12th August, 2021.
On Twitter, a person writes:
Lost his life today, 12th August, 1940. Sgt Josef Kwiecinski. Polish. One of The Few. He failed to return from a combat south of the Isle of Wight in his Hurricane and was reported ‘Missing’. He was never found. Age 23. No photo. No grave.
I stop. It is 8.29am. My lurcher is slumbering peacefully on the end of the bed. The drowsy sound of woodpigeons floats through the window. A dazzling sun is starting to believe in itself. Everything is very still. I think of Josef Kwiecinski, aged twenty-three. I think of not a trace left behind. I think of his family: his mother, his sister, his aunt. (Did he have an aunt, who adored him? Did he have a sister, who raced him through the woods and climbed trees with him and rode bareback over the hills? Did his mother survive the invasion of Poland, to grieve her son?) I think of the crazy courage and the loss. I think of how, even now, my generation owe those Few a debt of gratitude that can never be paid.
I think of the Poles. I once saw a very old man grasp the hand of a young Pole, the same age as Josef was when he died. The gentleman had tears in his eyes. ‘Your lot,’ he said, his voice vibrating with memory and passion, ‘were the bravest in the war.’
The youthful Pole looked first astonished and then proud and then moved. He gazed down at the old man with affection, as if they were suddenly family instead of strangers. And then he nodded, as if this was something he knew but had forgotten.
It breaks my heart that Josef Kwiecinski is forgotten. No grave. No photo. Nobody will ever know where he and his Hurricane rest, or how they went down. There is no place to put a headstone or a bunch of flowers.
But then I think: he’s not quite forgotten. Because some kind, dedicated person on social media found his record and wrote his name and gave him a tiny, shimmering moment of posthumous dignity.
Someone wrote him down.
And I saw that and I thought: don’t just stop and feel sad and move on. Write him down again. Write him here, so that you won’t ever forget. I thought: you’ll read back over these intermittent diaries of 2021 when you are an old lady and you’ll nod your head when you come to Josef Kwiecinski and you’ll be so glad that he is still with you. You’ll say his name out loud and you’ll think of those boys, who were so young, and so desperate in their hectic bravery, and so far from home. You’ll thank those boys one more time, because they can never be thanked enough. And you’ll think: no, Josef, you are not gone; you are not forgotten; you are not nowhere. You are in the heart of one woman who saw your name and typed it carefully, checking the spelling, so that you would not get lost again.