The Windrush Poles: From Deportation to New Life
default, The Windrush Poles:
From Deportation to New Life, The Empire Windrush arrives at the Port of Tilbury on the River Thames on 22 June 1948, photo: Daily Herald Archive / SSPL / Getty Images, center, #000000, windrush_gettyimages_6.jpg
A ship synonymous with post-war migration to the United Kingdom, the HMT Empire Windrush and its historic 1948 passage marked the start of an immigration boom that would change British society forever. Arriving at Tilbury Docks in Essex, hundreds of its passengers from the Caribbean seeking a new life in Britain would go on to be known as ‘the Windrush Generation’.
But few people know that among the ship’s 1027 passengers, there were also 66 Polish refugees on board. Displaced by World War II, they too were hoping for a better future in the UK – although their journey to England had come after a ten-year, tragic odyssey which had already taken them far from home…
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Officers of the Polish and Soviet armies during exercises in the winter of 1941, Władysław Anders is sitting on the right, photo: unknown, press service of Polish Army in the East
The Polish refugees who ended up on the Windrush had actually begun their journey back in 1939.
When war erupted, Poland was occupied by Nazi and Soviet forces, leaving Poles facing daily cruelty, terror and devastation. But worse was yet to come. In the middle of one February night in 1940, several Polish families in the Soviet-occupied area were woken up by Russian soldiers, given minutes to gather together some possessions, and then packed into cattle trucks for deportation to Siberian labour camps. Thousands more would also be sent away in subsequent weeks and months – around 1.5 million Poles are known to have been deported east between 1940 and 1941.
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The crossing and blurring of boundaries — the physical ones dividing states and the mental ones separating categories of people and activities — profoundly destabilised the people of eastern Poland, especially those forcibly transported eastward. Locked in the transports, Poles screamed with anguish and fainted from grief when they crossed the border of their country. They dreaded what they would encounter once they had passed the border, for it seemed they were leaving behind their entire civilisation.
Katherine R. Jolluck
The train journey to the camp lasted weeks. Food supplies were low; one hole was available in the floor of the train as a makeshift toilet; and there was only a small stove to use for warmth, on which snow – collected for use during occasional train stops – would be melted to gather water for drinking or washing.
Subsequently, many perished during the journey. Babies who had died from the cold or hunger were thrown out of the windows by guards. Bodies were left at the side of the train tracks.
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Those who survived the journey were then made to work in appalling conditions in the labour camps. Some were forced to fell trees, whilst others had to work in mines or transport timber. There was insufficient food, with Poles later recalling how they had to eat tree bark to prevent agonising pangs of hunger.
But the hardships, freezing conditions, and near starvation continued, with thousands losing their lives as a result. The dead had to be buried twice, the ground too hard to dig.
Escape from the camps
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Polish refugee camp operated by the Red Cross in Tehran, Iran, after the evacuation from the Soviet captivity in Siberia, 1943, photo: US Library of Congress / Wikimedia.org
The horrors of the Siberian labour camps went on until 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded their allies the Soviet Union. In July, a treaty was signed by the Soviets and the Polish government-in-exile, as part of which ‘amnesty’ was granted to the Poles who had been deported east. Many of them, however, were not made aware of this news, with only unreliable information available, and with little assistance from Soviet authorities. But some did manage to get out, and travelled south, forming a Polish army under General Władysław Anders.
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Despite the Soviet side’s reluctance to consistently uphold the terms of the amnesty, in the late summer of 1941, waves of Poles started flowing from all over the country to the southern portions of the USSR in search of outposts of the newly formed Anders army. Polish citizens travelled for months in extremely dismal conditions seeking the care and protection of their own government.
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The journey through Russia and central Asia also claimed many lives, with starvation and disease rife. Eventually, however, the army – which now comprised men, women and children, some orphaned – made its way to the Caspian Sea, and sailed to Iran, with those who could fight later moving on to North Africa and Italy.
