The morning of April 1st, 2012 is cold and harsh. Patches of snow on both sides of the icy road from Milton to Gravenhurst, Ontario, mark our 3-hour long drive. The small town in the Muskoka region is home to Mr. Stanislaw Socha, or rather Stan Socha, as everyone here calls him. For the last few years, he has been spending every winter in the local Retirement Home, returning to his house in the neighboring Kilworthy only for the summers. Stan, predeceased by his wife and only son, can no longer cope with the chores around the house, and winters can be pretty severe here.
Waiting since the early morning, he welcomes us with a smile on his face, sharply groomed in his navy blue suit and tie, complete with the characteristic Polish Air Force eagle logo. In the calendar stuck to the hanging board by the entrance door he points at the 25th of April: “That’s my birthday; 94 this year!” It is hard to believe, because although he moves with difficulty, pushing his walker in front of him, his mind is fresh, his memory clear and sharp, and his piercing blue eyes are still glowing.
During that visit, Stan talked with passion and melancholy about his childhood days in the eastern Polish [now Ukrainian] town of Lvov, about the times he fought in Britain for the legendary 303 Polish Fighter Squadron, about his love and admiration for Spitfire planes, and about his Canadian life after the war. Strikingly modest, he hardly mentioned any of his war achievements, despite being a squadron leader and obtaining a multitude of gallantry awards, a famed Virtuti Militari and a Cross of Valour among them.
That winter, the same road takes us a bit further north to Ontario’s Barry’s Bay. The journey is amazingly picturesque—hundreds of lakes dotted among the evergreen forests, deserted roads, and vast, empty spaces. The sky is reflected in the lakes, giving the water an unbelievably blue shade. The snow is still persistently present. The area around Barry’s Bay has a strong Polish heritage. It’s the very place where the first Polish settlers arrived in the mid-nineteenth century.
In one of the airy rooms of the Water Tower Lodge retirement home, we meet another Polish flying legend, Kazimierz “Paddy” Szrajer, the bomber and special duties pilot who played a key part in a nail-biting mission to retrieve a crushed V-2 German rocket from a field in Poland in July 1944, a deed that helped to change the course of the war. He pours three plastic cups of Bailey’s and sits, cross-legged, on the edge of the quilt-covered bed of his room. He looks distant and tired and seems to be far away. His daughter died just few days earlier, a message he conveys with surprising poise.
At 93, Paddy still clearly remembers that day in July 1944, describing details of the struggle to take off after his Dakota plane got stuck in the mud. He talks of how during the long night sorties, without the proper navigating instruments, he was always able to recognize Polish ground below him, marked by the beautiful, characteristic shape of the Vistula River. But most of all, he talks of his late wife, of their shared passion for adventure, the sailing trips and skiing holidays together, and of his love for flying, which continued long after the war, as he became the chief pilot of Nordair.
Later I watched him as he walked slowly along the long corridor to pose for a photo, completely undisturbed by the camera. He appeared almost transparent, not present, and I thought about one extraordinary life, lived to the fullest. Paddy died 4 months later.
Next, a modern apartment block on the New York’s 66th Street, located within a walking distance to Central Park. The ground floor lobby is large and bright and displays works of art and massive pottery by random artists. The elevator takes us to the 12th floor, to a big apartment owned by Mr. Jerzy Glowczewski. The 91-year-old man who appears in front of the door looks shockingly young. His tall and slim silhouette, confident walk and strong handshake suggests someone 20 years his junior.
With litheness and agility, he serves us two cups of coffee and offers some biscuits. The white-washed walls of the huge apartment decorated with family photos and souvenirs from his exotic travels reflect the sunlight sneaking in through the big picture windows. The flat overlooks the cluster of Manhattan’s skyscrapers. The décor inside—white and brown throughout, with an ethnic touch, rows of books and old family memorabilia—indicates the designer’s eye.
After the war, Jerzy Glowczewski, ex-Spitfire pilot of the 308 Squadron, built a successful career as an architect, working on projects in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and America before becoming a professor of architecture at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. The vigor it all required is still visible today. With an amazingly sharp mind, he talks equally passionately about current affairs as he does of his autobiographical book, of traveling to Poland each year in the summer, and the long lithographical tradition running in his family, dating to the early twentieth century. It was in his father’s workshop where the very first copy of “The Billy Goat,” a celebrated Polish children’s classic, was produced. In a worn black and white photograph, a little boy standing by the old printing machine smiles into the camera with a copy of the book in his hands.
We visited Jerzy again the following year; he was in the same good shape and spirit. We discussed movies and politics over pasta with beef and green beans and red wine.
Over the past six years, Michal and I visited nearly thirty men and women like Jerzy, Paddy and Stan. Most of them have died since then. They were heroes, even though they hated to be called so. They arrived in a foreign land and fought for it, hoping in that way they could help their homeland. All of them made significant, if lesser known, contributions to the RAF’s history. The journey in search of those forgotten heroes took us from our native Poland, through the UK, Canada and the USA. Getting to know all of them was worth every effort made and every mile travelled.
With time, we realized that photographing became an excuse for meeting those extraordinary people, even if only for a brief moment. It would not be possible to convey all of the stories and the emotions that accompanied them. The photographs prevail. After all, what can tell a beautiful story better than a picture?
If you’re interested in seeing more work like this, we’d recommend the following articles: Veterans, the remarkable collected stories of people involved in World War II from around the world; What Remains of the Day, film negatives overexposed by 71 seconds that speak to the inevitable distortion of our collective memory concerning the horrific events of The Holocaust; and I Reminisce and Cry for Life, portraits of women veterans of World War II in Belarus—former teenage soldiers, now in their 90s.