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"A PERSON THAT SAVED AT LEAST ONE LIFE WAS NOT BORN FOR NOTHING"

The saga of van der Coghen family


Saga (word originating from Old Norse) is an old Scandinavian tale about legendary or historical Viking families, their travels and migrations. With time, the historical truth mixed with legends passed through the word of mouth from generation to generation...

 

The saga presented below is a tale for a long, winter evening.

It is a story of a family from the North that 200 years ago chose Poland as their new homeland and remained faithful to it, for better and for worse, sacrificing the family members’ safety and even lives...

 

OLD TIMES

 

The legend says that the van der Coghen family can be traced back to Vikings – warlike and courageous sailors that settled on the European shores, led by trade, exploration and conquest. One of such places was Ireland, where the van der Coghens assimilated and created their ancestral seat – a small, fortified castle up on the high seaside rocks. That castle bears their name and exists until today. The family made a living on sailing, trade and battles, which was a common mixture at that time, and that is where the etymology of their name can be found. According to the family tradition, Coghen (pronounced Kogen) comes from the noun koga, meaning a large, armed sailing ship, well adjusted to trade and battles.

 

The legend says that some of the family members, who were courageous and wise knights, were even awarded Peerage of Ireland (which gave them power over the country at that time). However, as the country was harassed by religious and civil wars, some members of the pugnacious family died in battles and the rest of them left the British Isles and settled in the Low Countries (on the territory of today’s Belgium). There, they were acknowledged as knights and a prefix characteristic of Flanders – van der was added to their name (it functions as endings such as –ski or –wicz function in Polish surnames).

 

      Now in Flanders, the dynamic family of van der Coghens again proved knowledgeable, determined and involved in the public affairs. One of them, Jacques-Andre van der Coghen became the Minister of Treasury and member of the Provisional Government of the newly formed Kingdom of Belgium. This outstanding statesman and efficient diplomat created an innovative monetary system for Belgium that stabilised the economy of this young country for a long time (information about that can be found in contemporary Belgian encyclopaedias).

It can be also found in the historical sources that in recognition of his unique diplomatic merits for peace and for the European development, the Pope awarded him and his descendants with the title of a Count and with a motto Sine labore nihil (Nothing without work), awarding of which was confirmed by an edict of Leopold I, King of Belgium.

 

IN THE POLISH KRESY (EAST BORDERLANDS), 200 YEARS AGO

 

      If we look at the Eastern Europe at that time, we will see the Napoleon Bonaparte’s great army marching towards Moscow in 1812, and in that army a Belgian officer van der Coghen. During the army’s retreat the officer became wounded in a battle on the territory of Lithuania and rescued from Russians in a Polish country manor. As he came back to health, he married the Polish noble lady who had saved and cured him (there exists a Polish film Wierna rzeka by Tadeusz Chmielewski that conveys the atmosphere of those times, although the ending there is more dramatic).

 

That Napoleonic officer was obviously perceived as a Russia’s enemy so he and his family were at risk of being deported to Siberia. Because of that they had to flee from Lithuania to the southern borderland of Poland that was under the Austrian partition (today’s Ukraine).

 

Years have passed. Descendants of this officer were among the Polish landed gentry in the Galicia-Volhynia region. Van der Coghens lived among Ukrainians, who constituted the majority of peasants that lived on their land. Although the family was deeply Catholic, every Sunday they took part in a mass in a local Orthodox church, as the closest Catholic church was two days of travel away – a travel in a cart and through wilderness...

 

What remained in the family from those times, in a family that is deeply Catholic and cultivates Polish independence traditions, is a great tolerance for people of different faith and a kind interest in foreign traditions, music and cuisine; especially Russian, Ukrainian, German and Jewish.

 

What we know for sure, is that in the 19th century Count Stefan van der Coghen was in possession of a significant estate and that his son, Stanisław Zygmunt, was born on 31st October 1890 in Dobromil, in the province of Lviv.

