Fascinating exhibition in Wales tells story of WWII hospital which became a Polish ‘village within a village’

Staff and staff children in Polish costume at Penley Hospital. Wrexham County Borough Council / Cyngor Bwrdeistref Sirol Wrecsam

A fascinating exhibition documenting the lives of post-WWII Poles living at a hospital in Wales has gone on show.

The exhibition at Wrexham Museum commemorates the true-life story of Polish casualties of war staying at a hospital in the village of Penley.

At its peak, the community numbered 2,000 patients and staff and the complex grew into what Jonathan Gammond, the curator of Wrexham Museum, describes as a ‘Polish Wonderland’.

He said: "In 1941, the Poles formed a military hospital which travelled across the world with the troops.

“They fought in North Africa and up through Italy and travelled over most of Europe.

“But when the war came to an end, the people didn't want to go back to Poland."

Penley Hospital chapel, with reredos that appears in the exhibition.Jonathan Gammond Access & Interpretation/ Dehongli a Chyfranogiad

Many of the images on show at the exhibition were taken by Andy Bereza, one of the more than 2,000 babies born at the site.

Bereza’s father who played a key role as a doctor and administrator at the hospital, documented the lives of the many families and social occasions even making a short documentary about the Poles’ experiences there.

Penley, the largest of the three camps, housed not only the hospital but also doctors, nurses and all the auxiliary staff and their families needed for running the hospital.

The camp had its own nursery, entertainment hall, club room, a full-size snooker table and a well-equipped cinema with authentic cinema seats. Bereza said: “We didn't need to leave the camp for anything, even secondary school.”

The former American army base was well equipped with its own X-ray department, physiotherapy, operating theatre and many other departments including a maternity unit.

First communion at Penley, the woman is Maryna Chwalibog, a lady who established a folk group in pre WW2 Poland which is still going today.Wrexham County Borough Museum & Archives /Amgueddfa ac Archifdy Bwrdeistref Sirol Wrecsam

One of the barracks was converted into a church and Polish cultural and religious traditions were observed. Bereza said: “It was a memorable lump of pre-war Poland stuffed into North Wales."

The hospital was supported by a local League of Friends charity, which raised funds for the hospital and planned events and activities for the patients and residents.

When Bereza was 13, the League of Friends gave him two reels of 8mm film to make a movie about life at the camp. He made many short 8mm films, which he still has today and some are included in the exhibit.

This family atmosphere, similar to other camps around the UK, also benefited the patients who, where possible, were involved in the community life.

Sylwester, Polish New Year’s Eve celebrations, was a particular highlight with many Poles from around the UK coming to Wales for the celebrations. "It was a village within a village but though it was a closed community, it wasn't walled off. There were many mixed marriages early on." Gammond said.

A Corpus Christi procession at Penley.Henryk Matuszak/Wrexham County Borough Museum, North Wales

Many second generation Poles were born at Penley between 1947 and the 1990s but by 2002 there were only six patients left.

In 2004 a new hospital was opened near the original site and they replaced the old 30 ward complex with a new eight room, bungalow-style, unit.

Claire Lewis whose mother was a nurse for 20 years at Penley has now started a campaign to maintain the old buildings and what remains of the site.

She said: “If the buildings were knocked down we would be missing an opportunity to preserve it for future generations and to tell the stories of the patients and the staff there.

“It would be a missed opportunity to celebrate our Welsh and Polish heritage.”

Opened on 18th March, the exhibition which is presented in English, Polish and Welsh, will run until the 22nd June.