Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Brexit Britain is not a country which would have welcomed an old émigré called Michal Giedroyc

In 2016, Lord Dubs sponsored an amendment to the Immigration Act 2016 to offer unaccompanied refugee children safe passage to Britain amidst the European migrant crisis. Originally rejected by the House of Commons, the amendment was accepted by the Government following a second vote in favour by the Lords. In February 2017, the Home Office abandoned the scheme after accepting 350 out of the planned 3,000 child refugees.

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Michal Giedroyc, who has died at the age of 88, came to Britain as a refugee at the age of 18 in 1947 and has played his part as an active citizen and has contributed to the life of the country ever since, not least as being the father of his tv personality daughter Mel.

'Mel' : Melanie Clare Sophie Giedroyc, was born in the summer of 1968, the youngest of four children, when Michal was 39. After graduating from Trinity College, Cambridge with a degree in Italian language and literature, she forged a career as a tv presenter and actress, best known for her work with Sue Perkins, co-hosting series including 'Light Lunch' for Channel 4, 'The Great British Bake Off' for the BBC and chat show 'Mel and Sue' for ITV. Last year she took on the role of co-presenter on the BBC show 'Let It Shine.'

In 2016 Mel said of her Dad :
'He and I have a lot in common. We’re as tough as old boots and both have a good sense of humour. For such a cerebral man – he speaks seven languages – it always surprises me that he shares my love of Les Dawson, Eric Morecambe and Danny La Rue – ribald, end-of-the-pier humour.'

He was born Michal Jan Henryk Giedroyc'in 1929 in Lobzow, Poland, the son of Prince Tadeusz Giedroyc who was a judge and senator in the Polish Second Republic and lived in an 18th century manor house inherited by his mother, Anna. In his book 'Crater’s Edge', he described an idyllic pre-Second World War childhood at the manor with its gardens and an ice-house that allowed the cook to produce ice cream and the wild birds that flocked to its surrounding woods and fields.

It was not to last. After the outbreak of War in September 1939 and as a result of Hitler's pact with Stalin, Poland was invaded by the Red Army from the East. The house was plundered and an officer pulled a gun on the 10-year-old Michal, threatening to kill “this Polish puppy.” His father was jailed and Michal, along with his mother and two sisters, were evicted and thrown onto the streets. Then, in 1940, after being classified as 'enemies of the people,' they were taken to the railway station and locked in a sealed cattle truck and were dispatched for farm work in Siberia, where as scions of the old order Stalin's decree was that they should “toil and die.”

As an eleven year old, the memories were etched forever on his mind and as he recalled : “We were locked 40-plus in a cattle truck, old men, women and children. There were no facilities, just a hole in the floor. Once a day we were allowed water. It took a fortnight and only twice were we given gruel. It was cold, especially when we crossed the Urals. Most people sat on the floor for warmth, but not my mother. There was a plank by the window which was access to fresh air. We sat there.”

As the train passed through Minsk, the family was able to look up at the prison where their father was being held. In Nikolaevka, a small town in northern Kazakhstan, his mother was put to work on a collective farm and the family found shelter in the cottage of a former soldier of the Imperial army, sharing one room with two other Polish families.

Their fortunes changed in 1941 when, under an agreement with the 'Polish Government-In-Exile' in London, Stalin ordered the release of Polish prisoners and deportees so that a Polish Army could be formed on Soviet territory under General Wladyslaw Anders.

In September 1942 they travelled to Tehran where his mother found work as a seamstress and in  1944, at the age of 15, Michal joined the Polish Army and left for training in Palestine. but his hopes of fighting to liberate Poland were dashed when the Yalta Agreement ceded Poland to the Soviet Union. The family sailed for asylum in Britain and the following year,1948, heard that their father, after being tortured by the the NKVD had been executed when he fell by the roadside while on a forced march.

The family settled in Britain and Michal studied for a degree in Aerodynamics and Hydrodynamics at Southampton University and then got his first job designing wings for the Vickers Vanguard and when he became a naturalised British subject, was no longer able to use his inherited title as a 'Prince.'

In 1956, at the age of 27, he moved to Folland Aerospace, where his work on the air intake of the Folland Gnat. Two years later he married Rosy, a trainee nurse, and for a few years they lived in Hong Kong, where he was in charge of aircraft maintenance at the Airport before they returned to Britain in 1966, settling first in Surrey, then in Oxford.

It is testimony Michal's multitalented nature that he later left engineering and worked as an economic consultant to developing countries. In his fifties in the 1980s, he served as an adviser to the Oxford Union, which was then struggling financially and within two years had restored the accounts to a modest surplus.

He demonstrated his academic prowess after researching his family background in medieval Lithuania led to his contribution of articles to the Oxford Slavonic Papers. When he was 63 in 1990, as a result of his scholarship, he was invited to visit Lithuania and while there took up an offer to travel in an official car over the border to Belarus, to visit his childhood home. It proved to be a traumatic experience and he recalled :  “The KGB followed us, in case we caused trouble. I knew how to find my way to where the manor had been, but it was no longer. It had been wiped out by Soviet guns in the war. There was nothing, just the sheds of the collective farm … By the end of the day I had developed the shakes.”

Michal found that by his memoir he exorcised some of the ghosts which had haunted him from the past, as indeed, as they have done for the thousands of refugees, pre-Brexit welcomed to its shores. It was published in 2010 as 'Crater’s Edge' and translated into Polish, Lithuanian and Russian. A Times critic described it as 'the epic tale of a brave and enterprising young boy coming of age and surviving extraordinary events.' He himself admitted :  “Now the book is finished, the nightmares have gone. Vanished.”

Apart from his professional contribution to the economic and cultural life of Britain, Michal also enriched it in having fathered, in addition to Mel, three more remarkable children. If Britain had not opened its doors to him and his family in 1947, it would not have :

'Miko' : Michal Graham Dowmont Giedroyc, was born in 1959 a banker and gospel musician. He composed the music for sister Coky's bizarre tale of Fanny Cradock, 'Fear of Fanny' in 2006, the story of Britain's famous and maligned tv chef from 50s to the 70s.

Kasia, married to British ambassador in the UAE. Philip Parham and, mother of seven children and working as a special needs teacher at the British School of Al Khubairat.

'Coky' : Mary Rose Helen Giedroyc, was born in 1962 and had jaundice as a baby and a little tuft of hair growing out of the top of her head. Miko took one look at her and said : “That’s not Mary Rose. That’s Mary Coconut” and the  name stuck. She became a film and tv director, known for her work on 'Women Talking Dirty', 'The Virgin Queen,' 'The Nativity' and 'Penny Dreadful.'

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"While Great Britain had a proud history of providing sanctuary for children in the past, we seem to have forgotten to not only love our neighbour, but the stranger too."
Lord Dubs

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