The Refugee Miner with ‘Nine Lives’: in honour of Joe Lisak (1926-1999)

Volunteer Jacquie Lisak tells the story of how her father-in-law came from Poland to Wales and cheated death more than once along the way…

Wedding.jpg

Joe and Lorna’s Wedding Day in Lllanbradach on 7th August 1950

 

In 1939, Poland faced the twin horrors of invasion from the west by Nazi Germany, and invasion from the east by the Soviet Union, culminating in one of the darkest, bloodiest and most devastating periods of the 2nd World War. Hitler ordered his commanders to kill, ‘without pity or mercy, all men, women and children of Polish descent or language’ [1] while Heinrich Himmler expressed this, perhaps, more chillingly, in 1940, when he stated ‘all poles will disappear from this world,’ describing the ‘elimination’ of the Polish people as Germany’s ‘chief task’ [2]. Subsequently, the Poles witnessed the horrors of the concentration camp and forced labour camps. Overall, almost 18 per cent of the Polish population or 6 million, half of whom were non-Jewish, were killed in a reign of terror that saw forced evictions, enslavement and mass executions. The Soviet terror unleashed in the east brought yet more horror and cruelty, for both the Nazis and the Soviets were equally intent on destroying Poland’s culture and subjugating its people. A ‘Reign of Terror’ was unleashed under Soviet Union rule in which mass executions, imprisonments and deportations thrived. Anyone, deemed guilty, of ‘crimes against the revolution’ or ‘counter revolutionary activity’, defined as, any pre-war service to the Polish State, could face arrest. Indeed, for the Poles, the end of the war brought no return to justice or prosperity. Instead, new forms of oppression, trauma and injustice flourished under continued Soviet rule [3].

It was against this background that Ignacy ‘Joe’ Lisak from Krzeczow, East Poland fled his homeland and found refuge in the UK. His links with the Polish resistance and his close alliance with activist, Wladyslaw Galka, led to a warning by the local Chief of Police that he faced joining Galka in prison with the inevitable threats of execution, which that might entail. Galka was imprisoned twice, facing execution on two occasions and spent many years in solitary confinement. It seems fairly certain that a similar fate would have awaited Joe, had he not fled. Yet, this was not the first occasion where Joe escaped possible death.

As a young boy Joe was among a group of children playing by the river. They found a box containing a number of small objects, which to their delight, when thrown in to the water, erupted, creating spectacular watery displays. They played happily with these objects, seemingly unaware of the dangers posed by the lethal explosives they had found. Joe left his companions early that day, as by some stroke of good fortune, he had promised to run an errand for his mother. Sadly, his playmates were never to return home and were reported deceased the following day.

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 Joe pictured as a teenager, back right, with family

 

Joe’s escape from Poland was a dangerous and difficult one. Like many refugees, much of his journey was made on foot and under cover of great forests. Joe mentioned one detail about his journey, which was quite funny, saying, that after crossing the border in to Czechoslovakia, by foot, he took a wrong turn and ended up back in Poland! On another occasion, he and a companion were confronted by soldiers who questioned their whereabouts. It was important to think quickly and to stifle any outer expressions of fear, to avoid suspicion, so they explained that they had lost their way after attending a house party and asked for directions. Luckily, they were left to continue their journey, without raising further doubt. Joe was never one to discuss this period of his past, often, with his family, whether this was because there were many memories that he would prefer to avoid, or whether he did not wish to burden his family with such memories is unclear. One particular story from his past emerged a number of times when relaxing on weekends, with a glass of beer or his favourite, vodka, he, sometimes, alluded to an incident in the forest where he and his companion faced capture by two Soviet Soldiers. He would mime, with his hand, the pulling of a trigger and speak of burying one of the soldiers, saying that the other soldier escaped. Joe and his companion continued to travel onward, but remained ever fearful of discovery.

