THE powerful story of a family ripped from its Polish roots and flung into the frozen wastes of Siberia during the Second World War has helped a former Warrington teacher understand the risks his parents took, when life was hanging by a thread.
‘The chocolate suitcase’, by retired Cambridgeshire school teacher Bryan Wiles and based on fact-based testimony from his Polish in-laws, is a novel that conducts the reader on a stirring emotional odyssey spanning the globe and taking in battles that have become bywords for courage, win or lose.
Bronek Baranek is a forester living in eastern Poland with his teenaged wife, Anna, when war breaks out. The whole family, including his sister, Maria, and her 14-year-old son, Jas, is forcibly evicted by the invading Russians.
After a three-week journey in a railway cattle wagon the family is dumped in a pine forest in the snows of Siberia, just north of the Mongolian border, where the winters are so harsh that birds on the wing sometimes give up on life and tumble from the sky.
When Hitler launches Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union, Stalin grants an ‘amnesty’ to the Poles, freeing them to form an army to help his war effort and putting the family members on the move once again. The next step of their journey ranges from picking cotton in dirt-poor Samarkand, on the ancient Silk Road, to crossing the Caspian Sea by paddle steamer and finding freedom.
Bronek, now in the Second Polish Corps under General Wladyslaw Anders, fights his way up Italy, experiencing the bloodbath of Monte Cassino, a costly victory which ends with the Polish and British flags fluttering above the remains of the hill-top monastery dashed to dust by Allied bombing. Meanwhile, Jas, now 19, fights side by side with the British in the heroic but ill-fated parachute assault centred on the Dutch city of Arnhem, which proves to be a bridge too far – and Anna and the family find safety in a refugee camp in India.
Bronek and Anna’s son, Zdzis, now 83, who was born in a Siberian Gulag and became a teacher in Warrington, said: “I will always be eternally grateful to Bryan for writing this book. It has allowed me to understand the risks my parents took and their resourcefulness and determination, when life was hanging by a thread.”
‘The chocolate suitcase’ is available worldwide from Amazon at £15.