There's no place for home

Keeping the Faith

November 9, 2001

At 5am on February 10 1940 the Russian secret police, the NKVD, banged on the door of my mother's house in eastern Poland with their rifle butts. She and her family were given less than an hour to put together a few clothes and some food before being taken to the railway station and herded into a train bound for Siberia. The journey in unheated cattle wagons would take three weeks, during which many people died, their corpses thrown from the train.

More than 1.5 million Poles were rounded up in this way by the Russians. Many died in the camps from starvation and disease. In my mother's camp of 10,000 people, her two young brothers died from cholera and typhus. By the time of the "amnesty" negotiated between Stalin and the Polish government-in-exile in London in 1941, only 900 inhabitants of the camp were alive.

Keeping the Faith : The Polish Community in Britain is a beautifully illustrated, justly award-winning book about those events and what followed. It tells in the words of the people themselves the story of the 160,000 predominantly Roman Catholic Poles who settled in Britain at the end of the second world war: the culmination of an horrific journey from the Nazi and Siberian camps, often via Persia, India and East Africa.

It was the beginning of an uneasy relationship with the country that gave them a home. Many Poles had fought alongside the British. The Polish Air Force played a pivotal role in the Battle of Britain. My father served under General Anders in the Polish Second Corps that joined the Allies in Italy in their fight northwards, where the Poles broke the five-month German defence of Monte Cassino.

However, Poland was unrepresented at the Tehran and Yalta conferences when the British, Americans and Russians rearranged its borders. In 1945, nearly half of pre-war Poland was annexed by the Soviet Union and, by way of compensation, Poland was given land in the west taken from Germany. But this new Poland was to be ruled by a Moscow-controlled Communist regime. My parents and many others could never go home - what had been their home was now no longer Poland. My childhood echoed with the anger my parents felt towards Churchill, who had promised them a free Poland and "had sold them down the river".

The end of the war saw 140,000 Polish soldiers settle in Britain despite the efforts of the British government to persuade them to go back to Poland. To add to their humiliation and fury, they were excluded from the London victory parade in 1946 in a bid by the British to appease Stalin. Their role in the war had been quickly forgotten. They were resettled in camps around the country that provided them with English tuition and a training for life in the world beyond. But their world was the one they had brought with them, a pre-war Poland seared on their memories, to which they knew they would probably never return.

"Coming here was seen as a safe place, but it wasn't really home, and it could never be home as such. Their home's in their heart," says someone in a moving testament to the Polish spirit. But in the following years, they tried to replicate the land that was in their hearts, had children, formed a "Polish bubble" around them, with clubs, associations and Saturday schools that instilled in their children a sense of pride in their roots through language, culture, history and tradition. Traditional too for all of us second-generation Poles was to hate going to Polish school. "It very much made you different," says a child in the book. As a teenager I remember telling my mother that I would never make my children go to Polish school. Now my 14-year-old daughter repeats the same words to me.

But for my daughter's grandparents, it has been a case of "once a refugee always a refugee", as one of their compatriots says in this book. "I'm a foreigner here and I would be a foreigner there." After the war, my father could have settled in Canada, the United States, South America or Australia. He chose Britain because it was the closest to Poland. He has never been back.

Ann Mroz is deputy chief subeditor, The THES .

Keeping the Faith: The Polish Community in Britain

Author - Tim Smith and Michelle Winslow
ISBN - 0 907734 57 X
Publisher - Bradford Heritage Recording Unit in association with the University of Sheffield
Price - £9.95
Pages - 128

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