Perhaps the most emotional moment in Africa for me was a visit to the Polish Cemetery in Tengeru. Tengeru lies near Arusha, about 20 minute drive (a little longer now with all the road works). From Arusha we took a matatu, a local means of transport which are small vans, richly decorated (often in the colours of the English football clubs) packed to the fullest. The system is simple but effective. Vans operate according to more or less specific routes. The crew consists of a driver and a “tout” who shouts the final destination, gets people in and takes the money. There are no specific stops, if you need to get off the matatu stops 🙂
The pleasure of taking matatu will cost you 500 Tanzanian shillings per person which is about £0.18. From the junction with the main road we took a taxi for 10,000 shillings (less than £4) which was not an excessive price because the driver drove us to the cemetery, waited for us to see everything and drove us back to the intersection where again we boarded the matatu. We were a small attraction, being the only white people in the matatu.
Some might ask – how did the Poles get to Africa? It all began on 17 September 1939 when Russia, breaking the non-aggression pact signed in 1932, attacked Poland. Attacking us was a part of the deal, fulfilling Russia’s obligations to its ally, Germany. The diplomatic note, given in the morning of that day to the Polish ambassador in Moscow was stating that the Red Army crossed the border to defend the populations of Belarusians and Ukrainians. If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because today Putin uses the same methods. The same reason was given in 2008 in Georgia, in 2014 in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine. About a quarter of a million Polish soldiers got into Russian captivity. Most of them had been released home apart from about 25000 soldiers detained as forced labourers and 15000 officers of the Polish Army, Police, KOP (Border Protection Corps), Border and Prison Guards (placed in camps in Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov). In November of 1939 “Western Ukraine” and “Western Belarus” had been incorporated into the appropriate Soviet republics and all the inhabitants received Soviet citizenship. The mobilization to the Red Army and the “passporting” (issuing Russian passports) began. And what to do with the so-called ideologically uncertain element? And what had been always done in Russia? There’s only one answer – send them to Siberia! After all they can’t be all kept in prisons. The first deportation began on 10 February 1940 and it contained mostly officials and military settlers with their families. Destination – the northern regions of the Soviet Union. The second deportation took place on 13 April 1940 and included the families of officers and intellectuals held in the mentioned camps and prisons (as a reminder – the executions in Katyn began on 3 April 1940 – all beautifully synchronized…). They were taken to the northern Kazakhstan. The third deportation took place in June and July 1940 and included mostly refugees from western and central Poland. They were sent to northern Russia. Fourth deportation took place in May and June 1941 and contained mostly intelligentsia, railway workers, families of people already suffering from the System. They were taken to northern Russia. By northern Russia I understand everything east of Arkhangelsk.
The soon-to-be Sybiracy (people resettled to Siberia) usually had about 15 minutes to pack then were led to the station and loaded into cattle cars. Depending on the transport Russians squeezed in in the carriages between 25 and 70 people. A hole in the floor served as a toilet, a small grated hole in the wall as a window, two bunks on both sides of the wagon and stove with no fuel (even though in winter the temperature dropped to -40 degrees). The journey lasted a few weeks and with the exception of water or thin soup no other food was served. If no food was taken by the deportees, the mortality rate would’ve probably been very high (about 3-3.5 thousand people died in transports). Huts or dugouts awaited them on arrival Sybiracy were sent mainly to deforestation. Insufficient food, hard work, low temperatures, diseases (typhoid, pneumonia, tuberculosis, deficiency, malaria and others) decimated Poles. In addition it was necessary to resist Sovietization. There are different opinions about the number of deported – from 313,000 to 1.7 million, depending on the source. The number of about 320-330 thousand is currently the most common one. I think it is a little too low and that’s without looking in the archives. Many reports talk about the high mortality rate among the deportees, a lot of people did not manage in time for the Polish Army, a lot of old and weak people didn’t even attempt to reach the places of forming units and Anders left Russia with only around 120 thousand people. Even if some of them were kept in prison since September 1939 it would mean that 1/3 of the deportees left with Anders. The strongest ones lived up to two years as lumberjacks in Siberia and the majority of those deported were not young, strong men… But let historians with access to the archives determine the exact numbers.
All Poles welcomed with relief 22 June 1941 when one ally turned against the other. With a knife at his throat Stalin needed every pair of hands. And so the Sikorski-Maisky agreement had been signed, restoring diplomatic relations between the Polish and Russian governments (even though on 17 September 1939 Russia claimed that the Polish state ceased to exist…) and announcing “amnesty” for Polish people kept in prisons and gulags. Many Polish politicians at the time thought that Sikorski shouldn’t have allowed this nomenclature but the General wanted above all to save as many of our countrymen as possible. The formation of the Polish Army began in August 1941 in several towns along the railway line Samara-Orenburg (now southern Russia, near the border with Kazakhstan), later the units moved to the area of today’s Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. In early 1942 Stalin began to demand the 5th Division (Kresowa) to be sent to the front but Anders and Sikorski opposed the idea after which Russians said that from March the food rations would be dramatically reduced (the soldiers shared their rations with civilians). That’s when General Anders decided to evacuate his Army. During the first evacuation in March and April 1942 around 44 thousand Poles went to Iran. 2nd evacuation (August-October 1942) was bigger – around 70 thousand of our compatriots. Most were transported across the Caspian Sea from Krasnovodsk (now Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan) to Pahlevi (now Bandar-e Anzali in Iran).
