This is part two of the story of my parents who lived through the 20th century and which I’m relating to highlight how life in Western Europe’s so much easier than it was then.
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.
The break-out of World War II in France.
As the thirties rolled by, political tensions were growing in Europe and Hitler was stoking resentment and nationalism among the German people about lands that had been lost by the ‘Fatherland’, such as Lorraine.
Having lived through an era off border disputes when in Poland, Kazi kept abreast of the developing situation and felt that war was inevitable. So when it broke out in 1939, he was prepared and left the mines to join a Polish division operating alongside the French army, called the Polish Independent Highland Brigade (Samodzielna Brygada Strzelców Podhalańskich).
The Battle Of Narvik.
In the spring of 1940, following training in France, his brigade was deployed to Narvik in northern Norway to fight the invading Germans. The allies were badly out-numbered and there was snow on the ground. He was a sergeant and volunteered to take a small reconnaissance party to recce a machine gun post. He succeeded in his mission but during his return to the unit, his left hand was nearly shot off at the wrist by heavy machine gun fire. They patched him up at the field hospital, removing his left hand then he was put on a ship taking wounded men to Scotland. The days lying in the hospital ship’s hold being tossed about on the North Sea while suffering the agony of his wounded arm were hell.
The lovers meet in Scotland
Kazi and Evelyn met during his convalescence in a Scottish hospital and were able to communicate because she had taught herself French as part of her self-education while looking after her mother. They were a good-looking couple who found a common outlook on life that had been forged in the fires of hardship and austerity, but where love and family fed the sprit. However, things were far from straightforward for them as he was still a soldier and coping with the loss of his hand. As he recovered Kazi was given duties in army bases such as at Abernathy. Meanwhile, Evelyn was still caring for her mother, who was now bed-ridden, and keeping house for here father. So for two years they remained lovers who met when they could among the chaos of wartime. Things started to change when Mary died in 1942. At last they were then free to wed that September, shortly after her 23rd birthday, they were married in Glasgow with a handful of guests.
A turbulent start to marriage
Kazi had managed secure a secondment to the Polish government-in-exile in London, so they relocated to a rented house in Barnes. Although it was a quiet, leafy, neighbourhood, V2 flying bombs would occasionally fly overhead. This was terrifying as they would simply stop and fall out of the sky and one destroyed houses in their road while they were there. They liked Barnes and were settling in and had made some friends, but in June 1943, when Evelyn was eight months pregnant, her beloved brother Douglas was killed. He was serving overseas in the RAF, which was doom for many young men, but that didn’t reduce the devastating impact on her. She gave birth to John only a month later, and the strain of it all took its toll on her health. So it was that in the autumn, Evelyn was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was sent to a sanatorium outside Glasgow for treatment. She would be in the institution for several months, so John was put into the care of her elder sister for nearly half a year.
In the meantime, Kazi had been reassigned to Rugby to manage a Polish sailor’s home, which was a challenging post as money was very tight and the inmates were an unruly lot. So following her recovery, Evelyn and John joined him and spent the remaining months in Rugby until he was discharged from the army in 1944. This freed the family to move back to Barnes as Kazi had secured a civilian job in London with the Polish Shipping Lines.
A new, settled life
Having secured a steady job in a newly peaceful England and established his home in leafy Barnes (an enormous contrast to the gritty steel works and mines of Hayange), Kazi dug his feet firmly in and ensured that his family had a stable life in those gentle surroundings. He missed his large family in Lorraine, but was willing to make the sacrifice knowing all too well how difficult things could get.
They were quite poor, but gradually life became less arduous, and the arrival of the National Health Service along with free education for his children and without the prominence of the Catholic Church he was content. I was born in 1949, and Alice in 1951 and we were brought up in a stable, very loving environment. And although the challenges Evelyn and Kazi faced were many, they always dealt with them well and loved to welcome siblings, cousins, friends and strangers into their home.
Both died in the Barnes area, Kazi aged 82 and Evelyn aged 84.
The arrival of labour-saving technologies
During all this, it’s worth remembering that life was extremely basic compared to today. If you were wealthy then you could afford the more recent innovations, but for most people, automation and communications didn’t arrive until at least the 1950s. Rationing of food remained in force into the fifties. The National Health Service was started in 1949 and prior to that, you had to pay for your GP and many other medical services. Antibiotics were in their infancy in the 1940s with penicillin becoming available for limited use in 1945 while vaccines came into widespread use in the mid 1950s. Most people did not own a car prior to WW2 and horse-drawn vehicles remained common on roads and fields into the fifties.
In the home, there were no washing machines so, classically, Monday was set aside as the ‘washing day’ and always left to the females. Water had to be heated specially for all requirements, so people were a lot less clean and clothes were washed much less often. (Deoderants and showers only became common after 1960.) Outside toilets were normal and not all had flushes attached. There were no hoovers, no refrigerators or central heating in homes. Until the late sixties, our 6 bedroom house had no heating apart from the kitchen coal-fired stove and open fires: bedrooms got very cold in winter.
Of course, computers and television didn’t exist, but the radio, called ‘the wireless’ in the UK, was quite wide-spread with the British Broadcasting Company starting in 1922. Telephones only became common in most peoples’ homes from the 1950s.
Evelyn got her first washing machine in the mid 1950s (very basic – wash only).
Our first television (black-and-white) in about 1963
Our first car in 1964.
Storage heaters (to replace paraffin stoves) in 1964
Central heating in our 6 bedroom house in 1968
Fascinating. Brings back a few lost memories of my childhood in Mayford, a village near Woking in the 40s, particularly the cold bedrooms. I remember the frost ferns on the inside of the windows most mornings. I was 3 in 1947, the coldest winter, with snow pilled higher than I was, in our drive. Penicillin was given to me, also in 1947, when I was suffering from whooping cough, which would have killed me without it.