Tragedy of WWII: Exile and Two Polands
Poland’s fate after the devastation of World War II requires little repetition.
The treacherous German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact and then the Yalta Conference consigned Poland to the Soviet sphere as part of a dubious bargain. A communist government installed in 1945 – and recognised by the Allies – left the Polish government in exile in the UK high and dry.
Poland’s experience of both brave and effective resistance on two fronts, with no assistance, was a proud chapter. Poles’ legendary use of their cavalry to destroy the enemy’s tanks by means of the Polish anti-tank rifle is a well-known story in Britain. Memories of the Long March out of Siberia via Palestine following on the German attack on the USSR in 1941 remain vivid. General Anders led the remnants of the deported Polish army of over 100,000 men and many civilian deportees largely from eastern Poland out of the Soviet Union through Persia to the Middle East, India and further afield. The subsequent formation and accomplishments of the Polish II Corps under General Władysław Anders (1943–1947) including the Battle of Monte Cassino (1944) provided a new heroic anthem of Red Poppies. The Katyń Forest Massacre carried out by the Soviets on 22,000 of Polish officers and intelligentsia (1940), the mysterious death of General Władysław Sikorski (1943), and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 all figure in the calendar inherited by the exiles alongside the inevitable feeling of betrayal.
Through the Polish Resettlement Act of 1947 over 160,000 Polish service personnel were granted the right to remain, and from 1948 indeed to take British citizenship, a privilege also extended to over 30,000 civilians who were largely their dependents. From the start this second forced exile of what was called by some as ‘Poland on the Thames’ was characterised by its military and political character; the Polish government-in-exile and Polish political parties in the UK reflected pre-war allegiances with attendant organisations and structures. Gradually, however, it was the social and cultural organisations – characteristic of a receding vision of return and a yearning for identity – which took precedence in this assimilation. The acronyms of PUNO (The Polish University Overseas; Polski Uniwersytet na Obczyźnie; est. 1949), PMS (The Polish Educational Society; Polska Macierz Szkolna; est. 1953) and POSK (Polish Social and Cultural Association; Polski Ośrodek Społeczno-Kulturalny; est. 1964) were redolent of this need to connect to a Poland and a past largely out of reach.
Apart from the servicemen and their families, before 1956 new migrants were few and far between due to Polish and British immigration controls. The aim of the exiled Polonia elite was to transmit the truth of communist rule to British society whilst tending to the garden of Polish historical blooms. The children of the Displaced Persons camps spread across the UK, went to Saturday Schools, joined the Polish YMCA and Scouts, and went to Polish Churches, living a parallel existence which raised few eyebrows among the rest of the population. In many ways the measured introduced after 1946 made for what can only be described as an exemplary immigrant community, both in terms of their being true to their origins, and loyal to their new homeland.
Text by Professor Jerzy Kolankiewicz