Trainee Tuesday: Unknown stories

In my last post (Watch out Aliens!) I discussed the records I had based the Polish Community in Leicestershire project on and described the Alien Certificates and Alien Cards in detail. Today I would like to focus more on the stories told to me by the Poles who came to Britain in the late 1940s. Through visiting and interviewing these generous people, I managed to make several oral history recordings which have been essential to the project.

Winston Churchill and Wladyslaw Sikorski reviewing Polish troops in England

Winston Churchill and Wladyslaw Sikorski reviewing Polish troops in England (by Anonymous photography, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Polish people who came to Britain in the 1940s arrived here as a result of the Second World War. They were either serving under the British Command once Poland collapsed after the attack of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in 1939, or as dependants of relatives in the army. Most of the Poles who settled in Britain originated from Eastern Poland and were deported to Siberia by the Soviets in 1940 and 1941. After the Nazi attack on Soviet Russia, Polish and Russian authorities signed an agreement which allowed deported Poles to leave Siberia and join the Polish Army under the British Command (approximately a million people were taken into Russia and only about 15% of them managed to get out).

Those who were unfit for army duty were directed to the refugee camps in India, the Middle East, Uganda, Tanganyika and both Rhodesias. On average, most Poles who were placed in the above mentioned camps lived in them for about four to five years, and most of the women, children and elderly who had a relative in the Polish Army arrived in Britain between 1947 and 1950. Less people, but also a significant amount of Poles, came to the British Isles from European Displaced Persons camps, where they were located after years of forced labour in Germany and Austria. Once here, Poles were placed in ex-army camps where they lived until the late 1950s or even early 1960s. They lived in very tough conditions (most Nissen huts were not isolated, there were no ovens or toilets) until they could afford to move to their own homes. It is also important to mention that the British Authorities didn’t recognise Polish qualifications and many educated Poles worked as labourers, railway workers and miners as these were the main professions widely available to those who came. Despite the hardship, most Polish communities in Britain organised themselves very well by building their own Catholic Churches, Saturday schools and clubs, as well as following religious and secular traditions until this day 1.

Prior to working on The Polish Community in Leicestershire – people who came here in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, I had never recorded people and their life-stories, and must admit I was concerned that my lack of knowledge and experience would have an impact on the project. I was also anxious over getting in touch with the representatives of the Polish community as I was convinced they wouldn’t want to respond to someone my age or wouldn’t want to talk about their darkest moments from the Second World War. As it turned out, all of my worries were unnecessary and the experience of recording others proved to be simply magnificent! Despite the fact that I have read many books and watched countless documentaries regarding the Second World World War and Siberia, I discovered that I still wasn’t completely prepared to listen to someone who actually went through this hardship and who remembers horrifying events from that period.

It is hard to describe the range of feelings and emotions that you experience as you listen to a person telling you their most terrible memories. Interviewees openly shared with me their stories, such as: travelling for weeks at a time without food or water in cattle wagons to Siberia; starvation and hard labour during their time in Russia; eating nothing but grass whilst being in Uzbekistan; holding a baby sister overboard as there was no space on the ship’s deck during a journey through the Caspian Sea; suffering from diseases such as typhoid or constant inconveniences like lice. What surprised me was their ability to find positives, even at the worst moments, which I believe has its roots in the deep religious faith they had and continue to have now. It is really tough to stay objective at all times whilst talking to someone whose life was full of petrifying but also wonderful events and I think that even an experienced oral historian would have found it difficult!

What I found out during these interviews astounded me as I realised there is a huge part of the Poles’ history greatly unknown and untold in Poland itself, let alone in Great Britain. Without knowing the stories of the Polish people who came here directly after the war, it is impossible to understand their agendas, reasons for staying in Great Britain or the lack of complete assimilation into British society. If I – a Pole and a history graduate – wasn’t fully aware of some of the above mentioned aspects, why should I be surprised that the average British person has no knowledge of the Polish community, especially the one formed in the late 1940s?! I am only hoping that by making the recorded stories available to the wider public, these amazing accounts will be more acknowledged and admired, and not unknown any more.

