Joe Tarnowski interview: Out of the shadows

AT 87, Joe Tarnowski still reckons he was born lucky, which has a certain piquancy considering he was physically and mentally tortured by the Soviet secret police when he was 17, then crammed with other "counter-revolutionaries" on a railway truck and dispatched to Siberia, where he faced death through cold, malnutrition and scurvy. By a near-miracle, however, he survived – only to risk annihilation during the Battle of Arnhem, where he fought with the Polish Parachute Brigade.

He came out from that unscathed, and while putting his serial survival abilities down to luck, also credits the healthy diet his mother fed him during his childhood in eastern Poland, an area which is now part of western Ukraine. He was born there on 19 March, 1922 – St Josef's Day, and a Sunday, a combination traditionally bestowing a double dose of luck which has held, more or less, throughout an extraordinary life which he has documented in the memoir Walking With Shadows, written with Edinburgh author and playwright Raymond Raszkowski Ross.

Tarnowski, who now lives in Edinburgh after many years spent south of the Border, was reluctant initially to write such a book, as he knew it would stir up so many painful memories of grim times and long-lost companions. But after discussing it with Ross he decided to go ahead, in particular so they could talk about some of the most shameful episodes of the Second World War.

"The things I wanted to tell were perhaps very little known in the West. I thought I could do a service to my countrymen and country of my birth by telling people the truth," he says. "And from the reaction I've received so far, it really hits them hard, about the cruelty of the Soviet Union.

"There have been an awful lot of books written about the German Holocaust in the west, but very few books, really, about the holocaust in the east. And I felt the focus of my book should be that. But," he emphasises, smiling, "I shouldn't bear any grudge because it made me what I am today."

An idyllic childhood came to an end as the Soviet Union made increasing incursions into eastern Poland and Hitler's Germany began massing its forces to the west.

"On one side you had German oppression, where Poles were treated as slaves and put in concentration camps, and on the east part practically every Pole, maybe 80-90 per cent from that area, were eventually sent to the gulags. That area was then settled by Ukrainians and Russians."

During the winter of 1939-40 young Josef joined the underground Armia Krajowa or "Home Army", prompted by the first Soviet deportations of families to Kazakhstan. The men – the Polish army reserve officers, policemen, administrators and others – had already been arrested, most of the officers later ending up in mass murder graves of Katyn, Kharkov and Ostashkov. He recalls the bizarre sight of both Russians and German SS personnel in residence in his hometown at that period.

His activities with the Armia Krajowa amounted to little more than watching trains carrying oil from the Ukraine to fuel the Nazi war effort against the West.

Like many others, though, someone whispered his name to the notorious NKVD (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, precursors of the KGB), and he underwent four days of brutal interrogation, beatings and sleep deprivation and eventually a show trial. He only escaped execution when his communist defence counsel declared that he hadn't been 18 when the "offences" had been committed.

Instead they sentenced the teenager to ten years' "re-education" in the Siberian gulag, his transportation order signed by Nikita Krushchev, then secretary general of the Communist Party of the Ukraine. The work camp he was sent to was near Vorkuta, north of the Arctic circle, and life expectancy for inmantes was nine months to a year.

Ask him about his most vivid memory of that awful time and he replies without hesitation: "The shadows. Every morning, it was dark practically all the time and those shadows emerged from the dugouts where we were held and assembled for the roll call and then started shuffling through the gate. The same procedure happened when we came back and there was an assembly to count that nobody had escaped, and of course some people didn't come back because they had died where they were working." Hence the title of his book – "because those shadows have stayed with me all my life," he says quietly.

He was the youngest in that particular gulag, which he believes helped save him: "Some allowances were made by people older than I, and they sometimes gave me lighter tasks to do," he says. He was "persuaded" to sell his warm coat and boots to one of the camp overseers – who were basically criminals enlisted by the NKVD – which enabled him to buy extra bread. "The worst point was when I started developing scurvy and I knew that if some miracle didn't happen, I would die."

But the miracle happened, in the form of the declaration of war between Russia and Germany. Suddenly they were addressed as "allies" by their oppressors. "This was on the insistence of Churchill and Eden, that the Soviets would release all Polish political prisoners. There were about a million and a half political prisoners from Poland, and they released maybe 100,000. The rest…" he shrugs.

As we talk, he is sitting in the comfort of the house he shares in Edinburgh with his partner, Margaret Dryden, looking out on green suburbia. It's a far cry from the from the permafrost they had to dynamite before digging, or the arid landscapes through which he and his comrades passed on the initial leg of an astonishing journey to join the free Polish forces in Scotland – through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Iraq, which was then a British protectorate, and Palestine.

Boarding a troopship, they embarked on what he refers to now as "a world cruise", which took a spectacularly devious route to confuse potential U-boat predators. It was 1943, and when he gained his first sight of Gourock and the Scottish hills, "it was the first time I'd seen such greenery since I'd left Poland for the Arctic wastes in 1941. I felt like Moses sighting the promised land."

He ended up stationed in Cupar, Fife, with the Polish Parachute Brigade. He also underwent what he smilingly refers to as "the Pittenweem experience", whereby every Saturday, the Poles trooped down to a local hall in the East Neuk fishing village, where they underwent something of a cultural induction process as the local women "taught us to play whist, introduced us to Scottish songs and Scottish dancing. Many of these women would have sons away fighting, so we really became substitute sons. I think that really had a great impact on my later falling in love with Scotland." He fell in love with more than the local culture, at a dance in Cupar meeting his wife, Janet, who died in 1988.

Tarnowski became a young deputy platoon commander and was dropped with the Brigade into the bloody chaos of Arnhem. He remembers the German bombardment being so seismic that, around them, apples were falling from the trees and hungry local women braved the shelling to rush out and gather them. Many of his friends were killed and taken prisoner, although he came out without a scratch – "although it wasn't as bad as the gulags," he laughs.

He regards his countrymen's contribution during the war as greatly under-estimated and under-recognised, and is particularly bitter about the fact that the Poles weren't invited to participate in the V-Day parade in London in 1945. "That was Stalin's influence, because he wanted to underplay the Polish role in the war," he says. "Many Poles," he says, "felt alone and betrayed."

But Tarnowski holds no grudge against the Russian people themselves, he adds, although certainly with the Soviet regime. "Their people suffered as much as we did, even more, because they lost millions of people during the war, but they also lost close to 40 million in the gulags. The scale is just overwhelming."

After the war, he went into electronic engineer and later computers and, found himself, during the early 1950s visiting Germany which was itself still clambering out of post-war rubble, then later returned to work there for three years. He grins at the irony: "The subject of my origins was never discussed. They treated me as an Englishman."

Later, in 1971, he made his first visit to Poland since 1940. He was saddened, both by the death by that time of his father, but also by the poverty and decay he saw around him.

Since his retirement, he has visited post-Soviet Poland numerous times as a consultant and lecturer on behalf of the charity British Executive Service Overseas, offering advice on building commercial and industrial structures to a society still scraping itself out of a communist mindset. "In Warsaw there were still many bullet holes in the buildings," he writes in the book. "What I hadn't expected were the bullet holes in people's minds and souls."

In 2000 the Queen made him an MBE for his work in promoting British-Polish industrial and educational co-operation, and he can also boast numerous Polish awards, including the Silver Order of Merit. When we met, however, he was also visibly moved by the 300 or so people, including the Polish Consul, who turned up for Monday night's launch of his book at the Traverse Theatre. From walking with shadows in Siberia, it was a warm reception.

&#149 Walking With Shadows, published by Glen Murray Publishing (9.99) is out now

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