The World is a troubled place, and humanity seems to like creating conflict, but where peace reigns, for most people life is a breeze in 2020 when compared to any previous era: take the 20th century:
When friends complain about missing a holiday or the restrictions of COVID lockdowns, I tend to wonder at how lucky we are in our part of the World. I am a ‘Boomer’, and when I think about what my parents went through in the 20th century, I realise that we live in a golden era by comparison. This is, in large part, because almost all of Europe has been at peace for this 75 years, but also because of the accelerating pace of developments in technology and medicine. So here is some of their story with reference to the advances in technology and medicine that have made it so.
As I wrote this story, I realised that, by comparison, may life has been very placid and easy, so I hope it sheds light on just how much of ‘breeze’ life is. .
The story starts in Poland in the troubled early 20th century.
My Father – 1909 to 1935
Kazimirsz (Kazi) Kedzierski, was born in, what is now, Western Poland in 1909, the second child of working parents living in in the 2-bedroom upper storey of a house in Kalisz. Poland did not exist as a country at the time but was split between Russian and German (or Prussian) and Austro-Hungarian vassal states: the Kedzierskis were in the German part. The aristocracy owned the land and most of the wealth and, for the vast majority of people, money was very short and armed conflict was frequent as government squabbled over frontiers. The family income was supplemented by what they could grow themselves and they survived the bitter winters on food prepared and laid down in the autumn. This included black bread, which was baked in bulk and then put into the loft to freeze so it kept. They also raised vegetables which were preserved, and a pig which would be killed before the winter then turned into ham, sausages, brawn and smalek, which was rendered pig fat that is very tasty on bread.
They survived the 1st World War, which ravaged the entire region, and in I920, Poland was re-established as a country after 100 years by the Treaty Of Versailles. By that time, the family had grown to 3 boys and 3 girls, the eldest of which was aged 12 years. However, peace remained very illusive as the squabbles over the positioning of frontiers became worse, and the future of the country was far from secured. So my grandfather, Jan Kedzierski, took his entire family out of Poland and migrated 1,200 kilometres west, across post-war Germany to a valley in Lorraine in France where there was work in the iron mines. It is hard to imagine how this was accomplished at a time when Germany was in a chaotic state, and the fourth wave of Spanish flu was happening in much of Northern Europe and elsewhere.
Vive la France! Life gets less hard.
On arrival in Hayange the people were housed in a village for miners, which was called ‘Le Cité Gargan’. It was still being developed when they arrived, comprised of neat terraces of two-storey cottages on cobbled streets climbed the hill. They were well-built but there was no running water, and the toilet was a wooden box in an out-house at the end of the terrace which was cleared of night-soil once or twice a week ( in 1960 when I first visited Hayange, there was running water in the houses but the toilet arrangements had not changed). There was steady paid work in the mines and factories, a school for the children along with the absence of armed conflict, harsh winters and aristocrats; so life was a lot better than in Poland.
In this environment, Kazi thrived, entering the iron mine where he controlled machinery.
My Mother – 1916 to o1935
Evelyn Manney came into this World in 1916, shortly after her father, George, had returned home after a seven-year absence. To escape the daily grind of life as a tailor in Glasgow with a family, he had absconded and joined the army! He served in India until he was sent to the Belgian trenches in 1915. There, during the Battle of Ypres, he was shot through the thigh, which was called a ‘cushy’ as his recovery would be complete and he would escape the battlefields. However George was forced to return home and settle down again as a tailor, a job he hated, while he missed the varied, adventurous life. He was not an alcoholic, but his frustrations found release in drink, which he couldn’t hold well, so he would occasionally come home drunk, shouting and violent.
Evelyn had two older siblings, and her brother Douglas was born in 1920. They lived on George’s small salary in a tenement in south Glasgow, but did get some holidays with relatives in County Down in Northern Ireland. Evelyn did well at school and was a bright pupil, but in 1929, when she was 13, her mother, Mary’s, health had deteriorated such that Evelyn was taken out of school to help with the housework and to nurse her mother. Her elder siblings had left home, her brother working in the Belgian Congo and her sister to marry, so she had responsibility for helping her mother with the housework and looking after Douglas as he grew: they became very close. It was a lot to cope with for a teenage girl who regretted losing her education, and she never forgave her father for his terrifying drunken fits.
Conditions Of Life Between The Wars
- Working hours were long, holidays very limited and conditions at work could be basic or even dangerous.
- There was no free health service and you had to pay to see a doctor and for any medicines. Antibiotics were not yet available.
- Cars were for the well-off and everyone got about by public transport, bicycle or on foot.
- The BBC was starting up, but radios were a luxury until the late 1930s.
- There were few, if any, domestic labour-saving machines and devices and no detergents.