Members of Stratford-upon-Avon's Polish community share incredible stories of how they came to the area following the war
Community group Copernicana is developing an oral history project, gathering stories of Polish immigrants who arrived in Warwickshire after WWII. So far 12 interviews have been conducted with local people. The stories offer a fascinating picture of the life of first Polish immigrants both before, during WWII and after their arrival in Warwickshire.
Manuela Perteghella, who works as a local curator and producer of multilingual arts projects is involved with the project, which is supported by Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the Oral History Network and University of Warwick.
Meanwhile Graham Tyrer from Stratford Street Arts is developing them into a stage play.
Spokesperson Malgosia Librowski said: “Our hope is that through the means of an exhibition and storytelling, offering a vivid representation of the lives of Polish migrants in Warwickshire, we will inspire conversations about the value of migrant communities and their contribution to local life.
“We hope these stories will inform, inspire and enthuse future generations. We think they are often universal narratives from which we can all learn about conflict and war, human resilience, integration and turning adversity into strength.”
Polish community in Stratford
The Polish community constitute the largest ethnic minority in Warwickshire with the Polish language being the second, after English, most widely spoken language in the UK.
Many of our interviewees have experienced life in various resettlement camps in the UK such as the one in Long Marston, writes Malgosia Librowski. The camps were highly organised and offered a support network to thousands of Poles who were torn apart from their families. Following the Yalta Conference which confirmed communist control over Poland, many Poles became political refugees, unable to return to their homeland.
Those who later moved to towns and cities were eager to establish Polish communities, usually closely tied to the Polish Catholic Mission – Poland is a RC country and its Christian spirit have played a vital role within the Polish community.
The Polish community in Stratford had its own Saturday school where children were taught Polish history, religion, geography, literature, and other subjects. For a nation so severely depleted during WWII (one fifth of the Pre-war population of Poland was killed along with much of its intelligentsia) and deprived of freedom (Poland remained occupied by Russians and under communist regime after WWII) the Polish community was a home away from home. It fostered strong family ties, community spirit, continuation of national traditions and faithfulness.
The picture of the highly revered Black Madonna of Czestochowa in St Gregory's church reflects this devotion. This faith has always accompanied and strengthened the lives of the Polish community during the tragic events of WWII, inspiring them to overcome many adversities.
It is wonderful to see that we could gather in front of St Gregory’s church for this photo for the Herald. It emphasises that church has always been the centre of the Polish community in Stratford and this Easter traditions, a long with Holy Saturday and Polish blessing of the baskets where usually hundreds of Poles gather in front of the church to have their Easter food blessed by the priest.
In 1966 the first Polish Catholic Association was formed. It offered delicious homemade Polish hot dinners, Christmas dinners, fundraising events, and dance nights, organised for the local community.
The Polish community in Stratford had its own music band ‘The Knights’ which performed for impressive 45 years at the local community events and social gatherings. The Polish community is very proud of its heritage and continues to cultivate its traditions to this day.
Michal Hominiec, born in 1937
A resident of Stratford of 50 years, Michal grew up in Podole former Polish Eastern borderlands. His dad, an army officer, had been killed at the start of WWII, leaving his mother to fend for their four small children.
Michal witnessed Germans killing his little sister by a single blow to the head in front of his eyes – she lived for another week, lost her speech and died. And this was just a beginning: “I was five or six years old and would wake up to see bodies of Polish people hanging from the nearby trees.
“The Bandera people would come to our house every night, they would probe us, look at us but still leave us alone. Other Poles did not share the same fate – many were butchered, thrown into wells, cut through with saws and men were dismembered by pulling apart with horses. I don’t know how our mother survived this and fed us through those times… we somehow survived.”
As a young man, Michal attended college for non-commissioned officers and later served in the Polish navy.
Jan Mokrzycki, born in 1932
Jan's childhood is connected with Warsaw, where his father was the first oral surgeon in Poland. During the war, many of his family members belonged to the underground organization Żegota supporting Jews. Unfortunately, the Gestapo soon discovered this and arrested his grandfather, father and uncle, and soon also his mother, one of the first female doctors in Poland. All of them were brutally tortured during the interrogations. The men were then murdered and his mother was sent to Auschwitz. She miraculously managed to survive the war years, and when she returned to her son after the end of the war, he did not recognize her - from the brave person his mother was, only a shadow of a woman remained.
