Apart from the time when, at the age of four, he unwittingly accepted an orange from a German soldier – much to his mother’s horror – the first few years of war passed almost without incident for Jan Pieńkowski. In fact, he remembers those years as uncannily tranquil. His father, Jerzy, had managed to get a job running a farm in remote countryside west of Warsaw, then part of the Reich. As gentry, the family had decided to take their chances in the German zone, fleeing the Soviets in September 1939. But Jan had no recollection of that upheaval. To him, the world at large offered a never-ending pageant of delights, with the woods, the pond and the blacksmith’s shop. Every now and again, his father would bring an injured deer or fox from the forest, and these embattled creatures soon became much-loved pets. For the future illustrator of fairy tales, the winters were indescribably wondrous, the silhouettes of the sunlit woodland clearings weaving a potent spell. However, one particular winter, a few months after his seventh birthday, a sudden change broke the illusion:
“It was in the afternoon, and there was snow on the ground,” he recalls, the twinkle vanishing from his eyes.
“My father went to the little town. And then, just before I went to bed, the chap who drove him came back with the horses – but without my father.
“He gave me a parcel wrapped up in brown paper: it was a little wooden train. And I remember being terribly upset, because my father hadn’t come back. I didn’t know why I was upset, or why I was alarmed, but I was. I realised that something very serious had happened. I said to my mother: ‘I don’t want a train – I want my father.’ And that’s when it started.”
What had in fact happened was that Jerzy Pieńkowski had gone into hiding with fellow members of Poland’s Resistance. It was 1944, and the final reckoning with the occupying regime was at hand. But at that time, neither parent could have known the details of “Operation Tempest”. When Jan and his mother moved to Warsaw in the Spring of 1944, they were unwittingly moving into the eye of the storm.
The 1st of August 1944 was a beautifully sunny day. A little before five o’ clock, Jan and his mother were walking home down Nowy Świat, the elegant street which had been the city’s most fashionable strip before the war.
“We stopped on the corner where there was quite a nice cake shop. We went in and my mother bought some pastries. There was a shot, and some kind of commotion in Nowy Świat. A woman ran into the shop looking rather flustered, and said: ‘Ohhh – a tyre has burst in Świętokrzyska’ and people began running about as if it was the end of the world.
“My mother just took hold of my hand and said: ‘Come on, we’re leaving,’ and didn’t say anything. We just went back at a brisk pace, to our flat in Okólnik, round the corner.”
The night before, Poland’s underground leader, General Tadeusz Komorowski – codename “Bór” – had decreed that five o’ clock was to be “W-hour” of Operation Tempest. A few minutes before the clocks struck, thousands of young men across the city slipped red and white Polish bands over their arms. Some sported home-made uniforms, and above all, illicitly made guns and grenades. Others carried weapons that had been hidden since the outbreak of war in 1939. Nazi checkpoints across Warsaw were stormed. Within just a couple of hours, an utterly unthinkable transformation had occurred – the lion’s share of the city centre was back in Polish hands. The greatest resistance battle of the war had begun. Although Jan did not know it yet, his own father was already commanding a unit.
“It was like magic,” Pieńkowski recalls.”Red and white flags appeared in practically every window – people must have had them hidden away. It was a party atmosphere, you know. It was a lovely hot summer evening – it was wonderful. On the first or second floor of the music conservatory across the street there was a piano nobile, and there were windows onto a balcony – big French windows: they were open – ”
He breaks off suddenly, putting his hand to his eyes, as if blinded by the memories. Tears start to roll down his cheeks. But after a moment, he continues,
“Somebody played the ‘Military Polonaise’ (which was not allowed during the war. You were not allowed to play Chopin.) It came hurtling out over the ruins of the circus; everybody shut up – even the people building a barricade out of the paving stones. I shall always remember that moment. It was a wonderful thing when it started.
“And of course it got worse and worse.”
I met Jan Pieńkowski in the leafy London suburb of Barnes, where he has lived for most of the last 50 years. From afar, his Victorian house looks like any other lining the sleepy street on which he has made his home. But above the porch, the normally flaky white stone-work has been painted anew in brilliant red, green and gold leaf. From amidst carved oak leaves, a bearded face peers out of the plaster like the Ghost of Christmas Present.
