“We’ve come to this! They brought us here to get rid of us. They removed us from civilization so no one will know, no one will hear us. For the rest of our lives!”
These may well have been the understandable feelings of the Poles who had been taken from their homes and deported to the forests of northern Russia in 1940, but these words were spoken by the first Polish arrivals in Masindi, Uganda, in 1942. They were, in fact, the same people: Poles who had been deported to Siberia by the Soviets in 1940 and who managed to escape with the army of General Anders in 1942.
From the Arctic to the Equator in just over two years, an incredible journey and an astonishing story of resilience, stoicism and spunk.
Their odyssey was beyond anything they could ever have imagined, travelling by trains, river barges, trucks and carts from the arctic regions of Russia, to the steppes of Siberia, the deserts of Kazakhstan, some of the bleakest regions of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and across the Caspian Sea. In Persia, their journey continued in convoys of trucks on narrow, serpentine roads over mountains, sometimes across bamboo bridges, and then more deserts to the Persian Gulf coast or by train to India. From there they would be dispersed once again… but where to?
They were refugees, former prisoners from Stalin’s gulag, risking any kind of transport to get away from that monstrous land. When they reached Iran – though back then it was known by its ancient name, Persia – the healing began, both physical and spiritual. Some, who had crossed overland from Tashkent, were hosted overnight at a Persian orphanage, treated not only to chicken, rice, fruit and sweets but also to songs and dances performed by the Persian children. Someone who landed on the shores of the Caspian at Pahlavi told another story. “I remember,” she said, “seeing people dressed in colourful clothes carrying baskets. Suddenly they began throwing things at us. It was frightening; we thought they were stones, but they were pomegranates!”
India was magical, a sea of brilliant colourful clothes, smiling faces, and very spicy food. “Monkeys were everywhere, it seemed, and if we weren’t careful, they would take food right out of our hands.” After a while, it did not seem strange to see an elephant serenely transporting several riders. “No adventure stories we ever read as children prepared us for this amazing country.”
Along the way, the long line of refugees from the USSR was dispersed in different directions. Some 1,000 orphans accompanied by a few guardians went to the beautiful city of Isfahan in central Iran; another thousand were taken in by the Maharaja Jam Saheb Digvijay Sinhi; about five thousand were given a safe haven in Valivade in the princely state of Kolhapur. There were thousands more, and finding a safe haven in a world at war was not easy. But Britain still had colonies in Africa, and it was decided that 32,000 would go there to wait out the war in hastily built refugee settlements. And they were settlements, though frequently referred to as “refugee camps.” Words are important and this distinction likely contributed to the sense of dignity of all “Polish Africans” and to the joyful memories of the children, whether they were aware of the term, or not.
Crossing the Indian Ocean was a dangerous undertaking during the war. German and Japanese submarines were everywhere and transports could only be undertaken in convoys. But whatever anxieties the mothers may have felt, for the children it was a great adventure with flying fish, playful dolphins and gigantic waves. And on to Africa, to trains awaiting them in Mombasa. The first group of refugees would go on to Masindi, in Uganda.
Masindi is situated near the source of the Nile, not far from Murchison Falls, a beautiful area surrounded by volcanoes that boasted 273 earthquakes in one year, though none of them very severe. Home to so many magnificent wild creatures, including the world’s largest crocodiles, it was a dream laboratory for any zoologist. But for a few hundred exhausted women and children, it was a frightening reality. At first. But a few years later, one of them was to say, “Were it not for the longing for home, this is where we would want to live.”
Not much was ready for this first group, though it included 311 school age children, but eventually it would comprise six “villages,” one of them with 438 people of whom only 13 were men. The over-all director of the settlement was an architect who had built the Polish Pavilion for the World Fair in New York in 1938.
Among the first arrivals was Dr. Jadwiga Zielinska who set up Masindi’s hospital, which would ultimately have 40 beds, three doctors, 27 nurses and a pharmacologist. In 1942, the settlers’ health was still not fully recovered and now Dr. Zielinska had to deal with malaria and other tropical diseases caused by parasites and insects. But first, one had to cut through three kilometres of elephant grass and clear 50 hectares, and also get over their shock and stop the lamentations. Fearful mothers made children fearful so the mothers did what had to be done: concealed their fear, rolled up their sleeves and got to work. The children had to be fed and put to bed; the mosquito nets unnerved the mothers but quite enchanted the kids. With memories of howling wolves in the dark forests of Russia still a vivid memory, the Poles now had to convince themselves – and reassure the children – that the nocturnal choir of shrieks, howls and growls of the African animals was nothing to fear.
School was under the direction of Dr. Kazimiera Skórska who also organized a theatre, puppet shows, and a newspaper. The first classrooms were set up in the shade of giant trees – one mahogany was two metres in diameter and over 30 metres tall. Desks were of very rudimentary construction and the children sat on stones or blocks of wood. At first teachers taught from memory, while the students were equipped with stubs of pencil and bits of paper. Eventually they received books, some from Polish Americans, some from England, others quickly printed by the army in the Middle East. But at first they used whatever came their way, including a Baptist Bible, frowned upon by a visiting priest but a treasure in Dr. Skórska’s view.