 

As Galicia belonged to the Austrian partition, Stanisław Zygmunt was called up for military service in the Austrian army, which he completed in the Alps, in the excellent alpine rifleman’s force. After demobilisation he attended Collegium Medicum of the Jagiellonian Univeristy. He married Janina (Joanna) Rutkowska and their son, Stanisław Maria van der Coghen, was born in Vienna on 1st March 1915. Unfortunately, their younger son died at the age of 3 because of pneumonia (although his father was a doctor he was unable to save him as Penicillin had not been known yet...).

 

In 1917 the October Revolution broke out. The van der Coghen family lost their estate in Ukraine and fled, leaving behind graves of their beloved ones and the results of work of many generations. During the revolution they moved to Vienna and then to Kraków.

 

In 1918 Stanisław van der Coghen took active part in the Greater Poland Uprising, where he received the rank of Captain.

 

At the beginnings of the Second Polish Republic (1918-1939) the van der Coghens moved to Poznań, where Stanisław van der Coghen became a military doctor in the Polish Army and later the health service director of the Polish Railways (PKP). At the same time, as a known cardiologist, he ran an individual medical practice. In his work he combined being a learned doctor and an intuitive psychologist, which gave great results and brought him fame of a gifted diagnostician.

 

In 1920 Stanisław van der Coghen, as an Officer of the Polish Army, took part in the Polish-Soviet War. After the victory he was awarded with military honours.

 

His son, Stanisław Maria, after finishing high school was admitted on medical studies that he had to quit in 1938 because of the growing danger of war. As many other Polish patriots, he volunteered to the army and as a Sergeant Officer Cadet he became part of the 14th Regiment of Ułani Jazłowieccy.

 

 

POLAND IN BETWEEN THE SOVIETS AND THE NAZIS

 

At the outbreak of the World War II Doctor Stanisław Zygmunt van der Coghen, the commander of the Polish field hospital, together with his son Stanisław, a medic and officer cadet had been stationing in his unit, moved the military hospital east, away from the Nazis. On 17th September Poland was attacked by the Soviets. The hospital was taken by Russian troops that collaborated with the Nazis in their aggression on Poland. The interned Polish soldiers were packed like cattle into the freight cars and transported deep into Russia. The journey took many days. On one night a couple of young officers (including Officer Cadet van der Coghen) decided to flee. They torn out a couple of boards from the car’s side and jumped from the running train into the darkness. Luckily, the Russian guards were drunk and shot blindly. In this way a few soldiers managed to save their lives.

 

     Still, the train continued its journey to one of the Soviet lagers, with Doctor Stanisław Zygmunt van der Coghen on board. As a respected doctor and officer he became a member of the Polish Camp Council which enabled him to represent the soldiers bravely in front of the Soviet guards and to demand treatment that was in accordance with the international law on prisoners-of-war.

 

In spite of those demands, soon - in 1940, he was murdered together with other soldiers by a shot in the back of his head, in Twer, in the province of Moscow, by the NKVD. For the Russians it did not matter that he was a doctor. He was murdered because he was a Polish officer faithful to his country till the end.

Today he is officially one of the victims of Miednoje, where he was buried in a mass grave (on which trees were planted to conceal the burial place).

 

(Many years later, in the Third Polish Republic, he was posthumously ranked Lieutenant Colonel and awarded the highest Polish military decoration – the Virtuti Militari Order by the Polish President Lech Kaczyński.

Teenagers from a Lower Silesian city of Międzyborze honoured his memory in 2007 with a memorial stone commemorating his martyrdom and a specially planted memorial oak in front of their school...)

 

 

Lieutenant Colonel Stanisław Zygmunt van der Coghen

Murdered by the NKVD in Twer by a shot in the back of his head in April 1940.

He was 50 years old.

He is buried in the Polish Officer’s grave in Miednoje.

 


OCCUPATION OF POLAND – TIME OF HONOUR

 

      Among the prisoners that managed to run away from the train was his son, Officer Cadet Stanisław Maria van der Coghen, who after many adventures managed to get to Kraków. There, he opened a colonial goods warehouse VANCO. The company was ranked as useful for the Germany’s economy (Thanks to that the company’s workers had documents that did not arise Nazis’ interest, which was very important as they were mostly Polish officers and soldiers, members of the AK - Polish underground forces).

