A forgotten life – that needs remembered
At a funeral held this month in Glasgow, a Polish woman was buried. There was no family there but DANI GARAVELLI discovered the life of Bronislawa Francuz was extraordinary, sad and unforgettable.
FRESH from work, their hair scraped back in ponytails, five care home assistants file into the front pew of St Helen’s Church in Langside, Glasgow, to mark the passing of elderly resident Bronislawa Francuz. Behind them the rows are packed, not with relatives—she had none in the UK—but with parishioners, who didn’t know her, yet have come to mourn. Pall-bearers, assembled at short notice, carry her coffin to the front, where it stands in quiet dignity as her past is laid before them: a parable of our times.
Broni was never able to testify to her own experiences. Born with a physical disability, her communication skills were limited, though those who spent time with her believe she remembered most of what had happened in her 94 years. But her life story—related now by the priest conducting the service—is timeless and universal. It is a story about how war shapes and shatters, how it splits families, scattering them haphazardly across continents, and how it reaches down the generations, so those born long after the peace treaties have been signed are still touched by its destructive power.
A well-mannered, affectionate girl, Broni was 17 when the Second World War broke out. As Poland was invaded by Germany from the west, and then the Soviet Union from the east, the Francuz family—father, Jan, mother Ludmila, Broni and three younger siblings, Eugenia, Olga and Antoni—were among the 1.7 million Poles sent to a gulag in Siberia. Then, two years later, as Germany invaded Russia and Russia became an ally, they joined Europe’s army of the displaced, trekking thousands of miles through Uzbekistan to Iran, and, eventually, to the Valivade refugee camp in India.
When India gained its independence in 1947, the family was shipped from Bombay (now Mumbai) to Liverpool on the TSS Empire Brent. You can still see their names on the online manifest: five of the Francuz-es (Jan is not listed), among almost 1,000 immigrant Poles. You can imagine them standing on the vessel’s great prow, heading for another Nissen hut in another holding place: the Blackshaw Moor Camp in Staffordshire.
After seven more years in makeshift living quarters, the family decided to emigrate to the US. And, but for unyielding bureaucracy, things might have worked out well for them. Broni’s siblings all crossed the Atlantic without a hitch between 1955 and 57. However, the following year, Jan and Ludmila made a decision that would define their old age. They moved to America, leaving Broni with a trusted friend in Blackshaw Moor, so they could sort out the paperwork that would allow her to join them. What they assumed would be a straight-forward administrative process, was anything but. Despite a doctor’s affidavit that Broni’s condition was not contagious, nor her mind ‘unsound,’ she was refused a visa and all the immigration lawyers and congressmen whose help they solicited couldn’t persuade the authorities to alter their decision.
Back in England, as the months turned into years, the trusted friend was also coming under pressure. After splitting up from her husband, she and her children were taken in by her brother in Glasgow. He had no interest in looking after Broni and put her into Lennox Castle in Dunbartonshire. Unbeknownst to her family, Lennox Castle was a mental institution, also used to house the learning disabled and the socially wayward. Broni stayed there until it closed in 1986 when she moved to Oxton House care home in the southside of Glasgow.
These details—or an expurgated version—are what Fr John Clark, a Comboni missionary with a Liverpool accent, imparts to the mourners. “People like Broni show us where society is broken and radically wrong,” he said. “For sure, the lives of migrants do not coincide with what we understand as God’s plan for us.”
Thousands of miles away in Houston, Texas, Broni’s niece, Elizabeth Berman, is moved when she hears how well-attended the funeral service has been.
For many years, while living for a spell in the UK, and later on holidays, she would visit her aunt in the care home. As technology advanced, she let Broni speak to her extended US family on the phone, and there would be both tears and laughter. “She was happy by then,” Ms Berman said. “She learned a bit of English from the staff. She used to say, ‘tutaj jest spokój’—‘here [Oxton House] is peace.’ Then, she would say ‘there,’ meaning Lennox Castle, but she didn’t have the words to express what she felt, so she would put her hands to her ears, and wrinkle up her face and shake.”
The owner of Oxton House, Carole Cannell, says it took two years to persuade Broni she didn’t need to put her shoes under her pillow at night to stop them being stolen.
Later, when she had settled in, she had her own chair and table, and would make a fuss if anyone else staked a claim. Ms Cannell says Broni didn’t talk much, but there was a Polish song she would sing, on request, in a lovely, clear voice.