The settlers had much to do and soon discovered talents amongst them that included construction, carpentry, tailoring/dressmaking, shoemaking, hairdressing, bakery, electrical, water pumps, brickworks, ironworks, welding and woodworking.
Nearby plantations grew a variety of crops including yams, corn, nuts, bananas, avocado and tapioca. The settlers learned to grow some of these too, but also planted old favourites, such as beans, tomatoes and potatoes. They grew. Sometimes their crops were trampled by elephants and rhinos, while monkeys and baboons liked to come for lunch, so the settlers had to share – but it was very entertaining.
A year later, there were over 3000 people living in Masindi, with a school population of 1,653 in elementary, gymnasium and lyceum levels. Everyone had a feeling of great satisfaction that they “could manage, no matter what.” So they built themselves a church.
An even larger settlement was established in Tanganyika, (now Tanzania). Tengeru would ultimately have a population of 5,000, again with a large orphanage. Situated at the foot of Mount Meru near the cool waters of Lake Duluti, one could always see Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance. There were banana forests nearby providing “fast food” for hikers, while their leaves served as umbrellas whether to shelter from sun or rain. They were also used to wrap meat at the butcher’s. The bamboo forests were like a cathedral, the tall trees its pillars, creating a green oasis that cooled the body, soothed the soul.
Tengeru was equally well organized, boasting a hospital, the three levels of school plus technical schools, and a church. A library, a YMCA, theatre, and a cinema (just a roof on stilts) were added attractions. Like Masindi and all the other settlements in Africa, their round huts soon had European gardens around them, with neat hedges and colourful flowers. The pathways of the settlements had street signs bearing the names of Polish poets, composers and historical figures.
The farm at Tengeru produced all the produce, milk and meat the community needed. Indeed, it was so successful that after the Polish refugees left it was taken over by the government of Tanzania and was the beginning of the Agricultural Research Centre.
Throughout the settlements, all sorts of activities were made available to the youth. Scouts were a popular organization that created strong friendships, taught useful skills and provided many activities including trips. They also provided an opportunity to meet youth from other groups such as English, Hindu and African. That the Girl Guides and Boy Scouts were so popular could have a number of reasons. Certainly the quality and the dedication of the leaders was one factor but another was Africa itself. Unlike European Scouts, the African group did not have to look for “wilderness” areas they could go to a few weeks a year. The African environment was perfect – jungles, rivers, lakes, mountains, all of them pretty much uninhabited. The army sent some excellent leaders, among them the psychiatrist and educator, Dr. Victor Szyrynski who said, “I am convinced that our campsites and campfires in the tropical jungles ignited in the souls of these young people a sensation of pure beauty that will remain as a foundation for their lives.”
Mindful of the men and women serving with the Polish forces, the settlements organized handcraft exhibits and sales– tablecloths, napkins, bed linens, dolls, crocheted works. The sales were a big hit in the nearby towns and proved a successful fundraiser to help the people of occupied Warsaw and the men in German POW camps. The settlers also made sweaters, gloves, scarves, and leather goods such as wallets, and sent them to the POWs, along with razor blades that they received in large quantities from the US. Since there were so few men, they had little use for them.
To be sure, there were sad times. Children whose parents died in the Gulag had to learn to live with that ache in their hearts, but they formed strong bonds among themselves, creating surrogate families, and these bonds lasted to the present time. There was anxiety about their fathers and brothers fighting in Europe and their deaths were deeply felt. And there was the unknown future: Where? When? How?
The British authorities were, in general, helpful and supportive. But as always, there were exceptions. Some, at first, wanted to fence what they called the “camps,” only to be told that the Poles were citizens of an allied country and not prisoners. In Rhodesia, for example, a Lieut. Bakshaw snapped, “Why should the English taxpayer pay for you Poles?” The response was quick: “It’s not your king and your taxpayers paying. We’re paying with our blood and with our gold, that was smuggled out of Poland.” (i.e., the government-in-exile was footing the bill though indeed, the British provided the territory. Perhaps now it’s time to acknowledge that it was African territory.) When the war ended and Britain withdrew recognition from the Polish government in favour of Moscow’s regime, life became more difficult. But that’s another story.
Both Tengeru and Masindi, indeed all the settlements scattered around Africa, provided a few years of life touched by magic, a much needed healing after the brutality of the Soviet camps and then the unsettling disillusionment after the war, when the displaced Poles realized they could never go home, that their compatriot’s valiant war effort earned them only a betrayal. The most painful part was the separation of friends, and even families. Some were going to England, some to Canada, the US, Australia or Argentina. So they faced more wandering, but whatever challenges still to come, they knew they “could manage, no matter what.”