Polish family fled as Hitler tightened his grip on Europe

Alice Czoch in retirement in Port Solent
Alice Czoch in retirement in Port Solent
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How many times have you walked down the road, seen an elderly person and wondered what they endured in their early years? Some have the most frightening stories to tell.

Imagine England being part of Europe from Dover to Plymouth and having a border with France and Holland. Imagine it being say, 1940, and Hitler’s army is heading west across the border after defeating the French and Dutch.

Thankfully it never happened, in large part because of that stretch of water that has saved us over the years, the English Channel.

But other nations such as Poland were overrun by the Nazi hordes. Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, without declaring war. The German army was made up of 825,000 troops along with 1,800 modern aircraft. Several weeks later the Russians invaded from the east.

Using a pincer movement, the Germans surrounded the Polish armies along with the Russians and within six weeks it was all over for Poland. A total of 100,000 people managed to make it to Britain and France.

Seventy-nine miles east of Warsaw, in a town called Lomza, lived Captain Stanley Bachurzewski and his wife, Helena, along with two daughters, Alice and Mary.

Recognising that defence of the country was futile, the government insisted that as many people as possible fled to allied countries. Which is how I came to meet up with Alice Czoch (nee Bachurzewski) at her home in Port Solent.

She told me all about her family’s escape from tyranny when she was six years of age and how they ended up safely in Britain.

Thousands managed to board coaches to make their way south-west to France via Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria and Switzerland. The journey was fraught with danger as during daylight hours the coaches were strafed by fighters and bombers of the Luftwaffe.

Eventually all travel was done by night with the coaches being parked under trees during the day.

Some officers and their families escaped from Poland by train, trying to get to Persia (now Iran). But the trains had to run via Russia. Stopped by the Soviets, officers were ordered off the trains and Alice tells me that many were taken prisoner and murdered at the infamous Katyn Forest Massacre. Their families were sent to the Russian hinterland never to be seen again.

The Katyn Forest Massacre has gone down as one the worst incidents of mass murder during the war. Of the 22,000 men executed, 8,000 were former Polish officers captured during the invasion by Russians.

After many weeks of danger and hunger, the coaches crossed the border into France where Alice’s father made his way to Paris.

Here the family took refuge in a convent where they were looked after by the nuns. Alice told me that many bags and suitcases had to be left behind in Poland as there was no room for luggage in the coaches. Most of the escapees arrived in France with what they stood up in.

On May 10, 1940 the Germans attacked western Europe and Alice’s father knew he had to get his family across the Channel to Britain. Alice cannot remember much of the escape, but the family travelled to Bordeaux and boarded a ship, arriving in England at either Southampton or Plymouth.

From here they moved up to London and lodged with a family called Blackwell. During the blitz on London, Alice tells me she was sent down to the cellar where bunk beds had been erected for her and Mrs Blackwell’s grandson. It was through this grandson that Alice first started to learn English.

Although pitch black at night, Alice told me she was able to read a book by the light from firestorms that hit the East End of London several miles away.

At this time Alice believes that Grosvenor House near Buckingham Palace was the Polish headquarters in England and her father used to visit for instructions. Sometime in 1943 the family moved to Scotland and Taymouth Castle near Perth. The castle was used as a hospital for injured Polish soldiers.

Alice’s father was put in charge and she tells me she used to get lost in the labyrinth of corridors and tunnels that ran within the castle.

Alice and her sister Mary were schooled in Edinburgh. Eventually peace came and Alice’s father was demobbed. The family moved back to London and Alice later went to secretarial college. She went on to run her own translation agency and on retirement settled in Portsmouth.

She now lives in a house overlooking Port Solent harbour, thankful that her father managed to get away from Nazi and Russian armies that altered the course of so many people’s lives.