Adam Leszczar of Pease Pottage
Published in September 2016
I was born in Poland in 1935. My father served in the Polish Army in World War One. For his bravery, he was given a grant by the government in the form of a farm near to a forest. He eventually built a house on the farm and raised a family of seven children. He was very strict with us. Mother was softer. She never scolded us, just told a quotation or two. She taught us to sing, dance and read poems, although never in my father’s presence. He thought we could do without it.
My father would cure meat, pickle cabbage, and grew tobacco to sell in the summer. Mother would sit out the front of the house and spend ages making butter in a barrel. Family life was good. I still remember so much from that time. My childhood village would now be part of Ukraine, near Kiev, but I swear I could find my old home if I was ever to return.
Everything was going well until September 1939.
I am not sure of my mother’s background, but she looked Italian to me. She spoke German though and would teach friends and neighbours the language. One day, after teaching, she stopped downtown to buy fabric to make winter clothes for us children. She came back with bullet wounds. I would have been four years old.
I have since been told that she could be outspoken and was warning people about German propaganda. I believe she was shot by the Russians. Doctors were too busy to come to the house so they sent a nurse instead, who was unable to save her. Our first Christmas without mother was spent sadly.
On February 11 1940, two Russian soldiers came to the farm at 5am with orders to ‘get ready’. Two sleds were there to take us to our school and from there we were taken to the railway station. We were packed into wagons usually used for transporting animals. My family were on the top deck as we travelled from Kiev to Moscow.
When we arrived in Moscow, they could not feed us, so we were turned away. For about two and a half weeks, stopping once a day if we were lucky to eat inedible soup, we travelled by train to Siberia. I remember it being the most depressing country I have visited. 2.2 million children died there, which gives you some idea of why I feel that way.
My eldest sister, Christina, 15 at the time, was told by a Russian boy that Stalin was allowing women and children a free exit from Russia towards the Caspian Sea in exchange for Polish men to fight for Russia. We were based in a camp, a Russian orphanage, so she packed five of us children up and we started walking south.
We walked day and night, staying in barns or empty houses and obviously we had very little food. Sadly, two of my siblings, a brother and a sister, had died aged 10 and four, plagued with illness and starvation before we reached Siberia.
Somehow, we became separated from our father but were reacquainted in Turkistan. To this day, I cannot fathom how this happened. He was taken ill and died on March 1 1942. I vividly remember being in an old shack with no lights, and my eldest brother saying, “I’ve done it.” He added: “an old boy helped me.” He had buried our father.
We crossed the Caspian Sea on a coal barge, and my sister continued her fight to keep the rest of us alive through Kurdistan. I remember being left in a room with some peanuts, having been read the last rites. My sister had to leave me behind, as the convoy had to move on. Children dying was the norm.
The next morning, I was well enough to get up and walk to the railway station. I followed the crowds and thankfully found my sister. Looking back at my journey, I have my sister’s determination and strength to thank for keeping me alive. But this action on my part is a little glimpse of those same traits.
We travelled on the back of lorries and boats, which was exciting for a young boy, as we moved through Tashkent, Pahlavi, Iran and Pakistan and eventually we made it to India.
It is unthinkable for me to even attempt to list the emotions I felt as a young boy separated from his parents. I don’t think anyone can truly begin to imagine the reality of loneliness, starvation and abandonment unless you have had a similar experience. Many people suffer hardship so I am no different and I believe it is difficult for anything constructive to come out of dwelling on the past.
I spent almost six years in Valivade in India, which turned out to be the best years of my childhood. All I owned was a pair of shorts, one shirt and sandals for Sunday best; I went barefoot the rest of the week. I spent my time eating sugarcane, had monkeys and squirrels for pets and my only toy was a catapult. We were fed and watered daily; what more could I ask for?
The orphanage was run by teachers and nuns, meaning there were certain rules and regulations. I didn’t always conform, but I still make a bed with faultless precision.
I was separated from my siblings in India, perhaps due to our differing ages, but they were nearby. I picked on the naughtiest boy to make friends with so I had company on my escapades; a fortnightly visit to see Tarzan or a cowboy film was worth a good beating! At Christmas we were given a tangerine, a walnut and if you were lucky a sweet wrapped in silver and gold paper.
One of my favourite sayings now is ‘too much is worse than not enough’, I know because I have had both. This saying rings true when I think about my time in India with very little to my name. I would not swap my childhood in India with anyone in the world.
When we were suddenly told we were moving to England, I felt depressed. I was even more depressed when I had to sit on a boat for two weeks. I still cannot understand the novelty of a cruise! At Gibraltar, I left the sun behind and was faced with black sky as I arrived in England in February 1948. I was dressed in tropical clothing!
We stopped in Liverpool, then travelled to an army camp in Gloucestershire. We were all given more suitable attire, and after a rest I was moved on to Pulborough. I lived with my sister in an army barracks with no issues except gangrene which kept me in hospital for two months. Thankfully, my leg survived.
