Once as a small child, I asked my Polish grandfather why he’d never returned to Poland since being granted asylum in the UK in 1946. He looked at me a little bewildered, then said, ‘darling, how could I go home? My Polish village now lies within Ukraine, that home now only exists in my heart, home is now here in England’. My grandfather, Adam, was from a village in Poland called Kierce, which now sits in Ukraine; my grandmother, Janina, was from a town called Baranovichi, which now lies in Belarus.
September 1939 saw the defeat of the Polish army, by Stalin’s USSR to the east and Hitler’s Germany to the west. Germany and Russia subsequently enacted the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and partitioned Poland. Stalin consolidated his hold on eastern Poland by deporting ‘anyone thought likely to resist’ to Siberia. Estimates vary, but by 1941, it is calculated that approximately 1.6 million Poles had been deported.
Hitler broke his pact with the Soviets by attacking in June 1941. This brought the Soviets into the allied camp awkwardly, with Poland. Consequently, Stalin declared an ‘amnesty’ for all Poles who’d been held in prisons and labour camps in Siberia for the previous two years. All able-bodied men were recruited into the free Polish army, who became the third largest fighting force in the west. The approximately 400,000 civilians who’d survived Siberia were placed in refugee camps in British colonies in Africa and India, to await the end of the war and return to their homes in Poland. Unfortunately, the political settlement between the allies meant that when the war ended, the Soviets fully incorporated eastern Poland into the Soviet Union. The part of Poland where the deported Poles came from became Belarus and parts of Lithuania and Ukraine. The rest of Poland became a puppet state with an oppressive Communist government imposed by the Soviet Union. This gave the exiled Poles little choice but to remain in the West, as their homes were gone, geographically, politically and emotionally. My mother’s family were part of this cohort, who were granted asylum in Britain and never returned to Poland due to the fact that their homes were gone.
My grandparents passed away five years ago, but the stories they told me of life before and during the war, as well as aspects of Polish culture they passed onto me, are still very much a part of my life. I was born sixty years after my grandparents came to Britain, I have visited Poland sporadically and never been to where my grandparents were from. My grasp of the language is faltering, and my claim to being ‘Polish’ after my familial link has gone, now seems tenuous, if not lost. Yet, I still cling to it.
Home for me, both physically and in terms of my Polish identity, in the absence of the two people who were the source of it, now sits in veiled areas of belonging. Home is the image of my grandmother’s coral rosary beads entwined around her papery skin, home is the smell of incense and the light that shines through stained glass windows at Catholic mass, home is pierogi and kabanos and biegos, home is me saying ‘kocham cię’ instead of ‘love you’ at the end of phone calls to my mother. Home is evoked when I am at my worst and my mother tells me ‘you come from a line of survivors; if babcia and dziadek persevered, so can you’.
Crécy is currently studying Social Anthropology in Edinburgh via the Peak District. Talents include spinning plates and overestimating how much pasta to cook, her dream date from history would be Frida Kahlo.
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