Outbreak 1939 interview: Jan Potworowski - escaping Nazi occupied Poland

Jan Potworowski interviewed by Richard Moss | 28 August 2009
a black and white photo of two children with hats and toy rifles in a garden

Jan Potworowski (right), witnessed the German invasion of Poland. Courtesy IWM / Jan Potworowski

Interview: to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two Culture24 speaks to some of the people featured in the new Imperial War Museum exhibition, Outbreak 1939. Here Jan Potworowski remembers the invasion of Poland and his remarkable escape from the stricken country.

"Back then I was a very patriotic nine-year-old and the war started I think with the gardener screaming ‘war, war!’ We all rushed out and there was this long line of German planes above, flying I guess towards Warsaw. After a few minutes of pointing at the sky the assembled crowd panicked.

It's very difficult to understand that when you see planes up in the air. There was really no experience of being bombed before, so when you saw a plane in the sky you assumed it was going to bomb you. So people were rushing around, including myself.

I remember running down a long row of raspberry bushes, thinking ‘this is a pretty hopeless way of trying to hide’, but I just kept running. I turned a corner and I met this extraordinary apparition, a vision of a very large lady, holding in front of her an enormous picture of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa with a great big guilt frame. All you could see of her really were her eyes and these big red hands holding this frame. She was praying very loudly.

And I couldn’t make out whether she was hoping the frame would defend her or the Virgin Mary would defend her. Anyway it kind of stopped my panic because there was somebody who was obviously going crazier than I was. But that was the first day. After that we were part of the great mass of people trekking towards the (River) Vistula.

Like anybody’s journey out of it, mine was miraculous in one way or another. There were chances and extraordinary situations.

The reason we originally got out of Poland was because when war broke out the German Foreign Office were not really penetrated by the Nazis. They worked like an ordinary nineteenth century foreign office. They had a book that said ‘in case of war with country X, this is what you do’. And so they asked country X, Poland, which country would you designate as being your representative during the hostilities? So the Poles designated Sweden, so that was noted.

Then Sweden received three Polish submarines, and their crews stayed in Poland and asked for their families to join them. There was nothing in the rules against it and someone didn’t bother to tell the Gestapo about it, so there was a trickle of Polish families arriving in Sweden.

My father was at that time in Sweden, his cousin was an ambassador there and my father managed to get there (he was hoping to join the Polish Army in Scotland) and he asked for his family to join him. But by that time the Germans were picking up that there were these Polish families telling stories that were not very positive about them.

Nevertheless my mother went to Krakow, to the appropriate department there to see if she could get a permit to leave and lo and behold there was an old German officer sitting behind the desk who knew her family from before the First World War. He said ‘Oh I’ll fix you with that,’ so he fixed it, but then it needed to be signed by the Gestapo in Krakow.

They just tore it up and everybody said you can’t possibly leave, that’s it. But she said ‘no I’ll try again’. She got another permit from the old German officer and this time because my mother was bilingual she walked into the headquarters of the Gestapo and started shouting.

‘Where is everybody? I need this signed! I’ve got to get a passenger train this evening, come on. Schnell!’ And the young man behind the desk there went whack! and stamped it and we were on a train to Berlin, formally, officially with papers.

Of course at any moment we could have been arrested but somehow we arrived in Berlin and then we had to wait formally and officially to get visas for Denmark.

The Russian submarines were operating in the Baltic, the war with Russia had broken out, so we waited for a week. We were bombed by the British – so I have been bombed by the Germans and by the British – and then we eventually turned up in Sweden, which was neutral and I became a Swedish boy for three years. My father went and joined the Polish Army here (in Britain) and he asked for us to come and join him.

Flying Fortresses were being used to fly people from Sweden and Great Britain, so there I was, a 14-year-old with my sister who was eight, flying in a Flying Fortress. Not many people can have done that. The loo was near the rear gunner’s seat. So I had the experience of sitting on the bog looking out above the North Sea! Luckily the German fighters who were based nearby in Narvik (in Norway) did not manage to catch up with us and we landed in Scotland and came here to London.

That’s really why I am talking to you now because what happened then was that I went by Underground to Piccadilly and as I travelled up the stairs I suddenly saw around me this extraordinary mass of soldiery.

American military police in white helmets; British with their red bands, then up in Piccadilly there were Poles! Polish officers in their square hats, there were Spakis from the French Colonial Army, I didn’t know what the hell they were doing there, there were Australians, the French sailors with their pom-poms. There was this mass of Allied soldiery. This was 1944, and it struck me as such a powerful image. It’s the kind of image of the war that I have in England.

When I come here, and I’m one of the Friends of the Imperial War Museum – I like it very much and I think it has a depth and it talks about the pity of war – but it doesn’t say anything about that. There are no images here that give a feel of what it felt like walking the streets of London in 1944.

It felt extraordinary. There were all these people from all over the world just bent on one thing and one thing only. The War.

You talk about the spirit of the Blitz but there was this extraordinary thing of so many different nations, all engaged in one thing. You would walk down the street and you would just feel it. It was like walking down to Wembley for a game and seeing supporters of every football club, all united in one thing.

As a Pole I think the humiliation of defeat is something that is hard to convey. The smell of defeat. Now and again I have met British ex soldiers who had gone through Dunkirk and I always know they know that feeling very well, it’s difficult…

There are lighter sides. My first sight of German soldiers was when they were camping near our house and I was looking out the window at these strange soldiers and I suddenly realised they were all cleaning their teeth. The one positive thing about the war was that you didn’t have to clean your teeth. That was not the case with the Germans! That was a very strong memory, and I think the only funny one during the whole war."

A series of lectures and events has been organised by the Imperial War Museum to help commemorate the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of war in 1939. Follow the links below for more details.

Outbreak 1939 has been developed in association with ITV who will be screening a documentary that tells the story, hour-by-hour, of September 3 1939. Outbreak will be screened on ITV1 on September 3 2009 at 10.30pm.

Find out about exhibitions and events at UK museums and heritage sites with the Culture24 guide to events commemorating the 70th anniversary of World War Two.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned: