The Gnatowskis

Polish - English history of one generation

article from Tygodnik Ciechanowski 31 December 2001, by Ryszard Marut
Hilda, Stephen and Sylwester 1946


It began with a letter (email) to the editorial office:

...My father was Sylwester Gnatowski, he was born in Zawady, powiat Ciechanow, on October 4th 1905. His parents were Bronislaw Gnatowski and Antonina (Morawska) Gnatowska...

My father was sent to Siberia during WW2 and so was his mother, she died there, he came to UK in 1942 and served in the Polish Air Force/Royal Air Force. He died in 1984 and I do not have enough information about my personal background. Any help would be appreciated.

Andrew Armstrong, England

I had no bigger problems finding the Gnatowskis (Andrew Armstrong from England received a quick reply and made contact with his family). But when it came to collecting for the "TC"(Tygodnik Ciechanowski/Ciechanow Weekly) readers the history of only one generation, collecting it from crumbles of recollection and family stories: from Zawady by Golymin, from Ciechanow, Olsztyn and England, reviewing facts from countless documents and guessing dates on old photographs - the matter wasn't easy anymore. White spots appeared permanently. So let's begin our history with the moment...

As the Gnatowskis went to fight a war

There were four Gnatowski brothers: Jozef, Sylwester, Marian and Stefan. They all lived in the village Zawady Dworskie near Ciechanow. From their youngest age they helped their father at the farm. When the father died, the sons, although they were grown up, they didn't hurry to leave the family nest. They worked together on quite a big piece of land. The land in Zawady wasn't the worst and the farm was being led well, they were able to make their living. More so because it was rather difficult to find a job in the area.

The oldest one, Jozef (born 1900) was the first to get married and bring a wife to Zawady. The children were born. Soon the younger brother Sylwester (born 1905), the only one of the brothers who made an education as a ranger, found work as a forest warden near Sokolka. Just before the war he took his mother there, who, despite her age, took care of his household.

September 1939 was approaching...

The Gnatowskis began receiving the draft summons. First of all they took Jozef, who, though he wasn't very young, still was in possession of his mobilisation card. In 1920, during the Polish-Soviet war he served at the 1st cavalry squad in Warsaw. Now he came to the 1st communication squad. Soon afterwards Marian (born 1908) was taken to the front. The place of mobilisation - bastion Modlin. Stefan was ordered to join the 13th infantry regiment in Pultusk.


Suddenly in Zawady, where so far there was no lack of men to work, only Walentyna, Jozef's wife was left with five small children. The oldest one, Bronek (Bronislaw), was 7 years old, the youngest one - Jas (Jan) - 5 months.

For more than a month no news about the brothers reached Zawady. Then at the beginning of October, Marian showed up, and a few days later Stefan. "With nor arms, with no eagle on the cap..." they both escaped German captivity, though each of them from different convoy and in a different way. The brothers quickly forgot their September war-time and roaming and started working on the farm. There were many mouths to be fed. And they all waited for the return of the head-farmer - Jozef.

In the meantime there was no information about the oldest brother. There were no news from Sokolka about what happened to Sylwester and the mother.

On the inhuman land

Sylwester Ahwaz 1942, very gaunt after Siberia

The first message from her husband Gnatowska received at the end of 1939. Jozef wrote from Russia, somewhere near Rowne. There were no details on the postcard. "I am well, I work, I've got food..." Only as much as the soviet censors allowed. It appeared that the senior sapper Jozef wasn't as lucky as his younger brothes. He fought at Narwa near Lomza with his division. Escaping the approaching Wehrmacht, they fell into the hands of the Red Army. There was a command "We don't fight the Russians", so they lay their weapons down, believing they will be released to go home. But they were terribly mistaken. The soviets separated the officers from the column of prisoners, simple soldiers were sent to the kolchose (farms) in the Rowne area. They had to live in primitive huts, had to work from sun up till late at night at building roads, crashed boulders and stones. Those, who didn't fulfil the norm got nothing to eat. But the family in Zawady knew nothing about it, because next postcards arrived with similar messages: "Everything is fine here..." This lasted till June 1941, till the outbreak of German-Russian war. The prisoner camp was evacuated to the east, they ran from one occupant and by the other were kept as slaves. They stopped somewhere in the far east. They were "accommodated" in a kolchose. Local men were at war. The Poles were to take their place working in the fields. When early winter came, they collected sunflowers and maize. Bad conditions and the lack of basic hygienic accommodations decimated the prisoners. Jozef survived. He was strong, used to hard work. In Fall a great news arrived - Polish Army was being established in Russia!

Many hundreds of kilometres east of Rowne was Sylwester. Unfortunately, we don't know how his September fight ended, but we know that he and his 73 year old mother shared the fate of many farmers and state officials on the eastern frontier. As enemy elements the representatives of the Polish bourgeoisie were taken to the east. The trip, which took several weeks, led as far as Irkutsk. There, like thousands of other deported, they had to take care of their own supplies, look for food. On arrival, the mother didn't survive the hard conditions. She died probably 1940 and found her resting place in the inhuman land. Nobody knows if her son was with her then, but her family has got her identification card brought by Sylwester and issued by Russian authorities. At Irkutsk Sylwester was given the task of tree felling. They lived in shacks, where they woke up in the morning with their hair covered with frost. Work companions died of hunger, sickness, unhealed wounds. In 1941, together with General Anders, came the rescue...

Meeting in Palestine

Jozef joined the Polish Army constituted in Russia already in September. The nightmare of obligatory work and slavery ended. He was back at the army. Again polish uniform, polish commands and the hope to come back to his land. Though it was still cold and one was hungry.


