This column first appeared in The Journal print edition on 17/02/2016
To you a doughnut is probably just that, a doughnut. To me it’s a (w)hole lot more, as I’ll explain.
One of my school mates and a friend of more than 30 years is Ian Pączek. Ian’s father, Stanisław or Stan, originally from Poland, was a Newcastle miner, then a watch mender and his life story, as I discovered on an epic three-day car journey to Poland in 1985, was a great deal more eventful than his comfortable home on Chapel Park Estate suggested.
Oh, and before I forget, ‘pączek’ is the Polish word for doughnut.
It’s a fair way by car from Chapel Park, Newcastle to Łańcut in south east Poland … 1,400 miles to be precise. With Ian’s mum and dad in the front of the car and us in the back, one way to pass the time was to ask Mr Pączek about his upbringing in Poland. His response was a slice of European history that we would all do well to remember as we approach the impending EU referendum.
Łańcut is a town close to the border with Ukraine (back in 1985 it was Poland-Soviet border). In 1939 the Soviets annexed eastern Poland, and deported men, women and children, including Stan and his family, to labour camps in Siberia. Up to 1.5 million Poles suffered this fate.
These weren’t concentration camps; it was not the Soviet intention to kill the inmates, but they were grueling work camps and Stan was logging trees.
After the German invasion of Russia the Sikorsky-Mayski agreement was signed, and Stan and his family were freed and headed south, with Stan opting to join the Polish Armed Forces in the East. Although an army formed in Russia, it moved to Iran and then to Palestine where it came under the command of Montgomery. Stan went on to fight in North Africa at Tobruk and in Italy at the bloody Battle of Monte Cassino.
When the Second World War ended, he was, as were many Poles who had been part of the allied forces, faced with a difficult choice: return home to Poland, now on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain, or take up the offer of settling in Britain. Stan chose Britain and became a miner, along with many of his compatriots, in the North East of England.
The exiled Polish community in Newcastle was big enough to have its own Polish White Eagle social club and, in time, wealthy enough to merit a weekly flight from Poland into Newcastle Airport bringing Polish produce, especially salami, sold for ‘hard currency’ which the then Communist regime desperately needed.
In fact, during our 1985 trip, the boot of the car was filled with Polish produce being repatriated to Poland by Ian’s father. The night of our arrival in Łańcut saw a hilarious meal in which our hosts, Pączek’s cousins, toasted the quality of the meats we had brought from England, which were of course actually Polish. Such were the contorted convolutions of Communism as it headed towards its demise.
Stanisław Pączek is sadly no longer with us. If he were, what would he make of the EU referendum debate? The stigmatisation of his fellow countrymen as people searching for benefits would no doubt chide, when the reality is that they, as he was, are hard workers who pay their taxes (unlike Google).
Yet, I cannot help thinking Stanisław Pączek would have spoken of the bigger picture, peace in Europe. Without doubt the European Union has played a central role in ensuring peace in a continent that has fought war after bloody war. As we head towards a referendum on our continued EU membership, we would do well to remind ourselves of the fact that no country joining the EU has ever gone to war against another EU member. With membership now at 28 countries, this is a major achievement, an achievement even recognised by the euro-sceptical Daily Mail who recently noted, “The Mail would argue that one of the Union’s great achievements, along with Nato, has been to foster peace in Europe”.
Which all goes to explain why, if the UK votes to stay in the EU, it will be doughnuts all round in the Labour North East MEPs’ office.