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Joe’s Certificate of Registration issued to refugees under the Aliens Order 1920

Joe’s Certificate of Registration issued under the Aliens Order 1920 confirms that he arrived in the U.K on the 5th of March 1948 and gained employment on the 7th of May with the National Coal Board in South Wales, where after the second world War, demand for coal was high and there was an urgent need for coal miners. The vast influx of refugees from Europe provided an ideal source of recruitment. However, refugees were not always welcomed, facing opposition from locals, ‘partly from ignorance and partly from fear of unemployment’ [4]. Indeed, the National Union of Miners (NUM) stated that they opposed, ‘the employment of Poles and displaced persons in British mines’ [5]. However, Joe and his Polish friends encountered little hostility in their local communities and settled in well. In fact, the only person who was ever heard to tell Joe to, ‘get back to Poland, you bloody foreigner’, was his wife Lorna, during the occasional argument, something which his children would laugh about, as it was clear that she loved him very much and didn’t really mean it. On arriving in Wales, Joe obtained lodgings at various addresses locally, including at the Miners Hostel in Ystrad Mynach which housed a large number of European Refugees, many of whom would forge strong bonds, becoming life-long friends. Later when they had settled or married, they would often gather at each others’ homes to eat, drink – vodka being a popular choice, play cards, talk and laugh. It was while lodged at Ystrad Mynach Hostel that Joe met Lorna, from the nearby village of Llanbradach where they would eventually set up home. They were married on the 7th August 1950 and later had six children and 12 grandchildren, including one step grandchild.

Miners Hostel.jpg

Joe, pictured with other refugee miners at Ystrad Mynach Miners Hostel, – lying down at the front, posing with a pipe borrowed from a friend.

In October 1952, four years after his arrival in the U.K, Joe faced another brush with death while working at Bedwas Colliery when there was an explosion. Ambulance man, Evan Williams, described how he found Joe as follows:

‘One man lay back in the manhole. He was a big Pole named Lisak. He must have been working stripped to the waist. The skin was stripped off his body in sheets. His arms, hands and face had been burned. What could I do for him? I didn’t have half enough stuff. I covered him over with coats as he was, and encouraged him to keep still, as I would send him out first’ [6].

One person was killed, and 20 others were injured that day. Joe had severe burns from the waist upwards, including his face and his ears. Although, he retained his hearing after the accident, little remained of his actual ears. Joe spent many months in hospital, enduring operations and skin grafts. Yet, I never noticed his injuries, until I forced myself years later to take a closer look; I believe my failure to notice these things was because his personality and sheer character eclipsed them. After a long period in hospital, Joe returned to work in the mines but did not settle. He became a painter and decorator, his family continued to grow and he eventually travelled to Poland with them for many happy holidays. His children, have many fond memories of him, among them, his, sometimes, very poetic turn of phrase. He once likened his blonde blue-eyed grandson, Daniel, to an ‘angel’ who had come to visit him. On another occasion, his daughter Cheryl was standing by the half open back door that led to the garden. She was smoking a cigarette under the fading evening sunshine. The combination of smoke, reflected light and shadow, falling on her long blonde hair, led him to comment, ‘You look like an angel in a golden cage.’

In his later years, Joe became a school Caretaker at the local primary school. Indeed, he is still remembered by ex-students as ‘kind’ and ‘funny’. Joe survived a stroke but eventually died after contracting a hospital bug at the age of 72. My overriding memory of Joe, is of a man of great character and charm, of smiles and laughter, of a mop of curly white hair and a deep Polish accent, of someone who is remembered with great affection by his family, and all those who knew him.

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Joe as I remember him, pictured outside his home in Llanbradach

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Many thanks to the Lisak family for sharing their memories of Joe.

NOTES AND REFERENCES

[1] Holocaust Forgotten website http://www.holocaustforgotten.com/poland.htm

[2] ibid.,

[3] Anne Applebaum in New Republic, December 20, 2012 http://www.newrepublic.com/article/111235/evil-after-evil

[4] Ceri Thompson in Glo/Coal, https://museum.wales/media/4619/glo-allpoles.pdf

[5] ibid.,

[6] Durham Mining Museum website http://www.dmm.org.uk/ukreport/9019-03.htm

 

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