BRAMA, January 1, 2003, 11:00 am ET|
The road from Ukraine to Westminster and back
by Tony Leliw
The Gestapo told him to dig a hole in the ground.
He prayed he wasn’t being asked to dig his own grave.
Back row centre - Stefan Terlezki's father Oleksa with little boy Stefan to his right. Uncle Dmytro to the right of him. Other two (extreme left and sitting down are factory workers).
Stefan Terlezki remembers the last words of his father in 1942 when he was taken by the Germans as slave labour: “My son, you and I have lived under tyranny and oppression, but I pray to God that you will die in freedom.”
More than 40 years later as the first Ukrainian to be elected into a British Parliament, Mr Terlezki, with the help of a personal plea by Sir Geoffrey Howe to the then Soviet Foreign Minister, Andrei Gromyko, was able to see his father again in a tearful reunion in Wales.
His father Oleksa - a victim of Stalin’s purges - spent 28 years in a Siberian camp, and would die a year later after seeing his son. His mother passed away of a broken heart within a year after her 14-year-old Stefan was snatched away from her.
Last Easter Mr Terlezki, aged 75, was taken back to Ukraine by Max Perkins, former political editor of the Welsh channel HTV to form the basis of a two-part documentary called From War to Westminster – The Real Story of Stefan Terlezki. It was to be a testament to his remarkable career and was screened late last year. There are no plans yet to show it on English television.
From his home in Cardiff, Mr Terlezki spoke about his incredible life-story – a journey that began in Antonivka – his home village in Polish-controlled Western Ukraine.
“I used to sing in the school choir as a boy and also had an interest in history and geography,” he says fondly. “I was intrigued when I looked on the map and saw Britain.
“In those days it was an imperial power covering three quarters of the globe. It fascinated me – that a country so small could keep together such a big empire.”
Despite having Polish and Jewish friends at school, he says, “I soon realised it was we [Ukrainians] who were the underprivileged in every department”.
When his mother tried to get her son into secondary school they told her there was no place for him, so she bribed the school authorities with foodstuffs such as chicken, cheese and butter, and got him in.
His father worked in a brick factory earning very meagre wages with which he bought hectares of land to grow potatoes and corn, but he refused to allow little Stefan to work the fields.
“He was determined that my entire time should be spent on education,” says Mr Terlezki. “He wanted at least one person in the family not to grow up in serfdom.”
But the war put those plans on hold. When Hitler’s armies pushed eastwards into Western Ukraine, he witnessed Jews being killed by being pushed off the village bridge to the river below by the Gestapo soldiers.
As the Germans sought to root out more Jews living in the village, the young Stefan was asked by his father to go to the Catholic priest and get a birth certificate for a Jew.
“The priest told me to tell my father that the Jew had to learn a prayer off-by-heart to save himself, as the Germans were getting clever and would need to be convinced that he was a Ukrainian.”
Blessing of the Easter eggs at Stefan Terlezki's hometown village last year for the HTV documentary on his life.
Mr Terlezki’s own fate was to be rounded up with the other young boys in his village as slave labour to help build the Third Reich. He found himself in a labour camp in Austria, where inmates were often at the mercy of the Gestapo.
One day he was told to dig a hole in the ground. “I prayed to God that I wasn’t being asked to dig my own grave,” he says, holding back the tears. “When they said to dig a round hole - that was music to my ears as I knew they would not want to bury me in a round hole - they wanted to plant a tree.”
Later he was sold as a farmland slave in a market where prospective buyers viewed him like countless others from the other side of a mesh fence.
“How much the Austrian farmer paid for me I don’t know. All I could see was his wallet and money on the table,” says Mr Terlezki. “I became one of the hundreds of thousands of so-called Eastern workers.”
He was to remain on the farm until Germany capitulated in 1945. His hope that the British and Americans would occupy his part of Austria did not materialise. Instead, the Russians arrived.
“They told us we should go back home to be reunited with our families – that we had suffered enough under fascism. We naturally wanted to go back to our families and decided to go,” he recalls.
The reality of what happened proved far different. They were taken to Hungary and were told to disembark. Their real destination was the Far East to fight the Japanese.
It was then that Mr Terlezki with a friend decided to desert the Soviet Red Army.
“The walk back to Austria was several hundred miles,” he says, but his fighting spirit, belief in God, and loaded revolver, tucked inside his shirt, saw him through.
Many Hungarians and Austrians helped him along the way, but one day they were caught by a Russian army patrol, but managed to fight their way out.
“I got wounded in my left leg but after several weeks managed to reach my destination of Voitsberg, near Graz. By this time the town was under British control.
Out of hospital, the young Terlezki was moved to Villach, near Klagenfurt, to one of the five displacement camps. He joined the British Catering Corps in Camp Magdalene.
By 1948 the dapper-looking Terlezki was in England, moving between refugee camps before deciding to settle down in Wales, where he was told the rugged mountains would be the perfect terrain to train as a guerrilla fighter and then return to liberate Ukraine. But it would never happen.
Instead, he started off as a miner, worked in a bakery and a number of hotels, and then married a local Welsh girl.
In the early 1950s he bought a hotel in Aberystwyth, before moving to Cardiff. He then decided to go into politics and was elected for the council seat of Tiger Bay. It was considered a landmark victory as it had not been held by the Conservative Party for more than 30 years.
Meeting Oleksa sitting down in picture after 42 years.
Daughter Helena, Stefan Terlezki's wife Mary and Stefan himself, right.
A member of Cardiff City Council from 1968-83, he also served on South Glamorgan County Council between 1973-84.
Another interest was football and he became chairman of Cardiff City Football Club between 1975-77. He saw his team gain promotion from the third to the second division.
During that time Mr Terlezki was already being groomed by the party as a possible MP. His fiery speeches, particularly on Eastern Europe, gained him a reputation on the political circuit.
Here was a man who could speak from real-life experiences, not from a textbook. “I spoke from the heart,” says Mr Terlezki.
His first two attempts at gaining a parliamentary seat proved unsuccessful, as he was pitted against James Callaghan, the former Labour Prime Minister.
In 1983 Mr Terlezki won Cardiff West for the Conservatives – a seat held for 38 years by George Thomas, the former speaker of the House of Commons.
The victory for him was significant – as it would provide him the perfect platform to tell the world about Ukraine’s plight and the suffering of its people, who he described as “living in an open prison”.
Mr Terlezki’s new position opened many doors. As MP, he met numerous dignitaries and statesman including Pope John Paul II, where he was part of an All-Party Anti-Abortion Parliamentary delegation. Others included former US President Ronald Reagan, and Mikhail Gorbachev, who at that time was not yet president of the USSR.
“I talked to Gorbachev about human rights and he invited me to come and visit Ukraine. I told him that I would like to but was afraid of his KGB.
“`You must not be afraid of them now because you are a member of the British parliament and we shall look after you,’” Gorbachev insisted, speaking to Terlezki in perfect Ukrainian and also reciting to him Taras Shevchenko's Kavkaz.
“I took him for his word,” said Mr Terlezki. “With my wife Mary and two daughters, Caryl and Helena, we packed our suitcases and went.”
Since Ukraine's independence in 1991, Mr Terlezki has been to his homeland countless times, and visited his parents’ grave. He has just completed a book about his life-story, and is now looking for a publisher.
He is grateful that God answered his prayers to fulfil his father’s dream of escaping tyranny and finding freedom, but etched in his mind are the thousands of others that he left behind and never made it.
Tony Leliw is a London-based journalist whose articles have appeared in respected publications such as the London Evening Standard and The Times, as well as news services in Ukraine and the U.S. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org