Inside, the house is no less beguiling, as one would secretly hope for from one of Britain’s most celebrated illustrators. A stately brood of black bantam hens proceeds across the garden, with all the dignity of a Victorian funeral march.
The artist himself is a beam of warmth and ebullience, taking immense delight in answering queries about curious family heirlooms. We talk in his white studio on the top floor, which is cluttered with books, sketches and press cuttings.
In conversation, affection for his late parents repeatedly comes to the fore – his practical, competent mother, and his steadfast father, who in a different life would have been most happy at home in the fields. Forty-four years old when the Rising broke out, Jerzy Pieńkowski was already a veteran of the Polish-Soviet War of 1920. His calm, extremely modest manner would have provided a reassuring presence for his troops on the barricades: “He was a very honest man, that shone out of him – it was obvious,” Jan concludes.
Talking about the Rising, the memories tumble in at tangents. An enduring recollection, and a harbinger for the artist’s later life, comes from the first couple of days of the conflict, when women and children were encouraged to seek shelter in cellars in case of bombs. One evening, a soldier came in very tired to rest. Yet before long, he had begun entertaining the children, cutting out little animals from paper, and making them stand up in an ingenious way.
“I’ll never forget that,” Pieńkowski says. “In fact, in many ways, that was the beginning of my silhouette career.”
Even in such a conflict, there were moments of comedy, and he roars with laughter remembering a friend who once accidentally carried an enormous piece of equipment down the wrong side of a barricade into enemy lines – much to the surprise of the Germans. Mercifully, that friend survived. But as the recollections continue, and the inevitability of the insurgents’ plight gathers, his eyes glaze over, as if peering through a cloud of smoke.
On 3 August, two days into the Rising, Jan’s mother decided to leave the cellars. She reasoned that the Germans would be characteristically systematic in their bombing plan and that they were not going to just suddenly drop a bomb at random. So she took him back to their flat for daily baths, and they watched the planes destroying the city, street by street – there was no anti-aircraft defence.
Young Pieńkowski continued to play with his friends. To their eyes, the distant explosions often seemed like a kind of almighty fire-work display. When his eighth birthday came on 8 August, he was actually living in an island of free Poland. He remembers picking up cartridges with other boys, and larking about in the ruins of the circus, which had been destroyed at the outbreak of war in 1939. But just a few blocks away, a battle was raging.
German reprisals to the revolt were swift. Reinforcements began to arrive on 4 August, and the following day, the Wehrmacht retook the district of Wola. In a calculated attempt to crush the Poles’ spirits, SS units went from house to house slaughtering men, women and children. By 8 August, over 30,000 civilians had been butchered.
The fighting continued from street to street. The Germans bombarded strongholds with heavy artillery, but the Poles dug themselves in. Front lines shifted, and the insurgents learnt to use sewers as escape routes.
On 24 August, a British officer who had escaped a German prisoner-of-war camp and joined the Polish Underground Army (AK), sent a telegram to the British authorities:
“Today, a battle is going on that I think is very difficult for the British nation to understand. It is a battle that is being carried on by the civilian population as well as by the AK. It is total warfare. Every street in the city has been a battlefield. Normal life is at a complete standstill.”
The Polish command had estimated that the Rising could last about eight days unaided. The Russians, technically allies of the Poles and the British, had advanced to the fringe of Warsaw. The Red Army had sent communiqués urging the Poles to rise. But as soon as the battle started, Stalin backtracked. The Russian leader had already eliminated 22,000 Polish officers in the Katyń crime, blaming this on the Germans. Now, in Warsaw, the Nazis really could do his dirty work for him. RAF planes were prevented from landing on Soviet airfields, crippling aid efforts from the air. What was supposed to be a six-day operation would become a 63-day ordeal that would leave the entire city aflame.
“It didn’t come to us until the end of the month,” Pieńkowski recalls.
Every morning throughout August, he rose and looked out of the window onto the twin onion domes of the Holy Cross, their parish church.
“Then one morning, lo and behold, it had gone,” he says. “The handsome domes weren’t there. The church stood – it was just the towers that had gone. But I remember the shock of the sky with the hole in it.”
It was around this time that his father suddenly reappeared. The artist remembers an earnest conversation between the two parents. “My men are dwindling,” is the awful phrase that echoes down from that brief encounter.
