The word ‘unique’ gets bandied about a lot in historical circles, but this book really is something special, and in all likelihood, the only one of its kind. And for so many reasons.
Tom Firth was born to an English father and a Polish mother, and hence had dual Anglo-Polish nationality. After living abroad for most of his youth, the summer of 1939 found him holidaying in Poland, of all places, seemingly little aware of the grave danger awaiting him. After German forces invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, and Britain declared war on the 3rd, Firth found himself an enemy alien on two counts.
Finding himself in the soviet zone, after the Germans and Russians had shamefully colluded to carve up Poland, Firth actually made the effort to cross into the German zone. Once back in Warsaw he had to procure a fake identity card and assume a fully Polish identity – as an British national he ran the very grave danger of being rounded up and assumed to be an escaped POW. Despite this danger, he became involved in an escape organistation helping British evaders.
Almost immediately, however, the escape line was broken, and Firth was captured by the Gestapo. Taken to Montelupich Prison in Krakow, where he was held for several years, he endured numerous interrogations and beatings and maltreatment. All the time he managed to keep up the pretence of being an ordinary Pole, aided by his fluent Polish. And despite the Gestapo’s best efforts, they had no real evidence against him. Eventually – and luckily – he was released. As his story shows, not many escaped the Gestapo alive.
Even after his release, Tom Firth seems to have lived life on the edge. He found work teaching English to the daughters of a wealthy landowner in the east of Poland. When the Red Army neared in 1944 he and the other men on the estate were rounded up and marched west to become slave labourers. By a miracle, Firth was released – the rest of the group were later murdered.
This book really is something else. Tom Firth’s predicament is one that I had never really given much thought to, and I suspect many others are the same. Just how many British nationals were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time during the war, in Poland and in other places? For example, how about the many Commonwealth War Graves Commission employees? How many lives were affected by the tragedy of war? For that is one thing that jumps out from these pages – the sheer number of people who were uprooted, churned around and spat out again by wartime occupation.
Firth gives us a very illuminating picture of life in wartime Poland – under the Russians and the Germans, life as an enemy alien ‘behind the lines’, and being a prisoner of the Gestapo. Its an aspect of the Second World War that we do not know a great deal about, and for that reason this book is truly unique and very special.