The horrible images we’ve all seen recently of the destruction in Ukraine and the poor refugees having to escape from their country will strike a chord with many older Bedfordians whose families similarly settled in Bedford, far from their home countries, after WWII. Many Polish people came to Bedford and are buried at FHRC, and their story was very well told at The Higgins Museum’s “Poland in Bedford” exhibition. The following account, by a Friend, tells how and why they came to Bedford.

On the 10th February 1940, the first 140,000 Poles were deported to Siberia. The soldiers came very early in the morning. The men were told to lie down on the floor and had rifles pointing at them, the women had between 15 to 30 minutes to gather some belongings. The families were mainly of military and state officials, forest and railway workers as well as farmers. The other three waves occurred in April and June 1940 and the summer of 1941.

The people were packed into cattle wagons with no sanitation, little food and water and taken to the depths of Siberia. There, the men were told to cut down the trees and the women had to take off the branches and push the logs into the river, in sub-zero temperatures. The staple diet of the prisoners was bread and water. The food varied slightly from camp to camp as this depended on the kindness of the guards. Families supporting each other helped to keep many alive. The exact number of deportees is unknown but the estimate is considered to be around 1.5 million.

When Germany invaded Russia n 1941, Stalin needed help from the Western Allies. One of the conditions of the December 1941 Agreement was that the Polish prisoners were to be released in order to form a Polish Army. The Second Polish Corps under the command of Lt. General Wladyslaw Anders was formed.

General Anders was determined to get the families released with the soldiers and suddenly Stalin agreed to their release granting them ‘amnesty’. Approximately only 100,000 were released at that time before Stalin put a stop to this.

In August 1942, Anders met Churchill to discuss the organisation of Polish armed forces. Eventually, Stalin agreed to an evacuation of Polish refugees. However not everybody made it to the borders and some remained in Russia, as they were not given permission to leave.

The Polish Army transferred to Persia (Iran) to serve under General Wilson. Training sessions took place in Iraq, Palestine and Syria.

The families that left with the army went to Uzbechstan and then across the Caspian Sea to Tehran, Iran. Maharaja Digvijaysinhji of Nawanagar heard of the plight of these refugees and was determined to help them, especially the children. He provided tents and set up a camp in Valivade, the princely state of Kolhapur. He also built a camp in Balachadi, mainly for orphans or one parent families. He welcomed these refugees as members of his extended family. The Poles regarded this as a blessing and up to today they honour the Maharaja and his family. Some refugees remained in the camps in India and some were taken to Tanganyk4 Keny4 Uganda and Northern Rhodesia.

The Polish Armed Forces in Exile became the third largest fighting force in the West, after Britain and America. The Polish Resettlement corps was formed tr.1946, as a Corps of the British Army for a period of their demobilisation in 1948. This granted permission for the soldiers to obtain employment. They were housed in camps in the army barracks which had been vacated by Americans and Canadians, after the war. One such camp was in Kempston Hardwick and another in Podington.

The Poles could not return to their native land as they were regarded as enemies of the
state. Having fought with the Allies, they were allowed to settle in Britain and bring over their
families. Some Poles emigrated to America, Argentina, Australia Canada and New Zealand as
these countries were also willing to give them a home. The ships bringing the families would
normally sail to Liverpool or Southampton. The families would then be transferred to various
camps and the very ill would be taken to Penley Hospital no.3 in North Wales. This was a Polish army barrack hospital.

The jobs that were offered to the Poles were in mining, forestry, agriculture, the railways and of course, the brickworks. Many Poles started to learn English before they arrived in the country to help them to integrate. Although they wanted to keep up their traditions at home, they also wanted to be accepted by the English people as they were so grateful to them, otherwise they would be homeless or had to return to Siberia.. The women found consumer shops very useful. Once the consumer shopkeepers got used to them, they were happy to chat and this, in turn, helped the women to improve their language skills.

Times were very difficult as flats cost f5.25 a week and an average weekly wage was f4.50.
The families, therefore, stayed together in large groups for survival purposes. Their one aim being to buy homes eventually, to build a safe future for the next generation. There were some very kind people in Bedford such as the owner of Mathisons furniture shop in Bedford who let the Poles buy necessary furniture, negotiating reasonable terms for payment.
Many women also had to find work in order for them and their families to survive. Meltis, Texas Instruments, sewing clothes for John Dibble and agriculture were some of the jobs they were accepted for.

The children were mostly bilingual as, when their parents worked, their grandparents
looked after them and normally spoke to them in their native language.

in i960, the Poles got together to buy a ‘Polish House’, where various functions were held and a Polish Saturday school was housed. The children learnt History, Geography of Poland, the Polish language, folk songs and national dances. The English people were always invited to their festivities.

Most of the Poles were Roman Catholic and Father Marian Majewski became their parish priest. Father Majewski had managed to survive Dachau and the one thing he asked of his parishioners was never to sing Silent Night in his presence. This was because the German soldiers used to sing it while torturing the prisoners. Canon Hulme accepted Father Majewski into his parish. This was the Holy Child and St. Joseph parish on Midland Road. Canon Hulme was very kind to the Polish people. He was always welcome and he always took part in the polish celebrations.




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