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Feather's Miscellany: True Love

John Waddington-Feather tells a wonderful heart-warming story of lovers separated for decades by the ravages of war.

To fall deeply in love for life with another person is life’s greatest adventure; the adventure of Adam and Eve in Eden before the Fall; an innocent and all-giving love; a sharing.

And there lies the great difference between romantic and erotic love. The one is all-giving; the other all-taking. The one is of the spirit; the other of the flesh, but because we are who we are, part animal, part spirit, we experience both romantic and erotic love. Both are to be enjoyed; both are to be controlled. Without control, romantic love becomes simply cloying sentimentality and erotic love becomes raw self-gratification, sheer lust, which lasts only for the moment. Romantic love lasts a lifetime.

Take the case of Olena Bayda and Petro Lacenski. Olena was born in Ukraine in 1920, the daughter of a wealthy farmer. She grew up in beautiful countryside a happy, carefree girl, moulded by her environment and the rich cornfields her father farmed. She was a pretty, fair-haired girl who grew into a beautiful young woman, but, alas, her womanhood was not to be lived out in Ukraine, for when she was in her teens, Stalin’s terrible, manmade famine ravaged the land.

The Bolsheviks, under Stalin’s orders, systematically began starving the farmers off their land, taking their livestock and the very crops they grew till they had nothing to eat. Armed soldiers ringed the farms torturing and killing any who tried to flee. Within three years, millions of farmers and their families had starved to death and their farms were taken over by the Bolsheviks.

Olena was lucky. Her mother was Polish and Stepan Bayda, her father, fled while he was able to Lvov, then in Poland, and began a new life working for his father-in-law in the building trade. There, in Lvov, Olena grew up and in time became secretary to her grandfather and kept his books. At eighteen she was very attractive and every lad in the neighbourhood fell for her, but she fell head over heels in love with Petro Lacenski, the son of a timber merchant her grandfather dealt with. He was tall, strong and handsome and his prospects were good. One day he would inherit the business and her grandfather approved of the match.

Their love for each other grew more and more, then fate intervened. They were born in perilous times and Europe lapsed into turmoil as twin evils sprang up: Nazism flourished in Germany and Communism in Russia. Hitler and Stalin, Satan’s earthly agents, made a pact in 1939, whereby eastern Poland, including Lvov, was ceded to Russia while the Nazis overran eastern Poland.

Immediately, Petro and thousands of other young men were drafted into the forces to fight the Nazis on one flank and the Communists on the other. Caught between such forces, their country was doomed and they were all killed or captured, except for a lucky few who escaped to Britain, the only country in the west still free and not invaded by the Nazis.

The night before he joined his unit, Petro and Olena made their farewells. She was heart-broken and as he tried to comfort her, Petro poured out his love, swearing he would never forget her and one day return to claim her as his bride. He wasn’t to know they wouldn’t meet again till a lifetime later, and by that time both of them had lived through the hell of a war which engulfed the world.

Olena remained in Lvov throughout the war. She saw city overrun by Nazis and the Jewish population massacred by Nationalists or transported to death-camps in their thousands by the Nazis. If that wasn’t enough, life became a nightmare as fighting broke out between the Nazis and the Communists when their pact broke down. The fighting went on for months backwards and forwards across Poland and Ukraine, yet somehow Olena and her family survived. She never lost her love for Petro and had his photo at her bedside as she prayed for him each night; hoping against hope he would return safely.

There were rumours and counter rumours about the Polish army; then suddenly nothing. All communication ceased. Daily she asked his family about him but they had heard nothing, too, after the Communists captured his unit and transported it along with thousands of others into captivity in Russia, executing many of their officers at a place called Katyn. Only when Churchill bargained with Stalin for their release were they freed and sent to join the British army fighting the Nazis in North Africa.

But Olena knew nothing of this nor did Petro’s family. There was a blanket of silence: no news, no mail – nothing; only dreadful rumours after Katyn that the entire Polish army had been wiped out. Still Olena’s love remained constant as her generation across the world was caught up war.

Eventually when all hope of his returning faded, she took up with her grandfather’s manager, Ivan Wesselowski, an astute young man some years older than herself, who kept the business going right through the Nazi occupation, and afterwards when the Communists returned. He hid both their families as attack and counter-attack raged across the region. Two of his brothers were killed and one of Olena’s, but they and their parents survived. Eventually, when the war ended, Lvov and the area round it were annexed by Russia and governed from Moscow.

Olena married Ivan after the war, but although she took Petro’s photograph from her bedside, she never forgot her first love and mourned his loss for years. Of course she loved her husband Ivan dearly as together they picked up the bits of their broken lives, struggling through the austere post-war years. With barely enough to eat at times, they raised a family, living at first in a very basic two-roomed apartment dealt them by the Communists till gradually things got better.

As for Petro, when he was taken prisoner to Russia, he remained there till the deal between Churchill and Stalin was put into effect and the Polish army was transported to the Middle East to fight with the British against Rommel. Barely out of his teens, Petro fought through all the battles in North Africa with the British Eighth Army: El Alamein, Tobruk, Benghazi, Tripoli till by the time the Allies invaded Italy he was a battle-hardened veteran.

