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    Michael Dembinski: England’s Most Polish Son

    Picture of Bill Mair
    Bill Mair 22, December 2021


    This is one of the most diverse interviews we have done to date on PBLINK Stories: Michael Dembinski, chief adviser at the British Polish Chamber of Commerce (BPCC), born in London to Warsaw Uprising war hero Bohdan Dembiński, speaking to Bill Mair of 

    When Michael and Bill sat down for a chat, they discussed a staggering range of themes, including a very interesting perspective on Brexit as it affects Poland and the UK. The original interview ran to an hour and a half, meaning 60 minutes had to be cut for the podcast! 

    Topics covered included:

    • Dodging Nazi bullets in a cabbage patch
    • Brexit, Poland and the UK
    • Son of a Polish war hero, born in the UK – Polish or British?
    • What makes Poland so successful, anyway? 
    • The work of the BPCC
    • Customer loyalty and the throwaway culture

    War Hero

    Michael Dembinski is chief adviser to the BPCC, the British-Polish Chamber of Commerce and an expert on Poland’s responses to the 2008 financial crisis, Brexit and the Covid pandemic. 

    He is the son of Bohdan Dembiński, hero of the 63-day 1944 Warsaw Uprising and Marysia Dembińska, survivor of a Soviet Gulag. 

    With the dubious benefit of hindsight, some Polish people have said the Uprising was foolish, as it was doomed to failure. The Varsovian civilians had hardly any weapons or ammunition, and no military training. However, a story Bohdan described to Michael explains his motivation for joining the fighting. One day during the German occupation, the young Bohdan, in his early 20s, was in Nowy Świat, a main street in Warsaw, and saw the Nazis empty a truck of Polish prisoners onto the street and machine-gun every one of them to death on the spot. This was happening across the city, all the time, but it was one that Bohdan witnessed. 

    It was enough to impel him to join the secret army of civilians, to avenge the vicious cruelty being inflicted on Polish people throughout the city. “It wasn’t a calculated decision about whether the Soviets would come, or whether the Western allies would support us with parachute drops or whatever, it was a simple act of revenge.”

    Bohdan signed up to the Uprising in secret. Not even his two brothers knew, although they also had signed up, such was the discipline and secrecy. Later, they discovered that in their block of flats, lived General Antoni Chruściel (Monter), who actually signed the order to initiate the fighting and was in overall charge of the Uprising!

    When weapons failed to turn up for Bohdan’s unit, he and some fellow members decided to seek out battalion Golski, which was much better armed. (This battalion actually became famous for capturing German tanks and using them against the occupiers!) The problem was that Golski was on the other side of a very large field, meaning Bohdan and his friends would be easy targets for German snipers. They decided to cross at night. This gave them more cover, but the field was planted with cabbages, which they couldn’t see at night, and every time they stepped on one, it crunched, provoking a hail of machine-gun fire from the Germans. It was a terrifying ordeal but he made it, and the unit he joined did not retreat a single step to the last day of the Uprising. His brother Józef died in the fighting and is buried in Warsaw.

    Bohdan was liberated from a German POW camp at the end of the war and came to England, where he met and married Marysia. after she died, he would return to Józef’s grave each year, on the anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Uprising, 1 August. Crowds would gather to wait for Bohdan, queuing up to meet him and interview him.

    Bohdan Dembiński died on the 29th October 2019, in Ealing, London.

    Michael Dembinski Podcast Interview

    Growing up Polish in England

    Born in Ealing, London, Michael was very much brought up as Polish. He spoke Polish at home and attended Polish school on Saturdays and went camping and foraging in the woods with Polish boy scouts, which he described as an “almost paramilitary organisation”. 

    On his first day at school, aged 5, he mentioned to a fellow pupil about speaking Polish at home and English outside the house. The English boy looked at him, completely puzzled. It was then that Michael realised that not everyone in England was Polish!

    Born Polish in the UK

    Michael describes himself as “born Polish in the UK,” but adds that “Polishness seems to be every other person” in UK Polish families – “it alternates between siblings.” He moved with his family to Warsaw in 1997. He and his wife speak Polish and their children were brought up to speak it as well. Their daughter splits her time between Warsaw and Łódź, while his son took the decision to move back to the UK to live and work.

    Interestingly, however, Michael’s brother, who had the same upbringing, married an English girl and they live in the UK. 

    Michael’s wife and her sister had a very similar upbringing to him, yet her sister married an American, moved to the US and they brought up her kids not speaking Polish.

    All of which goes to show, Michael says, that Polishness depends on an unfathomable element of nature vs nurture. 

    Britain as a ‘Semi-Detached’ Member of the EU

    Curiously, a similar duality existed with Britain’s relationship with the EU.

