Obituary: Professor Zbigniew Pełczyński , 1925-2021
Professor Zbigniew Pełczyński OBE died last week aged 95.
The Barton-on-Heath resident has been a much-loved and respected member of the community, and had recently been involved with the Copernicana oral history project in Stratford, writes Graham Tyrer.
The academic and philosopher led a remarkable and inspirational life. He was raised in Warsaw by proud and fearless parents. He recalled being asked by his mother, ambitious for her son even while the war raged, “Have you thought who you would like to be? Teacher, lawyer, doctor or even a priest?”
In fact he became one of the most highly regarded professors at Oxford University and counted among his students world leaders including former President Bill Clinton who regarded the professor as his favourite teacher.
When Poland was invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939, he attended underground classes school taught by volunteers in flats and basements ravaged by the relentless Nazi bombing of Warsaw. “We discussed Polish literature while the bombs fell around us,” he recalled.
In 1942, as a teenager, he joined the Home Army, the Polish resistance. Surrounded by machine gun fire, bombs and fire- storms, the young fighter was taught how to use the scarce explosives and rifles. Though he was so young, he fought in bitter street battles for the freedom of his people. More than once he had to be dug out from buildings that collapsed around him. “Five times, I was one step away from being killed.”
The sewers of Warsaw were in the frontline where Zbigniew and his friends took the war. Hand-to-hand fighting with grenades and small arms took place under the surface of the city.
In the end, Zbigniew said, “I’d rather die on the streets than be killed down here like rats.” He hauled himself out of the sewers but straight into the hands of a German soldier. Zbigniew gave him the slip while the enemy was busy stealing his precious watch.
In 1944 during the Warsaw Uprising he was taken prisoner by the Germans. In his seven months’ captivity he taught himself English and will never forget the day he and fellow prisoners were liberated by English and American allies in tanks.
“The Germans had fled but we could still hear fighting in the woods. We danced, we teased each other, there were hugs and kisses, we tossed the liberating troops in the air and it was so good to experience freedom again. We could walk wherever we wanted it was like being children again,” Zbigniew said.
Later he fought with the Polish Armoured Divisions in the final stages of the war as the Germans were pushed out of Belgium and Holland. From there, he made his way to the UK after war.
He gained a place At St Andrews University, secured a first class honours degree and started a dazzling successful academic career at Oxford, where he met his wife Denise, a BBC journalist who died in 2013.
The professor called himself ‘a two-culture man’. Once, at a party at the Polish Embassy in London, he said to the Polish Ambassador, “I am a man of two hundred percent. I am one hundred percent British and one hundred percent Polish.”
His legacy is immense. Generations of young people say they owe their freedom of thought to Zbigniew. He was a devoted family man putting his wife and two children at the heart of everything.
He was once asked what life had taught him. He answered with his usual wisdom and zest for life: “Try to have a specific purpose in life. It is as if you are in a boat, trying to get to a destination, never let the boat drift. This purpose may change and lead your life in a clear direction. Do not ever be frightened by difficulties. All life’s difficulties can be overcome.”