The Polish Connection 18
- 1286 reads
June - July 1916
Peter and Paul wrote to tell me that they had learned the news of the sinking of the HMS Hampshire off the Orkney Islands before the rest of the British people had heard of it. It turns out that Lord Kitchener was en route to the Isle of Man at the time so that is how they heard of it first.
More news to pass on from the High Peak Reporter
It is with deep regret that we record the death of Sergeant William Johnson, the Headmaster of Mellor Council School until war broke out. He was killed leading his men in the attack on Mametz Wood. Sergeant Johnson leaves a widow and infant son at their home at Cheetham Hill, Mellor.
This means so much to us and we were devastated to hear it. Mr. Johnson was killed on Saturday July 15th. The children from Mellor School sent a note to his wife, but I must write to her as well.
Another set of letters from the Isle of Man.
Dear Barbara, Rebecca and darling Beth,
Here are some stories from others of our “exotics”, as Paul calls
them, to entertain you. The most striking figure of our crowd is a
man who called himself Dr. A and he was born in Berlin. He is an
absolutely perfect example of a communist. Before being interned he
had, or says he had, lived in a sort of communist
settlement in England. He is tall and very thin, he stoops and he has
masses of untidy black hair covering his head and face. He looks like
an unkempt and a little starved Assyrian king. His clothes, however,
are not royal, for he invariably wears a pair of old trousers over a
bathing-suit, and sandals. In Knockaloe his clothing is considered a
scandalous get-up by nearly all his fellow prisoners.
The doctor is an ardent revolutionary and he began his incendiary
propaganda the very first day, which soon made him the best hated man
there. The capitalist class is furious with him, as might have been
expected, but the majority do not take kindly either to his sharp
tongue, his hissing and cutting voice, or his excessively Jewish
As a convinced pacifist he condemns war and all the participants, no
matter on which side they are fighting. He refuses to make
concessions to sentiment or patriotism; he is much too uncompromising
and severe to gain popular applause. Strange to say, his only
admirers are some very fair sailors. One very young, flaxen-haired
sailor-boy never leaves the doctor’s side, and listens mute and
adoring to all he says. I call him the John of this strange Christ
who is perhaps more of a St. Paul. One can not help admiring his
logic and his courage. He preaches revolution by violence in all
countries and is firmly convinced of the victory of communism, all of
which seems fantastic nonsense. Nor is the world he is prophesying
the one his hearers wish to look forward to.
After victory and peace everyone is going to be happy and prosperous - that
is what we all hope for (in common with the vast majority of people
in all countries) and that is what we wish to hear. Some men
complained to the Commandant about the doctor's political speeches
and meetings which, they said, creates unrest in the camp. The
Commandant sent for him and this is how he described the interview:
“He looked at me, my beard, my naked shoulders, etc., with great
disgust and said: ‘Do you consider this the proper costume to
appear in here?’ I said: ‘Certainly, why not?’ He got furious
and shouted: ‘You look like a wild beast,’ and I said, ‘You
have put me in a cage like a wild beast, haven't you?’ After that
he laughed and said, ‘Well, there is something in that.’
Another man I noticed from the very beginning was one of the great number of
Russo-Polish Jews from the East End, who were either born in the
Polish provinces then forming part of Austria or Germany, or else
were considered German on account of their names. In many cases they
themselves were none too sure about their origin.
This of course is similar to Peter’s background, except Peter isn’t a
Jew and he has really nothing else in common with this man. He is a
very small old man who looks more worn and weather beaten than
anything animate or inanimate I have ever seen. He is short, crooked
and hunchbacked, and wears a discoloured-looking red beard, and his
skin looks like wrinkled parchment. His head leans against his right
shoulder which makes him look like a pensive crow. He wears an old
cutaway coat green with age and the remnants of a huge bowler hat,
the crowning glory of which has almost departed.
He is a passionate card-gambler he and his friends spend their days
quarrelling vociferously over very greasy cards, but he is also a
very pious and strictly orthodox Jew as they all are. In fact, he is
considered a hero, for four weeks on end he would only touch bread
and water, and nearly starved. Now he and his friends have been
transferred to a Kosher camp and the ‘East End’ has disappeared
from our community, which thereby lost much of its picturesqueness.
But I had made his acquaintance long before that time. One could always
find him at the pump before and after his meals, muttering to himself
incessantly while he performed the ablutions prescribed by the Law of
Moses. Its followers must cleanse themselves before eating and after,
and nothing would have made him shirk this obligation, so he held out
a few fingers of first one hand and then the other, and sprinkled a
few drops of water on them. To this cleansing rite he almost ran, all
other cleansing he dispensed with and despised.
