A Kenilworth man’s story of survival and escape from war-torn Poland

Jan Mokrzycki showing off his book Poles in the UK with Cllr John Whitehouse.
Jan Mokrzycki showing off his book Poles in the UK with Cllr John Whitehouse.
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Childhood horror, a daring escape, a successful career in dentistry and a love of politics - these are just some parts to the remarkable story of Polish-born Kenilworth resident Jan Mokrzycki.

He spoke about his life at the Kenilworth Liberal Democrats AGM held on Wednesday November 30 in the Kenilworth Centre.

Born in 1932 to Polish parents who both worked in the medical profession, Jan’s early life was very happy.

He said: “We were very well off - my father was the first Polish maxillo-facial surgeon. The apartment seemed huge to me. Perhaps when I was a little boy it seemed bigger than it actually was.”

But his life was turned upside-down when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. All the men in his family were drafted into the army to fight, and young Jan witnessed unimaginable horror as the Germans fought to occupy Warsaw.

He said: “The German planes would go low and shoot indiscriminately. I once saw a man in walking the street and the machine guns cut the man’s head off. I still dream about it every now and again.”

The much smaller Polish air force was decimated by the Luftwaffe, meaning Poland’s army and citizens had virtually no defence from aerial attacks.

Jan was moved to the hospital where his mother, Janina, worked during the bombardment. Once Warsaw fell to the Germans, Jan returned along with the men in his family who had escaped from captivity.

During the German occupation, many of Jan’s family including his mother joined an underground group who supported Jews. Although this was kept secret for a while, the Gestapo eventually found out.

In June 1943, while on holiday with Janina at the family’s villa in the nearby town of Sulejowek, Jan returned from a walk on his own to see a Gestapo car leaving the building. They had taken her.

His father, uncle and grandfather had already been arrested in Warsaw. They and Janina were subject to brutal interrogation and torture.

The three men were executed, but Janina was sent to the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp instead, and was later transferred to Ravensbruck in Germany.

Incredibly, Janina survived two years in the camps and was freed when American soldiers liberated Ravensbruck in 1945.

Neither mother nor son knew if the other had survived while they were apart, but Janina was determined to find Jan.

She returned to the Warsaw flat where Jan was living with his grandmother in Christmas 1945, and rang the doorbell.

Jan said: “I did not recognise my mother. She used to be a raven-haired beauty, but at the door was this emaciated little old lady.”

But it was still not safe in Poland. By this time, a puppet Polish Communist government was in charge who answered to the Soviet Union, and Janina would have likely been sent to Siberia had they captured her.

She and Jan caught a train to the western border and crossed the frozen river into Czechoslovakia on the night of New Years Eve. The border guards were drunk and did not stop them.

Once in, they caught a bus into Prague where they obtained a passport and visa. After that, they carried on to Austria, Germany and eventually ended up in the UK in 1947.

This was the beginning of a new life for Jan, and it turned out to be a far happier time compared to his harrowing experiences during childhood.

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Jan was educated in Bolton, and did well despite initially speaking little English. He went on to study dental surgery at Newcastle University in 1955 where his love of liberal politics began.

In his final year he was elected to the executive of the National Union of Students.

After he earned his degree, he headed to London to meet more Polish people. There he met his wife, Magda, on the steps of a church. They married just nine months later.

Jan said: “It wasn’t love at first sight for her. She really liked my car, an Austin Healey Sprite. We’ve changed the car many times but not husband or wife.”

Magda, an orphan, had her own remarkable story.

She was taken from Poland to the Soviet Union by the Soviet army in 1939. She came out of Russia as one of the many orphans with the newly formed Polish army to Persia where she was adopted and, with her adoptive parents, she came to the UK via Israel and Cyprus in 1947.

Jan and Magda moved to Coventry where Jan set up two dental practices. The two moved to Kenilworth three years later.

The couple had two children, Jan and Wanda, and eventually had six grandchildren. Jan Sr developed a love for Coventry City Football Club after taking Jan Jr as a five-year-old.

Jan became quite well known within the Polish community after starting the radio programme ‘Poles Apart’ on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire with Magda in 1989.

His prominence saw him elected as president of the Federation of Poles in Great Britain for a time.

When Poland joined the EU in 2004, he was overloaded with work in trying to find jobs for the many Poles that came over.

His work resulted in his receiving the Polish Order of Merit and the Cavalier’s Cross of the Polonia Restituta Order, the latter being one of the most prestigious honours Poland gives out.

Even now at the age of 84, Jan is still involved with the local Lib Dems and the Anglo-Polish Society.