Gulag escapee inspires movie about his journey

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NOT many people know about Henryk Wieksza’s journey to freedom across thousands of miles after escaping a Siberian gulag during the Second World War.

He’s the son-in-law of a former sergeant major of Berkhamsted School’s cadet force and worked in the former John Dickinson factory in Apsley for 39 years.

But the mild-mannered Pole speaks less often about his pre-Berkhamsted struggle against tyranny, the subject of new film The Way Back.

The film charts the story of a Pole’s 4,000-mile journey to freedom after escaping the gulag.

Director Peter Weir, of The Truman Show fame, and starring actor Jim Sturgess visited Henryk while making the film – because Westfield Road householder Henyrk has done the same thing.

Henryk’s struggle ended in 1944 during the Battle of Falaise Gap, when German tank fire left a gaping hole and a chunk of shrapnel lodged in his right thigh.

The former tank-driver for his murdered father’s regiment of the Polish army-in-exile can no longer move his right foot.

But of the three colleagues sharing his vehicle, one died instantly and two lost a leg.

Before the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, Henryk’s father Mikolaj worked for the Polish army interrogating Russian spies.

He was captured, killed by the Russian secret police and buried with about 22,000 other Polish officers and professionals in mass grave in the Katyn Forest massacre

Henryk’s older sister Janina, who was 17 when war broke out a few weeks later, had a boyfriend who worked as a Russian interpreter.

He told her he had seen the arresting papers for the Wieksza family while at work.

But Henryk said: “Mother said, ‘Where can we go?’ We had to stay. The Russians were on one side of us and the Germans on the other.”

When the Russian secret police arrived at their home in Belarus, previously part of Poland, the ground floor windows were blocked by a metre and a half of snow.

Janina jumped from a first-floor window and made a run for it. That was the last they saw of her.

Henryk, then 14, his brother Aleksander, then 18, and mother Zofia, close to 50, were given 30 minutes to collect everything they could carry over their shoulder.

Then they were taken away without being told where they were going or why they had been arrested.

On their way to the railway station, police grabbed a passer-by who they would say was Henryk’s sister to make up the numbers.

When she screamed, they said, “Shut up, woman. Moscow will put it right.” Henryk does not know what happened to her after that.

The group were all herded into a cattle train to Siberia. They were made to lug around sleepers to help build a second line for the Trans-Siberian Railway so trains could go both ways.

If they worked too slowly, guards hit them with their rifle butts and said, “If you do not do what we say, we will feed you to the Siberian wolves.”

Prisoners were given one slice of bread and a bit of soup for a day’s food.

Henryk said: “We would be lucky to get half a potato to go with the soup.

“They said, ‘If you work, you get that, and if you die, we would not cry for you.’

“We knew we would never get out from there alive.”

Four or five prisoners would die each night, but guards would not let them bury the dead until there were enough for a mass grave.

In temperatures of up to -40oC, women and children were made to carry bodies to the woods and make shallow graves for them.

The clothes of the dead were passed onto other prisoners.

Henryk said: “We would carve a cross on a nearby tree for them, and that was it.”

After three years in the gulag, Zofia and five other mums hatched an escape plan.

Henryk said: “Mother said she was too old to go. Aleksander said, ‘I am older and will stay to look after her.’

“They said this was the only way someone could come out alive to tell people why we were there and what we were doing.”

When a cattle train with more building materials arrived that night, Henryk and five others hid between the buffers.

The train left and they clung on until it reached it next stop. After a day of begging for food near the station, they did the same thing the next night.

They continued with the same routine for ages, living on what people gave them and what they could steal from fields – a potato here, an onion there.

They split into two groups of two and four to gather food – until one day, the smaller group did not return.

The group crossed Siberia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, then crossed the Caspian Sea to meet the British army in Persia, now Iran, in a boat.

By that point, the 6ft 2in Pole weighed four stone and could not stand up straight due to hunger.

For up to three days at a time, his group had not have anything to eat. While in Persia, he went temporarily blind due to malnutrition.

Henryk said: “I never realised I would never see my family again. It wasn’t until I reached Persia that I realised what I’d done.

“I thought, ‘What have I done? Was it right? I know I am free now, but why can’t I see my mother?’

“For quite a long time, it was on my head – ‘Why did I not stay there?’ But they were pushing us and wanted someone to come out alive to tell people the story.

“If I did not listen to my mother, I would have perished.”

Henryk’s mother was giving her sons half of her daily slice of bread – but he did not know this at the time, despite her frailty.

Henryk’s wife Margaret, 85, said: “It is a mother’s instinct to give to her children.”

It was their son Richard’s internet research for family memoirs that drew Henryk to the attention of director Peter Weir two years ago.

His film The Way Back went on general release at the end of last month, was shown in The Rex cinema from Saturday to yesterday [February 8].

Henryk and Margaret were invited to its premier in Mayfair, London, where Margaret says the director and film stars “treated him like royalty.”

She said: “When we tried to leave, we could not get out.

Henryk said: “They all wanted to shake hands with me – but I don’t feel like anything special.”

In fact, Henryk’s achievements go beyond the end of the film, when main character Janusz reaches safety away from the USSR and Germany.

Henryk went back to Nazi Germany on August 6, 1944, during the liberation of Normandy from the Nazis.

He was a tank-driver for his father’s regiment – the 24th Polish Lancers of the country’s army-in-exile.

During Battle of Falaise Gap, when troops struggled to free Canadian forces from Nazi encirclement, his tank took a direct hit.

All that was left of the man sitting next to Henryk was a pair of legs. A Canadian doctor pulled the shrapnel from his thigh, and he has kept it to this day.

Henryk spent three years in and out of hospitals and convalescent homes before moving to Berkhamsted, where he met his wife.

The pair have six grandchildren and one great-grandchild, and have been married for 62 years.