Ilford historian weeps for dad who stood up to Nazi evil
- Credit: Archant
He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply before beginning the story of how his beloved father escaped the Nazi concentration camps after being captured by the Russian army.
Born in 1916 to a Jewish family, Mendel Popinski - the father of Ilford Historical Society chairman, Jef Page -grew up in a town called in Brzeziny, Poland.
At age 23, by the time the Second World War had broken out, Mendel’s town had been “annihilated”.
“Everybody had either been moved out or killed,” said Jef.
Mendel had joined a Polish reserve army to try and fight the Nazis. It was no use, the soldiers had to retreat eastwards.
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While doing so, the Russians invaded the country from the east, under 1939’s Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact - a non-aggression treaty between the then Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and the German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop,
“My father was captured by the Russians and sent to Siberia and was there between 1939 - 1941,” said Jef.
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“He was lucky to a certain extent because if he was an officer he would have been shot in Katyn.”
The “Katyn Massacre” was a number of mass executions of Polish nationals carried out by the Soviet secret police in April and May 1940.
All captive members of the “Polish Officer Corps” were murdered - the number is estimated at 22,000.
“When he and the other reservists got to Siberia, they had to build their own concentration camp and there was little or no food,” says Jef.
“One day, someone stole his bread and he picked up a knife and threatened them to get his bread back because he was so hungry.”
Overcome with emotion at the thought of his dear dad in such hardship, Jef pauses as tears spring to his eyes.
“It isn’t clear what happened to his family,” Jef carries on. “Either they died in one of the camps like Auschwitz or didn’t even make that far.”
Jef’s father struggled throughout his life to talk about the painful memories of his family - as only he survived.
“All of a sudden in June 1941, the Germans invaded Russia breaking the pact. The Polish reserve soldiers were offered the opportunity to join the Russian forces or join the British in the Middle East,” says Jef.
“Having had enough of the cold, my dad chose the Middle East and he always carried a piece of bread with him because he was frightened that he wouldn’t get a proper meal.”
A tailor by trade, Mendel served as a truck driver and delivered supplies and ammunition to the front line.
The troops moved from the Middle East to Italy and continued to fight the Germans who defended strongly the area around Monte Cassino, site of the historic abbey St. Benedict of Nursia.
At the end of the war, those left of the Polish troops had the choice to return to Poland or live in England.
Having no family left and no town to return to, Mendel chose the UK and settled in Hornsey, becoming naturalised in 1952 he chose an Anglican name - Max Page - to go by.
Despite, at the time, speaking Yiddish, Mendel met and married Eileen, Jef’s mother. The couple had three children, Jef and younger sisters Simone and Madeleine.
Mendel and his family moved to Ilford in 1963, where he lived happily until his death in 1986.
In commemorating Holocaust Day, its theme “Don’t Stand By” and the horrors his father endured, Jef compares what is happening around the world today.
He compares atrocities committed by ISIS to the Nazis, taking over towns and killing the people that inhabit them and the rise of hate crimes against faith and social groups.
He recounts the famous “First They Came...” statement made by Pastor Martin Niemöller about the cowardice of German intellectuals in the wake of the Nazi’s rise to power.
He says: “When they came for the communists, I said nothing. When they came for the Jews, I said nothing. When they came for me, there was no one left.”
He says it takes a lot of courage to stand up and speak out for what is right, his brave dad did, that is why he joined the Polish reserve army to fight against Hitler and his warped ideology.