Helen Bitner-Glindzicz (née Herron) says her love for history was born while she was a pupil at Rosemount Primary School in Derry in the 1940s.
Little did she imagine as she sat in Mrs Canavan’s class all those years ago that, one day, she would herself pen a remarkable book that chronicles the wartime journey of her late husband’s Polish family from their home in Eastern Poland in 1940 when Russia was the ally of Nazi Germany.
But that’s exactly what Helen (80) has done with the publication of ‘A Song for Kresy’ - an enthralling story of a young family, deprived of their father who had been imprisoned (and later murdered), who were deported by Josef Stalin to Siberia where they were consigned to work in forced labour squads building a railway.
Helen tells the story of how a mother of two young boys - one of whom, Richard (Ryszard), the Derry woman was later to marry - escaped the Soviet nightmare and made their way through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan via the Middle East to eventually arrive as refugees in England in 1947.
“A Song for Kresy” is the story of just one of the thousands of Polish families who were deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan by the Soviets in 1940.
The Glindzicz family had their roots in the Eastern Borderlands of Poland known as Kresy. The family held their lands in this region since before the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1648) and the Glindzicz men had supported all the major Polish uprisings against Czarist Russia.
However, despite having fought loyally side-by-side with Britain throughout the Second World War, when the conflict ended, the Poles of Kresy lost their homes and lands to the Soviet Union.
Helen, who is originally from Beechwood Avenue in Derry, says ‘A Song for Kresy’ is “Ryszard’s story, written to be read by his grandchildren.”
“I wanted our grandchildren to read about his early life, so different from their own,” says the mother of two.
Helen and Richard first met at a dance in Borderland - the famous dance hall in the Inishowen village of Muff - when he was working as a graduate engineer on contract at Coolkeeragh Power Station on the outskirts of Derry.
The couple were married in 1961 and remained together until Richard’s death in 2007.
Now living in Colchester in Essex, Helen has many relatives still living in Derry and she remains in close touch with her brothers, Michael, Seamus and Thomas, and sisters, Ann [Coyle], Collette [Dobbins], Kay [O’Hare] and Pat [McCauley].
Helen says the history of her late husband’s family is interwoven with the story of those lost Eastern Borderlands of 1939 Poland.
She says: “At one time in the Kresy could be found a rare mixture of Polish, Lithuanian, Beloruthenian, Ukrainian, Jewish, and Muslim cultures.
“The loss of the Kresy was seen by many as the loss of a land which was the cradle of Polish culture and of the civilizing attainments of many generations.”
Helen currently helps administer an internet group called Kresy Family Polish WWII History Group.
The aim of the group, she says, is to promote the history of those 1.7 million Poles deported to Siberia during WWII under Stalin’s ethnic programme.
“So many history books gloss over this war crime associated with the Katyń massacre committed by Russia,” she says. “It’s still another embarrassing political expediency.”
“A Song for Kresy”, says Helen, started as a transcription and editing of three audio tapes Richard made telling of the experiences he and his family endured at the beginning of World War II.
“The tapes cover the period from 1939 to 1942 up to the arrival of the family in Persia,” she says.
“Ryszard refreshed many of the details about life in Kazakhstan from conversations he had with Krystyna Rudlicka [family friend] whom he visited regularly. He continued to look upon Krystyna, and she him, as part of his family, and she used to talk to him as she would to a little boy always getting up to untold mischief.”
Some material from the opening chapters comes from what Helen remembers of Ryszard’s reminiscences.
“He used to sit for hours with his mother and his grandmother in their small flat in London talking about what life had been like in Poland before the Second World War,” she added.
‘A Song for Kresy’, by Helen Bitner-Glindzicz, is available in Easons, Foyleside.