On 2 September, the Old Town was on the brink of falling. The Home Army evacuated 1,500 people – including 500 on stretchers – down a single manhole. They trudged four miles through sewage to safety.
Soon afterwards, the Pieńkowskis, now all together, left their apartment. They spent a few nights in Foksal Street in a ruined garage that had been bombed in 1939. Much of the roof had gone, and at night, the eight-year-old boy gazed out through a grid of concrete beams.
“If I didn’t sleep, there would be searchlights, and they would be the allies, probably the British, dropping supplies,” he remembers.
Because of the fast-changing lines, many of the drops fell on the wrong side. “But it gave people a lot of heart – that we had allies,” he recalls.
Amongst the most dreaded attacks came from a new type of missile launcher, dubbed the cow, because of the bellowing wail that preceded each hit.
“It was like napalm. Whatever it landed on caught fire – whether it was a tree, a pavement, a person – everything burst into flames.”
Opposite the ruined garage was a field hospital in a former mansion. A white circle had been painted on the roof, and a cross of red tiles had been left untouched to denote medical status. In the garden, dozens of little wooden crosses marked the graves of fallen soldiers.
“And then one of these shells hit that hospital and absolutely everything burnt,” Pieńkowski recalls, with a look of shock. “And I remember my father’s eyebrows got singed by the fire, it was so close. And the whole place just burnt to the ground.”
The macabre image of the little crosses burning remains etched in his memory. All the while, his mother tried to muffle his ears in a bid to drown out the terrible cries of the wounded.
The ordeal of the non-combatants crowded together, panicking, and trampling over each other, endures as one of his most dreaded memories of the Rising.
By the end of September, the human toll had become biblical. 30,000 resistance fighters and about 200,000 civilians had perished – a huge proportion of the population of Warsaw. Truce talks began. Churchill and the Poles insisted that the AK fighters be granted full status as prisoners of war. Civilians were to be treated humanely. The final capitulation was signed on 2 October, a full two months after the outbreak. The entire city was to be evacuated.
“We went back to our own apartment to see if it was still standing,” Pieńkowski recalls. “And it was. But everybody had been evacuated. It was the city of the dead.”
Walking into the courtyard of their house, there was silence. Some smoke was filtering out of a couple of windows on the top floor. In the middle of the courtyard there was nothing but a dead dog.
Almost immediately after the capitulation, the family reported to the nearby church of the Holy Trinity. There they joined a wave of evacuees.
“My mother, with her practical instincts, managed to secure a confessional. And we were huddled together there with our bundles of food and clothes.”
A family friend, Dr. Krynski, a diabetic, was with them, and Jan remembers cringing at the continual round of injections.
“And the following day, we walked out of Warsaw. And we walked and we walked….”
After some time, the evacuees past what had been the Jewish quarter, which the Germans had turned into a walled ghetto. The tormented inhabitants had also risen up, before being brutally crushed in May 1943.
“And I remember this desolate landscape, with just the chimneys standing up. It was like a picture by Salvador Dali. Just the chimneys. Nothing at all.”
Eventually they neared the vast marshalling yards of Pruszków. About 450,000 civilians would pass through this camp. Some would be set free, others would be sent to labour camps. Yet first there was a selection procedure to funnel off the healthy, single men. And it was here that disaster struck.
Before the family had time to find their feet, Jan’s father had been singled out. It was a crushing moment. Once again, Jan’s mother was struck by the terrible notion that she might never see her husband again, even after all the tribulations of the Rising.
Two rivers of people were now made to walk side by side between a high fence of barbed wire. As the lines moved on, a vista opened up. Frantically scanning the faces, Jan’s mother caught a glimpse of her husband again. She cried out his name.
Within an instant, Jerzy was clambering over the barbed wire. Shots were fired. But he made it over, disappearing into the river of evacuees.
The family was reunited, and at Pruszków, they were confronted by scores of sheds, amongst which tens of thousands of nervous, hungry and exhausted people were milling around, wondering what lay in store. Between the rails, there were pits for the maintenance men to do their work.
“We slept in these pits between the rails, waiting for the morning so that we could get on the train and go to wherever we were going.”
Occasionally, there would be panic, with people shrieking of gas attacks. However, Jan’s mother was determined that the following morning, they would find a way to stay together.
