Dr Urszula Szulakowska
School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies
The University of Leeds
LIFE AT MELTON MOWBRAY POLISH REFUGEE CAMP 1957-58
Since the late 1940s through-out the eastern counties of England (as well as in North Wales and Devon) several dozen Polish refugee camps had been organised under the control of the National Assistance Board. These were intended to house some of the 200, 000 Poles stranded in the United Kingdom after the war. The vast majority of the Poles had been deported from the eastern borderlands of Poland in 1940 by Stalin. At a conservative estimate, one and a half million Poles, including the aged and babies, had been sent to work in the labour camps of Khazakhstan, Siberia and the sub-Arctic. In 1945 they had been left abandoned, unable to return to their homeland which had since been forcibly integrated into the Soviet Union by the Allied agreement at Yalta at the demand of Stalin. Eastern Poland had now become Belarus and the Ukraine. The British government permitted the Poles to remain in Britain on the grounds that the young men had fought in the British armed forces.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, having married and established families the Poles were confronted with the same scarcity of private and public housing that constituted an enormous problem for the British population. Unable to integrate the Poles into the towns and cities in the early fifties, the British government decided instead to settle them on the disused air-bases and army encampments. One of these old airfields was located south of Melton Mowbray. The Polish men and women who lived on these various refugee camps went out to work in local industries, commuting by train, bus and bike to the urban areas. The children were sent to the local English schools. During the day only the old remained on the camps. It should be pointed out that although the Poles lived in drafty, damp barracks without running water, or heating and had to use communal sanitary arrangements, they were, nonetheless, expected to pay rent for these barely adequate facilities. They also had to pay for their own electricity. In addition, they paid taxes and national insurance just like the British population. Only the old and disabled Poles received a minimum amount from the National Assistance Board, about eight to ten shillings a week (50p in modern terms), since they had never contributed to the government pension scheme. Out of this small sum they had to pay for rent and fuel, as well as food and clothes.
I was born in Derby in 1950, an only child. My parents, Antoni and Matylda Szulakowski, first moved to be with their families in the Polish camp at Sulby, near Welford in Northamptonshire soon after my birth. They had been living in temporary lodgings that were most uncongenial. After working in various local industries and on the railways, my father obtained work in Rugby and so did my mother. They commuted at first by train.
Meantime, by 1955 the government had began to resettle the Poles in the towns, evacuating them away from the camps which slowly began to close. Many Poles managed even to buy their own homes, managing somehow to qualify for mortgages which were almost impossible to obtain. The rest of the Poles were moved into the new council houses that were being built frantically by local governments in a massive project intended to restore the national housing stock that had been destroyed during the war-years and also to accommodate the booming post-war birth-rate.
Our first camp at Sulby (Welford) was already practically empty when we were eventually resettled to Melton Mowbray. We always knew that this would be a temporary stay. My parents had moved to private lodgings with a Polish family in Rugby just before we finally left Sulby. Then my grandmother and I were moved into a nissen hut in Melton. My parents were placed on a waiting list for a council house in Rugby which they obtained in the early autumn of 1958 when we left the Melton camp. Before then, grandmother had had her own barrack in the Sulby camp, but I had been brought up as much by her as by my parents, a common practice in the extended family life of the Polish tradition. I had no problems about living with grandmother, although it was always a magical, though disruptive time, whenever my parents managed to visit us. This was a rare event. My parents were away for several weeks at a time, returning for a couple of days at the weekend. They had a car and commuting was easier for them. I remember my mother's hard work, toiling over the laundry and taking-over the cooking chores. They always brought me some presents.
Grandmother (Petronela Brodalka) was my mother's mother. She and I were given a very large nissen hut, made of semi-circular corrugated iron panels. The only brick-work was in the front entrance porch and the front and back walls. Desperately cold, the huts were heated by large black-leaded, coal or wood-fuelled cooking stoves and also by paraffin heaters which exacerbated the damp and emanated a mournful smell into the dank rooms. The nissen hut at Melton was in a far worse condition than the ones at Sulby had been. The damp was very bad. Washing that was drying on the backs of chairs would turn Prussian-blue from the mould and water ran down the inside walls. In order to prevent this condensation, the camp management had the nissen huts covered with a tarpaulin over the corrugated-iron. This made the situation much worse.
The camp must have been quite large, though I don’t now remember exactly how large. People of all ages lived there, including a very lively community of twenty year olds in the process of courting, getting married and re-locating to the towns.
Looking at our own hut from the front, it was located next door to the toilet and bathroom block on the left. (Most baths, however, took place at home in a metal bath in front of the stove.) We had only a small garden in front of the hut which grandmother attempted to cultivate. (She no longer kept chickens as she had at Sulby). To the right of the hut and behind it there were yet more nissen huts. Then still further on the right there was the small church and another hut with a communal meeting-room and a school-room. In that same area, there were large allotment-gardens containing vegetables, beans and cabbages and then, beyond these, were yet more huts, these with small, well-established beautiful gardens. At the edge of these there was a small coppice and open fields. The road to Melton Mowbray ran a little further beyond the front of our hut, a dry, dusty lane in the midst of dry, dusty fields (as I recall them).
