back – ready to accept the cheque. At this point he explained his little bit of fun and oh, how they laughed. He had to write another one, which he did by himself this time and everyone was delighted.
And this is it – he delighted everyone he came into contact with. All the condolences I’ve received remark on his charm, his humour, his intelligence and his optimism. He loved his work, his friends and his family. He lived a long time and the last twenty five were his happiest with his wife at his side. He will be missed.