If You Know Your History…
The good thing about coming from a multicultural background is that when Scotland don’t qualify for a major tournament, as they haven’t since 1998, I still have a reasonable chance of tying myself to another country that has made it there.
It doesn’t always work of course as some tournaments go by without any of my historical background getting there. Fortunately that wasn’t the case for Euro 2016, nor was it ever likely to be given Scotland’s qualifying group contained another two of my ancestrally linked countries!
The most prominent has always been Poland. When it’s the paternal path that carries that link, it’s hard to avoid when you constantly explain to people about your name. It’s an ever present reminder of my background, one that means “how do you spell that” is as common a question in my life as “where does that come from”.
Kujawa isn’t the most obvious of Polish names to your average onlooker after all. Well, not unless you happen to have a map of the Kuyavian-Pomeranian Voivodeship in Poland handy. The name comes from the region, or perhaps the region comes from the name. I’m never sure which.
Regardless, I’ve never been to Poland and as far as I know my family actually came from further south. Although given Poland’s border changes in the last 100 years even that is hard to tell.
A quick history lesson, as it is relevant to my family history. For over a century Poland didn’t even exist after it had been partitioned by the Russians, the Germans and the Austro-Hungarians. Those three powers were at war during the First World War, although the Russians eventually got bored with that particular silliness and decided to have a revolution instead when they realised just how stupid it was dying because their establishment had fallen out with other establishment of other countries. Especially when all of them were happily tucked up in their cosy beds well away from the front line.
In the aftermath of the First World War, Poland was re-established. The borders remained fluid for a while thereafter as the breakup of Austria-Hungary coupled with the power struggles in what would eventually become the Soviet Union saw much of Eastern Europe having anything from border skirmishes to all out war.
Now, before I go any further, I should point out that all I know about my own family history has come from my father. I only met my grandfather once, and I don’t think I was even a toddler when I did. I wish I had known him, I’ve written about that previously, but the fact is I didn’t and so my account of this is most definitely second hand at best.
Somewhere in all of the Eastern Europe upheaval, my great-grandfather was part of the Polish army. He fought the Germans, he fought the Bolsheviks, and somewhere along the line he rescued a minor aristocratic Russian woman from no doubt being put up against the wall when the revolution came.
Its something of a fairy tale really. It seems to be very broadly similar to the legend of Anastasia, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, although my great grandmother was clearly not as important in the grand scheme of things! Nevertheless, my great grandfather basically rescued her, took her home to Poland, had a son and lived happily ever after.
Well… this isn’t a fairy tale of course.
The sad truth of that story is that my great-grandfather died when Poland was invaded by the Germans and the Russians in 1939. My great-grandmother died in a camp, not unlike Auschwitz except not quite as famous. They weren’t just for Jews you know. If you weren’t the master race, you were going there.
Fortunately, my grandfather lied about his age to join the army, and in the six years of the second world war he moved on from Poland to Yugoslavia and eventually to Italy. In that time he learned many things, including that the best way to escape from a German prison camp is to put on one of their uniforms and walk out of the front door like it’s perfectly natural.
I believe the story goes that my grandfather hooked up with the same Polish army that had earlier liberated Monte Cassino, and that’s where he was when the war came to an end. Unfortunately for him, the politics of Europe changed dramatically and the Polish Armed Forces in the West, troops that were under British command, were suddenly considered traitors by the new communist Polish government.
What a horrible situation that must have been. You’ve fought against the very people who invaded your country for six years, and when the war is finally over you can’t go home because you happen to be hanging out with the wrong good guys?
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Britain actually bowed to the Russian influence in Poland – against all the promises that had been made between Britain, Russia and the US prior to the ending of the war – and then tried to placate them further by insisting the Poles should go home anyway!
Fortunately, after a bit of back and forth, the Polish Resettlement Act of 1947 was passed which meant that British Citizenship was offered to over 200,000 displaced Poles. They spread throughout the countries of the British Empire, especially to places like Canada and Australia, while others opted to remain in the UK itself. A lot of them stayed in London, while others chose to go other cities.
My grandfather, who could now effectively go anywhere he wanted to start a new life, had a difficult choice to make. Where do you go when you don’t know anyone there or even anything about the culture? In the end, he chosen to go somewhere he at least knew something about.
And this is perhaps the most astounding aspect of this story.
It turns out that my grandfather had heard of a great goalscorer from Scotland named Jimmy McGrory. Further more, just before the war had broken out he had heard that the team that McGrory had played for had won a prestigious tournament within the British Empire. So when my grandfather had to pick where to settle after the war, he went to the city he knew a little bit about.
Glasgow, where Celtic play.
I’ve often said that a lot of what I have in life I owe to Celtic somewhere along the line. I met my wife on a supporters bus going to a game at Kilmarnock. I was on that bus because I’d met other friends through message boards on the internet talking about Celtic. I barely have any friends from school, but the friends I have now are mainly traced back to my university days, and specifically the day I got talking to someone because I turned up for lectures wearing my new Celtic top. The job I have today came about through playing football with those same friends.
But I had no idea until recently that my very existence is owed to Celtic winning the Empire Exhibition trophy!
Had my grandfather not heard of Celtic, he may very well have gone elsewhere. He may even have stayed in London as many other Poles did, somewhere he actually moved to shortly before I was born. Had he done that, he would never have met my Scottish grandmother, would never have had a son with her and so in turn he would never have had me.
But even from a non-personal perspective, this story astounds me. In 1938, there was no internet to easily access information. Yet somehow my grandfather had heard about the exploits of McGrory and how Celtic had won the Empire Exhibition trophy against Everton. Now, I know from my own knowledge of Celtic history that McGrory was manager of Kilmarnock at the time Celtic won that trophy, but his exploits prior to that clearly made it across Europe in an era when there was no European competition.
I really wish I could find out more about my family history, but sadly my grandfather has been gone 15 years now and records of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother are unlikely to exist given everything that went on back then. I have a single source of information for all of this, which is one of the reasons I’m writing this blog. This is one of the most interesting aspects of my life, and so I want to ensure it doesn’t get lost in a haze of failing memories and the passing of the people involved.
But also, the next time someone tells me “it’s just a game”, you’ll know why my response is just to laugh.