Letters from the King, a family tale of loss and a second wedding emerge as internet unearths more mysteries about ‘viral’ WWII girl
The extraordinary tale of how internet sleuths tracked down the identity of a mystery WWII woman from an old photo has taken a further step as more details of her life have emerged.
An appeal by the Institute of National Remembrance earlier this month captured the imagination of internet users worldwide leading them to discover that the person in the photo was a Polish woman called Maria Barr/ Barczyńska (the full story can be read here).
Now, a group of historians with the help of internet detectives have unravelled further details about her life and that of her hero RAF husband Rex Barr
Born in 1923, Maria spent the first 16 years of her life in Grodno, a city in today’s Belarus.
When the war broke out in 1939, the family found refuge in France where many servicemen were heading at that time to join the recreated Polish Army.
Her time in France was short-lived however and Maria and her family were forced to flee again after just a few months after the German invasion of France.
This time they headed for Britain. Part of the journey was spent on the MS “Sobieski”, a Polish ship used in the evacuation of troops from France, where Maria met her future husband Philip Rex Barr, a British pilot of Polish heritage (his great grandfather’s surname was Barciński and his family had anglicised it to Barr), who had recently been injured in battle.
Once in Britain, Maria, better known throughout her life as ‘Marysia’, continued to meet Rex between his bombing missions and the pair got married in December 1941 in Glasgow.
Their wedding photograph was recently discovered and shared on social media by genealogist Adam Pszczółkowski who is helping to piece Maria’s story together.
But just 11 months after their wedding, Maria became a widow at the age of just 19 when her husband was shot down during a mission over Belgium.
The now famous photograph of Maria in military uniform clutching a medal, was taken in 1943 on a street in London shortly after a ceremony in Buckingham Palace where Maria had been invited to accept her husband’s DFC military decoration from King George VI.
At that time she was contributing to the war effort by working for the Polish Red Cross in Edinburgh, where she lived.
Phillip Barr was still officially considered missing and she refused to believe he was dead until it was officially confirmed in 1946. His remains are buried in the Belgian town of Wevelgem, not far from where his Douglas Boston light bomber crashed on 7 November 1942, killing the four-man crew.
In 1947 Maria’s family moved to London where, having finally come to terms with her loss she remarried to Stanisław Grabowski, a soldier of the 10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade of General Maczek, and later a well-respected architect with whom she had a son.
A photograph released on social media this week shows Maria smiling happily with her second husband outside the Chapel of the Assumption Convent in Kensington Square London on their wedding day.
Maria never returned to Poland and spent the rest of her life in Britain, a fate shared by the majority of the quarter of a million Polish servicemen and their families as they had nowhere to return to.
Poland fell under Soviet domination and the Eastern borderlands, including Maria’s hometown of Grodno, were annexed into the USSR.
Instead, they accepted the terms of the Polish Resettlement Act of 1947, which offered British citizenship to over 200,000 displaced Polish troops who had fought against Nazi Germany and found themselves on British soil after WWII.
Following her death in Chichester in 2018 at the age of 95, it has been established that Maria’s ashes have not yet been buried.
There are now plans for her to be buried at Gunnersbury Cemetery in London next to her second husband, whilst the IPN has also announced plans to renovate the grave of Maria’s parents, which are located at St Mary’s Cemetery in Kensal Green in London.
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