Ms Berman is 60 now. Her mother—Broni’s sister, Eugenia—is 92 and lives in Chicago, and neither of them were in a position to be able to fly over for the funeral. But, as she talks of her grandmother Ludmila’s distress at visiting Lennox Castle in the 1970s, it is clear the separation cast a long shadow.
“I remember my grandmother saying she would never have emigrated from England and left Broni if she had had any inkling of what was to come,” Ms Berman said. “It is true Broni would not have been able to look after herself, but she was not mentally ill or in any way violent, and she would never have been a burden on the state. Her siblings would have looked after her.”
In the last few years, Ms Berman has been delving into the past. Before September 1939, the Francuz family lived in the village of Borowicze (now in Ukraine) near the eastern border, farming a parcel of land given to Jan as payment for services in the First World War. They grew vegetables, kept some livestock and tended an orchard.
Broni’s physical disabilities meant she was home-schooled, but her sister remembers her feeding chickens in the yard and helping their mother mix batter in a bowl: sepia-tinted snapshots from an ordinary, rural life.
The invasion of the Red Army sent them fleeing into the forest where they hid out for weeks, foraging for berries, before crossing the River Styr to the home of Ludmila’s mother, who was part-Russian. Despite her heritage, they were captured by the Communists who banged on the door with the butts of their rifles, led them through the snow on sleds and herded them onto tightly-packed cattle trains.
In the gulag, anyone fit enough to do so was expected to work in exchange for scraps of food which were shared amongst those who—like Broni—couldn’t. 14-year-old Eugenia’s job was to chisel the names of different types of wood into logs which had been felled and were about to be transported. “It was freezing in Siberia, and all they would be given was dry bread crackers, or an onion or some grey soup to keep them going. My grandmother used to say the worst part was watching her children become listless and unresponsive as they became weak from malnutrition.”
After Germany invaded Russia in June 1941, the camps were disbanded and the surviving prisoners granted an amnesty. General Wladyslaw Anders, newly released from Lubyanka prison in Moscow, was tasked with setting up a military force, the Polish II corps, to be based in the Middle East, and so 50,000 would-be soldiers and civilians began a journey by train and foot to Iran.
Berman says the conditions were appalling and the family was reduced to begging. When the trains made unscheduled stops, the passengers would jump off to try to find something to eat. “One time, my mother was still off the train when it started to move. She heard her father shout her name and she ran with her arms outstretched until he and another man pulled her to safety.”
Once in Iran, the situation was no better. Chaos reigned; there was not enough food to go round. By now, the plight of the displaced Poles was becoming an international embarrassment. In India, Kira Banasinska, the wife of the Polish consul-general in Bombay, began a campaign of awareness and fundraising and soon two states, Nawanagar and Kolhapur, had offered sites for refugee camps. Valivade in Kolhapur took 5,000 men, women and children.
Photographs of Valivade show a well-ordered community, with a school, hospital, church and workshops. Ditto Blackshaw Moor camp, but they couldn’t be considered ‘home.’ The US offered the promise of a new start after 19 years of rootlessness.
Jan Francuz was 62 when he and Ludmila arrived in America. Ms Berman—then a toddler—remembers meeting them for the first time and being told: “This is your grandfather and grandmother.” Though nearing retirement age, Jan found work in Chicago in the mailroom of Sears, Roebuck & Co catalogue, which sold everything from saddles to prefab houses, and he took pride in learning the names of all 50 states and the towns within them. He worked until he was 72 so he could pay ten years into the American Social Security System and secure a pension and financial assistance for Broni.
The family settled; made a good life. But the pain of leaving a daughter behind never dimmed. “What infuriates me about everything that continues to go on in the world, about the refugees we see walking from the Middle East through Europe,” Ms Berman said, “is that the people who create this chaos don’t take into consideration it has ramifications not just for a year or two years, or even ten years. It affects those people for the rest of their lives. It affects their children’s lives, as it did mine, and I don’t have children, but if I did, it would have had some impact on them too. It’s insanity.”
At St Helen’s Church, the funeral service is over; the casket has been blessed, ‘Receive Her Soul’ incanted, and the smell of incense fills the air. Bronislawa Francuz’s coffin lies in the hearse outside, bedecked with flowers, as the car prepares to leave for Cardonald Cemetery, with its 16 Polish war graves.
A handful of parishioners stand respectfully in the yard. “It has been heart-wrenching to hear what she came through,” Pat O’Neill said. “You make comparisons with what’s going on today. The situations are different and yet the outcome tends to be the same. It’s the people who don’t deserve the pain and hurt who have to endure it.”