MY FAMILY STORY & SURVIVORS’ LEGACY Article contributed by Alicja Świątek Christofides

 

SS.ORMONDE

S.S. Ormonde, on which my mother, Sabina Marczewska and her parents, Władysław and Władysława, came to England in 1948

 

The ship was on its way from Australia via India, where my mother’s family had been with other Poles exiled to Siberia, onto London. They left Bombay on the 20th December 1947 and arrived in England on the 8th January 1948.

 

Like all other Polish families from the Displaced Persons camps, mine had sepia and black and white photographs as well as our own family story to tell, as part of our legacy for future generations. I grew up with an awareness of our parents’ and grandparents’ ordeals in Siberia and their long journey either from the army or from camps in India or Africa by boat to the UK.

As the first generation to be born on English soil, we spoke Polish as our first language and were immersed in traditions brought over from Poland, with our parents’ and grandparents’ sense of patriotism intensified by their suffering during their uprooting from their homeland.

The Polish Displaced Persons Camp near Fairford, Gloucestershire, where I was born exists only in photographs and in people’s memories as there is literally no sign of the buildings when you go there now, just the 2 gates, the fields and the trees that were there when the 1,200 or so Polish refugees lived there in the corrugated iron nissen huts that were converted from the American 32nd Field Hospital. It is interesting to compare the aerial view, (from Google Earth) and recent photographs with pictures of the camp when it was used for housing displaced Polish families.

 

These were typical family barracks.

One of the gates to the camp.

The camp chapel was on this spot.

 
 

The Fairford camp marked the start of a new life for the Polish refugees there; many of the young people met their marital partners there, particularly at the regular popular dances, and they later moved with their hopes and dreams of a better life for themselves and for their children, mainly to Swindon, the nearest large town, where the prospect of work and proper homes drew them. Many of my memories of that time are vague but family photographs and descriptions by my family and other adults have filled in the gaps; I remember particular

Alicja in her Sunday best

events, such as religious processions, ‘akademie’ with lots of rousing patriotic singing, sitting in the camp chapel on Sundays and Holy Days with the sound of Polish hymns and prayers, crying in my pushchair after a painful vaccination in the camp surgery, and particularly happy times when my mother took me to Fairford, and also to Lechlade- a popular spot with people in the camp- in the child seat on the back of her bicycle. Going on my tricycle was great, too.

 

WEDDINGS & CHRISTENINGS

 

Their religious faith kept spirits up during the bleakest of times for the emaciated survivors of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation. Roman Catholicism was, and for most Poles still is, intertwined with national identity; religious observance on Sundays, Holy Days, weddings christenings and funerals was an important part of their lives. Weddings and christenings, in particular, are shown in many families’ photographs. The church of St Thomas of Canterbury in Fairford was where many marriages were celebrated, with receptions held in the camp. Father Leon Czapski was the  priest in the camp; he is shown in the left photograph of my parents’ marriage at the church. When the camp finally closed Father Czapski  moved to a Polish parish in Crewe, he died there in 1986.

Alicja with her mother

The little churchyard next to the church was the final resting place for many of the inhabitants including Dr. Rajewska, who moved from the camp to Swindon, where she had a surgery.
 
 

My mother had great respect for her mother, symbolized in this gesture at her wedding in Fairford

 

 

 My parents out side the little church after their wedding 

 
 

A wedding group out side their nissen hut in the camp

Receptions were held in the huts, note the curved walls  .

Marczewski and Awdziejczyk family

 

My own god-parents were Pan Adamski, who was a close family friend, and my mother’s sister, Janina Awdziejczyk, who is shown holding me in the  photograph on the left. The picture in the middle is of my grandmother, with me in the pram. The one on the right shows me as a toddler in national (Krakowski) costume, in the garden by our barrack.

 

 

A DREAM: TO GET A HOME OF THEIR OWN

 

The camp provided a safe haven and an area for each family to have some privacy, a whole or half a barrack per family. In the early days of the camp, several families had to share large rooms or halls which were divided with a hanging blanket between one family and another. Having their own place meant a great deal to people who had been literally homeless and who had spent years in various transit camps in India or Africa, or who had been in the Polish army. The insides of the barracks were extremely basic. A Primus stove in one of the two ‘rooms’ was used for cooking purposes and heating was provided by a solid fuel stove. There were no washing or toilet facilities, only communal washrooms which were a long distance away from some of the ‘baraki’.