Notes:

  1. 1. For more information on the Polish camps and Poles’ first years in Britain, please visit northwickparkpolishdpcamp.co.uk 

15 comments

  1. David Matthew says:

    I am slightly surprised by the lack of knowledge about the Poles as they, of course, helped us win the Battle of Britain. The British Government’s view of Poland during the Second World War was that they viewed them as problematical as shown by the reaction to the death of Sikoski in Gibraltar and (unproven) suggestions of British collusion and the British and American reactions to the Katyn Massacre. In my view a lot of Poles came to this country to escape the totalarian Communist regime in Poland and until the Gdank uprising in 1970 British people knew little and you can understand why they did not want to go back to Poland at that time.

    We should, in my view, not take the issue of non-assimilation of Poles in the UK as a big issue as Brits who emigrate to countries like France and Spain often go to ex-pat areas. I found it interesting when I was looking for a British ancestor that the number of Polish graves in Newton Abbot in Devon where there are photographs on the gravestones.

  2. Kasia McCabe says:

    Thank you for your comment David.
    General British knowledge of Polish people, their issues and problems, is slim – at least in my experience. Not many people realise complex Polish-British relationship, especially between the war governments, know of Katyn or even Gdansk 1970 and 1980. I have talked to many people as I have always found it interesting and asked them simple questions regarding Poland: most people know of Krakow, Lech Walesa and alcoholic beverages the country is famous to produce. And that’s it. Many don’t know why the Poles ended up in Britain in the 1940’s and younger generation believes that post 2004 Polish immigration is first to this country…Hopefully the exibition and making the recorded stories available will help to reshape those views.
    PS. I don’t class lack of assimilation to be a big or totally negative issue – it is just a results of that specific immigration wave and one of the reasons behind it.

  3. Catherine Czerkawska says:

    My father came to Yorkshire with an army unit at the end of the war. And you’re so right. Not a lot is known. Like the fact that when these ‘aliens’ were demobbed they could either work in the mills or the mines – or at least that was certainly the case in Leeds, where I was born. My dad met and married my Leeds Irish mother there and worked as a textile presser while he went to night school. For many Poles, the problem was that since all the borders had shifted, there was no home to go to. It’s why so many UK Poles are from the Lwow area. Dad was from a little village called Dziedzilow, now Didyliv in the Ukraine. My grandfather is buried in Bukhara – he died of typhus on the long march East – courtesy of Uncle Joe Stalin. My dad had seen horrors, lost most of his family – and yet remained the most gentle of men, a lovely father. He worked and assimilated (perhaps because he had married a local girl) and by the time he died was a distinguished research scientist, here in Scotland. Somewhere, I have those papers that label him ‘alien.’ In Leeds, whenever a crime was committed by an alien, the police would come round to check on them. They woke me (a baby) once too often, and instead of my conciliatory father, they got my Yorkshire Irish mum to deal with instead! They never came back. As a professional novelist and playwright, I’m in the middle of writing a memoir of my early childhood in 1950s Leeds with a Polish father and an English Mother – due for publication some time in 2013.

    1. Kasia McCabe says:

      Hello Catherine and thank you for the fascinating post! If you would like to find out more about the camps the footnote I provided is full of information gathered by a Polish lady born in one of them – truly wonderful work!
      It is brilliant to hear from Polish-British people, especially those who know the story of their Polish parent. I have met so many people whose Polish parent never talked about their past, never mentioned their Polish family or introduced Polish customs at their home. And once they died that knowledge and experience was gone, lost forever!
      I shall be looking out for the publication – good luck and all the best!

  4. Krystyna Szypowska says:

    Is it possible to view or listen to these interviews somewhere? Would you be willing to share the interviews on the Kresy-Siberia Virtual Museum website? See cips of hundreds of interviews we have done worldwide at: http://www.kresy-siberia.org/hot

    1. Kasia McCabe says:

      Could you please send me an email explaining your project and how would the interviews fit there? Katarzyna.McCabe@leics.gov.uk
      I am sure you understand that I will need the permission from the interviewees prior to any action.

