Matthew Zajac: ‘I set out to write about my father’s life but discovered his war stories were all lies’

It was some years after my dad died that I discovered he was a liar. I loved him enormously. But he was a liar. I grew up in Inverness where my father Mateusz was a well-liked tailor. He was also a refugee with an East European accent who had fled his village in south-east Poland during the second world war.

Dad had always been a bit vague about his past but I figured that, like many of his generation, he didn’t like talking about the war. It was only when I went to his home village in 2003, now in western Ukraine, that I discovered the stories my father told us about his early years were just that, stories. He told lies about his religion, his family and what he did during the war: they just tumbled out, one after the other.

Fifteen years earlier, in spring 1988, I sat down with dad and a cassette recorder in the workshop he’d set up in my old bedroom. He was 69 and semi-retired. I was 29 and visiting from London, where I was making my way as an actor. Dad had sold his shop in Inverness a couple of years earlier and my parents had bought their council house in Dalneigh, the 1950s estate where I grew up.

I had an idea I might want to write about dad in the future, though I didn’t know what form it might take. Twenty years later, I gave the first performance of my one-man show, The Tailor of Inverness, telling the story of how I found out who my father really was and the secrets that he had kept from his Scottish family for decades.

Matthew Zajac in The Tailor of Inverness at the Assembly Rooms during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2008. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Observer

Although he hardly spoke of the war, dad talked even less of his youth in south-east Poland, or western Ukraine as it’s been since 1945. As a boy in the 1960s, I’d get the occasional inkling when a particular sequence in the documentary series, All Our Yesterdays, would reach into his memory bank. He said nothing as we sat on the settee watching the telly, but the welling up in his eyes revealed something else. But what was it? Normally, he looked forward, energetically living in the present. He was an upbeat, ebullient man, adapting successfully as a master tailor and popular small businessman in the Highlands.

Dad died suddenly, four years after our taped conversations, in 1992. A few months earlier, his social integration was crowned when he became master of his masonic lodge in Inverness. My wife Virginia and I had driven him and mum to Poland in 1990 to visit his brother Adam in Silesia. The Soviet Union collapsed the following year and Ukraine gained its independence. I had been thinking of taking him to his birthplace. That thought was now redundant. I was devastated. He was a great dad.

Six years later, I decided to do something with the tapes. He was in the room again and I was transfixed. I transcribed, and as I listened, my curiosity was piqued by several moments of uncertainty, a lack of clarity about a date or a place. His childhood and teenage memories told a vivid story of village life in Galicia. The problems related to his wartime journey. He told me how, as a young Polish soldier, he was captured by the Soviets in September 1939 as they crushed Poland in league with the Nazis. He was transported to do forced labour on a collective farm in Uzbekistan but escaped in 1941.

In an epic journey overland through the Middle East, he made it to Egypt and with other Polish soldiers joined Montgomery’s 8th Army. They fought in North Africa and took part in the invasion of Sicily in 1943 before advancing up the Italian boot. They distinguished themselves at Monte Cassino, the greatest Polish victory of the war, 1,000 miles from home. When Germany surrendered, dad was in Ancona on the Adriatic coast.

He ended up in a Polish unit of the British army in Italy a month after the war ended. Given the choice of return to Poland or resettlement in the UK, he chose the latter, like most Poles in his position. As the communist takeover became clear, he knew a return would result in imprisonment in the gulag, or worse. He chose survival.

Mateuz flanked by his brother Adam and son Matthew in Lesna, Poland, in 1990. Photograph: Courtesy Matthew Zajac

Through a cousin in New York, he discovered that his older brother Kazik was in Scotland. Dad joined him in Glasgow, where he met my mother and resumed the tailoring he’d learned in Galicia. They moved to Inverness in 1957. At least that’s what he told me. And this is typical of the journey many thousands of Poles made. But not him.

In 2003, I decided to visit dad’s birthplace in Ukraine, something he’d never been able to do. The Soviets repeatedly refused him a visa, so he was never reunited with his mother, who died in 1971. Before the war, Pidhaitsi was a predominantly Jewish town where my father went to tailoring school: 90% of Galicia’s tailors then were Jewish. Like all little towns in Galicia, Pidhaitsi had its own ghetto. The people in it were all murdered by the Nazis in 1943. Their mass graves are just outside town. Only a few kilometres further out is Hnilowody, my father’s village.

On that trip, I discovered that the granny I never met was Ukrainian, not Polish; that as borders fluctuated during the war, my father had been recruited into different armies, fighting for both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army. The one that he never joined was the Polish army.

Matthew Zajac with his half-sister Irena at Loch Ness in 2006. Photograph: Courtesy Matthew Zajac

For our family, the most stunning revelation was that he had married in 1940 and had a daughter, Irena, my half-sister. I traced her. It’s hard to convey just how powerful, strange and moving meeting Irena and her mother was.

Once I’d got over the shock that my father spent his life in Scotland claiming a story that wasn’t his, it dawned on me that I’d uncovered a more profound truth about the traumatic impact of war and migration. My father chose that story because he wanted to fit into his adopted homeland. It was more palatable than the messy reality of shifting frontlines, brutal ideological rivalry and an abandoned family. I hope that when people see my play they will look upon asylum seekers who arrive on our shores from war-torn places like Syria and Afghanistan with a bit more compassion because most have a similar story to tell.

The Tailor of Inverness is at the Finborough Theatre, Earl’s Court, London from Tuesday 14 May for four weeks

The Guardian