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Crawley’s Polish Olympian And Wartime Hero Remembered

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of Jerzy Braun, a man, an athlete and a soldier. His eventful and action-packed life took him from his native Poland to Olympic success in Los Angeles followed by heroic wartime fighting in Italy and Africa before spending his final years in Crawley – this month, RH History Uncovered looks back on his extraordinary life.

Jerzy Braun was born April 13 1911 in the Northern Polish city of Bydgoszcz – the city’s location on the Brda and Vistula rivers makes water sports a popular activity for local people.

Whilst at secondary school Jerzy first took a serious interest in the sport which would one day see him propelled to Olympic success, he joined the Bydgostia Rowing Association in 1928 aged 17.

Within the space of four years he was selected as a member of the Polish crew, he relocated to the Polish capital, Warsaw and was in training before heading to the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932. In those games he enjoyed a remarkable day – as part of the Polish boat in the coxed fours he won a bronze medal, just one hour later he was celebrating winning in the coxed pairs event.

Seven years later the world was at war and as with so many lives and careers, Jerzy’s was turned upside down by the Second World War. He joined the military when Germany invaded Poland and found himself posted with the Polish Independent Carpathian Brigade. It fought with distinction in North Africa, most notably in the Siege of Tobruk.

The unit was later reformed into the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division which would go on to fight in the Battle of Monte Cassino and Ancona. Jerzy’s achievements were recognised with the award of two Cross of Valour medals – the Polish military decoration is awarded to an individual who ‘has demonstrated deeds of valour and courage on the field of battle’.

At the conclusion of the war in 1945, few soldiers from Jerzy’s unit chose to return to the new, Communist Poland. Jerzy himself married Lili Dembowska – a female member of the Polish armed forces before moving to the UK in 1949. The Braun family first settled in London before relocating to Crawley in the 1950s, Jerzy passed away in 1968 at the age of 56, a month shy of his 57th birthday.

In the run-up to the London 2012 Olympics, the British Polish community together with the Polish Embassy organised the unveiling of a new tomb for Jerzy at Snell Hatch Cemetery and a blessing ceremony attended by local dignitaries, Crawley’s then mayor, Cllr. Keith Blake at the time said: “He achieved an extraordinary amount during his life and it’s right for it to be remembered and for Crawley to be made aware.”

By Jacob White

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