Born and Buried on a Leap-Year


Today we buried my Grandfather, Mieczyslaw Czartowski, or Mike. He was born on February 29th, 1924 in a small town in northeast Poland which no longer exists.
Because of his birth on the strange date of February 29th, technically he was only 23. In reality, he was 94.

At the start of the Second World War, him and his family were taken by the invading Russians to a logging/work camp in the forests of Siberia where he laboured until he was liberated and joined the Polish Army in the Soviet Union in 1943. His father (a Polish military officer) was arrested by the Russians and taken to an undisclosed location before they left for Siberia.
He went through a lot during this time; having served in a few countries of Europe and more in Africa. He survived Malaria, a shattered leg from a plane crash, various strange skin conditions and wounds from shrapnel at the Battle of Monte Cassino where he was an ambulance driver.

He once told me how he coincidentally picked up his wounded childhood friend during that battle, and made an attempt to save his life in going through and behind enemy lines. Unfortunately, his friend died before he could reach safety.
Another story told of how he found his father at a rehabilitation camp in the Middle East, and neither of them recognized the other; Mike had grown into a man, and his father was shrunken from malnourishment. They became very emotional when they finally did recognize one another, as it had been 3 years since they were separated.

He loved to tell me of how he managed to turn a truck around by drifting on a narrow, single-lane roadway in the desert without leaving the pavement- much to the surprise of the captain who was evaluating him in his attempt to become an ambulance driver.
They became good friends after that. I managed to interview him extensively about his life a couple years ago, and I recount that he mostly loved to tell stories about cars. He was really proud of his driving chops.

I believe I am at the age where empathy has fully set in. I’ve not felt so sad at a funeral before, though I have fortunately only had to attend a handful so far. This man taught me what a good joke is and how friendly sarcasm works. He taught me a lot about patience. Through his trials and sacrifices, he taught me about appreciating others. He was an example of empathy and how small we really are. I thank him for that.

Happy Birthday Dziadzia, I miss you already.

Born and Buried on a Leap-Year