Five Oaks camp near Billingshurst was my next stop, where I stayed there for about a year. I became very good at making bicycles from old parts. I would cycle all day long and must’ve learned every road in Sussex! My sister went to work from 7am to 7pm and I’d cook dinner. When food was short, I’d take rabbits off the gamekeeper’s snares at 4am, out of sight. To earn a crust, I rode to West Sussex Golf Course to caddy. Quite often, I would wait half a day just for one job!
An old spinster, a social worker, said to my sister, ‘You can’t look after this boy.’ I couldn’t speak a word of English, so I couldn’t tell her that in fact I was looking after my sister, lighting fires and cooking for her. I had become the camp’s handy boy and would do jobs in exchange for an apple!
This lady gave me a bus ticket to Horsham and from there I went to Victoria, Kings Cross, and up to Crewe. At 11.45pm, the conductor shouted ‘This is your stop, lad.’ I got off and was about to sleep in a hedge for the night when two figures appeared shouting ‘Are you Leszczar?’ I arrived alone, not a penny in my pocket, at a Polish army camp in Doddington.
I was there for nine months and my sister would write occasionally. I still hadn’t learnt English, and was a rebel at school. We had a Polish General for a headmaster. He bought a dozen canes from Africa and broke every one on boys’ bottoms. But it was a good school and finally I was learning English. We were taught woodwork, architecture and metalwork; all became invaluable in later years. I stayed there until I was about 17.
During the summer holidays, the camp emptied, taking everyone away in different directions. I had nowhere to go as my sister had married and had her own life. So I spent two weeks in Newark-on-Trent, staying with a lady at her council house. She made me breakfast and looked after me like a mother. I can only describe it as being dropped in heaven and I will be eternally grateful to her. I visited her once some years later, at an unhappy time in my life.
One of my regrets is that I never truly thanked her for what she did for me. Truly, if I had a million pounds now, I would give it to her and it would still not be enough to demonstrate how much I valued the experience.
My first proper job was as an electrician’s apprentice. After four months, I was eager to learn more and found a job with a Polish Sub-contractor. One day at a building site in Langley Green, a kind English bricklayer gave me a spare trowel whilst the boss was off site. His exact words were ‘Try your luck with this.’ When the boss returned to see me laying blocks, he saw that I was doing a good job so left me to it!
I worked solidly, teaching myself by reading books at night and by diligently watching others. Before long, my boss trusted me with the trickiest of jobs. I became a self-employed sub-contractor after just two years.
I met a garage owner in Pound Hill and we were discussing our hopes and dreams and he said ‘I know what would make money; a golf driving range.’ My response was ‘What is that?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, but my dad goes to one’. We borrowed £1,000 each and rented 14 acres of woodland in Pease Pottage. I cleared the trees and seeded the grass in three months, and we opened Fairway Golf Driving Range in November 1970. It was the first driving range in the South of England.
We approached Jimmy Tarbuck for the grand opening but his fee was too high, so we made do with Bill Purtwee, who charged us £50. The following year, I built a clubhouse for very little money. It is amazing what you can do with your own two hands! Thankfully, 40 years later, the building is still standing and houses some of my children.
I have never played a game of golf myself, as I’ve never had the time. Yet thanks to my time caddying, I had experience of how a golf course should look and this became my next goal. I acquired 11 acres of land from The Ministry of Defence and in a couple of months, with the help of a tree surgeon friend, I constructed a nine-hole golf course. A golf course is usually built on 50-100 acres of land, so I was delighted when a professional classed it as a ‘miracle’.
I worked from 4am to 11pm, picking up golf balls to clearing up glasses, and acquired many young and willing workers along the way. I still keep in touch with them and to this day they say that the range was the best days of their lives. I went on to build another small golf course in Burstow some years later.
Work can offer so much. Unfortunately, society has changed and personally I do not think it is for the best. Work and the people I have met whilst striving to achieve saved me many years of therapy!
Orphanage life meant you were kept well away from the opposite sex, so I fell in love with the first girl I saw and married her. I had a burning desire to start a family, given my history, and we had one child together. Whilst my experience made me driven and focused, I became a workaholic and this was detrimental to the marriage and we separated. My son, Paul, joined the Lifeguards at the age of 17; I was and still am incredibly proud of him.
I sold my first house in Furnace Green to the Haynes family and we became good friends and work colleagues. The Haynes’ showed me what I had been missing for many years. Even the offer of a cup of tea meant so much. I re-married one of the Haynes daughters, Caroline. Despite a 22-year-age gap we became the greatest team.
Together, we have built three more houses, had four children and have been happily married for 37 years. Who would have thought that I would have gained all this having been left for dead with a bowl of peanuts?
My experience in my younger years led me to strive for things I never had. I’ve had it all; boats, fast cars and motorbikes. All this came through sheer hard graft and I loved every minute of it.
Today, above all I see myself as a provider to my family. I still work seven days a week as it keeps me young, especially when I see my son-in-laws attempt manual work. They can’t keep up with an 81-year-old!
I haven’t detailed some of the more gruesome sights I endured along the way, as I find it very difficult to talk about certain things that happened. My experiences have resulted in me being fiercely protective of my wife, children and three beautiful grandchildren.
I can honestly say I don’t have any need or want for material things in my life anymore. I simply feel blessed with a truly loving family. This, I believe, is my happy ending.