Thursday, 27 January 2011

2nd Step Along The Road

For nearly fifteen years the story of my grandfather leaving home when he was a young boy stayed at the back of my mind while I wrote other things. From time to time the idea would surface for a while and I would play with various possibilities before tucking it away to wait for the right moment.

The moment came once I had finished my book TIME BOMB. That book was the first time that I’d directly drawn on my own life. The plot was entirely fictional but the setting – 1949; a street in South East London with a large bomb site; a group of boys who spent all their time out on the street or playing on the bomb site – was based very closely on the world I had grown up in. It took me nearly a year to write TIME BOMB and during that time I vividly remembered the sights and smells, recalling in great detail things that I had forgotten. That long trip into my past set me thinking about the family I had never known; in particular, my Polish grandfather. The English ancestors from my mother’s side didn’t interest me very much at all, except for the fact that when I was young I always thought that her father – in the few photos I’d seen of him – looked like a dead ringer of how I imagined Jack The Ripper. On top of which, he’d been working in Deptford as a doctor, the supposed profession of the Ripper, at the time of those infamous killings which took place just across the River Thames in Whitehall. A perfect suspect.

My maternal Grandfather

But, him aside, the one who really intrigued me was my father’s father, that intrepid 11 or 12 year old who made his way alone from home across Poland and into the unknown.

I did a bit of research about Poland at that time and was reminded that the country hadn’t existed as such in 1870. It had been divided among three powers – Russia, Austria and Prussia. And in that year Prussia went to war with France. Even more intriguing. Had my young grandfather tramped across a land at war? And, because no one knew any more than the bare facts of his leaving home, walking to the sea and getting on board a boat, I began to see the possibilities for inventing a story of adventure and daring. But still it would be interesting to know just a little bit more of his real life story.

I went back to grill my sisters for any detail that they might have forgotten. And my sister in New Zealand came up with a name. The family, she recalled, had lived on a smallholding in a village called Wilhelmsdorf. The parcel of land they worked went down to the River Netze. At last, something to go on. Wilhelmsdorf and Netze sounded very Germanic and I correctly guessed that they were probably to be found in the area that had been occupied by Prussia. The problem, though, was that these names were the German names and not to be found on any current maps where the names were in Polish.

I began searching on the internet and eventually came up with two new names – Polichno, was what Wilhelmsdorf was now called. And the River Netze was now known as the River Notec. And now that I had the modern locations I began the long search on old maps for the original place names.  And found them. The River Zetze ran into Nakel and then was channelled into the Bromberg Canal. And Wilhelmsdorf -  was there, just over the river from Nakel. I stared and stared at the maps. That was where my grandfather had lived.

Click on the maps to enlarge.


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