Waldemar Świto

The political consequences of World War II kept Waldemar Świto and his father from ever meeting

Despite being just three years old when World War II ended, the events of that conflict have always been at the forefront of Waldemar Świto’s life. As with so many Poles born in the 20th century, Waldemar’s life has been perpetually shaped by the events of the war; beginning on one June morning in 1941 when four Soviet secret police arrested both his parents in their home in eastern Poland and sent his father and pregnant mother to separate forced labour camps in the Soviet Union in retribution for his father having fought against the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1919. Four months after the arrests, Waldemar Świto was born on a state-owned agricultural co-op in a village in the Altai Krai territory of the Soviet Union, which today is in Russia, on the border of Kazakhstan.

While Waldemar’s mother struggled to raise her infant son and deal with the harsh realities of the labour camp throughout the war, Waldemar’s father was granted amnesty as a political prisoner through the 1941 Sikorski- Mayski agreement. He joined the newly created Polish Second Corps under General Władysław Anders, composed primarily of former prisoners. Thearmyin- exile travelled throughout the Middle East in the areas of present-day Iran, Iraq, Palestine and Egypt before joining with other allied powers and participating in several battles in Italy towards the end of the war. The army was ultimately transported to Britain and demobilised in 1946 – where most of its former members, including Waldemar’s father, settled and remained in exile, facing repeat deportation to Soviet labour camps if they attempted to return to their country.

Back in occupied Poland, Waldemar and his mother had been repatriated. With travel restrictions making travel to Britain impossible, Waldemar grew up without his father – knowing him only through the letters and the occasional packages he sent from England. At school, Waldemar was forced to lie and say that his father had died in battle. Any chances of escaping abroad or living a normal life in Poland were marred by the fact that his mother began suffering from a number of illnesses due to the hardships she had experienced at the Soviet labour camp.

Dying wish denied

Towards the end of his life, Waldemar’s father was desperate to see his son. Hoping that his cancer would finally convince the communist authorities in Poland to allow his son to come visit him before his imminent death, he sent Waldemar proof of his illness to present to the authorities and arranged all the other necessary formalities to facilitate the trip. The communist authorities in Poland, however, refused to issue Waldemar a passport.

His father’s wish to see him before his death was never granted, but Waldemar was ultimately able to travel to Britain.

Upon presenting the communist authorities with proof of his father’s death, Waldemar was finally issued a passport and was able to fly to England within 24 hours. He arrived there just in time for his father’s funeral.

Despite the tragedy his family experienced at the hands of the Soviet Union, Waldemar bears no ill will towards the Russian people, who he says are “upstanding and kind” and who helped him and his mother survive at the labour camp during his early childhood. He even muses at how a nation of such predominately good people could have been responsible for such an “evil empire” – borrowing a term coined by US President Ronald Reagan.

As World War II recedes further into the past, it can sometimes seem like distant history. But people like Waldemar remind us that there are still people alive today who experienced the war first-hand. Waldemar’s story in particular shows the repercussions that the war had, long after the armies had laid down their arms.

‘Waldemar grew up without his father – knowing him only through the letters he sent from England. At school, Waldemar was forced to lie and say that his father had died in battle.’

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Written by: Peter Narel