Page last updated at 04:23 GMT, Saturday, 19 September 2009 05:23 UK

Memorial honours Poland's WWII heroes

By Bob Walker
BBC Radio 5 live Weekend Breakfast

Polish Armed Forces Memorial
Each figure represents a branch of the Polish armed forces

Thousands of Poles fled their homeland, many never to return, when their country was invaded by the Germans and the Russians during World War II. The Polish Armed Forces Memorial being unveiled later aims to commemorate their heroism.

It stands at the end of a broad, grassy avenue, and with every step you take, the giant bronze figures on top of a block of polished granite come more sharply into focus.

They each represent a specific branch of the Polish armed forces. A pilot from a squadron that fought in the Battle of Britain; a seaman from the small Polish navy; a soldier who took part in the vicious battle of Monte Cassino and a woman resistance fighter.

Descendants

Above them all soars a huge eagle, the ancient symbol of the Polish Republic.

It is the latest addition to the sprawling grounds of the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. Scattered throughout the 150 acres of avenues, arbours and groves there are poignant reminders of the dead, ranging from the gigantic Armed Forces Memorial built from blocks of white Portland stone, to a simple plaque on a bush or tree.

There are other monuments throughout the country dedicated to the Poles who fought for the Allies. But this one is the biggest and it is thought to be the first to include all the branches of the armed forces alongside the underground fighters.

But it's not for me really, it's for youngsters now - grand children and great grandchildren
Kendrick Keidrowski

The impetus has come from within the Polish community, particularly the veterans and their descendants.

Built at a nominal cost of about £300,000 after years of fundraising by a number of charities and organisations, many of those involved gave their time freely or were paid well below the market rate.

The bronze figures were cast in Poland by the renowned sculptor Robert Sobocinski. They are surrounded by a series of polished granite panels (engraved in Poland) outlining the role and sacrifices of the various Polish units who fought from North Africa to Northern Europe.

Poignant

Polish veteran, Kendrick Keidrowski, was lucky enough to be away from his village when the Germans invaded in September 1939. Many of his friends were executed.

Mr Keidrowski escaped and ended up with the Polish Independent Carpathian Brigade in North Africa. He was there when Tobruk fell. Later he joined the Polish navy and served on the Blyskawicza, escorting troop ships across the Atlantic and at the landing at Algiers.

The memorial is especially poignant for him because the sailor is modelled on a crewman from the Blyskawicza.

He is clearly enormously proud of the memorial and hopes that it will tell the wider public about the role of the Poles during the war, a role he feels has been overlooked by many.

"It's absolutely marvellous," he says.

Kendrick Keidrowski
Many of Mr Keidrowski's friends were executed when the Germans invaded

"But it's not for me really, it's for youngsters now - grandchildren and great grandchildren. If they read all the plaques around it they will realise what the Polish people have done during the war.

"It makes me wonder why it wasn't done, say, 30 years ago. There's not many people who served who can see it now - they're six feet underground or at the bottom of the ocean."

While Mr Keidrowski's village was being invaded by Germans, in eastern Poland the Russians crossed the border as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact to carve up the country.

Ted Kotlarz was just 14 when the Red Army moved into his village. He was deported to a forced labour camp in Northern Russia where he was forced to cut trees in the bitter winter. The lack of proper food combined with the freezing temperatures claimed many lives.

His future wife, Irene, was deported to Kazakhstan where she was allowed one slice of bread and some milk every day, as long as she went to a "school" to learn Russian. To this day she cannot bring herself to throw any bread away.

Pilgrimage

When the Germans invaded Russia the captured Poles found themselves suddenly on the same side as the Soviets although their hatred never really went away. Mr Kotlarz eventually ended up fighting alongside the Allies in Italy.

He too has a special link to the new Polish memorial. The bronze soldier represents a typical Polish infantryman who fought at the Battle of Monte Cassino.

Mr Kotlarz took part in that battle at the age of 18. He hopes the memorial will help educate a new generation of Poles who have moved to the UK.

Mr Kotlarz recently got talking to a young Polish man working here as a barman. The youth asked Ted what he was doing in this country.

"He didn't know how we came to England 65 years ago and he's a Pole," he says.

"It's a generation gap. They've come here to make a better life for themselves. We came here because we didn't have anywhere else to go."

It is hoped the memorial, due to be unveiled today by the Duke of Kent, will become a place of pilgrimage for Polish community here - from all generations.



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