In the Summer of 1939, 8-year-old Polish school boy, Michał Skibiński, was tasked by his teacher with keeping a diary during the summer holidays. The task was a simple one: one line every day. Little did Michał know as he began to document walks by the river and the nature in his garden, that this summer would see the outbreak of World War II. Here, Michał, now a retired priest nearing his 91st birthday, talks about how the book came about, some of his memories from that time, and his life since the war.
I really feel that this book came about because of my laziness at school! To improve my miserable writing skills, I was given an assignment to write at least one sentence every day in the form of a diary throughout the summer. Looking at this notebook, I see that I have never ‘disgraced myself’ by writing two or more sentences! I didn’t really think much of the notebook – we found it in my mother’s belongings in the 1970s. I kept it for a while, through various house moves, and then gave it to my brother, and then he to his son. It was my nephew’s idea to approach the publisher in Poland, and I didn’t think it would come to much – but then, when I saw Ala Bankroft’s beautiful paintings to illustrate my words, I couldn’t believe it! She’s incredibly talented.
I have some vivid memories from that summer. On 13th September I wrote: ‘they started to dispense bread on ration coupons,’ referring to the recent Nazi occupation. I remember going out that day with my younger brother for a walk, and we met a German soldier talking to some women, but because of the language barrier they couldn’t communicate. So, I acted as an interpreter; me and my brother could speak German (but not read or write it) as we had German nursemaid. I translated to these women where they should go to get their bread, so played my small part that day.
And I do remember seeing my father that day in August – my last meeting with him. He was part of a Bomber Squadron and his plane crashed for unknown reasons on 9th September, killing all three airmen on board.
It’s strange looking back at how I witnessed Jewish people being treated during the occupation. I watched with interest at the time, a strange childish curiosity – this was happening to ‘others’. I can remember the increasing number of people walking with a white armband with a blue star of David on it. Thousands of posters appeared on the walls depicting large lice and with an inscription: ‘Jews, dirt, lice = spotted typhus.’ Then the Jewish quarter was created, and finally it was surrounded by walls. Then came the famous historical events, including the complete liquidation of the ghetto. I witnessed more and more often mass executions of Poles in the streets of Warsaw. Now of course, I view it all completely differently and remember the horrors of that time; they were ‘our people’ who died.
I know that the Nazi occupation is compared to the Soviet occupation of Poland (where the Polish government were in fact puppets in the hands of the Russians), but I did not feel it this way myself. Day-to-day, I felt really at home in Poland: I could speak Polish, go to Polish school, I had pre-war teachers. My experience of communist surveillance was minimal: I entered the seminary upon graduating secondary school and in my final year we were summoned for an interview with some officials, but we had been taught what to say: “I’m interested in teaching religion, in the sacraments, how to help people, I’m not interested in politics.”
I spent my whole working life, from 1958, as a pastor for the deaf. I learnt sign language – back then it was generally thought that sign language should be stopped, with the belief that if the deaf stopped using sign language they would learn to speak, but it would never work – even if young children could speak a little, they would forget it because they could not hear their own speech. I continued to use sign language throughout my working life.
Later, I began to suffer from severe diabetes and moved to my current home for retired priests – I’ve been here since 1997 and I’m the oldest one here!
I still can’t believe my modest little notebook has been translated into several languages. I marvel at the pictures every time I open it, and I feel very proud!
I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker: The Diary of a Young Boy at the Outbreak of World War II by Michał Skibiński and illustrated by Ala Bankroft is published by Prestel, out now, £11.99 hardback.