Yet all through this time he continued to think of Olena and the time he would return after the war, carrying the image of her in his heart. Yet just as she heard nothing from him, he had no news of her or what was happening in his homeland, except the terrible battles being fought in Ukraine and Russia, when city after city, town after town was razed to the ground.

Peace finally came in 1945 when Petro was part of the Allied army that entered Germany. The war was over yet the aftermath of war remained. Europe was divided in two, the east going to victorious Russia, and the west to the Allies. A line was drawn through Germany which could not be crossed and Petro found himself homeless in Britain when he left the army.

He spent some time in a Displaced Persons Camp along with hundreds of others from Eastern Europe, knowing he could never return safely to Poland for the Communists were suspicious of anyone who’d been in the west. When the chance came, he emigrated to Australia and carved out a new life for himself in Adelaide, building up a timber business like the one in Lvov.

He had a fine house in Port Adelaide near the Marina and in time married a local girl, Mary Thompson, with whom he had a daughter, Patsy, and a son, Henry, who became very close to their father. They were a very happy family and the business prospered throughout the following years as the children grew up. Petro talked often of his life in Poland to his children, but knew he could never return while the Communists were in power.

In his sixties he retired and handed over his business to his son, while he and Mary went on a world cruise: America, Britain, France, Italy – but not Poland. He didn’t visit there till the 1990s after the Communist empire had collapsed and Europe was free with open borders.

Then in his seventyfifth year tragedy struck. His wife developed cancer and was dead within months. For the second time in his life his love was snatched from him. Mary had been the mainstay in his life and he became a lost soul, losing all interest in life. His daughter, Patsy, tried to console him and urged him to visit Lvov again. He was always talking about it and his younger days there, how he’d like return again now it was free.

After a great deal of persuading, Petro took his daughter’s advice and joined a coach tour round Eastern Europe, visiting Warsaw, Moscow and Kiev among other places, one of which was Lvov; and when the coach stopped there for two nights it all happened.

Having booked in at their hotel, he wandered round the city, which had been re-built after the war. Everything had changed and but hoping against hope, he looked up where his father’s old offices and sheds had been. They were still there and he asked the owners about Olena Bayda. Was she still alive? The youngster in the office called in an older man. Yes, he remembered the Baydas. Olena had married but she’d been widowed and lived alone nearby.

Petro’s heart leapt. “Do you have her address?” he stammered.

“Not the address where she lives, but I have the address of the business her family run,” he replied, pulling out a directory. He leafed through it till he found the right page. Petro thanked him and scribbled down the address before setting off to find it.

Ivan Wesselowski had worked hard and built up a thriving business which his sons now ran. One of them greeted him as Petro entered the office. Petro stared in surprise a moment for he was so like his mother. Then he explained who he was. It so happened they were having a family party that night and Olena’s son invited Petro along. “My mother will be pleased to see you. It’ll give her a great surprise,” he said, then lowering his voice, he added, “ She speaks often of you and others she knew many years ago, but she believes you are dead, like so many of her friends who died in the war. It will be a great surprise for her to see you.”

That evening, his heart racing, Petro went along to the Wesselowskis’ home. How would he feel when he met Olena? What would she think of him? It was so long ago since they’d last met and the interim both of them had become old.

Yet Olena recognised him the moment he entered the room. She’d been forewarned and was as apprehensive as Petro at their meeting again. She was chatting to friends as he came in, but when one of them told her Petro had arrived, she turned and saw him standing in the door. In that moment her old love came flooding back.

Age had changed him greatly yet there was still something young about him, and she rushed over to him exclaiming, “Dear Petro! Dear Petro Lacenski! I thought…they said…”

“That I was dead?” he said quietly. “Well, dear Olena, they were wrong. Here I am…back at last.” He held her in his arms as tears streamed down her face, tears of joy. And he, too, wept at finding his long-lost love again.

When she recovered she held his hand and introduced him to all there, explaining how Petro had been her teenage sweetheart, how he’d gone off to fight in the war and been lost. How they all thought he’d died like so many in those dark days. And as they dined together over their meal, she told Petro how she’d married Ivan when all hope of seeing Petro again had gone; how she’d had a family, how she’d nursed Ivan through a long illness and how lonely she’d been since he’d died. “God,” she said, “has sent you back to me.”

Petro had come into her life again and re-kindling the old fires of love. They didn’t burn with the fierce heat of youth, but glowed with the steady and lasting warmth of age with a love which outlived the body.

Petro’s coach left for Kiev the next day, but their togetherness was sealed that night for the rest of their lives. They couldn’t take their eyes off each other that night, drinking in each other as love welled wildly in their hearts. What had been lost all those years ago was now found, and much, much more precious for the finding. They would never lose it again; and later that year, Olena flew to Adelaide to meet Petro’s family.

They were overjoyed to see their father so happy again, and took to Olena like a second mother. The outcome was they married and became like swallows, spending half the year in Poland and half in Australia. They lived out the last years of their lives in joy and peace, their families growing closer, till finally their love for each other was sealed when Petro’s grandson fell in love with Olenas’s granddaughter and married her – the perfect ending to a love-story which re-united two lovers across the world and took them through a lifetime and beyond.

John Waddington-Feather ©

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