The windrush poles

 

The history behind the 

windrush poles

​​Many people in the UK are familiar with the fact that in June 1948, the ship Empire Windrush brought 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, looking for work in response to Britain’s labour shortage. 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 had 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 to the UK under the terms of the Polish Resettlement Act 1947, and to bring their families to join them. 

Reproduced with the kind permission of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

© United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

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 Poles to Siberian labour camps. These included tens of thousands of Jews. They were only released when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 and Stalin agreed they could form a Polish army to help the Russian forces. They then had to try to make their way across 3,000 miles to collection centres in Central Asia and ultimately to Iran, which was then under British control. Many died horribly of starvation and disease; fewer than 10% of those 1.5 million deportees survived the experience. Most men and some women joined the Polish Forces, whilst the civilians, mainly women and children, were settled in 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 in the Soviet Union and were no longer part of Poland.

Apart from the camp in Mexico, others had been established in India, East Africa, Palestine and New Zealand. Similar arrangements were made to transport Polish civilian refugees from there to Britain.

  

Over 100,000 Poles came to England in this way. [1] Their arrival was the consequence of a genocide which has not been acknowledged or atoned for by Russia; nor has it made its way into Western collective memory.

©   Jane Raca 2020

 

 [1] Professor Norman Davies Trail of Hope p120.