There were council houses available for workers in the fast growing nearby town of Swindon and some people saved very hard to put down a deposit on a small house there. (Life in the Swindon Polish community is yet another story.)

 

WORK

 

Workers were needed in the post-war period on local farms or at the American base nearby. There was also work further afield in Swindon, for instance, in Pressed Steel (later to become part of the Rover Group and then BMW), Garrards and Plessey, in this rapidly expanding town. Some people from the camp, like my mother, worked in light engineering in Swindon, where a bus took them early in the morning, around 7am and brought them back in the evening. Obtaining skilled or semi-skilled work in post-war Britain could be difficult for refugees as unions wanted to protect such jobs for English people. Some workers for jobs in the American bases were needed and also for the camp. My mother, pictured on the right with a colleague, worked for a while in the camp nursery.

 

I attended the nursery mentioned in Celina Wojciechowska’s account of her time in the camp and for a short time, my mother, Sabina Marczewska (later Świątek), worked there.

 
 

LANGUAGE & INTEGRATION

 

Not knowing the English language was another obstacle for most Polish people. There were some English classes in the camp for those who were able to attend though not everyone was able to attend regularly or to a high level. To a large extent, total immersion (‘sink or swim’) in the workplace or shops, as well as dealing with forms, provided the spur to get on with things and for people to help each other. A few people who were already trained as doctors, such as Dr. Rajewska, or some teachers, were able to continue working in their chosen field but several others with skills and qualifications that were not transferable without a command of English, ended up working in menial jobs as language restricted their opportunities for employment and integration when they later moved to Swindon or elsewhere. Their children’s education became an important priority as they saw the next generation had opportunities that they themselves never had. Transferring their hopes and ambitions onto their children thus became the pattern of many immigrants.

 

Children leant Polish from parents and carers and other children as well as from church, where mass was held in Latin in those times and sermons and notices were delivered in Polish. It was not till children started school in the camp that they learnt any English. My family moved to Swindon when I was about to start school so I picked up English entirely from English children and from school. Then, like others of my generation, I spoke Polish at home with my family and used English at school and in the wider world. Children with siblings often spoke English increasingly with them while using Polish with their parents and grandparents and older family friend

 

Many Poles who were older managed to get by without learning English beyond ‘survival’ communication level such as that needed for shopping, and thus their language fossilised. Sometimes English people wonder nowadays how it is that someone who has lived in England for over 50 years, say, could not speak English well: the answer is, firstly, that generally speaking, older people find language harder and secondly, when someone goes to a Polish  food shop, lives with and mixes socially with other Polish speakers, their job does not require them to use much of the new language, their religious and spiritual needs are in Polish and their very identity is linked to their nationality and first language, they end up with just ‘broken’ English which then gets ‘fixed’. Unfortunately, it is also a barrier to integration. Conversely, those who had higher powered jobs obviously had good English language skills.

 

SURVIVAL SKILLS & SELF-SUFFICIENCY

 
 

During their time in Siberia, the Poles in the camp had survived on almost no food: half a hard loaf of dark bread each for the whole week was a typical amount they had lived on. As there were no animals to kill for meat nor fish to catch they had to resort to boiling grasses for sustenance and warmth. Berries, such as bilberries, were a lucky find for some when they were in season. Survival skills, and luck, were what had kept the survivors alive.

 

In the camp it was possible to grow vegetables to eat and flowers to make surroundings prettier. Seeds would often be exchanged between friends and families. Amongst other vegetables, they grew potatoes and cabbage, green beans and onions. Cabbage and potatoes were staples of the Polish diet, especially for the national dish, bigos, made of pickled as well as fresh cabbage, with or without Polish sausage or meat. Small cucumbers were grown for gherkins (‘ogórki’), another favourite in the Polish diet. Flour and other ingredients were available from the village, too. Smalec- fat from meat, would be smeared on bread as a tasty snack (though now regarded as mightily unhealthy).

It was possible to buy meat in the village and eggs could be bought from local farmers. Ration books were in use in the post-war period for everyone in England- I still have mine from that time.

 

Cooking traditional food was another aspect of daily life. Many families had a ‘szatkownica’- a wooden contraption with blades for cutting cabbage in bulk for making ‘bigos’. The cabbage was often stored in wooden barrels. Some people also made their own Polish sausage. (When they moved to Swindon, many Poles obtained allotments to grow their own vegetables. Some people also kept chickens for eggs and meat. Their survival skills made them self-sufficient and independent in outlook.)

