Obituary: Zygmunt Potrykus, soldier and weaver

Zygmunt Potrykus: Polish soldier who survived many close shaves to make his life and work in the Borders
Zygmunt Potrykus: Polish soldier who survived many close shaves to make his life and work in the Borders
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Born: 15 November, 1925, in Wejherowo, Poland. Died: 25 December, 2013, in Melrose, aged 88

Soldier Zygmunt Potrykus was still a teenager when the Second World War ended but he had witnessed the hostilities and their tumultuous consequences in all their brutal reality for almost its entire duration.

He was 13 and attending a mass for a young dead friend when news of the conflict broke. By the time it was over he had seen both Hitler and Goering, left his homeland behind and negotiated a dangerous and harrowing journey through occupied Europe to join the Polish Army in Scotland.

He would spend the next 60 years in the Scottish Borders – 40 of them in the textile mills – where his wartime experiences, and the challenges he faced integrating in a foreign land, shaped the proud, independent man he became.

Born in the northern town of Wejherowo in 1925, just a few years after Poland had regained its independence following more than a century of partitions, he arrived at a time of hope for the new nation. His parents, Wojtek and Malgorzata, had seven children and he, the eldest son, was particularly close to the eldest of his brothers, Kazimierz.

But by 1939 the optimism of just two decades of Polish self-rule was to be tested to the ultimate degree by events that unfolded that September. Young Potrykus was in church when the priest suddenly announced: “You must go home.” Germany had invaded. From then on he witnessed events that would have a profound effect on his future. He would also lose his brother Kazimierz, killed by the Russians in Gdansk, in 1945.

Right from the start, the area around his home in Wejherowo, only four kilometres from the German-Polish frontier, and its inhabitants, were subjected to almost unimaginable barbarity. In addition to fierce fighting between Polish and German troops and the devastating raids by German Stuka dive bombers, both of which he saw first-hand, there was the terror of the knock on the door in the night.

He and his family had been afforded some degree of protection during the occupation, by the award of third class German citizenship, on account of his grandmother being a German national. However, as he later recalled, there were many nights when neighbours simply vanished, their bodies dumped in an unmarked grave in the Piasnica Forest a few kilometres outside Wejherowo.

The area was the site of the biggest mass killings of Poles in Pomerania as the Germans sought to eradicate the intelligentsia. Thousands upon thousands were massacred in the early months of the war in the first major Nazi atrocity in occupied Poland.

Just further south was Stutthof, another killing field: the first Nazi concentration camp outside Germany and the last one to be liberated by the Allies.

At the time, the Potrykus family owned a printing business, where young Zygmunt was being trained as a compositor, but it was requisitioned by the Germans, who installed a German owner.

On one occasion, he threatened to send the youngster to the concentration camp – where soap was produced from human fat and the death toll eventually reached more than 85,000 – because he had failed to deliver a parcel on time to a German client.

He was spared that fate but his punishment was to be beaten in front of his father, who was powerless to intervene.

It was also in Wejherowo that Potrykus set eyes on Hitler and his confidant, Hermann Goering, when the Fuhrer’s train stopped in the town on the main rail route between Berlin and East Prussia.

In an effort to keep the youth out of the hands of the Nazis and a life of enforced labour, the family found him work on various local farms but, as the labour shortage grew, he was forced to leave home and make for the West.

He left in late 1943, it is thought with a group of other men from the town, and traversed occupied Europe for the next year.

His exact route is uncertain but what is known is that it was a fraught and tortuous journey that took him through Germany, France and into Belgium where he ultimately made contact with Allied forces through a Canadian division. From there he made it to Britain and joined the Free Polish Forces in 1944.

He enlisted at the Polish Army’s HQ in Scotland and trained with a battalion in Crieff, with the 1st Grenadier Brigade in Blairgowrie, and at the Ordnance Training Centre in Dalkeith, where he learned to operate Bofors anti-aircraft guns.

He was in training to join the Polish 1st Armoured Division, which was fighting in Europe, when Hitler committed suicide. Under the command of the brilliant General Stanislaw Maczek, the division then captured the important Wilhelmshaven naval base where Maczek accepted the surrender of the German garrison.

Had he been sent on active service, the teenage Potrykus would have been issued with a new name and false documents since he was known to the Nazi authorities. As it was, he remained stationed in Scotland until being demobbed from the Polish Army in 1947, his initiative and self-discipline earning him the rank of lance corporal. From then on, the Borders were his home.

He was among the many thousands of ex-servicemen who chose to stay in the British Isles rather than return to Poland, which was by then under Soviet influence. He found work, through the Polish Resettlement Corps, as a weaver at Gibson & Lumgair and Roberts & Co in Selkirk and latterly at Ballantyne’s Mill in Walkerburn, becoming renowned for his precision and accuracy.

He married his wife Betty, whom he met at a local dance, in 1954 and built a life for their two children, working long hours and a great deal of overtime to ensure they never went without. Despite his success, he faced bigotry, anti-Catholic sentiment and a struggle to be fully accepted by his wife’s family.

In 1966, during a four-week visit with his son, he made the long journey home by road in an old Hillman Minx to an emotional reunion with his parents and siblings.

All except Kazimierz had survived, but the country was still badly disfigured by war, under a Communist regime and with no freedom of speech – a situation he found difficult to accept.

In Scotland he had had the opportunity to have another life and to provide an excellent start for his children – he was immensely proud to attend his son’s graduation from Edinburgh University Medical School where the Polish School of Medicine had been established during the war.

Inevitably, his experiences in Poland and across occupied Europe coloured his view of the world. He still carried the scars of beatings on his back, along with a strong sense of distrust, and remained a very private, understated individual: a man who had integrated so well that few if any knew what he had suffered, yet who considered himself still a humble foreigner.

He is survived by his wife Betty, son Michael, daughter Anne, five grandchildren and his sister Malgorzata in Gdansk.