Extraordinary tale of Polish WWII emigration to Africa revealed in striking new photo exhibition
Opened to coincide with South Africa’s Freedom Day earlier in the week, two exhibitions have premiered in Pretoria and Johannesburg with the aim of shedding light on the wartime migration that brought thousands of Poles to Africa.
Organized by the National Institute of Remembrance (IPN), the project, titled ‘Trails of Hope; the Odyssey of Freedom’, was originally undertaken to mark the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the operation that saw both civilians and soldiers evacuated from the USSR as part of the so-called Anders Army.
Led by Władysław Anders, the unit was composed of Polish troops held captive in the Soviet Union and was formed in 1941 once Poland and the Soviet Union resumed mutual diplomatic relations.
The presence of so many Poles on Soviet territory had proved a burden; unable to supply them with adequate supplies and rations, Stalin was persuaded to allow the Anders Army to leave and make their way to Iran. In a rare show of benevolence, thousands of ordinary Polish civilians who had been imprisoned in Soviet camps were also allowed to join.
Yet whilst most Polish troops remained stationed (at least for the time being) in Iran, the civilians faced an onward journey with many scattering to countries such as India, Mexico and New Zealand.
Thousands more, however, found themselves in southern and eastern Africa in countries such as Kenya, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Uganda, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and the Union of South Africa (today, simply South Africa).
Then falling under British jurisdiction, it is estimated that over 18,000 Polish citizens were afforded sanctuary in these countries.
Speaking at the inauguration ceremony in Pretoria’s Freedom Park, IPN’s President, Karol Nawrocki, said: “General Anders is remembered as the one who saved thousands of people and their families from Russian captivity. For many of them, their way through to Africa.”
Chronicling South Africa’s own road to freedom, the setting for the exhibition was by no means incidental. Addressing the crowd, Poland’s Ambassador to South Africa, Andrzej Kanthak, said: “… this is a place of remembrance and a memorial to those that have made sacrifices for freedom. It is a place of hope, reconciliation and forgiveness. One could not wish for a better venue.”
Continuing, Kanthak praised South Africa for its acceptance of Poles, pointing out that 500 war orphans were also made to feel at home there. “Poles have never forgotten this generous hospitality. It has created a special bond that has lasted to this day.”
Reciprocating, Dr Otsile Ntsoane, the head of Freedom Park’s Heritage & Knowledge department, expressed his gratitude to the role Poland played during his country’s own days of struggle.
“This exhibition shows how Africa became an important continent for the Europeans. Africa became a safe place to be during the war times – but we also remember the Solidarity movement that supported our first free national elections in South Africa in 1994.”
Casting a welcome spotlight on an episode of history that has largely been vanquished to footnote status, the exhibition leaves no stone unturned in its detailed narrative.
As early as 1941, hundreds of Poles displaced from Cyprus began trickling into the continent via escape routes leading through Romania and the Balkans. The following year, their number was boosted when the first ships arrived from the Soviet Union on August 27th, 1942.
For the new arrivals, conditions varied immensely. Some took up quarters in exotic buildings more reminiscent of giant beehives; others found themselves in clay buildings with thatched roofs.
Resembling miniature worlds, these settlements featured common rooms, chapels, small stores and craft workshops. As they grew, other infrastructure such as schools and libraries were added.
The sense of community was strengthened yet further by social and cultural events and initiatives. In Nairobi, for instance, Polish newspapers titled Polak w Afryce and Głos Polski rolled off the printing presses, and these were supplemented by newsletters penned by scouts such as Czuj Duch and Znicz. Reporting on news back home and the progress of the war, a radio station was also set up.
Dances and theatre performances were likewise held, many in small cafes that had been set up, though the veneer of good cheer was tempered by a strong yearning for home: national and religious holidays were solemnly treated, and touching pictures exist of children wearing Polish folk costumes in the searing African sun.
For those that had fled to Africa, the contrast to their previous life could not have been any more acute.
One refugee, Mirosław Golya, recalled of his living quarters: “because it was so hot, the door was cut in half – from the top half a curtain was hung so that mosquitoes could not get in. The bottom half though remained always closed so that snakes and lizards could not enter.”
Despite the alien surroundings, many fell in love with their new home. Anna Czepiel wrote: “when we got there everything was blooming and the weather was beautiful… Digglefold was the most beautiful place you could ever dream of.”
Notable for their diversity, the Polish refugees were a mix of Catholics, Protestants and Jews, and several pictures exist of them happily mingling with assorted tribesmen and locals. To all intents and purposes, they had found a brave, new world.
Yet whilst women and children made up the overwhelming majority of refugees, their numbers were also complimented by Polish soldiers who had been deployed to military hospitals in Johannesburg, Pietermaritzburg, and Durban.
Other troops, meanwhile, had been sent to undergo military training in South Africa. Among these were the soldiers of the 20th Infantry Regiment of the Polish Armed Forces.
Based at Hay Paddock camp near Pietermaritzburg they proved so popular that on April 8th, 1944, a street in the town was renamed Poland Road. Likewise, the soldiers too remembered it fondly with one, Konstanty Staszkiewicz, writing enthusiastically about the richness of his diet: “When we got there, there were already oranges… You could get a bag of fresh orange for two shillings. The food stood outside by the kitchen – as much as you wanted!”
Yet whilst Africa had brought them together, the end of the war presented a dilemma to all these Polish exiles. Around 3,500 chose to return to face Poland’s new communist reality. The majority, around 11,000, emigrated to Great Britain, whilst others chose even more distant new pastures.
With the last Polish housing estates closed in the 1950s, only a small minority stayed on in Africa, but even so this fleeting chapter remained firmly ensconced in the memories of all those that had experienced it.
An exhibition of great tenderness, there can be no doubt as to the warm sentimental gratitude that it expresses. Yet though this is a story of hope, it has a poignant undercurrent rooted in the present.
Explaining the relevance of the exhibition to today’s world, IPN’s Karol Nawrocki was eloquent in his assessment: “One may think that totalitarian regimes belong to the past. Unfortunately, the recent Russian attack on Ukraine proves the opposite. There is still a long way to go if we want democracy, human rights and mutual respect to flourish. Therefore, we must preserve the historical truth.”
Concluding, Nawrocki said: “The events of the past should be a warning for us and for the generations to come. This is why spreading historical knowledge is our common duty.”