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Michelle Kusiak


My father's war time journey from Ukraine to Britain

Sepia photograph of the face of Michael Kusiak.
Michael Kusiak as a young man in 1945, taken in the labour camp in Bielefeld © Michelle Kusiak

Black and white photograph of Michelle Kusiak as a baby with her father Michael, 1964.
Michelle as a baby with her father during the winter of 1964/65 © Michelle Kusiak

I was born in 1963 so I have no first hand experience of the Second World War. However, because of the effect it had on my father and the stories he told me from that time, those years seem very real to me.

My father, Michael Kusiak, was born in Montargis (about 100 miles south of Paris) in 1927 and moved to Lviv (now in Western Ukraine) in 1931 when it was under Polish rule. He lived in a small village with his family. Initially they had a reasonably wealthy life but hardship followed during the famine of 1932 to 1933. I remember him telling me the story of how my grandmother exchanged her wedding ring for a sack of flour. My father never got over the effect of facing near starvation and would collect nuts and fruit for preserves from the forest near our home when I was a child. There was always so much that we could never eat it all!

In 1939 the Soviet Union occupied Western Ukraine, changing people's lives and leaving my father with a strong dislike of everything Russian. In 1941 the Germans captured Lviv and my father, his brother and father travelled to Germany, ending up in a labour camp in Bielefeld. I remember his description of the soup he had to prepare whilst on duty in the kitchen there. It was made from potatoes, cabbage and vegetable peelings, unappetising but no one complained. As a child I was never allowed to waste any food, if it wasn't eaten, it was 'saved' for the next meal.

In 1944 Lviv was recaptured by the Soviets, making return impossible for my father. At the end of the war he was placed in the British sector of the camps for displaced persons in Germany, from where he came to Britain. By 1948 he was in Scotland, working as a farm labourer and then moved to London towards the end of 1949. Although he then lived in Britain for 55 years, he was fiercely patriotic and held on to his Ukranian identity. His dislike of all things Russian intensified during his life. When he died in 2003, I took his body back to his village in Ukraine to be buried and finally met my family there.

Written by Michelle Kusiak, November 2006.