From the left at the back: Marian (18), Jerzy (29), Alicja (31), Tadeusz (24)
From the left in the front: Wojciech (8), Jadwiga (58), Konrad (55), Konrad (13)
The legend of how the Seipps came to Poland from Hungary is recounted in “Angielka”. This is a photograph of my father, Wojciech, with his parents and brothers and sisters taken in 1938 at Jerzy’s wedding. Within the next six years, the Germans murdered four of the men in the photograph.
When war broke out the family were living in Warsaw in their own house on Żytnia Street. It was razed to the ground in one of the first bombing raids on the city. The only ones at home at the time were Jadwiga and her youngest son, nine year old Wojciech, who managed to hide in the cellar. One of the things that little Wojtek, my father, remembered clearly about that day was the all-pervading dust that made it hard to breath or even open their eyes. And also the women urinating on dishcloths and towels and covering their children’s faces; the terror in the face of the bombs and gas and the conviction that the towels soaked with urine would save their lives.
The family moved to Praga, to a rented house at 18 Nieświeska Street. It was in October, at the very start of the occupation that the Germans came to the house and took Jerzy away. Four months later the postman delivered a telegram from Auschwitz informing the family of his death. He was 29.
Questions: Why was he taken from the house and why was he among the first to be arrested? What was going on in Auschwitz in the winter of 1939/1940 (people only started to be killed there officially a few months later)?
Although the telegram has since disappeared, several people who are still alive today saw it. They also remember that the name on the telegram was wrongly spelled as "Sejpp".
A year later, on 17 April 1941, Tadeusz was killed in a skirmish on the railway embankment next to the railway line. He was 27. They brought him home but before letting his mother see him they washed his face – there was a barely visible bullet hole on his forehead. His despairing mother would not believe that Tadeusz was dead and tried to resuscitate him. They didn’t let her see the damage that the bullet had done as it exited through the back of his head. They had to bury him in secret. QUESTION: What was the battle in which he was killed?
The father of the family, Konrad, was working on the railways at the time. In March 1943 together with other Poles, the Germans forced him to act as a living shield for some important train. Despite the presence of their countrymen, the partisans attacked the train "somewhere near Kielce" and 60 year old Konrad was seriously wounded in the battle. He died a few days later in hospital in Warsaw where he was taken by his wife from the hospital in Kielce. QUESTION: What was the battle?
The family had barely had time to mourn their father when the next calamity struck. Another of the sons, 18-year old Konrad, didn’t come home one day. It was only after the war had ended that he was found and they learned that he had been seized in a raid and taken to Germany for forced labour. For the three years that he was absent, the hope that he was still alive somewhere must have been faint indeed.
The only members of this big, splendid family living at home at that point were: the mother, Jadwiga, the daughter, Alicja, Jerzy’s widow, Janina with her 4-year old son Lesław, and the last two of the brothers, 23-year old Marian, nicknamed Kubuś, and 13-year old Wojtek.
But it didn’t end there. The Uprising broke out and by the end of the very first day Marian had fallen, near to the Holy Resurrection church on Księcia Ziemowita Street, at the "scene of heavy fighting by Home Army soldiers in which 31 people died." He was 24.
QUESTIONS: How did Kubuś die? What exactly happened on that day? His name is on the Wall of Remembrance at the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising – column 105, number 54. There is also a plaque commemorating the battle on Księcia Ziemowita Street but I’ve never been able to find out any more details.
Kubuś’s death was the last straw for his mother. She never recovered. In an effort to protect her last remaining son she made him get down on his knees before her and swear on the cross that he would not go out to fight and die like his brothers. Having little faith in his promise though, she told his older sister Alicja to take him away from Warsaw into the country to the village of Mniszew. Maybe it was only thanks to this that I came into the world eleven years later.
Digression 1: neither Alicja, who to us was our adored Aunty Lila, nor Wojtek, my father, nor his brother Konrad, who by some miracle had returned from Germany, could ever talk about the war – we learnt nothing from them. And even 30 years later, my Aunt would leave the room if there was a German uniform on television. When I tried to tell her that it was only a silly serial, a comedy, a film, I saw tears streaming down her silent face. The small scraps of information I have about those days I gleaned from my mother and my other aunt, Konrad’s wife, to whom the boys throughout the years of marriage had obviously let a few things slip.