 
Many families shared a barrack with other members of the family. My parents, Sabina and Ignacy Świątek, lived with my maternal grandparents,  Władysław and Władysława Marczewscy: they shared a barrack between them and I had a corner curtained off around my bed in my grandparents’ half. There wasn’t one day when my grandmother didn’t refer to the cold and hunger of Siberia, and would symbolically kiss stale bread if ever there was any to be thrown away. Keeping children warm was a typical Polish concern, not surprisingly for people who had struggled to survive in sub-zero temperatures in Siberia: in many photographs, I am dressed up in several thick layers of clothing!
 

SKILLS

 

Post WWII, English people as well as Poles knew how to live economically and ‘make do and mend’. My grandfather knew how to mend shoes; my mother had learnt how to sew and to make up patterns for skirts, dresses, suits, hats and coats. Somehow or other, she had managed to bring over to the camp and later to Swindon, her Singer treadle sewing machine from India, which together with the sewing skills she learnt there, saved the family a lot of money. The sewing machine is now a family heirloom

My mother also cut the family’s hair, using hairdressing scissors and clippers which also enabled us to save money. My father was a painter and decorator who had trained in Poland before the war and was resourceful and creative enough to ‘make something out of nothing’, such as furniture from orange boxes on which he used paint effects to make the wood look like ‘proper’ furniture. By their resourcefulness and sticking together as a family they were able to survive financially and eventually to afford a deposit on a small terraced house in Swindon, which incidentally, was later demolished to make way for a multi-storey car park and we moved elsewhere in Swindon

 

NEW-FOUND PLEASURE & PASTTIMES

 

Though people often had radios, there was no television in those days so people would get together in each others’ barracks and talk, laugh, play cards and so on. Christmas, New Year, weddings, christenings, names days and other celebrations gave opportunities for friendly get-togethers with food and drink, in spite of rationing. Father Christmas (Mikołaj) delivered presents to children, (with help from their parents!) too

 

Knitting, sewing clothes and making crocheted table mats were also useful traditional hobbies popular with many women. In the camps in India and Africa, women had had to find ways of amusing themselves as husbands and young men were away fighting in the war- needlework provided an answer. Patterns for embroidered hangings were swapped between friends and this hobby continued in the camp. I still treasure this hanging of strawberries in a basket which my mother made in the camp about 60 years ago.

 
 

Me and Father Christmas (Mikołaj)

Marczewski and Awdziejczyk family pictured in the camp.

Sabina  with Hela Moroz.

Sabina with her friend Krysia Czerkas, later Jurga; They had known each other from their camp in Valivade, India.

 

SOCIAL LIFE IN THE CAMP

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Polish dances were looked forward to as opportunities for enjoyment and for the prospect of possibly meeting one’s future husband or wife! In spite of having little money, after being deprived of basics such as food, medicine, clothes and shoes during their exile, people appreciated the possibility of having or making their clothes with real pleasure. The dances provided a welcome opportunity to dress up and to enjoy social life. Older people enjoyed dancing, especially watzes and tangos, as well as chatting with friends. I remember my grandfather would play cards for safety matches, not money, with other grandfathers in the evenings.

 

There were even day-trips from the camp to London to see the sights and to nearby Oxford for those interested.

 

The poverty of the environment in the camp contrasts with the efforts of people to dress smartly and the home-made yet fashionable clothes of women and children; The photograph of me in a frilly dress that my mother made on her Singer sewing machine against the background of a typical camp hut sum it up for me (see below). In many ways, clothes represented the new-found dignity that years of deprivation and hardship had stripped them of.

 

Alicja in a frilly dress

My father and I

Our family in the camp

Alicja with her mother and father

 

There is a school next to the site of the camp, and the two gates that were at the entrances to and exits from the camp, otherwise there is no indication that there was a camp for so many Polish people there. This website provides an important record of the time that over 1,200 Polish refugees lived there and some like me, that were born there.

 

This sign is now by one of the two gates to what was the camp. It gives details of rights of using the path that ran by the area used as a playing field in the camp, and where the chapel used to be on the left of the gate.
 
My grandparents’ generation have all died and a considerable number of my parent’s generation, many of whom met and got married in the camp, have also died by now; like many others of my generation, I wish I had asked more questions while my family were still alive!
 
 

Page 1 Fairford camp

 
 

Page 2 General Anders visits the camp

 
  Page 3  Current Page  
  Page 4 Article contributed by Alfred (Fredzio) Ostaszewski  
  Page 5 Fairford cemetery.  
  Page 6 Commemorative Plaque.
     

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