Among the hundreds of thousands of patriots that Poland celebrates for serving in the resistance movement in World War Two there is one black, Nigeria-born man.
Jazz musician August Agboola Browne was in his forties, and had been in Poland for 17 years, when he joined the struggle against Nazi occupation in 1939 – thought to be the only black person in the country to do so. Under the code name “Ali”, he fought for his adopted country during the Siege of Warsaw when Germany invaded, and later in the Warsaw Uprising, which ended 76 years ago this month.
Astoundingly, he survived the war in which 94% of the residents of Poland’s capital were either killed or displaced, and continued living in the ravaged city until 1956 when he emigrated with his second wife to Britain. A small stone monument in Warsaw now commemorates Browne’s life. But the scant details that there are may never have been known were it not for an application he made to join a veterans’ association in 1949.
The document was filed away for six decades, until 2009, when Zbigniew Osinski from the Warsaw Rising Museum came across it. This form, filled out in beautiful cursive handwriting and with a passport-style photo attached to one corner, is his Rosetta Stone – the documentary fragment that led researchers to interpret isolated facts about his life and locate living descendants.
In the picture, Browne, dressed in a jacket and a snugly fitting jumper, looks lively and youthful with a hint of a smile on his face. All who met Browne described him as a handsome man and a sharp dresser. By this time he was in his fifties, as the form reveals that he was born on 22 July 1895 to Wallace and Jozefina in Lagos – then part of the British Empire. He arrived in England aboard a British merchant ship with his longshoreman father. From there, he joined a theatre troupe touring Europe and ended up in Poland via Germany.
‘Sheltered ghetto refugees’
Frustratingly, the form does not say what inspired him to leave Nigeria, or make Poland his destination, so an adventurous spirit seems the likeliest explanation. But by the 1930s, he became a celebrated jazz percussionist playing in Warsaw’s restaurants.
What Browne did write was that in the resistance he distributed underground newspapers, traded electronic equipment and “sheltered refugees from the ghetto”. This was a sealed-off area of the city in which Jews were forced by the Nazis to live and where 91,000 died from starvation, disease and murder. Some 300,000 were transported to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps.
It appears that for Browne, staying in Poland after the war was a choice – as a citizen of the British Empire, he had the opportunity to leave. When he arrived in Poland, he first settled in Krakow where he married his first wife, Zofia Pykowna, with whom he had two sons, Ryszard and Aleksander.
The marriage failed but at the outbreak of the war, Browne arranged for his children and their mother to seek refuge in England. But – perhaps committed to the Polish struggle – Browne did not go with them.
The incomplete jigsaw of information gives rise to many questions about his life.