The military obligations of the Anders army, however, posed difficulties for the civilian refugees who had journeyed with it to the Middle East.
The Army, which had organised and managed the exodus, was no longer in a position to cope. But the British authorities in Iran were also hard-pressed, having no facilities or personnel to deal with such a large-scale influx of malnourished and disease ridden refugees.
Davies writes that the refugees were first registered and questioned, with institutions – such as schools and welfare centres – also set up to provide some normality. However, a permanent home for civilians urgently needed to be found. In London, Polish officials visited embassies and representatives to seek help.
In the following months they succeeded in raising support from five separate sources: the colonial government of British East Africa, the Maharajah of Nawanagar, the Jewish Agency in Palestine, the Government of Mexico, and the Prime Minister of New Zealand. The diaspora was going to be worldwide.
In Tehran, the Polish Consulate – as well as a group of workers led by Count Michał Tyszkiewicz and his wife, the famed singer Hanka Ordonówna – coordinated efforts to evacuate refugees over a period of two years from 1942-44. Small-scale departures were organised, with civilians sent to transit camps in Iran – Ahvaz, in the south-west, was primarily used – then on voyages from the Persian Gulf, and then finally settled in their destination. Many, writes Davies, had to wait months in Ahvaz before they could sail.
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In 1943, as part of these transports, around 1,400 Poles – mainly women and children – were sent to the small village of Colonia Santa Rosa, near León, in Mexico. The Mexican government saw it as their contribution to the allied war effort.
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Map detailing the location of all the buildings and areas of the Santa Rosa colony during WWII, photo: Kresy-Siberia Foundation / https://kresy-siberia.org
It was a long journey to Santa Rosa. The refugees first travelled to San Diego on the USS Hermitage, and were then taken by special trains to León.
Near it lay the abandoned hacienda of Santa Rosa, which the Mexican government allowed the refugees to use during the time of war. Gradually, thanks to the efforts of the arrivals and help from the outside, the hacienda buildings were remodelled and adapted to the needs of the Poles.
Elżbieta Wróbel & Janusz Wróbel
For some of the young refugees who had been evacuated from the Middle East, their new homes across the world provided the first comfort and safety they could remember. But for those in Santa Rosa, it went a step further.
When they arrived in León, writes Piotr Piwowarczyk, an orchestra welcomed the refugees with the Polish national anthem, whilst locals greeted them in Polish.
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It was something incredible. After two years spent in the Soviet Gulag and later in refugee camps in Iran and India, for the first time we felt like human beings. Until now, we were unwanted trespassers, who bring with them illnesses and suffering. Here, they met us as awaited guests, and it is hard to describe the feeling of appreciation and surprise we all felt for their hospitality.
Anna Zarnecka de Burgoa, quoted in Piotr Piwowarczyk
The conditions of the settlement were also agreed by the Polish government, Mexico, the US and UK, with the American Foreign Relief and Rehabilitation Operations government agency covering the costs. Cultural activities were supported by the National Catholic Welfare Conference, whilst the Polish-American Council provided clothes, medicine and access to education and health services.
Thanks to [their] efforts […] the Polish refugees in Santa Rosa were provided with suitable living conditions, conditions about which their compatriots in occupied Poland and the camps located in other nations of the world could only dream.
Elżbieta Wróbel & Janusz Wróbel
There were living quarters, a new school – where the Polish curriculum could be taught – plus an orphanage, gardens and playing areas. Children received regular gifts from charity organisations, and the community also began to organise theatre activities and concerts. Mexicans also eventually supported the Poles in learning new skills and jobs.
But when the end of the war arrived, the Santa Rosa refugees were again in limbo, as were many displaced Poles.
At the end of the war there were 5 million Poles scattered across the globe. Refugee agencies faced the mammoth task of tracing surviving family members, putting them in contact, and sending them off on further journeys.