Together with Anders Army around 41000 civilians came from Russia to Persia. Several hundred children were sent to India, 6000 women joined the army (PSK – Women’s Auxiliary Service – the so-called Pestki), about a thousand teenagers went to cadet schools, 1653 Jews went to Palestine but there were still some 32,000 people left to deploy.
Already in the summer of 1942 an agreement was concluded between the British Government and the governors of Kenya, Tanganyika and Uganda. Originally it was agreed that 10 thousand Poles would be sent. By autumn there were voices that all civilians from Iran could be dispatched to East Africa. Ultimately in 22 camps in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the Union of South Africa (now Republic of South Africa), Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) more than 18 thousand Poles were placed. Most of them were sent to Uganda and Tanganyika. Ships were arriving mainly in the port of Mombasa in Kenya, Tanga in Tanganyika and Beira in Mozambique.
Tengeru lies at the foot of Mount Meru (4565m high). The climate in this area was quite favorable for the Poles as only for 3 months of the year the temperature reaches 40 degrees. The camp was around 400 hectares big and was located on the territories inhabited by the Maasai tribe. The site of the camp had been cleared up and new cabins were built just a few days before the arrival of the first refugees. Huts were mostly circular, with a diameter of about 5 meters. The walls made of clay were whitewashed, with a conical roof, covered with banana, palm leaves or grass, wooden doors, window grid. One house was designed for one family and equipment although might have been primitive, satisfied all the basic needs. Pretty soon huts were surrounded by beautiful backyard gardens.
The first transport of 1,045 refugees arrived in the port of Tanga on 8 October 1942 and was transported by train to Tengeru station and from there by cars to the camp. By the end of the year a total of 3,000 people arrived of which nearly half were children. The views were breathtaking – people read of African landscapes and animals in Sienkiewicz’ “In Desert and Wilderness” but in most cases that was the whole knowledge about the african continent…
Tengeru was the biggest Polish camp in Africa (population fluctuated around 4000 souls) and was perfectly organized. At the head was the British commander who collaborated with the Polish camp authorities. Poles had no obligation to work as every adult got 10 shillings and child under 16 years of age 2.5 shilling per month. Most of them, however, wanted to work. In addition to the farm there were a few working workshops: blacksmith, tannery, leather goods, carpenter, weaver. Surplus vegetables, milk and meat from the farm were sold. Several departments were established: Cultural and Educational, Public Security, Labour, Public Health, Military Families’, Agriculture and also the Postal Agency, hospital, bacteriological clinic, orphanage, cooperative shops. A Camp Council was created. A school year began in November 1942. As in Santa Rosa in Mexico, education in Tengeru at the beginning was on a low level – they lacked teachers, textbooks. With time, however, the situation had improved. There were three elementary schools, three middle schools, high school, vocational schools and kindergartens. It seems a lot but let’s not forget that over 40% of the refugees were children.
Scouting was developing dynamically, it began to form in Iran. Just lke schools also scouting was troubled by lack of qualified personnel. Around half of the children joined scouts but who would not want to be a scout in Africa?!?
Polish newspapers were published. Very popular was “Pole in Africa”, published from March 1943 up until July 1945 when the British withdrew grants. “Pole in Africa” was replaced by “The Polish Voice” which had been issued from October 1945 by the Polish Press Fund. Rubric worth mentioning was the section “Search Families”. The desire to join or find one’s family was the main cause of refugees’ movements between the camps.
You can not forget about the religious life. Although the Roman Catholic religion was dominant, a church for Orthodox Christians and a synagogue were built. The cross-section of the camp community can be clearly seen in the cemetery. The first person to be buried, Michal Tchorz died on 23 October 1942 and the last person, Edward Wojtowicz died on 18 March 2015. At the moment 150 Poles lie in the cemetery in Tengeru and I must say that they are resting in a beautiful, very well kept place.
In addition to the nearby Polish mission with father Darek, the cemetery is under the care of Simon. He’s been doing it for 15 years, when he took over from his father, who took care of the cemetery since 1942. It was nice to hear “Dzien dobry” in Africa. Simon lives next to the cemetery so he will arrive as soon as he hears a car or voices. After letting us to the cemetery, he showed us Guest Book and various publications and told about the visits. I had quite a bit of time to get around the cemetery to look at and photograph every grave. I felt emotional and peaceful at the same time. And a little sad that after all the suffering these people endured, it was not possible for them to rest in the family graves back in Poland…
Of course the pressure after the war was huge. British preferably would’ve locked up the camps already in May 1945. Poles began to leave and spread around the world, although in 1950 there was still around one thousand of our compatriots in Africa. Most went to the UK but it was possible only for families of soldiers staying there. Widows of soldiers of the 2nd Corps were no allowed to go to England – I will leave it without comment…
A. Hejczyk, Sybiracy pod Kilimandżaro, Rzeszów-Kraków 2013, 192 pages.
N. Davies, Trail of Hope, UK 2015, 600 pages .