 

Stanisław, who has never been submissive, took active part in the subversive warfare. It became a family legend how he and his friends from the underground forces, dressed up as Gestapo soldiers and speaking fluent German, managed to get through the Nazi’s round-up in Kraków. They were even as brave and impudent as to escort a few British parachuters, whom the Nazis were madly looking for.

 

At that time Stanisław met his future wife, Ewa Brzostyńska, who was part of the underground Polish Scouting Association, Szare Szeregi. She was the youngest daughter of a judge, notary and vice-president of the Court of Appeal in Katowice, Adam Brzostyński, who was then arrested by Gestapo and imprisoned in Wiśnicz. She was also a niece of the commander of the conspiracy scouting association Szare Szeregi in Kraków, Scoutmaster Serewyn Udziela, who was captured by Gestapo and tortured to death in the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1941. Her sister, Halina Brzostyńska, who was a nurse in the Szare Szeregi, later took part in the Warsaw Uprising (1944).

 

 Headstone of Seweryn Udziela (29.06.1911 – 07.10.1941)

 

 

      Unfortunately, the prosperous VANCO warehouse was unmasked by the Nazi’s informers. Stanisław van der Coghen was not warned in time and was arrested while preparing to flee to the AK partisans, and put in the Montelupich prison. He survived the long and brutal questioning of the Gestapo soldiers, during which they tried to force him to sign the Reichlist and collaborate with the Nazis. Stanisław, as a person born in Vienna, was perceived as a member of the Great German Nation. Apart from that, he also spoke a few languages, among them fluent German. Still, Stanisław definitely declined the Gestapo’s offers and in an insulting way. For that he was tortured and sent to the concentration camp (most probably in Płaszów or Auchwitz).

 

When the commanders of the concentration camp realised that he was a medic and apart from that he spoke fluent German, French, Ukrainian, Yiddish and Hebrew, they made him the camp’s doctor, the director of the Polish hospital in the camp (since then he wore a band with an inscription Polnische Arzt).

 

Stanisław, together with other imprisoned medics, very often distinguished doctors and university lecturers (mostly Jewish), heroically tried to save prisoners’ lives in terrible conditions and with no medication whatsoever. They tried to save the Jews who were tortured, ill, starving and who most often died in their hands.

 

The shock of camp imprisonment was so great that Stanisław, who was miraculously saved, never worked as a medic again. Still, even many years after the war, there were letters coming for him from co-prisoners who had survived the camp, from Israel, the USA and other countries of the world, addressed to dr. med Stanisław van der Coghen, which astounded his children who did not know the occupation history of their father which was a family taboo, about which one should not talk and should not ask...

 

THE DIFFICULT POST-WAR TIMES

 

      When the World War II was over, Stanisław van der Coghen married Ewa Brzostyńska, a former scout of the Szare Szeregi. During wartime the families of both lost virtually everything, apart from their independence traditions and pride of the families’ past.

 

They deeply believed that the Soviet occupation of Poland was only temporary and so decided to spend it outside Kraków. They moved to Krynica-Zdrój, in the Polish mountains, to a wooden villa Biała Róża (White Rose), where Stanisław had been invited by a co-prisoner in the concentration camp, the owner of the villa. However, the friend disappeared without a trace and never returned from war to his beloved mountains.

 

It is in Biała Róża that Stanisław and Ewa’s children were born: daughter Anna Monika (in 1950), son Piotr Artur (in 1953) and another daughter Rita Astrid (in 1956). Their parents made a living on running a Celerin cafe in Bulwary Dietla, in the centre on Krynica-Zdrój, and a small, roadside restaurant Cichy Kącik. They managed to create a unique, intimate atmosphere typical of the east Polish borderlands, which made the places popular among the cultural elite of the times: actors, writers and poets. It is said that the cafe was popular with Władysław Broniewski, Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński or Julian Tuwim, and in front of the cafe Nikifor Krynicki was painting his pictures...

