Polish Resistance: the Story of Jerzy Sopiaski

PoppyJerzy Sopiaski died peacefully at his home in Poland earlier this year. He had lived in East Leeds between 1946 and 2006. I was told his story by his great niece and nephew who came to Leeds to work four years ago. They all originate from Biertow, a small town near Wroclow. Jerzy’s mother was Jewish, which placed him in even more danger than other Poles when the German’s and Soviet’s carved up Poland in 1939. He had already served three years in the Polish Air Force and was evacuated first to Hungary and then to France. There he was part of a Polish Air Unit although the only planes available by the beleagured French Airforce. were old and ill equipped. These planes were no match against the German Messerrschmitt’s and they suffered heavy casualties. The French Government actually tried to stop the Poles from using them such was their condition. They met with stubborn resistance from pilots who had seen Nazi atrocities first hand.

When Germany occupied France Jerzy was again evacuated and he experienced Yorkshire for the first time. He was expecting to climb into the cockpit again and fight against the Nazi’s from a third country. However the famous British stiff upper lip was prevalent, even in those desperate times. The Command of the RAF and the government had doubts about the Polish fighters and insisted any costs incurred by the Poles would have to be met by the Polish government after the war. Unlike in France, they were not allowed to form their own units and were almost like 2nd class members of the RAF. Furthermore, experienced pilots and officers such as Jerzy were given lowly ranks and required to retrain.

So while Jerzy, a veteran of 15 bombing missions sat in a hut learning English and learning to fly, much less experienced pilots were out there been shot down by the Luftwaffe. He could have still been there at the end of the war if the Allies hadn’t suffered such heavy casulaties. Eventually he was let off the leash and fought in the Battle of Britain as well as about fifty other missions. He also travelled all over England and was involved in training new recruits. Unfortunately the end of the war didn’t really have a happy ending for Jerzy. The Communist’s now occupied Poland and British Intelligence informed Jerzy it might be a problem to return home as he would be viewed with suspicion and possibly even imprisioned due to his close links with the Western military. News then filtered through that his mother and father had both perished in Auzwich Concentration Camp.

Jerzy had also become close to lands girl Emma Raynard, they married in January 1947, unusually he decided to take her sir name, hoping it might help in his quest for employment. They moved in with her parents in a back to back in the Nowells in Harehills. He found work on the trams and later the buses as a driver. They settled in the Sommervilles in around 1950, though they never had children. Emma died in1998.

His great nephew and niece, Pieter and Katarina traced him in 2005 and became regular visitors. In 2006 they persuaded him to return to Biertow for the first time since 1939. He said it looked exactly the same as he remembered it apart from the fact there were less people living there. He still had a few remnants of family, all on his fathers side, and decided to see the winter of his life out there. He toyed with the idea of visting Aushwitz to say goobye to his parents but decided he wouldn’t give the Nazi’s the satisfaction of tears at their shrine to inhumanity.

Pieter and Katarina aplogised to me that some of the information, such as dates and places were a little sketchy. They didn’t just talk about the war when they visited him and everything had been done by memory. They would have loved to have given more stories about his missions but he never really went into much detail. They said he became more English than Polish, he never joined Polish Clubs in England and when he returned to live in Poland was fond of recalling tales of watching Don Revie’s Leeds in the glory years. The only time they saw him angry (other than talking about Nazi’s and Communist’s) was when he recalled two European finals where Leeds were cheated by Germans and Italians! He’d spoken about the Arndale Centre opening and shaking hands with Paul Reany who opened a shop there. He was proud to have spent most of his life in a peaceful democracy and proud to have fought for a country where he was free to travel and say what he wanted.

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