Address by the Burgomaster of the municipality Overbetuwe,
Mr. Drs. A.S.F. van Asseldonk
at the Commemoration of the contribution of the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade to Operation Market Garden, 72 years ago

Driel, 17 September 2016

Dear veterans,
your excellencies,
ladies and gentlemen
On behalf of Overbetuwe, I extend a warm welcome to you all.
It is an honour and a privilege to have you here for this commemoration.
Please allow me to continue in Dutch.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Ten years ago on May 31 2006, the reigning queen, Queen Beatrix, confirmed that the 6th Polish Airborne Brigade Military had been awarded the Order of William, the oldest and highest honour of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. This brigade continues the tradition of the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade. The Queen also awarded Major General Stanisław Sosabowski the Bronze Lion posthumously, which was accepted by his grandsons.

This special ceremony, which took place at the Binnenhof in The Hague, the seat of the Dutch government, meant the reinstatement of honour for the brigade and the general. It was also the beginning of a greater focus on the Polish contribution to the liberation of Europe, particularly the Netherlands, and the suffering the Poles endured during the Second World War.

The latter, especially, has been largely ignored in the past. I’m not just talking about what Poland had to endure as a country, but also what the Polish people themselves suffered in that period. From the invasion of Nazi Germany, participation in the liberation of Europe, and the uprising in Warsaw, to the difficult, in most cases impossible, return to Poland. Hence, the three Polish veterans that are here with us today each have their own very
personal story.

One of these stories is now featured in the Airborne Museum in Oosterbeek. It’s about Jozef Wjciechowski, who is present today, and his wife Emilia. The exhibition “Going Home: Jozef and Emilia” tells how they met in an internment camp in Siberia in 1941, and how, thereafter, each independently sought a new home and a reunion with each other. A journey that took them via Kazakhstan, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt and South Africa to the UK, where they were first reunited in 1944.

By that time, they had travelled separately thousands of miles on foot, by train, by boat and on the back of trucks. Sometimes they were travelling in the same places and countries where the other had been or would be. In March 1942, Jozef enlisted in the Polish Army and helped with the construction of a refugee camp in Tehran. On 17 October 1942, he saw in a Polish newspaper in Scotland, Emilia’s name on a list of those at that same refugee camp in Tehran. He wrote her a letter, which followed Emilia across the Middle East, and Africa to the UK.

While Jozef trained in Scotland in 1943 with the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade, Emilia joined a support unit; the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in South Africa. In March 1943, she arrived in the town of Redcar in the Northeast of England. Only then did Emilia receive the letter and could write back to Jozef. In the summer of 1944, Jozef visited Emilia at the Hucknall Airfield. This was the first time they had seen each other since Siberia. At the end of his visit, Jozef received from Emilia a photo of her with this handwritten text:

“to my Joe, from Mila”

Shortly thereafter, the brigade took part in Operation Market Garden and the unit was dropped above Driel on 21 September 1944. Later that year, Jozef returned to the UK before being stationed in Germany as part of the occupying forces in May 1945. After returning again to the UK, he married Emilia in Lincoln a year later in 1947. They then moved to Bradford where they had two children. Sadly, Emilia passed away on 26 September 2009.

The personal story of Jozef Wjciechowski would probably have remained unknown to the general public if it weren’t for the reinstatement of honour of the Polish brigade. For me Jozef and Emilia’s story is symbolic of what our Poles have endured. We are still deeply grateful for their sacrifices and for their contribution to our freedom. We will never forget.

The story of Jozef and Emilia also shows similarities with what we see happening around us in the world today.

The invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany in 1939, triggered a large influx of refugees. This is similar to what is now taking place in Europe, with refugees from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The question remains to be seen whether these people will ever be reunited with their loved ones as Jozef and Emilia were. And so it is that after every war, conflict or crisis situation, wherever it may take place in the world, thousands of lives are affected, and there is much personal suffering. Many stories remain untold while others are recorded, such as that of Jozef and Emilia. Not only did they find each other in the British town of Hucknall in 1944, but they also found a new home.

A home that I wish for everyone, including the many thousands of people who are still on the way, and perhaps will be for many years to come. I hope that they can find the strength, like Jozef and Emilia did, to stay stronger than the war and keep searching so they will see each other again.