A Tragic Anniversary
Posted on February 22, 2023
The Last Lancer author Catherine Czerkawska is our guest contributor today, reflecting on the one year anniversary since the outbreak of war in Ukraine.
As the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approaches, I find myself thinking about a remote family member, one I rediscovered when I was researching The Last Lancer. Jerzy, living in Lviv with his wife, was no longer young. He was the son of my grandfather’s stepfather Jan, by his second marriage, After my great grandmother Anna died, her second husband remarried. Complicated relationships.
When I began to write The Last Lancer in earnest, and dug out the mass of research I had done over many years, I found an old letter from Jerzy, hand written in Polish. It had arrived during a time of family illness and bereavement, when I had temporarily shelved my research. I had never had it translated but had filed it away and – unforgivably – forgotten about it. In any case, there was no return address, no internet searches back then, no way of finding out where he lived.
Then, early in Covid lockdown, a Polish friend translated it for me and pointed out that this lovely man had once known my grandfather, when he himself was a child. My grandfather, Wladyslaw, the Last Lancer of my book, a kindly young father at that time, had given him lifts in his fancy Chrysler Open Top Tourer, to the village where his family lived, something that he still remembered all those years later. Jerzy had been so fond of Wladyslaw that he had named his own son after him.
A few years later, my grandfather had found himself in a Russian prison, followed by a Gulag and then, in 1942, trekking east after Stalin changed sides, had died, probably of amoebic dysentry, at the age of 38. He is buried near Bukhara on the Silk Road. Jerzy and his family had spent many years in a Gulag too, which explained why he had married and had his own children rather late. His had been a life interrupted. LinkedIn miraculously allowed me to get in touch with his daughter, and she said that her father, in his nineties and rather frail, was nevertheless excited at the thought of writing to me about that side of our family history and seeing if he still had any photographs and documents.
Very soon after that, Putin made his move.
With two young children herself, Jerzy’s daughter fled to Poland, where she had already spent time working, but her parents refused to move. Russian invasion, occupation and extreme brutality had disrupted Jerzy’s life once before and he wasn’t going to allow it to happen again. We seize whatever agency we can in such situations. Soon after Christmas 2022, his daughter messaged me to say that he had died. Peacefully in the end. He should have been able to get palliative care, except that the hospitals, even in Lviv, are full of wounded soldiers, so he had to make do without.
I find myself occasionally having to fend off over-confident pronouncements from friends here in the west who think they understand the realities of occupation. They don’t. Frankly, I don’t either. But I know more than they do. And when anyone tries to tell me what Ukraine should and shouldn’t do in these circumstances, I find myself thinking of this man, with his fine, ordinary, precious, cheerful life interrupted yet again by the deluded dreams of a dictator. There is no excuse, no possible justification for a foreign regime to inflict such horrors on the innocent and there never will be.
– Catherine Czerkawska
About The Last Lancer by Catherine Czerkawska
Julian Czerkawski was born in 1926 near Lwow, in Polish Galicia, on a farm with fertile grain fields and orchards. He was the son of a Polish lancer—one of the famous cavalrymen who carried forward the legacy of the hussar knights.
But there would be no idyllic childhood for young Julian. Soviet annexation and then, in 1941, the German occupation of Lwow changed everything. At the age of eighteen, he was sent to a labour camp. Fortunate to escape after the war with his life, eventually he made his way to the UK. Here, he married and started a family, but an ache remained for the people and places of his childhood memories, even if he spoke of them only rarely.
In 2022, Putin’s war in Ukraine and the sight of refugees passing through Lviv—the former Polish city of Lwow—added urgency to his writer daughter Catherine’s project of a lifetime, to try to uncover for herself everything that had been lost a generation before.
The Last Lancer pieces together glimpses of how the Czerkawski family lived and died in a region with a proud but turbulent history. It sheds light on their trauma, at the same time offering a deep and very personal understanding of a troubled place.