 

In the meantime Ewa was running the household and working as a sport instructor in a figure skating club in Krynica-Zdrój.

 

But the communist authorities did not let them live peacefully. A former AK soldier, fugitive from Katyń, running his own business and living close to the border... The authorities could not allow it. The family was deprived of the cafe and of the house and so harassed by the communists that they decided to leave the mountains...

 

Stanisław was still persecuted for his past and ruined by the revenue office that was against all private business. He could not accept the criminal, communist reality of the post-war Poland and emigrated to the USA, where he worked as a physical worker.

 

As it possible that the person harassed by the secret police UB received a passport? Reportedly one of his fellow prisoners was someone who after the war became one of the most famous communist activists of PRL... informally in the family legend says that it was Joseph Cyrankiewicz (who was –like Stanisław – pre-war member of PPS) who was in 1947 the Prime Minister of the Government of PRL.

 

Their paths diverged because of the tragic events in Katyn but shared memories meant that Stanisław received permission to leave the country.


 

In the meantime, Ewa received a post of an instructor-coordinator and a sport journalist. The family started moving from one city to the other. Ewa held three jobs at a time and was mostly absent at home, sometimes 20 hours a day. She wrote articles, run a sport radio programme Runda z piosenką and worked in sport clubs training sportsmen and young instructors. Her success of that time was to become an international sport figure skating referee, training skaters to win the Polish Championship and becoming the instructor of the national Polish team.

 

Stanisław was able to come back to Poland only in 1970, during the Gierek’s thaw and became a head of the sports and recreation centre (OSiR) in Gliwice. However, during the exile (he knew six languages fluently and in many others he was communicative) he acquired a passion for travelling. Although he had no money, he travelled all around the world: by hitchhiking, train, ship, on foot and with a backpack. He executed his travelling plans with great consequence and determination, sending fascinating accounts of his travels from far-away countries.

 

Unfortunately, in 1979 (a year before retirement), he died unexpectedly because of cancer. He died as a senior of the family, a former Officer of the Polish Army of the Second Republic, a participant of the September Campaign of 1939, a fugitive from a Soviet transport to Katyń, a madly brave soldier of the Polish Underground Forces (AK), an altruistic doctor-prisoner of a Nazi concentration camp, an American physical worker and a person in love with sea and New York, a traveller and globetrotter.

 

Ewa moved to Katowice where she retired and became an active member of Klub Inteligencji Katolickiej (Catholic Intelligentsia Club) and of the University of the Third Age. She wrote articles and did charity and palliative work for the elderly, with whom she shared her great, unremitting energy and liveliness.

 

Ewa and Stanisław are my parents.

 

POST SCRIPTUM...

 

Do I want to take revenge on the Ukrainians, who robbed our family’s possession in the east borderlands, the work of many generations, and who made us flee from that land?

Do I want to take revenge on the Russians, who killed my grandfather only because he was a Pole, and who hunted my father as if he was an animal?

 Do I want to take revenge on the Germans, who in the Montelupich Gestapo prison in Kraków and in the concentration camp broke out my father’s teeth and damaged his kidney?

 Do I want to take revenge on the Polish communists and members of the secret police, who wasted the best years of my parents’ lives?

 

No I don’t, as hatred is not a solution.

I prefer my children and grandchildren to make friends with Russians, Germans or Ukrainians and to compete only in sport or in business.

I also prefer them to live in a country where the philosophy of life is a private matter of each person, a topic for a debate; where people can choose whether they feel closer to the right or the left wing.

 

I would like them to live in a country where no one will ever make people hate and be afraid of one another.

 

A Polish left-wing poet Władysław Broniewski, who liked to come for a drink to my parents’ cafe in Krynica-Zdrój, wrote a beautiful, emotional poem about the outbreak of the WWII, called Słońce Września. There, he predicted that a time will come when justice and peace will be returned, Poland will reunite with its former aggressors and the horrors of the wartime will only be preserved by the new generations in songs and legends.

 

Now comes the time of the new generations who want to learn, love and live...