Later Sylwester managed to make his way from the taiga at Irkutsk to the meeting place of the polish army. Part of the way through Kazachstan he had to go on foot. But he was glad to change the rags of a tree feller for the soldier's uniform.

In Summer 1942 both brothers (though separately) found themselves in the Middle East. There suddenly two Gnatowskis in uniforms fell into each others. How the reunion was, we can only imagine...

It's difficult to review the details of Jozef's and Sylwester's further fate in the Polish Army in the West. Jozef followed the whole fighting track of Anders, we know about it from the short notices in his soldier's book, which, fortunately, was kept, and also from the many war decorations, which are being well kept by his daughter Urszula.

Sylwester served at the air force, in the ground service, first Polish, later in the English formation. The brothers probably kept in touch (for known reasons there was no postal contact with the family in Zawady), they both fought at Monte Cassino. Jozef's fighting road ended in Italy, Sylwester's in Belgium. Than the whole Polish Army was transported to England. And a difficult choice...

To go back or to stay?

Thousands of soldiers, who left their land after the September catastrophe and survived deportation or roamed France and England as refugees, stood before this dilemma. Like a mother the Polish Army in the West took everybody. But now the war was finished and everyone had to organise his own life.

Sylwester met a beautiful English woman and didn't think about leaving. They got married in 1945. Gnatowski took the family name of his wife - Armstrong and started building his life in the foreign land. Until February 1949 he served at RAF. During that time two sons were born - in 1946 Stephen and in 1948 Andrew (the one who wrote the email). For some time after he left army, he worked at a car-parts producing plant and in 1953 the Armstrongs bought a small farm in West England by Blackpool.

From beginning Jozef knew that his place was with his wife and children in Zawady. But he waited in England, like many other Polish people, to see how the situation would develop. They didn't know what would happen with them in their land. The propaganda differed in the soldier camps. Some advised to go back, others scared with the Russian regime. Sister in law, Hilda, was the one to make the "diplomatic approach" and informed the family in Zawady that Jozef is alive and that he thinks about going back. In short letters, which arrived in Zawady, she introduced herself as a "distant cousin". Every message was greeted by the wife and children with outbursts of joy.

But when Jozef Gnatowski showed up in Zawady on May, 1st 1947, all five children, instead of throwing their arms around their father's neck, they hid behind their mother.

Daughter Urszula remembers:

- When I saw a soldier in a cap on his head, a windbreaker and an elegant suitcase, I didn't want to approach and greet my recovered father, whom I almost didn't remember. When he went I was 4, when he returned - I was 11.

For two years, until 1947, Marian tended the farm (during the war Stefan helped him). After Jozef's comeback he felt dismissed from his duty of taking care of his brother's family and left for the resurrected lands. There he found his own family. Stefan had already during the war found a wife in a neighbouring village, but they got married after war ended. Outside of his family village he looked for a place to live, first on the post-German land in the Kolobrzeg area. He even became the chair of the village council, but when the authorities ordered him to organise a producing collective, he was quick to escape and settled near Olsztyn.

Jozef in Zawady, Sylwester in England

Jozef at once started working on his farm. He hid his English uniform, his decorations and medals he buried in a glass in the garden.

"Guests" from UB (secret police) often came to Zawady, looked in the corners, tried to check every moving floor board in the house. They looked for traces of anti-socialist activity. Because such a Gnatowski, who was in England himself and who still has a brother there, must surely be an agent. And he's also a landowner...

Gnatowski was an example in paying his taxes and obligatory charges. But his daughter Urszula (married Chylinska) who grew up in Zawady in the 50's recalls that her father never talked about his past. She herself, as a daughter of a landowner, with uncertain politic views, sometimes had trouble.

- When I attended the High School in Ciechanow, I had no chance to get a room at the boarding school. One day before the High School finals in 1953 the director of the school came to our class and publicly read my and another girl's name. As daughters of landowners we were to immediately deliver a commune certificate stating that our parents don't owe any taxes. Otherwise we wouldn't be permitted to make the exam.

Father dug his medals out in the 70's. Only then he joined the ZBoWiD (Organisation of Combatants), but he never talked about his life during the war. In 1978 he was invited to the Culture House in Ciechanow where he was given the Cavalier's Crest of Polish Resurrection. At that time he didn't have his English uniform anymore.

Sylvester was silent for long years. He made contact in 1971, when Polish government with Gierek made it easier. He announced his visit to Poland. He was to come with his wife Hilda, but she got ill and he came alone.

For a few days he stayed in Zawady, visited the rest of the family. He was surprised one lives like this in Poland - prosperously. Mrs Urszula doesn't remember her English uncle's visit very well, at that time she already lived in Ciechanow. She recalls that the shirts he brought with him had... studded collars.

It could mean that Sylwester didn't get rich in England or that he didn't want to blend his brother in Zawady with his money. But it seams that Sylwester gave some money to Jozef so he could buy a new tractor. The brothers had some financial deals to settle, because Jozef, coming back in 1947, left his possessions at his brother's.

All what is left of this visit are photos of the English side of the family - of Hilda and two young Armstrongs.

The Gnatowskis in Zawady had the impression that Sylvester completely submitted to his wife and her family. He wanted to assimilate for any price. He didn't teach his sons a polish word.

After his comeback, the contact between the Gnatowskis broke down completely. Hilda died in 1979, Sylwester in 1984. Till the end he lived with his family in Blackpool.

Jozef in Zawady grew 89 years old. The daughter says, if not for the accident and his broken hip, he would have lived some more years. His wife Walentyna survived for another 7 years. She died in Zawady in 1996 at the age of 92. Stefan and Marian don't live anymore.

Only in November 2002 Andrew Armstrong / Gnatowski started looking for his Polish roots...