“So my mother somehow created a kind of false pregnancy, by putting a lot of clothes around her middle. And then my father had me by the hand. And I remember my mother covering his head with some of the precious flour that she had in her food store, to make him look like an old man. So my father was my guardian, and therefore he wouldn’t go. And she was a pregnant woman, so she wasn’t suitable.”
Mercifully, the ruse worked.
“And then we got on a train – open cattle trucks: open to the blue sky. I remember this little girl in a light frock. She must have been about six or seven, just a little bit younger than me: she was being passed from one carriage to the next. She had obviously lost her family.
“That vision – the hands, and the little child in the pretty frock against the blue sky – the sheer awfulness. I hope that she found her father.”
The train was bound west for the town of Częstochowa. The war still had eight months left to run, and Hitler had given the order that what remained of Warsaw was to be burnt to the ground. But Germany was increasingly enfeebled. At that time, thousands of people were being used as unpaid labourers by the Reich. And through a relative in Vienna, Jan’s father found a job on a farm in Austria, near Rosenheim. As the Russian front approached, the Pieńkowskis went west to Bavaria. Once again there was a narrow escape. The day after their train pulled out of Rosenheim, Allied planes carpet-bombed the town.
On arrival in the village of Rottach am Tegernsee, it soon became apparent why an unpaid Slav workforce was so needed in the Reich. There was not a single man left – just women, old men and children. Jan’s father worked on the farm, and his mother worked in the kitchens.
“It was the only time my mother stole anything in her whole life,” he smiles, recalling her successful attempts to smuggle bread out the kitchen.
One day in early May 1945, Jan’s father was cycling down a lane when a Jeep swept past out of the blue, knocking him to the ground. The fall fractured a bone in his leg. But in the overall scheme of things, it was a small price to pay – the Jeep was American. Liberation had come. The war was over.
“And the next thing we knew, a staff car arrived, like in a fairy tale, and took us away.”
Throughout the war, Mrs. Pieńkowski had been sending food parcels to some Polish officers who had been imprisoned in a PoW camp at Murnau in Bavaria since 1939. With them, the family was given passage to the Free Polish Army in Italy.
These troops, led by General Anders, had suffered greatly under Stalin at the outbreak of war, and few would elect to go back to Poland while the Red Army was there. Churchill, deeply compromised by his deals with Russia, appreciated this, and saw to it that the Poles were invited to reside in Britain.
Yet after the horrors of Warsaw, this new lease of life in Italy seemed like paradise to the eight-and-a-half-year-old Jan Pieńkowski.
“I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. But I knew that it didn’t involve going back to Poland. This was it. Fate had dealt me this hand. Here I was in these beautiful countries – with mountains and the sea. With these monuments and great works of art. By an incredible stroke of good fortune my great adventure had begun.”
Jan’s father accepted the invitation to Great Britain. Not long afterwards, the young boy was offered a place at a British boarding school near the Welsh border. On his first day, his father asked the headmaster if they had any other foreign boys.
“Well yes, we do actually,” the headmaster replied in all earnestness. “There is one boy, Richards. He’s from Wales.”
Speaking barely a word of English, this new life was something of a shock, but he settled in, ultimately winning an exhibition to study Classics and Literature at King’s College, Cambridge. He was convinced of his vocation, to become an artist, and in 1971, he scooped the prestigious Kate Greenaway Award for illustration. Since then he has never looked back.
For colleagues unaware of his wartime odyssey, it might appear that the artist – a decidedly warm-hearted and cheery host – has lived a charmed life. Like a character from one of the fairy tales that he has illustrated with such panache, he managed to survive a childhood riven by ordeals. Over the years, he has won numerous awards, gathering fans from far-flung shores. Above all, he has been blessed with an enduring creative and spiritual companionship of a kind that eludes most couples. Yet today, the world he was born into has largely vanished.
I look out beyond the window, into the splendid garden. Later, as we walk down the stairs, I spot a small black and white picture on the stairs. It is of a manor house, of the modest, low key Polish type. Here too, a rambling garden fans out from the facade. It was his father’s house. Today, nothing of the building remains, but the park and the sweeping view over the River Bug survive.
Above: Jan Pieńkowski with General Anders in Italy (1945)