  5. Elaine Hargrove says:

    Dear Kasia,

    I am so excited to find your work! I am very interested to learn more about the Polish Provisional government’s attempts to hold Stalin responsible for the crimes at Katyn and other crimes against the Poles. I have studied Bronislaw Kusnierz’s book, “Stalin and the Poles: An Indictment of the Soviet Leaders” and really cannot find out what attempts for justice were behind it. If you have any information, I would really appreciate hearing from you. I am aware of what happened regarding Nuremberg, and the the Madden inquiry a few years later, but am specifically wondering if there was any attempt to take the matter to any international body. Any information you might have – or resources you might direct me to – would be appreciated!

    1. Kasia McCabe says:

      Hi Elaine and thank you for your post!
      Katyn massacre is a very tough subject for all the Poles who are aware of it – I think mainly because we are still waiting for the justice regarding this tragedy. As far as I know during the communist years Polish authorities dismissed the issue completely and everybody was forbidden to talk about and discus it with others – in a public or private life. Hence the Flying University, Radio Free Europe and individual memory were so vital for this event not to be forgotten.
      I could suggest the following:
      http://www.ipn.gov.pl/portal/en/szukaj/?search=121491576&sort=2&order=1&ile=20
      L.R. Coatney: The Katyn Massacre: An Assessment of its Significance as a Public and Historical Issue in the United States and Great Britain, 1940–1993, Western Illinois University 1993
      Katyn – 4 volumes published between 1995 and 2006 in Warsaw, edited by A.Gieysztor.
      It is brilliant to know that people become fascinated by subjects which only technically ‘are far from home’ – all the best in your search Elaine and let me know if you find anything worth suggesting!

    2. Robert Szymczak says:

      It was not the “Polish Provisional Government” that believed that it was the Soviets, and not the Germans who butchered over 21,000 Polish officers at Katyn and elsewhere in the Soviet Union. It was the legal Polish Government-in Exile in London that raised the question. This government was abandoned in favor of the Soviet puppet regime that came to power as a result of the Soviet entry into Poland in July of 1944, sponsored by Stalin. The Provisional Government was a creation of Stalin that took over Poland during the Red Army’s entry into Poland in pursuit of the Germans. The Provisional Government opposed the Polish Government-in-Exile in London and its armed forces. It was the first phase of the complete Communist take-over of Poland. Please read more about the Katyn case!

  6. Jayne Persian says:

    Great blog post, Kasia! And a wonderful opportunity to initiate some DP oral history recordings. We have too few here in Australia, even though we took 170,000 DPs in the postwar period.

  7. Kasia McCabe says:

    So true Jayne! And yes there were many Poles, and other nationalities, who came to Australia in the late 1940s. We are intending to put short audio files from the oral history recordings at the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland website at the beginning of 2013 so please keep checking it!

  8. Elaine Hargrove says:

    Thank you for the leads, Kasia! I will look into them!

    I did recently read a dissertation by Robert Szymczak entitled, “The Unquiet Dead: The Katyb Forest Massacre as an Issue in American Diplomacy and Politics,” that was very interesting and helped a lot. I have also read nearly all of the Madden inquiry transcripts – until my Kindle failed, I think from all the highlighting! I wrote about it for my master’s thesis in 1998, but found little available. I was writing a screenplay, and when I went to research librarians for help, they did what they could, but then after a point, just threw up their hands and said, “Make it up.” So I did, but hated that I had to depart from reality. Now that more documentation has come to light, I would like to do more research and rewrite it.

    For the record, I live in the US and both sides of my family immigrated here in the 1600s from various locations in the UK. I am not Polish at all. But my dad was in the military and I grew up in Germany. Somehow I sensed the Poles were an extraordinary people and the unsung heroes of WWII. I do not regret the years I have spent researching them!

  9. Elaine Hargrove says:

    Oops – Katyn. Sorry for the typo!

  10. Kasia McCabe says:

    Brilliant to hear about keen and passionate people! Keep up the good work and good luck with finding out new info!
    ps. IPN should be helpful when it comes to documents.

  11. Elaine Hargrove says:

    I’ll certainly look into it – thanks so much!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

We will not be able to respond to personal family history research questions on this platform.
See our moderation policy for more details.