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Leon's journey from pre-war Poland to peace in Scotland

Leon Gierasik on a despatch rider's bike in Italy during WWII
Leon was a despatch rider for the Polish Free Army

An old cooking pot in Leon Gierasik's kitchen is a constant reminder of the journey which took him from a peaceful pre-war Polish farm to a new life in Scotland.

He was used as slave labour, separated from his mother and sister, served as a soldier and became a refugee - before finally being reunited with his family in Scotland.

The pot, which his mother took with her from Poland to Scotland, now sits in the kitchen of his home in the Borders.

It was only while he was heating milk in it one day that Leon's son-in-law Eric Fleming found out where the pot had come from and learned the full details of the family's story.

The pot now features as part of the digital collection which has been created as part of the A History of the World project.

Eric said: "I look at the pot in a different way now. It's an ordinary little pot, but its resonance is with history."

German forces

Born in 1925, Leon lived on a farm about 70 miles from Warsaw with his father, mother and sister.

The family stayed there until the outbreak of World War II, when Leon was aged 13.

The signing of the Molotov-Ribbentropp Pact on 23 August 1939 by Josef Stalin and Hitler led to German forces invading Poland on 1 September that year. The Red Army moved to occupy eastern Poland later that month.

Leon Gierasik with the cooking pot
Leon's mother took the cooking pot from Poland to Scotland

Following the Blitzkrieg of Poland, Leon's family ended up in the Russian-dominated side of the country.

One day the family heard gunshots. The approaching Russian army had shot all the farm dogs.

Leon and his family were moved to Siberia for a year.

In a cold February, the family travelled for three weeks on a cattle truck before boarding a sledge, pulled by tractor, for a further two weeks.

Hungry and in freezing conditions, the family were used as slave labour. Leon did building work and lived in a yurt.

The family tasted freedom when an agreement between Stalin and Churchill allowed the Poles to go free.

Leon remembers hearing news of a train which was to come to the labour camp the next day. He walked back to the farm under starlight to share the news.

Weak with hunger

The train took the family to a refugee camp in a desert area of Kazakhstan which was under the care of the Allies. They stayed there for about seven months.

Times were hard and Leon recalls one incident when his mother gave him jewellery to buy bread.

Weak with hunger, Leon set off for the local town and collapsed on his way back. When he awoke, the bread had been taken.

They were forced to use drastic measures to combat starvation. Pillowcases were used to collect desert turtle eggs, although only the yokes were edible.

Leon Gierasik pictured in 1945 or 1946
Leon served in the North African campaign, the Sicily Landings and Monte Cassino

The family were then moved to another refugee camp in Tehran, where they stayed for seven months.

Leon's mother and sister then boarded a ship with refugees of many nationalities. Several countries refused to let the ship dock and they ended up in Uganda, where they remained until 1953.

At the age of 15, Leon went to Libya to join the Polish Free Army where he was initially employed as a despatch rider.

He went on to serve in the North African campaign, the Sicily landings and at Monte Cassino.

Meanwhile, his father continued to work as a resistance fighter and survived the war. He came to Britain with very few worldly goods and went on to be a successful antiques dealer, buying two houses within a few years of starting his business.

Father and son were reunited in London in 1947 by the Red Cross, with Leon's mother and sister joining them in 1953. The family then settled in Edinburgh.

Leon's aunt stayed in Siberia and went on to have a family there, while the family farm in Poland was taken over by Leon's uncle, Tomek.

In the early 1990s Leon moved from Edinburgh to Duns, which had a small Polish community. The local park has a monument to the Polish armoured division which was posted there during the war.

Digital collection

In recent years, young Polish agricultural workers have come to the area, giving him opportunity to converse in his native tongue.

Leon remains self-sufficient, making jam and growing apples.

The cooking pot is now part of the A History of the World digital collection, created through a collaboration between the BBC, the British Museum and museums throughout the UK, after being put forward by Eric.

The idea is to tell use objects to tell the story of mankind. Objects can be relevant to your local area, important to your family or of global significance.

You can get involved by going to the A History of the World website and uploading a photo and a few details of your object.

Country profile: Poland
15 Apr 12 |  Country profiles
In pictures: Leon's wartime story
04 Oct 10 |  History



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