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Count in a suitcase: from Chorostków to Canada

This is a fragment of a memoir by Wilhelm, Count Siemieński-Lewicki, a soldier in the Armia Krajowa (AK, the Polish Resistance), a participant in the Warsaw Uprising, and one of the characters in the book “In one suitcase” by Beata Gołembiowska, which tells the story of Polish aristocrats who emigrated to Canada.

Were it not for the Second World War and the loss of my family’s wealth, I would have been the fifth successive Ordynat of Chorostków, and the only one, with the exception of my wife, with the right to use the Siemieński-Lewicki surname. Chorostków was a vast estate, before the First World War it encompassed 12,000 hectares of land. In independent Poland times, after being divided amongst the family, 5000 hectares were left, including several buildings surrounded by a beautiful park. We lived in the so-called New Palace, built in the 19th century. It wasn’t as pretty as the 18th century Old Palace, which was badly damaged in 1915, and which my parents were gradually rebuilding.

I have the most beautiful memories of the family estate, especially of the horses,. Before the First World War Chorostków had huge stables; altogether there were some 300 Anglo-Arabs. In 1914 my grandfather turned the horses over to the Russian government for safe-keeping, and was promised they’d be returned after the war. Unfortunately they vanished during the Revolution and we were only able to find the mare Sułtanka, which foaled a few offspring. My father bred Remonts in large numbers, which are cavalry horses. I first mounted a saddle horse when I was three years old. In the last years before the war, during the summer holidays, I used to ride three times a day. The first, morning ride was overseen by my father, with my brother Andrzej and Aunt Iza accompanying us. We were always followed by a few fox terriers and beagles too.

After the Soviet attack on Poland in October 1939, we left our house for ever. The farewell was very painful; we said our goodbyes first to the crying estate workers, and then to the horses. We packed a handful of things on a wagon and drove to Tarnopol, and from there we travelled on a fire truck to Lviv. We had to leave the city in a hurry in late November, for fear of being arrested. We reached Nazi-occupied Poland through the Green Border. On the 15th of March 1940 I was sworn into the Union for Armed Struggle, and took part in partisan fighting. We blew up trains and ambushed small German units.

Near the end of the war I took part in the Warsaw Uprising, in the 1st Regiment of Mounted Riflemen, codename Division 1806. We were stationed in the area between Teatralny Square and the Cloister of Maiden Canonesses. We were the last unit to hold out in the Old Town, which we left via underground sewers, but not the same ones everybody else used. They began from Krasińskich Square, but we left from the ones on Daniłłowiczowska Street. They were tight, sanitary tunnels, full of stinking sewage. We crawled on our hands and knees, neck down in excrement, for 12 hours until finally we emerged on the corner of Świętokrzyska and Mazowiecka Streets. During the Uprising I carried with me a picture of my fiancee Rose. I still have it today.

When, after the Uprising, I escaped from the train heading to Pruszków, I immediately joined the resistance. After two weeks I requested leave and travelled to Kraków, to find out what was happening with my parents and Rose (Countess Rose Plater-Zyberk), whom I married on the 26th of October 1944. She accompanied me back to Radomsko, close to where my unit was stationed. In the town we learned the unit has been disbanded, because the Soviets had arrived, and arrests of AK soldiers had begun.

In Kraków I was taken to prison, and learned first hand about the new ruling authority in Poland. The moment I was released I decided to escape the country. I was born and raised in Podole. That was my homeland, now occupied by the Soviets. My family had lost everything. In Poland the Communist regime was running rampant, something which I was already familiar with. They arrested AK soldiers, land owners and aristocracy. The children of aristocrats couldn’t study at universities; there was no future for us in Poland.

We escaped through the Czech Republic and France. We joined the army of General Anders, and with them we arrived in Great Britain. In 1952 we sailed to Montreal, Canada, and immediately we knew it was the place for us, that we had finally found a safe harbour.

When we were forced to abandon our estate we left everything behind, except for one suitcase each, packed with only the most necessary things. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, my parents travelled to Chorostków, and the villagers brought things they managed to secrete from the palace and save from devastation. This way we got our guest book back, as well as several paintings.

My mother’s portrait, by an Italian artist, went through a different route before I got it back. A book-keeper’s daughter found it in a garden, where Bolsheviks had thrown away some of the paintings taken from the palace. The woman spent many years looking for members of my family to give it back. When I received her letter I was very happy. I went to Poland, but the Communist government wouldn’t allow me to take it out of the country and I had to smuggle it in the bottom of my suitcase. In the same manner I managed to smuggle out three paintings by Juliusz Kossak. This great artist visited Chorostków on many occasions, where he made paintings of my family and the horses.

I consider myself a Pole, my children speak in three different languages, Polish being obligatory at home. I am also a Canadian, and I love my second homeland, and will stay here until the end of my days.

Wilhelm, Count Siemieński-Lewicki passed away in Rawdon, Quebec, in Canada, in 2013.

Beata Golembiowska