As a result of the Yalta Conference, many could not return home to eastern Poland, which was now in the Soviet sphere of influence. Despite some visits from communist officials in the following months and years, only a few refugees in the settlement decided to travel back to Poland.
After some uncertainty, the Mexican President Ávila Comacho personally welcomed the refugees to stay in Mexico, although some, including hundreds of orphans, decided to reside in the US.
Santa Rosa was dissolved in 1947.
The 'Windrush Poles'
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But for some Poles, settling in the US or Mexico was not ideal – they wanted to travel to the UK.
The UK became an attractive prospect after Churchill pledged to support Poles who had fought alongside Brits; a promise made into legislation when the Polish Resettlement Act was passed in 1947, allowing Polish troops who had contributed to the Allied war effort a right to receive support from the UK government. Assistance was then offered to their relatives abroad to join them – including some in Santa Rosa. And their transport was to be the Windrush.
Before it began its passage across the Atlantic, the ship toured the Gulf of Mexico in May 1948. At Tampico, notes Clair Wills, ten Poles left the ship to join family members already there – they ‘had covered thousands of miles by the time they got to settle in North America’.
But other Poles wanted to leave Mexico.
Just as ten Poles left the Windrush in Tampico, sixty-six others joined it. They were mostly travelling to join husbands demobilised in Britain as part of the Polish Resettlement Corps.
Dr Nicholas Boston notes in his research that the ‘Windrush Poles’ listed their last country of permanent residence as Mexico. They were ‘Alien Passengers’, whilst the ship’s other passengers were listed as ‘British Passengers’. There was also only one adult Polish male on the ship, with the rest women and children.
Jane Raca, whose mother-in-law, Janina Folta, was on the Windrush, also described the conditions on the ship in The Guardian:
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Onboard the Windrush, Janina and the other children didn’t know how to use cutlery to eat the food that was provided. The food in Mexico had been mostly stew and tortillas; in Asia they had eaten whatever scraps they could find. Janina remembers the crew trying to teach them to hold a knife and fork, and how this embarrassed the older girls. They travelled in berths below the waterline, paid for by the British government. Janina recalls it being musty and dark and they were all seasick. They were not allowed to roam freely on the boat; they could only go out on deck in escorted groups and she never saw any of the other passengers.
The refugees were heading for various locations around the UK – and formed part of hundreds of thousands of Poles who sought a new life there post-war.
The ‘Windrush Poles’ were relatively few. Up to a thousand at a time might be carried on ships leaving Mombasa, Bombay, Dar es Salaam, Cape Town, Durban, Port Said or Beirut and headed for Southampton, Liverpool or Hull. Some of these ships were on the return journey from Australia, where they had deposited British subjects emigrating on the Free and Assisted Passages to the ‘Old Commonwealth’. The Poles who had sat out the last years of the war in camps in India and East Africa chose Australia and, later, the United States as their eventual destinations. Some returned to Poland. But the majority of those who had been deported to Russia in 1940, and later joined the Polish Army, chose Britain.
They might have been a small number, but the ‘Windrush Poles’ became part of the ship’s history, and the history of post-war migration in the UK – even though this has been unrecognised for decades.
According to Raca, some Poles were even unaware they had been ‘on the famous ship’ until recently. Photographs from the ship’s arrival in the UK, she adds, show ecstatic Caribbean migrants disembarking – but there are none showing Poles:
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Any photos of the Poles would probably have shown a more sombre mood. Their arrival was the culmination of an apocalyptic story stretching back a decade.
polish refugees in mexico
poles in the uk
polish culture in great britain
Written by Juliette Bretan, Sept 2020
Sources: 'The Polish Deportees of World War II', edited by Tadeusz Piotrowski; 'Trail of Hope: The Anders Army, An Odyssey Across Three Continents' by Norman Davies; 'Exile and Identity' by Katherine R. Jolluck; theguardian.com; britishfuture.org; independent.co.uk; cosmopolitanreview.com