Born in a Nissen hut in a resettlement camp in the English Midlands, Czesław Siegieda has become a visual archivist of Polish post-war life in Britain. His new book, ‘Polska Britannica’, released earlier this year, provides a snapshot of lovingly preserved national customs and traditions within a community trying to rebuild after the devastation of World War II.
For decades before the book was published, the photographs had been lying hidden in a drawer, out of respect for the privacy of his parents’ generation. The archive was unearthed and gradually digitised in 2018, 40 years after the first pictures had been taken – attracting the interest of many photographers and historians, who encouraged its wider publication.
Siegieda was born in 1954, and lived in former RAF barracks until he was three years old before moving to a terraced house. His parents had left Poland for a new life after distressing experiences during World War II: his mother had been deported to the Soviet Union, eventually travelling to the Middle East, whilst his father had fought at Monte Cassino. Like hundreds of thousands of Poles who had settled in Britain both during and immediately after the war, the couple initially settled in a Polish resettlement camp in Leicestershire. Many such camps had been established in Britain post-war, housing thousands of traumatised Polish refugees often in former army and Air Force buildings. After Poles who had fought alongside the British were granted the right to stay in the UK in 1947, thousands more settled in the country, forming close-knit communities.
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The camps took on a role as a little corner of Poland in Britain, providing refugees and their families with a chance to maintain customs and connections, even in exile. The friendships carried on as Poles settled in more permanent housing, and it is this sense of community that comes across clearly in Siegieda’s photographs, which often feature as their subjects Polish – and frequently religious – traditions.
Siegieda’s interest in photography came early: gifted a Kodak Instamatic, by age 13 he had set up a home-made darkroom to record his family and surroundings. He later went on to study Art and Visual Communications at Trent Polytechnic – Polska Britannica contains over 90 images from an archive which began as an assignment for his studies, and which were taken between 1974 and 1981. Each conveys a proud and intimate sense of the Polish community in Britain. Effortlessly organic, the photographs have the feel of a hidden lens on Polish Britain, and an intimate, even closeted snapshot of a uniquely Polish world.
‘You wouldn’t think the images were taken in the UK at all’, muses documentary photographer – and Siegieda’s former mentor – Martin Parr in his foreword to the book. His support was crucial for the publication of the collection, helping to open up the private archive to the wider world. But the lingering near-private feel to the collection is still part of its charm. Polish life in post-war Britain was fairly insular: the photographs betray signs of the community’s self-contained and independent nature, its members loyally and unashamedly pursuing Polish customs. Behind the scenes, however, they were often living double lives too. Siegieda, like many others, might have been brought up completely Polish at home, but in British spheres like schooling, the emphasis was on assimilation. This even went as far as his own name: he switched the sibilant, consonant-heavy Czesław, which he used in the Polish world, for the easier-to-pronounce Jan, for British life.
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Siegieda bounced between the two cultures throughout his childhood – and this multifarious existence also played a part in encouraging him to start the project in the first place. Siegieda was aware that the post-war Polish community was one of fragility and temporality, which would eventually disappear with the loss of his parents’ generation. This was reinforced after the death of his father, when he was just ten years old.
This loss also catapulted Siegieda even further into those ricocheting Polish-British worlds: his mother spoke broken English, leaving only the young boy as the family’s translator.
But still the photographs retain a distinct Polishness. Glimpses of national customs suffuse many of the pictures in the album – one depicts gaggles of girls giggling away in national dress; in another, a man lounges against a window, whilst in the foreground a photograph of Pope John Paul II adorns a cardboard box, with the words ‘Fresh Cut Flowers’ slinking up its side.
All have a sense of intimacy too. Siegieda had automatic access to Polish events and family occasions, as well as Polish institutions, allowing him to fully document almost every inch of Polish post-war life, from childhood to death. Some of the photos appear more posed – more like family portraits – than others. In one, a sulking man with an umbrella looks the picture of cool insouciance as he poses away in front of megaphones at Pitsford Hall; in others, children’s mouths drop open almost in surprise as the camera makes an unexpected foray into their lives.
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Still, other pictures depict individuals skipping away from the photographer, or seemingly oblivious to his presence. This blend of formal and spontaneous, of professional and caught-unawares, is another charming part of the collection. Despite some hesitancy in terms of his subjects, you get the feeling that many of the individuals featured in the photographs were known to Siegieda. In fact, even years later, Siegieda was still able recollect some of the events and people in the pictures.
In keeping with his family ties, the very first in the collection is an image of his mother and stepfather. In the book’s afterword, historian and author Jane Rogoyska notes:
His mother Helena, though physically robust, looks careworn and vulnerable, clutching a bucket of vegetable peelings or a picture of the Virgin Mary like a life raft whilst her husband (Czesław’s stepfather) hovers in the background, as if ready to lend a hand if needed but not wishing to intrude.
It could be a snapshot of any family. It is also a uniquely Polish one.
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It is also one now lost to the past. In the bygone shades of monochrome, the collection clearly speaks to another time: amid 1970s bold prints and big collars, there’s that sparse, slightly gloomy look of mid-20th century photography, where even the good times have a hint of something shabby and dour. Siegieda also plays up the absurd and the enigmatic in his photographs: three young women look bashful and glum in angel outfits for a Nativity Play; a huddle of girls – all wearing the same black dress with white flowers – cower under umbrellas in Pitsford Hall gardens, as their parents look on from the patio behind.
The collection toured across the UK in 1978, after Siegieda exhibited them in a show run by the Half Moon Gallery. But when they came back home to Loughborough, the response was unexpected: the Poles in the photographs were ashamed and embarrassed that they had been made into an exhibition, and Siegieda then decided he should keep the collection private.
But this time, however, the photographs seem to have struck a chord with the Polish diaspora, along with non-Poles, as an unusual and comprehensive visual documentation of the now-lost community of post-war Polish life in Britain.
It might finally be time for this unique community – in its entirety – to be seen and admired once more.
Written by Juliette Bretan, 9 June 2020
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