Published: 15/02/2013 14:13 - Updated: 15/02/2013 14:58

Writer's talk on wartime exodus of his Polish family

Written byby Margaret Chrystall

Writer and poet Martin Stepek.
Writer and poet Martin Stepek.

IT was when his father had three strokes in 2001-2002 that Martin Stepek began to research the terrible odyssey that brought his Polish family to Scotland after the Second World War.

Martin, who comes to Inverness on Wednesday to talk about his discoveries and the newly-published book that followed, found tragedy, horror – and hope.

"My dad, Jan, had three strokes between 2001 and 2002 and I suddenly felt a deep need to know what had happened to him before he came to Scotland," said Martin, who was CEO of his father’s Lanarkshire electrical company and now has the same role for the Scottish Family Business Association.

"Until then, I hadn’t given any thought to his early life in Poland, though I knew he had been taken to Siberia by Stalin’s Red Army, that his mother and two younger sisters were taken with him, and that his mother died and was buried in Teheran.

"So when he had recovered enough, we started a series of interviews which I supplemented with interviews of my two aunts, Danka, and more recently, Zosia."

Though Martin was conscious of causing painful memories to be revived, he wanted to be able to tell the family’s story – and pass it on to his own two children.

"It’s both a burden and a gift," said Martin, talking of the need in his 50s to find out all he can about his family’s past. "But they are 22 and 18, so that urge, they don’t ‘get it’ yet."

As he pursued his research, Martin – who has always been interested in poetry – found lines coming to him as his mind sifted through the tragic story of his dad’s past.

"I’ve always written poetry, but had never been bothered about publishing it – it’s always the writing of it that has interested me.

"But I think it was a natural response for me to everything I was finding out."

Martin explained the background to his family’s experiences, beginning with their enforced departure from Poland.

"World War Two began with the near simultaneous invasions of Poland by Hitler’s Nazi forces in the west and Stalin’s Red Army in the east and in February 1940, Stalin’s forces forcibly deported an estimated 1.7 million Polish citizens to labour camps scattered across the vast stretches of Siberia, Kazakhstan and Arctic Russia.

"My father – then 17 – and his two sisters, who were fourteen and 12, were forced into cattle trucks in the early hours of 10 February, 1940 with their mother, Janina.

"My grandfather, Wladyslaw Stepek, avoided deportation by chance as he’d been tipped off in September 1939 that the Red Army planned to arrest and kill him as he was considered a potential resistance leader, so he had already fled into hiding in the Nazi-occupied part of Poland, thinking his family would be safer in his absence."

He died of cancer in 1943, never finding out more about the rest of the family.

They were in a camp – having worked, barefoot, through an eight-month long Siberian winter, malnourished – before being forced in the winter of 1941 to make their way to Kazakhstan – three thousand miles, that became six, on a three-month journey where they lost their way.

In the spring of 1942, they were evacuated from the Soviet Union by ship to freedom in Persia, now Iran.

But Janina died of starvation after reaching Teheran, her children coming to Britain in 1947.

The book For There Is Hope, in both Polish and English.
The book For There Is Hope, in both Polish and English.

Martin makes comparisons between the great Polish exodus and the Scottish Clearances in his poem – which appears in both Polish and English.

It opens with a hopeful wish for modern-day Poland: "Oh Poland/ you are magnificent

even in your pain/ May you ever be free from anguish now."

Sadly, Martin’s mum and dad both died shortly before the book was published, though they knew all about it.

"I haven’t tried to put any purple prose in there or embellish it. I’ve just tried to say what happened and how I felt, stripping away any words that were not germane. I think that added to it because it is a stark story."

Martin was deeply touched – when via his editor – one of his heroes, respected journalist Neal Ascherson, was sent the book which he commented on warmly. His words now appear as the foreword.

Martin said: "I’d just expected a sentence or two, but his perspective – which is similar to mine – is that this is an astonishing untold story.

"I’ve linked it to the Scottish Clearances and other deportations all around the world through history.

"Yet I am an optimist and I think humanity is slowly getting better at dealing with these things.

"But it’s pitifully slow."

In his own introduction to the book, Martin writes: "I hope the reader on finishing this work leaves not with a sense of shock about the barbarity of humanity, but with awareness that we can overcome such suffering and live a full, rich and loving life.

"We owe it to those who did not survive to live our own lives with passion and joy, and with a commitment to prevent oppression in all its forms."

Martin himself combines a variety of interests in his own life. As well as being CEO of the Scottish Family Business Association, he was the Scottish Green party leader in 2003-04 and took part in government coalition talks between the SNP and the Greens in 2007. He is also a mindfulness consultant working with the NHS to help depression and stress and also running a free weekly clas. Martin also promotes links between Scotland and south-eastern Poland.

After talking about the publication of For There Is Hope – which has attracted world-wide interest with orders coming in from Australia, America, Canada the Netherlands – Martin revealed his journey into the past is not over.

"I hope to follow up the poetry cycle soon with a historical recounting of the experiences of my father’s family through this momentous period of history.

"And I would love to take some time to go back to Poland and retrace his journey."

The University of the Highlands and Islands is hosting The Stepek Family History: A Polish/Scottish Odyssey talk and reading by Martin Stepek on Wednesday (February 20) from 6.30pm to 8pm in the Inverness College building on Longman Road in Room C9.

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