THE TAILOR Of Inverness, by Matthew Zajac, tells the extraordinary story of Zajac’s father who grew up on a farm in Galicia - then eastern Poland, now western Ukraine - and worked as a tailor in Inverness after surviving the terrors and upheavals of WWII.
Mateusz Zajac was taken prisoner by the Soviets in 1939, following their invasion of Poland, and forced to work east of the Urals. He was then freed and joined thousands of Poles who travelled to Egypt to be integrated into the British army, fighting in North Africa and Italy. He finally settled in Scotland in 1948.
This is the story he told his son, but when Matthew began to research his father’s experiences he uncovered another story, no less remarkable, one which suggested his father had, at different times, been in the Russian, German, and British armies. There was also another family left behind in Poland about whom he had never spoken.
Crossing myriad borders from Eastern Europe, to the Middle East to Britain, Zajac’s play, which comes to the Town Hall Theatre next weekend, reflects on WWII while also being personal, intimate, and about being rooted in two cultures - Galicia and the Scottish Highlands.
The performance combines storytelling, songs, poetry, with a rich soundscape of live fiddle music and still and moving images of past and present Ukraine.
The Tailor Of Inverness opened at the 2008 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Within days, it became a sell-out. It went on to win a Scotsman Fringe First Award while Matthew Zajac won The Stage Award for Best Solo Performer at the Fringe. Since then, the play has travelled to Ukraine, Poland, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland, Wales, Australia, and the USA.
A larger than life character
“He was a larger than life character in some ways but a very ordinary man as well,” Zajac tells me, recalling his father. “He had a big personality, he was very friendly and generous with a good sense of humour. He was reluctant to talk about his wartime experiences so I only occasionally got hints of how they affected him.
“We’d watch programmes about the war on TV and occasionally you’d see him wiping a tear away. The only time I saw him be openly emotional was when we were on holiday in Poland when I was 10 years old.
“One evening he and his brother were drinking vodka and so on, and both of them just started crying – they were talking in Polish which I didn’t speak, and when I asked why they were upset he told me they had been talking about friends they had lost in the war.”
The play’s genesis began with taped conversations Matthew made with his father shortly before the latter’s death, in which he related stories from his childhood up to his arrival in Inverness.
“A few years after he died I listened back to the tapes and noticed there were certain things he was evasive about or claimed not to remember, and there were inconsistencies over dates and places,” Zajac reveals. “That made me want to go to his birthplace which is now in western Ukraine.
In the Red army and the British army
“Before I left, my aunt dug out this old photo of my father in army uniform with some other soldiers. The uniforms had no insignia but you could see a little star on their caps so they were Soviets and he’d never said anything about being in the Red army.
“She gave me an address for a cousin of his, so I met him and his brother in Ukraine and also an old village woman who remembered the family. I discovered a lot of what he told me wasn’t true.
“My father told me he’d been doing national service in the Polish army when war broke out and was taken prisoner by the Soviets and transported to Uzbekistan,” Zajac continues. “After Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin declared an amnesty for his Polish prisoners and about 100,000 were gathered in Kazakhstan and transported across the Caspian Sea to Teheran which was under British control.
“From there they were shifted to Egypt and absorbed into the British Eighth Army and fought in North Africa and Italy. Once the war ended they were given the option of re-settling in Britain which many of them took. But in fact, my dad was still doing his tailor’s apprenticeship when war started and was conscripted into the Soviet army after they occupied eastern Poland.
“The following details are sketchy but I found out he joined up with the Polish forces in Italy a month after the war finished, when they were carrying out occupation duties. He had either deserted the Red army or was captured by the Germans and put to work by them in Germany, but British army records strongly suggest that he fought for the latter stages of the war in the German army.”
Matthew was also amazed to find that his father had left a wife and daughter in Poland. Mateusz wrote to her from Berlin in 1944 asking them to join him but the journey was too hazardous and a few years later he wrote again asking for a divorce, prior to marrying Matthew’s mother.
While Zajac has enjoyed a lengthy career in theatre, The Tailor Of Inverness marks his writing debut.
“I never considered myself to be a writer though I have acted for 32 years and also directed,” he states, before describing the various elements of the show. “I very much wanted to use fiddle music in the show, it’s a quintessential element in both Eastern European and Scottish folk music.
“There is also a very detailed video design, I’d shot some footage when I went to Ukraine and we also employed a brilliant video designer and with Ben, the director, I put together this play; it’s not a conventional play, it’s an assemblage of diary entries, letters, army records, and so on.”
The Tailor Of Inverness, presented by Richard Ryan Promotions and Dogstar Theatre, is at the Town Hall on Saturday June 14 at 8pm. Tickets are €18/16 through 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie