The Great Britain Years

I.  The First Months

We arrived in Dover in late November or early December of 1946. Open military trucks awaiting our arrival took us in the dark cold evening air to some “transit camp” just outside the town. I do not remember much about the place because we only stayed there for three days and during that time we were mostly confined to the Nissen huts that were our home for the duration. Food was brought to us by soldiers, presumably from a military canteen on site.

At the end of the three days we were told to pack up and get ready for the next leg of our journey which was to be to London where we would be taking a train to the next military camp. The trucks brought us to Paddington station, where we arrived in the evening and promptly crowded into the waiting room as it had the only source of warmth — an open coal fireplace. The train brought us to a place near Liverpool called Maghull, where there was another military camp and where we remained for about two months. Our living quarters were solid block buildings similar to the ones we had in Barletta. Again there were no cooking facilities, but we were summoned to pick up our meals at the general canteen by announcements from the loudspeakers mounted atop tall poles. It was winter and the ground at the camp was one field of mud and puddles; to help get around there were heavy wooden planks laid down where the pathways were to be. I remember traipsing along those planks with our military issue camp dishes in hand to the canteen to bring the food back. One day it was announced that we are to be moved to another camp. This turned out to be an amazing place, named camp Matapan.

II. Camp Matapan

Camp Matapan PalaceCamp Matapan was a grand estate located a few miles from Towyn, a seaside resort town in Conwy County in North Wales. Our home was in an actual palace, with a main stately building flanked by two other buildings which were connected to it via enclosed passages and forming the left and right wings of the total palace. The palace was provided as the home for officers, living in the central building while the ranks and non-commissioned soldiers occupied a group of Quonset huts located elsewhere in the grounds. The whole estate was huge, with a large field opposite the front courtyard, and lush forests of rhododendrons and gardens including a tennis court around the palace itself.

I don’t know how it came that we were brought there, but I remember the adults saying something about the owner, Lord something or other, providing it as a refuge to the Polish ex-servicemen who had fought with the Allies in the war. It was given over entirely for our use and none of the owners or their staff ever showed up. How I loved exploring those grounds, after the weeks and months of drab military camps! Along with about 30 other officers we lived in the main building, with Józio, my mother and I occupying one of the rooms. The entrance foyer must have been about thirty feet square, large enough that a ping-pong table was placed there, used occasionally by some of the occupants, including myself.

1952 to 1961 – Living in the East End

The flat was in a fairly massive old grey brick building grandly named Linden Buildings; it had a total of four storeys but following the English and European custom, the lowest was referred to as the Ground Floor and the higher ones as first, second and third floors. Linden Buildings formed the corner of Brick Lane and Shacklewell Street, the latter being a narrow road paved with cobblestones, running parallel to Bethnal Green Road about fifty yards north of it; it was only about a hundred yards long and at the far end it curved to run into Gibraltar Walk and Bethnal Green Road. The building had a number of separate entrances, some on the Brick Lane side and the rest along Shacklewell Street, each entrance leading to eight flats, two per floor. The flat we looked at, which was being vacated by a Polish couple, was on the top floor, accessed through the second entrance along Shacklewell Street.

The first order of business was to meet Mrs. Berry who lived in a ground floor flat on the Brick Lane side of the building and was “the building manager”. She came out into the street to meet us. How to describe Mrs. Berry? A skinny, toothless old hag with sunken cheeks under a sallow complexion, with a sharp beak of a nose and beady little darting eyes; a loose fitting dress that was only hemmed in one or two places and a cigarette in one hand completed the picture. But as soon as she started talking to us her whole image underwent a transformation: “‘ello dahlins, so you’ve come abaht the flat, ‘ave ye?” The voice was raspy, but suddenly the beady eyes acquired a certain warmth and even the toothless smile signalled friendliness. Then seriously “’course you understand we ‘ave to be pretty careful abaht ‘oo we ‘ave livin’ ‘ere” (this in one of London’s roughest slum neighbourhoods!). When I translated her comment to him, Józio correctly interpreted that as his cue to reach into his pocket, and with five pounds folded neatly inside his hand he reached out to shake her hand and clicking his heels together in the manner of a Polish gentleman he uttered one of the few phrases he knew in English “tank you very much”. This was known as “key money”. At that time five pounds represented over half of my mother’s weekly wages. So the deal was sealed, Mrs. Berry provided us with a rent book – rent was less than a pound a week – and told us we could move in next Saturday. We were to live there for the next nine years.

Read another excerpt: The USA Years

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