    From his professional perspective as chief adviser to the BPCC, an  organisation he has worked with since 2002, Britain never made the most of its EU membership, preferring to adopt a “semi-detached” approach.

    The lurid headlines of the Brexit-inclined press screamed that EU bureaucrats were ruling the UK from afar, but the reality was that Britain never really engaged with the institution. Instead of taking its place at the table and setting out a clear agenda, the country preferred to maintain a certain cool distance from the other 27 members, even showing a certain disdain for the joint democratic process. 

    UK’s Disproportionate Brexit Woes

    But Britain’s EU problems did not end at Brexit: Michael estimates that UK is suffering far worse than Poland and other EU countries from Brexit. Poland’s exports are down far less than UK exports to the EU, for example. 

    Just as well for Poland: the UK is still Poland’s fourth -largest export market (after Germany, Czechia and France, down from second place behind Germany before the referendum), and in 2019 represented 7.5% of all of Poland’s exports (goods and services) and 3.7% of all of Poland’s imports.

    Some of the disparity in the UK/Poland Brexit effect is because of delays by the UK to implement full customs checks on goods coming in from the EU. These were due to be introduced as soon as Brexit was implemented, but have been repeatedly pushed back and some are now scheduled to come into force from January 2022. The effect might be to make the UK much less attractive as a market, even for Polish producers.

    Nature or Nurture: What Gives Poland the Edge?

    Not only Brexit: Poland emerged stronger and was affected less than most Western economies from the global financial crash of 2008, etc. It is coping better, economically, with the Covid pandemic too. Michael has spoken before about the distinctive character of the Polish people as being due to the location of the country, to the West of Eastern Europe and at the East of Western Europe; speaking a Slavic language but using the Roman alphabet, Catholic rather than Orthodox 

    Geography, history, determination: what gives Poland the edge?

    Michael suggests a couple of reasons. 

    Firstly, Poland became a member of the EU only in 2004. Until that time, any goods exported to the UK from Poland required a great deal of bureaucratic form-filling. For those companies that were trading 17 years ago, it is simply a return to a relatively recent way of doing things. But for French, Dutch or Spanish businesses, for example, exporting to the UK, this bureaucracy is completely unprecedented in their lifetime. This is reflected in a post-Brexit drop of exports from Holland of 40%, vs a reduction of only 12% from Poland.

    However, Michael does reference the resilience of Polish exporters to overcome obstacles, quoting the Polish saying: “If you close the door to us, we’ll come in through the window!”

    He explains that most Polish people are only a couple of generations from the land, and a life which fosters self-reliance long with a strong work ethic. If you live from your smallholding and depend on gathering firewood for heating and cooking with temperatures outside at -26C⁰, you are no stranger to determination and the necessity of hard work.

    When the opportunities of Western economies open up, the young people in Poland throw themselves wholeheartedly into the new technology and capitalist dream: moving to the UK or elsewhere, getting a job with a Western company or starting a new business. No obstacle is too difficult.

    Many UK families have been detached from agricultural labour for up to ten generations, since the industrial revolution, towards the end of the 18th century. This leads to a different mindset. The current generation of British young adults look back at their parents and see many burnt out from chasing the dream. As a result, there is currently a backlash against consumerism and acquisition in many Western countries. Michael mentions industrial, tech and innovation giant Japan, where society is rejecting 18-hour days in favour of ‘slowing down, smelling the flowers and discussing poetry.’

    There is a generation of Polish people coming who will adopt the same attitude, but they’re not here yet, Michael says.

    Promoting Polish Produce

    Of course, the unpreparedness of the other EU countries for Brexit spells an opportunity for Poland, to plug the gap left on UK supermarket shelves where the fine foods from other countries used to be. Polish food is excellent but it doesn’t enjoy that reputation in the UK. If the Polish government can see far enough ahead to promote Polish produce in the UK, there could be a golden age ahead for their food industry – and indeed for other Polish consumer products, from cosmetics to furniture.

    Don’t Be Greedy!

    Winding up, Michael shared his thoughts on the secret(s) of business.

    Top of the list was: Don’t be greedy. Don’t sell things to people that they don’t need and can’t afford. This led onto the disposable culture vs quality products, made to last. Michael cited a Nikon camera lens that he has had since the 1980s. It still works fine. This means that he has had unswerving brand loyalty to Nikon ever since.

    Following on, he cites listening: genuinely seeking to discover what your customers need, to fill a gap to solve a real problem. Those businesses that had the vision to create apps on our phones that have endured, such as banking, maps and lately, the indispensable NHS app, that proves your vaccination status for travel and entrance to large events.

    Read an article about Michael Dembinski Chief Adviser to the British-Polish Chamber of Commerce "The Secrets of Britain's Top Diverse Entrepreneurs"

    Michael was interviewed by Bill Mair of