Bernard Wilkowski

The Evington Echo published a profile of former languages teacher Bernard Wilkowski following his passing in 2015. To view it CLICK/TAP HERE

Here is Bob Childs' own fascinating article about Bernard  (who taught at CBS 1970-73):-

How did this man born in Poland in 1921 find his way to City Boys on Downing Drive as a teacher of languages from 1970 to 1973? His journey may not have been unique but it was certainly remarkable and in many ways fortuitous. He was the eldest of 5 children brought up on a small farm in Karolewo a hamlet in northern Poland which was then part of East Prussia as decided in the Treaty of Versailles. Bernard’s early life revolved around the farm and church in nearby Pinczyn. He attended the local primary school and then boarding school where his reports indicated high intellectual ability. In 1938 he was sent to a Catholic seminary in Belgium to study philosophy and theology as a training for the priesthood. However his chosen path in life was abruptly disrupted when Hitler began the invasion of Bernard’s native country in September 1939 and the outbreak of war. Unable to return home Bernard, aged only 18, joined the Polish Second Division which fought alongside the French.

Once France too was invaded the Polish forces soon became engaged in a rear guard action behind the French at Belfort in eastern France. Overwhelmed, Bernard found himself over the next 12 months wounded captured and soon after an escapee with fellow Poles who managed to cross over the border in to Switzerland. Having of course surrendered his weapons he eventually became an internee but also enrolled as a student at the University of Fribourg (Bernard was already fluent in French his second language). Some might have sat the war out in this relative place of safety and learning…. but not Bernard or a number of other Poles. In the winter of 1941-42 a group of them crossed into Vichy France….

With no proper papers they were soon arrested and had to serve 3 months hard Labour before being released. For a time he continued his studies in southern France until he was on the move again! A small group of Polish national decided to cross Vichy France and head for Spain in a hazardous winter crossing of the Pyrenees. Without proper equipment they sometimes had to cling to narrow ledges and traverse glaciers. One of their number was killed in a tragic fall. The rest made it across the border only to be quickly arrested by Spanish border guards. But at least they had made it safely to a supposedly neutral state…. the Spain of General Franco. Like most foreign nationals they were sent to a camp in northern Spain called Miranda de Ebro. The layout and design of the camp was based on German advice as they had experience of such things. There were separate huts for up to 200 men and by 1943 the camp held about 5000 men including a large Polish contingent.

You will not be surprised to know that life inside Miranda de Ebro was dull and very difficult with inadequate food, hard work details in local quarries, lice, fleas, one water tap and a twice daily ritual assembly outside to join in a communal chant of “Aviva Franco”.  Conditions in the camp were so bad that there was even a ten day hunger strike which inevitably led to a number of deaths and even more hostility from the Spanish authorities. Fortunately this actually proved to be a turning point especially as the allies began to achieve victories in Italy and even at Stalingrad. The attitude of the Spanish begun to soften spurred on by Consular access to nationals there including some British. A Polish legation was allowed to fund and send in tinned food and set up a programme of lessons and sports. British diplomats kept up the pressure with reminders of who they would hold accountable after Germany had been defeated! Slowly the Spanish began to release some foreign nationals including many Poles.

This was how Bernard and his friends came to be on the move once more in March 1943. They left the camp, crossed northern Spain and made their way into Portugal and onto the coast. There they manage to hire an old coal barge in which they set off into the sea! Fortunately they were soon picked up by HMS Antelope which managed to avoid German bombers and U-boats to make its way into the harbour at Gibraltar. Possibly one of their group thought that they were now between a rock and a hard place. Their good fortune continued with safe passage to Liverpool where Bernard docked in May 1943 to be screened of course by the British authorities. Keen to join the Polish Air Force or even the RAF Bernard was sent to Scotland to learn his third language English.

Bernard was discharged in 1948 and after various jobs in hospitality and catering and 2 marriages he settled in Thurnby in 1966. He wanted to complete his studies and in 1967 enrolled at Scraptoft College of Education to train as an MFL teacher. Thus it was in 1970 after an intriguing journey lasting over 30 years that he began his teaching career at City Boys, teaching French and Russian. It was in the same year that Bernard made his first return visit to Poland to see family members. In July of 1972 he helped lead a party of senior boys on a trip to Russia but the following year left City Boys to become Head of MFL at Judgemeadow where he stayed until retirement in 1986.

He continued to live in Evington as a quiet but respected member of the community until his death, aged 94 in 2015. What a man! What a journey! what a story….!

This is a longer version of a short speech given by Bob Childs to the 22nd Annual Reunion of the City of Leicester Boys Grammar School in 2019.