Together with his mother, Jan undertook a risky escape to the west, knowing that if they stayed in Poland, his mother would face imminent death. In England, young Jan went to college and was elected president of the National Union of Students. Jan devoted his entire life to Polish affairs, founded the first radio program in the UK - Poles Apart BBC WM, and chaired the activities of the Polish Union. He is a Knight of the Polish Order of Merit and a Knight of the Order of Polonia Restituta.
Jolanta Green, born in 1944
Jolanta’s mother was a nursery manager who, along with many other members of intelligentsia was opposed to the Russian invasion and therefore considered a dissident. During the war she was invited for a 15-minute interview by the Russian police during which she had been arrested and taken to Russia, leaving her three-year old son behind. It took many decades before Jolanta’s mother could be finally reunited with her long-lost son.
Jolanta’s mother was taken to Moscow but managed to escape from a convoy which was heading to a labour camp in Siberia. She was hidden by Russian prostitutes who looked after her and hid her from the Russian authorities. Jolanta described that at some point of her journey, her mother felt so hopeless and depressed that she laid her head on a railway track, praying to God to end her life. Miraculously at that very moment a one Rubel paper note flew above her head, she reached out for it and the train passed by, leaving her unscathed. She was then able to buy food for her and her companions and continued her escape journey.
She later joined the Polish army where she worked as a courier, as due to her dainty build, she was able to crawl unobserved between the front lines. She then travelled through Tehran to Karachi in Pakistan where Jolanta was born. The family, along with tens of thousands of other Poles in exile travelled to Mombasa in Africa and later to Koja, in Uganda where they spent three years in a Polish refugee camp. Jolanta remembers the beauty of the African landscape, swimming the Indian ocean (and being rescued from drowning on three occasions), eating delicious curry and falling ill with malaria. Her mother continued supporting the Polish community as a nurse in the refugee hospital and Jolanta remembers accompanying her mother on emergency hospital visits in the middle of the night as only her mother could calm the most difficult patients. As in many other WWII refugee camps across African and Far East, the Polish community set up hospitals, day centres, training camps, schools, scout groups and churches to support the displaced community and its many orphaned and unaccompanied children. After years of waiting in a refugee camp, Jolanta’s mother had finally embarked on the last refugee transport to England. Jolanta remembers passing Italy and the ship being targeted by German bombers, followed by two bomb explosions nearby. Despite the dangers, the ship continued towards Liverpool. Jolanta remembers arriving in England in her summer dress and thin cardigan – they arrived in the UK with just a small suitcase as the family were robbed the day before their journey, leaving them with no change of clothes. On the day of their arrival there was nine-inches of snow and little Jolanta, who just left the equator in one summer dress, remembers lying on a makeshift bed of their Nissen hut, shivering with cold for many days. The family were placed in several resettlement camps before settling in Long Marston resettlement camp.
‘A responsibility and an honour’
Writer Graham Tyrer has so far translated five of the shared stories into drama scripts. He tells the Herald about his work.
'This is the greastest privilege of my writing life. I’m working with the wonderful Copernicania group to develop the 12 interviews into drama scripts. We want to use the Bear Pit Theatre because of its intimacy and immediacy. The stories of these 12 Polish people are so astonishing.
Stories include fighting the Nazi enemy from the sewers of Warsaw, being deported to Siberia for the crime of being literate, living in the eastern Polish borderlands, fleeing persecution, marriage in wartime, leaving childen behind and being reunited. Some narratives are about living with refugee status, losing Polish citizenship and gaining it back, living as immigrants in the UK, being welcomed by English people and being treated with suspicion. All of the stories are true tales about the triumph of the human spirit. I have the honour of putting these stories on the stage. We hope to create a single evening of what’s called ‘verbatim theatre.’ I’m using the actual words of the 12 interviewees. Everytime I write, a shiver goes up my spine! What a responsibility and an honour.
I’m a first generation Polish immigrant. My birth mother and her family were persecuted in East Poland by the Soviet invaders in 1940 and sent to Siberian gulags along with about 300,000 other Poles. So this work is a tribute to my family and what they endured. I’m inspired by the Copernicania project. There’s nothing more important than to preserve these stories of heroism, love and tragedy. The narratives will now be saved because of what Malgoisia and her team are doing.'