Digression 2: I must say a few words here about a person who had a huge influence on the lives of Alicja and Wojciech – their Aunt Maria, a nun. It was she who instilled into the young Alicja that life without God was hell, not only “hereafter” but also here, on earth. All that had happened to her family during the war years must in Alicja’s eyes have been strong confirmation of the vision painted by her spiritual aunt. After the deaths of all those who had been closest to her, including the secret “love of her life”, and her mother’s breakdown, all that was left to the 37-year old Alicja was her 14-year old brother. She took on herself the entire burden of bringing him up and educating him and all she had to stop herself going mad, all that remained for her to cling on to was God, only God.
Thus it was that at the beginning of the 1950s Wojciech Seipp, a raw musician, found himself in the Recovered Territories helping the priests there to build Polish parishes and to organise parish life for people who had (frequently) been expelled from their birthplaces. One of the forms this work took was the creation of church orchestras and choirs. People who only yesterday had been total strangers yearning for company and music and song – like a desert yearns for rain – came together to form an embryo of Polish culture, and forged friendships, love, and marriage. It had worked well in Słupsk and Ustka, there was no reason it couldn’t work in Krosno Odrzańskie.
A famous anecdote from that time was about the day the bishop paid a visit to Słupsk. When my father, who had a boyish charm, came diffidently forward from the orchestra to greet the prominent churchman, the bishop took him by the ear, saying “Don’t stand there stammering at me, boy, go and fetch Mr Seipp. Tell him the bishop has arrived!"
Wojciech Seipp was deaf to the propositions and threats of the communist authorities, who ordered him to organise music for the people during working hours and only to play around with the church in his free time. Hence all the moving around: the move from Ustka to Krosno Odrzańskie was to have been an escape route – it didn’t work out like that at all.
To outdo the German military nightmare extreme measures had to be taken. For the red flag-waving liberators it was easy. After the mass murders in the 40s all the enemies they had made – and hands for slave labour – were packed off to the army. Not to defend the fatherland, oh no. They weren’t going to be let anywhere near weapons. They were usually sent to the mines, those where the real miners had refused to work on safety grounds.
My father was "mobilised" in September 1953 and sent to a mine near Wałbrzych. There he found himself among other young people with aristocratic surnames, white hands and talents that were more spiritual than manual, and the remnants of whatever health was left to them at the end of the war. They died underground like flies. Every day those that survived brought up the bodies of their friends. Down at the coalface the concentration of gas exceeded all known norms, while accidents reaped their own harvest. In November my father was crushed by a coal truck steered by the unprofessional hand of a friend. He was brought up to the surface and tossed on a heap with the other dead bodies.
The corpses were then loaded onto a lorry. There was a doctor to hand and with his war experiences still fresh in his mind he examined each body, plunging a thick needle into various sensitive places. My father cried out and was sent off to hospital. After several months of treatment he was declared 70% disabled. To avoid having to pay invalids disability allowance for the rest of their lives, the Russian chairman of the health commission always had the same answer: “He got sick in the army, let the army cure him!" This meant that until the day he died my father would have to limp in uniform around various military offices. The Polish doctor who had saved him told him to agree to recover to the point where he had, let’s say, a 10% disability that didn’t entitle him to a pension. They would then discharge him and he would be free of the army to the end of his life. Thus in October 1954, putting away his crutches, Wojciech Seipp was again able to snuggle up to his wife in his own bed. I was born nine months later.
I’ve included the QUESTIONS here in the hope that one day documents will come to light enabling my children and grandchildren to find out who they are. I was sent back and forth from office to office for a long time. I came to the conclusion that our archives from those years were still in a “regime-change phase”. So I’m planting here a tiny seed in the oral tradition. I hope that over time it will grow into a beautiful tree of real knowledge.
Don't go chasing the devil – you may find him inside you