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Extracted from article by Fiona Fitzgibbon in Evening Telegraph 29 October 1980 (by Margaret Jones (Craddock))
Irena Pernak's Story

Irena and Joseph Pernak in 1980
Irena and Joseph Pernak 1980

The Road to Freedom

In 1940 during the Second World War, Irena Pernak was only 14 when she was taken from her Polish home and shipped, like thousands of others, to a Siberian labour camp, near the Arctic Circle. Having been forced into a cattle truck, the ten-day journey to a labour camp in Siberia marked the end of a happy, secure childhood, and the beginning of a struggle for survival.

Conditions at the camp were primitive, with a terrible diet of black bread, beans, boiling water and thin maize soup. Food became an obsession and there was a desire to hold a whole freshly-baked loaf of white bread and eat the lot. On this wretched diet, her work was cutting down trees. People were dying and many became insane.

In the next 7 years her travels took her thousands of miles in exile, from Siberia to the Middle East, before finally reaching Britain in 1947 and ultimately South Avenue, Burton Latimer in 1950.

Irenaand Joseph in 1950
Irena and Joseph in 1950

Irena, an only child, had spent a fairytale childhood with a wealthy family background. Her father was a major in the Polish Army but was killed in the early days of the defence of Warsaw. Her decriptions of her childhood have a fairy-tale quality - the winter landscapes, sledge rides in the snow with her mother warmly tucked under rugs, skating, ski-ing and the breathless anticipation of Christmas. Irena's grandmother was a wealthy woman, and told her grand-daughter she would inherit her wealth. On arrival in Burton Latimer with her Polish husband, Joseph, they had £8 in the bank, half was used to buy a cot for their first child.

Irena knew that she could never return to her hometown of Lwow, which had been swallowed into the Ukraine. Poland was a bloody battleground caught in the crossfire between Russia and Germany. Thousands of teenagers were taken from their homes to work in Russian labour camps. Interrogation by Russian officers took place and the only living things to thrive were fleas.

Eventually, Irena was part of a small group who escaped. They made the long trek across Siberia, scavenging for food, and ended up eventually in Baghdad where she met a Polish soldier, Josef, who became her husband. After the war, Polish refugees such as Josef and Irena Pernak were given the choice of starting a new life in America, Argentina or Britain. They decided to start again in England – and found Burton Latimer. Irena felt that a small part of her always yearned to see her hometown of Lwow again but she could not give up the freedom that is England.

Her legacy is a book she wrote entitled THE RED BEADS describing her extraordinary story, leaving out some of the more horrific details - too painful to recall.

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