Lidia Ciolkosz

Obituary, The Times Online, 28 June 2002

Socialist influence in Poland's wartime Government in Exile who lived on to see the end of communism

Lidia Ciolkosz, who died just two weeks short of her 100th birthday, was from her earliest student days in Poland a democratic socialist opposed to totalitarian communism and to fascism in all its forms.

She was born Lidia Kahan in 1902 into a Jewish family loyal to a Poland which had for 100 years been absent from the maps of Europe as a nation state. She was brought up under Russian tsarist rule in Lodz, other areas of Poland being under Habsburg or German rule.

Shortly after Poland regained its independence in 1918 she became a student at the Jagiellonian University, Cracow, Poland's premier university, founded in 1364. There she read Polish literature.

In 1925 she married Adam Ciolkosz, thereafter dedicating her life to him, to the Polish Socialist Movement (PPS) and to the Polish working class. She organised workers' classes and holiday camps for their children, with priority always given to the poorest, the children of strikers and of those in prison. She abhorred any discrimination against the children of communists \u2014 something frequently encountered in a generally fanatically anti-Soviet Poland \u2014 in spite of her own disagreements with communism's authoritarian tenets.

Adam Ciolkosz was from 1931 to 1939 on the executive committee of the PPS and was a member of the Sejm, Poland's parliament. When he was for a time imprisoned for purportedly anti-state activities Lidia took over his political work. From 1934 she was a member of the central committee of the PPS.

In September 1939 she found herself again under Russian rule after Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had invaded and partitioned Poland. While her husband had managed to escape to France, where Poland's Government in Exile was forming, her first attempt to follow him was thwarted.

Captured with her ten-year-old son on the Romanian frontier, she was taken for questioning before a Russian colonel, fortunately not an NKVD man. During this inquisition her child began to cry, whereupon she was dismissed with the injunction not to try anything so foolish again.

Sadly for her, this very son, Andrzej, a talented linguist and graduate of Oriel College, Oxford, was to die by his own hand in England after the war.

However, their next attempt to escape, via Lithuania and Sweden, was successful and they were able to rejoin Adam in France.

After the fall of that country in June 1940 they moved to England where, once again, the Polish Government in Exile and its military were being reformed under General Wladislaw Sikorski.

While Adam was often critical of the Polish Government in Exile, Lidia was given the important (to the Poles) role in the Ministry of Information of liaison with British left-wing opinion-makers and the trade union movement. Under the ministry's aegis, the publishing house Democratic Press and Liberty Publications was set up, its pamphlets attracting contributions from such notable British socialists as Philip Noel-Baker, Jim Griffiths and Arthur Greenwood.

These aimed to present a Polish point of view to a left-wing audience, but this task became somewhat difficult when in June 1941 Hitler turned on his erstwhile ally Stalin and any criticism of Soviet communism was seen as disloyal to the common cause.

The Democratic Press and Liberty Publications continued to function under Adam and Lidia Ciolkosz after British Government recognition of the Polish Government in Exile was withdrawn in 1945 in the wake of the Yalta agreement. One of its publications was The Curtain Falls: the Story of Socialism in Eastern Europe (1951). Among contributions from Polish, Hungarian and Czechoslovak socialists was one from Denis Healey.

Like some 140,000 of their compatriots Adam and Lidia had chosen exile in Britain rather than return to a Soviet-dominated Poland. Most of these exiles were veterans who had fought under British command in North Africa, the Italian campaign, in North West Europe, in the air with the Polish squadrons that served with the RAF, and at sea in surface ships and submarines. For the most part these were peasants and smallholders who had been ethnically cleansed from Poland's eastern territories in 1940 and 1941 with some 1.5 million other Poles. They had survived the gulags and after Germany attacked the Soviet Union were allowed out of the country as a result of the Sikorski-Maisky Pact to join Polish forces already formed in the West.

Unfortunately for the many working- class socialist spirits among these exiles, the British trade union movement was often hostile, rejecting the Polish account of the nature of Soviet communism. For long in the British Labour ranks Stalin was still regarded as good old Uncle Joe, and it was not until the Hungarian uprising of 1956 that attitudes began to change.

The Ciolkoszes' modest terrace house in Putney became a place of pilgrimage for dissident Polish trade union activists and democrats of all persuasions. For this, they were constantly vilified by the Polish communist authorities. Nevertheless they continued their activities in the PPS, never losing sight of their original socialist goals. At their meetings the Red Flag and the Internationale continued to be sung with gusto \u2014 a fact not, perhaps, generally associated with the perceived image of Poles in exile.

They continued, too, to be active in the Polish Government in Exile which, though often derided as quixotic, kept the faith until it symbolically handed back the insignia of power to Lech Walesa in Poland in 1990. In 1992 Lydia's 90th birthday was celebrated in the Polish Embassy in London, with Walesa sending his congratulations as a Polish labourer, trade union activist and working-class President of Poland.

In her eighties, in what was a continuing journey of faith, Lidia converted to Roman Catholicism. She would have liked to have done it earlier, but did not want to betray her Jewish roots while her people were most at risk.

Before her death she donated her large library and archive, accumulated over the years and filling her small house to the very eaves, to the Jagiellonian University. In Poland, too, a children's foundation was set up in her and Adam's names. He had predeceased her in 1978.

Lidia Ciolkosz, Polish democratic socialist, was born in Tomaszow Lubelski, on June 24, 1902. She died in London on June 7, 2002, aged 99.