Obituary: Augustyn (Kay) Karolewski

Augustyn (Kay) Karolewki recounting his Wojtek stories to the BBC.
Augustyn (Kay) Karolewki recounting his Wojtek stories to the BBC.

AUGUSTYN Karolewski was born on August 12 1925 in the Polish village of Zduny, beside the pre-war frontier with Germany.

Young “Kay” was one of thousands of Polish refugees from Hitler’s aggression who made their way across mountains and borders to Hungary. Cold and hungry, he asked for food at a house near Debrecen, and when he returned with some bread, his companion predicted “you will survive”. He did much more than that. Not yet sixteen, he joined General Stanislaw Maczek’s Polish army in exile, which made amazing journeys across Yugoslavia and fascist Italy to France and then to Britain.

Maczek’s 1st Polish Armoured Division was deployed in Scotland in 1941, before preparing for offensive action. The English language was meant to be a temporary problem – the objective was to liberate Poland. Lance Corporal Karolewski landed in Normandy in July 1944, and General Montgomery sent the Polish Armoured Division to capture and hold a gap in the allied front line at Falaise to trap the retreating German 7th Army, including its elite Panzer Divisions. The Poles suffered over two thousand casualties in that battle, but they broke the stalemate in Normandy. Kay spent his 19th birthday in the thick of that battle, and he must have seen comrades killed and wounded. Like so many veterans, he never talked about that experience.

The Polish Armoured Division fought across northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands, before taking the surrender of the German naval headquarters at Wilhelmshaven. Kay said very little about these events, just two stories: one about sleeping in a cattle trough in freezing weather during the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ near Bastogne; the other about his horror at finding German women killed by an artillery barrage. He was never one to glorify war.

Back in Scotland in 1945, he learned that his family in Poland had survived. But Poland’s allies yielded to Soviet pressure to impose a puppet communist government in Warsaw, so it was not safe for General Maczek’s soldiers to return home. Shamefully, they were not allowed to join the victory parade in London. Kay was transferred to the Polish Resettlement Corps at RAF Winfield in Berwickshire, where he met Wojtek the Bear, the legendary mascot of another Polish Army and veteran of its campaigns in North Africa and Italy. Kay got to know Wojtek well, sharing beer with the Polish soldier bear.

Kay walked from Winfield to the village Inn at Hutton to improve his English. There he developed a lifelong taste for Scotch whisky, and he caught the eye of Bette Hall, the innkeeper’s daughter. They married in 1948, after he got a job on Sunwick Farm. He became secretary of the local Farmworkers’ Union, a tough assignment for a young immigrant. He cycled around the neighbourhood meeting people and building his encyclopaedic knowledge of families and fields throughout the Borders. Two daughters and two sons were born, and the family got the tenancy of a new council house in Hutton in 1953.

He became a British citizen in 1962. His formal education had been cut short by the Second World War, but he had a flair for languages. He was extremely inquisitive, and he loved to argue with anybody about anything. He never missed a chance to have his say to successive local MPs.

In 1968 Kay made a remarkable journey with Bette and their four children through Germany, passing through Checkpoint Charlie in the Berlin Wall, to meet Polish relations in Zduny in 1968.

In 1957 he joined the crew at the Tweed salmon netting shiel at Watham, rowing cobles and hauling nets at all hours and in all weathers. He was a natural leader, and became Skipper at North Bells salmon fishery in 1964. Most Tweed netsmen faced redundancy without compensation in 1986 when the Atlantic Salmon Conservation Trust, funded largely by angling interests on the upper Tweed, bought almost all the netting shiels and closed them down.

With 30 years experience on the river, Skipper Karolewski wasn’t going to take that quietly. He asked a local landowner to investigate dormant netting rights at Paxton. As a result, Kay had the satisfaction of outmanoeuvring the angling proprietors by starting a new net fishery. It is entirely thanks to his ingenuity that there is still one traditional net fishery operating on the Tweed as a valuable part of the local heritage, much appreciated by locals and visitors to Paxton House.

Generally acknowledged as the “Provost” of his local community in Hutton, Kay has been held in enormous respect and affection throughout the Borders and Northumberland, not least for his wartime service and as a link with Wojtek the Polish “soldier bear”. He was on parade every Remembrance Sunday at the Polish War Memorial in Duns to commemorate his fallen comrades.

Augustyn Karolewski died in Duns on December 3. He is survived by his daughters and sons, Elizabeth, Barbara, Michael and Raymond; two brothers and a sister in Poland; seven grandchildren and a great-grandson.