Who are

The windrush poles?

Who are the Windrush Poles? 

​​Many people in the UK are familiar with the fact that in June 1948, the ship Empire Windrush brought 492 passengers from the Caribbean to live and work here. They became famous for being one of the first groups to arrive from the West Indies after WW2, in response to a call to help rebuild Britain. They were followed by thousands more, who came to be known collectively as the 'Windrush Generation'.

​Few people are aware that on that same ship were 66 Polish refugees. The Windrush made a special trip to Mexico to pick them up, after it left Jamaica. They were principally women and children travelling to England to join their male relatives, who had been fighting with the Polish Free Forces alongside the Allies. The men had been given the right to come the UK under the terms of the Polish Resettlement Act of 1947 and to bring their families to join them.

The reason that the women had been in Mexico and that they were reuniting with the men in England and not Poland, was the culmination of an apocalyptic story, stretching back a decade. It began when Germany and Russia carved up Poland between them in 1939, and Stalin deported around 1.5 million ordinary Poles to Siberian labour camps. They were only released when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. They then had to make their way across 3,000 miles to Uzbekistan/Iran, where Allied camps were waiting to receive them. Many died horribly of starvation and disease. Fewer than 10% of those 1.5 million deportees survived the experience. Those who had the strength to fight then joined the Polish Free Forces whilst the civilians were settled in other camps all over the world. When the War ended the families could not go back to their homes, as despite the Allied victory, the areas they had come from remained part of the Soviet Union and were no longer part of Poland.

​My mother in law Janina Folta and her family were among the survivors from Siberia. On reaching Iran her father Jozef and brother Władek joined the Polish Free Forces.  Jozef took part in the Allied campaigns in Italy and north Africa and was decorated by Britain for his service. Janina, her mother Ewa and sisters Maria and Mila were sent to a camp in Mexico. They spent five years there until the British Government arranged their  passage to come to England on the Windrush. Similar arrangements were made to transport Polish civilian refugees from other camps, including those based in India, Kenya and New Zealand. Over 100,000 Poles came to England in this way. [1]

 

So few people have heard of the Windrush Poles. It seems to me that neither the near annihilation of the 1.5 million, nor their contribution to WW2, form part of western collective memory. With the 80th anniversary of the beginning of  the second world war this year, I think that needs to change.

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Jane Raca

22 April 2018

[1] Trail of Hope, Professor Norman Davies page 539