MY FAMILY STORY & SURVIVORS’ LEGACY Article contributed by Alicja Świątek Christofides

 

SS.ORMONDE

S.S. Ormonde, on which my mother, Sabina Marczewska and her parents, Władysław and Władysława, came to England in 1948

 

The ship was on its way from Australia via India, where my mother’s family had been with other Poles exiled to Siberia, onto London. They left Bombay on the 20th December 1947 and arrived in England on the 8th January 1948.

 

Like all other Polish families from the Displaced Persons camps, mine had sepia and black and white photographs as well as our own family story to tell, as part of our legacy for future generations. I grew up with an awareness of our parents’ and grandparents’ ordeals in Siberia and their long journey either from the army or from camps in India or Africa by boat to the UK.

As the first generation to be born on English soil, we spoke Polish as our first language and were immersed in traditions brought over from Poland, with our parents’ and grandparents’ sense of patriotism intensified by their suffering during their uprooting from their homeland.

The Polish Displaced Persons Camp near Fairford, Gloucestershire, where I was born exists only in photographs and in people’s memories as there is literally no sign of the buildings when you go there now, just the 2 gates, the fields and the trees that were there when the 1,200 or so Polish refugees lived there in the corrugated iron nissen huts that were converted from the American 32nd Field Hospital. It is interesting to compare the aerial view, (from Google Earth) and recent photographs with pictures of the camp when it was used for housing displaced Polish families.

 

These were typical family barracks.

One of the gates to the camp.

The camp chapel was on this spot.

 
 

The Fairford camp marked the start of a new life for the Polish refugees there; many of the young people met their marital partners there, particularly at the regular popular dances, and they later moved with their hopes and dreams of a better life for themselves and for their children, mainly to Swindon, the nearest large town, where the prospect of work and proper homes drew them. Many of my memories of that time are vague but family photographs and descriptions by my family and other adults have filled in the gaps; I remember particular

Alicja in her Sunday best

events, such as religious processions, ‘akademie’ with lots of rousing patriotic singing, sitting in the camp chapel on Sundays and Holy Days with the sound of Polish hymns and prayers, crying in my pushchair after a painful vaccination in the camp surgery, and particularly happy times when my mother took me to Fairford, and also to Lechlade- a popular spot with people in the camp- in the child seat on the back of her bicycle. Going on my tricycle was great, too.

 

WEDDINGS & CHRISTENINGS

 

Their religious faith kept spirits up during the bleakest of times for the emaciated survivors of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation. Roman Catholicism was, and for most Poles still is, intertwined with national identity; religious observance on Sundays, Holy Days, weddings christenings and funerals was an important part of their lives. Weddings and christenings, in particular, are shown in many families’ photographs. The church of St Thomas of Canterbury in Fairford was where many marriages were celebrated, with receptions held in the camp. Father Leon Czapski was the  priest in the camp; he is shown in the left photograph of my parents’ marriage at the church. When the camp finally closed Father Czapski  moved to a Polish parish in Crewe, he died there in 1986.

Alicja with her mother

The little churchyard next to the church was the final resting place for many of the inhabitants including Dr. Rajewska, who moved from the camp to Swindon, where she had a surgery.
 
 

My mother had great respect for her mother, symbolized in this gesture at her wedding in Fairford

 

 

 My parents out side the little church after their wedding 

 
 

A wedding group out side their nissen hut in the camp

Receptions were held in the huts, note the curved walls  .

Marczewski and Awdziejczyk family

 

My own god-parents were Pan Adamski, who was a close family friend, and my mother’s sister, Janina Awdziejczyk, who is shown holding me in the  photograph on the left. The picture in the middle is of my grandmother, with me in the pram. The one on the right shows me as a toddler in national (Krakowski) costume, in the garden by our barrack.

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SKILLS

 

Post WWII, English people as well as Poles knew how to live economically and ‘make do and mend’. My grandfather knew how to mend shoes; my mother had learnt how to sew and to make up patterns for skirts, dresses, suits, hats and coats. Somehow or other, she had managed to bring over to the camp and later to Swindon, her Singer treadle sewing machine from India, which together with the sewing skills she learnt there, saved the family a lot of money. The sewing machine is now a family heirloom

My mother also cut the family’s hair, using hairdressing scissors and clippers which also enabled us to save money. My father was a painter and decorator who had trained in Poland before the war and was resourceful and creative enough to ‘make something out of nothing’, such as furniture from orange boxes on which he used paint effects to make the wood look like ‘proper’ furniture. By their resourcefulness and sticking together as a family they were able to survive financially and eventually to afford a deposit on a small terraced house in Swindon, which incidentally, was later demolished to make way for a multi-storey car park and we moved elsewhere in Swindon

 

NEW-FOUND PLEASURE & PASTTIMES

 

Though people often had radios, there was no television in those days so people would get together in each others’ barracks and talk, laugh, play cards and so on. Christmas, New Year, weddings, christenings, names days and other celebrations gave opportunities for friendly get-togethers with food and drink, in spite of rationing. Father Christmas (Mikołaj) delivered presents to children, (with help from their parents!) too

 

Knitting, sewing clothes and making crocheted table mats were also useful traditional hobbies popular with many women. In the camps in India and Africa, women had had to find ways of amusing themselves as husbands and young men were away fighting in the war- needlework provided an answer. Patterns for embroidered hangings were swapped between friends and this hobby continued in the camp. I still treasure this hanging of strawberries in a basket which my mother made in the camp about 60 years ago.

 
 

Me and Father Christmas (Mikołaj)

Marczewski and Awdziejczyk family pictured in the camp.

Sabina  with Hela Moroz.

Sabina with her friend Krysia Czerkas, later Jurga; They had known each other from their camp in Valivade, India.

 

SOCIAL LIFE IN THE CAMP

 

Polish dances were looked forward to as opportunities for enjoyment and for the prospect of possibly meeting one’s future husband or wife! In spite of having little money, after being deprived of basics such as food, medicine, clothes and shoes during their exile, people appreciated the possibility of having or making their clothes with real pleasure. The dances provided a welcome opportunity to dress up and to enjoy social life. Older people enjoyed dancing, especially watzes and tangos, as well as chatting with friends. I remember my grandfather would play cards for safety matches, not money, with other grandfathers in the evenings.

 

There were even day-trips from the camp to London to see the sights and to nearby Oxford for those interested.

 

The poverty of the environment in the camp contrasts with the efforts of people to dress smartly and the home-made yet fashionable clothes of women and children; The photograph of me in a frilly dress that my mother made on her Singer sewing machine against the background of a typical camp hut sum it up for me (see below). In many ways, clothes represented the new-found dignity that years of deprivation and hardship had stripped them of.

 

Alicja in a frilly dress

My father and I

Our family in the camp

Alicja with her mother and father

 

There is a school next to the site of the camp, and the two gates that were at the entrances to and exits from the camp, otherwise there is no indication that there was a camp for so many Polish people there. This website provides an important record of the time that over 1,200 Polish refugees lived there and some like me, that were born there.

 

This sign is now by one of the two gates to what was the camp. It gives details of rights of using the path that ran by the area used as a playing field in the camp, and where the chapel used to be on the left of the gate.
 
My grandparents’ generation have all died and a considerable number of my parent’s generation, many of whom met and got married in the camp, have also died by now; like many others of my generation, I wish I had asked more questions while my family were still alive!
 
 

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