Having exchanged a few remarks with him I asked him the usual question:
‘What was your profession before you were interned?’ for on that
subject they all like to discourse at length. His answer was: ‘I
watch corpses.’ According to orthodox Jewish rite a corpse is
honoured by watchers surrounding it until the time of the funeral, a
pious duty performed by the nearest relatives. I did not know that
professional watchers of that sort existed, but they do
amongst the orthodox poor, for there may be no relatives or they may
not have time to honour the dead for days. A very terrible profession
it seemed to me, and one which no doubt only the poorest of the poor
adopted. So I said with what I thought was tactful sympathy: ‘That
is not a very cheerful life for you, I am afraid.’ His head quite
touched his shoulder as he looked up at me angrily. ‘Not cheerful,
what do you mean by not cheerful? - I like it!’ He turned to go,
but thought better of it ; he came quite near to me and said almost
triumphantly as it were: ‘I like to do the talking. They don't talk
back.’ After which this most Shakespearean character I have come
across in my life left me and restarted his endless muttered
Please tell us more about your life and also how you spend your free time.
I hope we do not bore you with our endless stories of our compatriots.
But it does help to pass our days to plan out which one we are going
to next serve up for your entertainment.
My second letter from Peter.
Dear Barbara, Rebecca and my little Beth,
The atmosphere of Knockaloe is changing rapidly, relations are beginning
to get strained. The moneyless distrust all the moneyed and suspect
them of working their own ends by bribery and corruption. The camp is
breaking up into hostile factions. As soon as it rains the clay soil
becomes impassable, everyone has to shelter inside the hut and there
is quarrelling going on between some people or other nearly all the
time. They have nothing else to do but grumble or quarrel!
They hate the camp by now, they know that release is out of the question,
but the advantages of other camps assumed ever greater proportions in
their imaginations. Wakefield in particular becomes a name to conjure
with, and life there seems like a prolonged week-end party at some
great country mansion. But of course, we don’t really expect to get
there. Paul has convinced me and I have put my name on the list of
those who desire to go there.
I still think Knockaloe is quite a pleasant place when the sun shines.
We now get marched twice a week to a hill close by which had
previously been surrounded by wire and is now to serve as a
playground. There is real grass there, a wide view, splendid air. All
sorts of games are played; football of sorts, and boxing. In fine
weather it is not a bad place, but it rains very frequently now. When
it pours outside, it is damp inside the huts; the moisture comes up
through the badly joined boards of the floor. I have caught a bad
And Paul's second.
I am getting tired of lying in the sun all day, not that it is always
sunny. I want to work. Before the war, I evolved a peculiar kind of
miniature-painting and lost interest in all realistically
representative work. These paintings are done on parchment, a Chinese
ink line drawing serving as a basis for glowing colour-schemes of
pure purples, blues, reds, etc., with a good deal of silver and gold.
They are Oriental in inspiration and the technique influenced
by Persian miniature-painting, but what they represent is purely my
own, a mass of fantasies often unintelligible even to myself. I have
always surrounded this work with quite a ritual: I have to feel in
the proper mood for it (which generally means the early morning
hours), all has to be quiet around me; I use a certain table, certain
pens or brushes only, and I prefer a certain room to work in. I want
to start this work again, here but how can I?
But I feel I must try, for I can not bear empty idleness any longer, it
is driving me insane. So, rather desperately, I have made my first
attempt. The hut has only one table and we sit round it every
evening, all day in wet and half the day in fine weather. Some talk,
some read, some quarrel, some play cards. Those are the worst, for
they heartily bang their cards on the table, and it shakes. While I’m
doing a stroke with my pen or putting on a spot of colour with my
brush they go astray if the table shakes, and if a single one goes
astray the picture is done for, for nothing can be erased or altered
on parchment. But I managed to do this one, which I am sending you to
you, under separate cover, for I feel I want to do something for you
as your letters mean so much to me.
Painting means that I can continue my inner life in spite of all outer
circumstances. It means defying the world to do its worst. So I sit
there waiting till the table is stable again after a shock and - what
is more trying - stopping work when a shock is to be foreseen. Some
men are interested in what I am doing, some even refrain voluntarily
from banging the table, but such proofs of goodwill are rare. But
such as it is, I would like you to have my first picture done in
Knockaloe and I send it with my thanks for your letters and kind
regards and with much love.
good friend Paul
Dear Barbara, Rebecca and Beth,
Thank you Beth, for your letter. My next will be to you alone.
We do have some education now taking place. We have had a visit from a
man called James T. Baily. He is an expert teacher of handicrafts who
has volunteered his full time and energy to the Committee.
At first lectures and instruction were given in our camp but the War
Office soon made a regulation forbidding any educational help of this
sort. Instead of lecturing to us they instead are to assist the men
to organise their own education and industry. So the handicraft
instructor became, and remains, the ‘Industrial Adviser', a
convenient title which covers a multitude of functions!
My cold seems to be getting worse.
I received the lovely picture from Paul, but of course the censors had their way with it first, and it was fairly well ruined. I of course didn't tell Paul that, but wrote and thanked him for it. I shall
cherish it despite the dirty smudges.
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You really get into the
You really get into the characters with your writing, Jean. Reading these letters, you get to see not only the story, but also the mood fluctuations in the changing scenes.
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Beautifully composed chapter,
Beautifully composed chapter, Jean. Found the closing line painful - such a shame that it got smudged.
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interesting that her husband
interesting that her husband's letters are censored but the POW's aren't. Some great characters.
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