I don’t remember the hut or the camp as being squalid, though I never became accustomed to the flat Leicestershire fields, with their dried yellow grasses. I missed the woods and lush pastures of Northamptonshire. Nor did we have time at Melton to cultivate the elaborate and richly flowered gardens, full of vegetables, that my grandmother had grown in Sulby. Some of the other Poles who had lived at Melton for several years did have lovely gardens, with exceptionally varied flowers and vegetables. Grandmother, however, only had the space to cultivate a few potatoes. I don’t think we had much of a garden and, anyway, it was mostly the winter of 1957-58 during the stay at Melton.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed living in the hut with grandmother and I was impressed by its considerable size. It consisted of a very large, dark, front room containing a black stove, whose stove-pipe ran up through the ceiling. The room was also occupied by my grandmother's sewing machine from which she earned a few extra shillings to supplement her National Assistance money. She was a trained seamstress from Poland and could cut a man's suit by measure, without using a paper pattern. She also made fur coats. There was a continuous queue of both men and women requesting her to make clothing for them. (Clothes through-out the fifties and sixties were very expensive and dress-making and knitting were indispensable skills).
The hut was entered from the porch. Opposite the front door, at the other end of the room, there were two green-painted doors which led into two more large rooms used as bedrooms: that of my parents on the left which contained a wardrobe and double-bed and the other room which I shared with grandmother. It was a very pleasant, airy room with two narrow beds, loaded with tall feather eiderdowns and pillows, made by my grandmother and stuffed with feathers from her own hens at Sulby. There was also a small cupboard for linen and clothing on which stood a little altar with a crucifix, icons and a statue of the Virgin Mary, as well as hand-made paper flowers. I remember that bedroom as being flooded with light. Through-out the hut there were beautiful embroidered linens made by my mother, hand-sewn table-cloths and purchased wall-hangings, as well as framed, coloured prints of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary, St. Theresa and my Uncle Stanley's first Holy Communion certificate.
My Uncle Stanley, who had been living with his mother, had married by then and had moved to Long Lawford, outside Rugby, with his English wife, Susan. Most of the other uncles had by then also married English women and had moved away from us. Some had even emigrated to Canada, but my parents, after considering Australia, decided to remain in England.
All the Polish homes were clean and shiny, despite the awful poverty. The linoleum floors were washed and polished with wax. There were almost no rugs to cover them, carpets being an expensive luxury that was sold around the camps by Turkish peddlers. Most people were still sleeping under regulation-issue army blankets. These were of a very good quality, though heavy, scratchy and weirdly khaki in colour and smelling of the inevitable damp. Although most people were by now starting to buy the occasional piece of reasonable quality furniture, many such as us, continued to make their own, very basic, tables and cupboards. The original army camp-beds were still used on occasion, though less so than in the early 1950s. Wooden chairs were the fold-away type, with the cross-legs, that have recently returned to fashion. We were fortunate to possess two armchairs which had dark-green, tapestry covers and wooden arms and legs. I was very proud of these.
All of the women could sew and embroider (less knew how to knit and crochet as my mother did). They decorated their homes with hangings, bed coverings, tapestries, richly decorated cushions, elaborately dressed dolls (black dolls being a particularly enviable possession), paper flowers (an art-form at which my grandmother excelled, displaying an exceptional skill and inspiration in creating lilies, daisies, all colours of roses.)
In our own front room, between the two bedroom doors, there were located against the wall a table and chairs. The table was covered with a coloured tartan oilcloth. Each evening at 6pm, after school, I would sit and draw and write stories, while grandmother would turn on the radio, tuned to Radio Free Europe. We would listen to the news not only in Polish, but also in Czech and Slovak which sounded funny to my ears, like baby Polish. The news was never good: never any sign of an end to Russian-imposed communism. Very slowly, the Polish community was accepting the fact that they would never return to Poland, let alone to their real homes in the eastern borderlands.
Finally, after the news, Radio Free Europe would commence a long series of communications from Polish people searching for their lost family and friends. "So and so is looking for so and so". Each evening we would pray that Uncle Boleslaw would be have sent us a message. He was my grandmother's eldest son and he had disappeared on the first day of the Soviet invasion of Poland in February 1940. Boleslaw had left their village on the borders of Poland and Rumania and had been trying to join the Polish forces evacuated to Rumania. Nowadays we believe that he was shot crossing the river Dniestr, since there was heavy fighting on the river banks that night. He never sent word to his family as he promised he would. He just vanished, like the mists over the river. The Brodalka family never recovered from that loss. Even now, sixty five years after he disappeared, my sister is searching for Boleslaw through the Red Cross.
With our hearts in our mouths, grandmother and I waited breathlessly every night, listening painfully to the endless, endless litany of the missing, thousands and thousands and thousands of them. At least we ourselves had found a haven. I for one would call England home and for my generation there would never be any other. The rest of the family remained with their souls in Limbo, never entirely present, lost in the spaces between the British Isles and the far river valleys of what had become the Ukraine and the deep forests of Belarus.
Grandmother cooked meals for me on the seering hot, black stove on which I regularly burned my arms. We had potato pancakes, or fried Polish sausage and eggs, sometimes potatoes in sour cream, or just in milk (which I loved), macaroni and milk soups. Also pancakes with apples, or cherries. Then there were the traditional Polish dishes of golabki (stuffed cabbage leaves) and pierogi (stuffed pastries which were then boiled in hot water like ravioli). I liked the English meals at lunch-time in school well enough, especially salad and mashed potato, but I loved the evening meals with grandmother. The camp did not have its own shop but a grocery van used to call.
There was a very active social life, with the men playing cards with each other and the women treating each others houses as their own, with perpetually open doors. There were frequent parties and dances in the communal hall.
Grandmother was visited by a whole series of gossipy older women. In an array of coloured print headscarves, their greying hair pulled back in plaits and secured by elaborate combs and dozens of hair-pins. They were dressed in blouses and skirts of their own making, always covered by a flower-sprigged white apron with flounces. Their feet were shod either in high-ankled woolly slippers with zips, or in short rubber galoshes. Their smart shoes with little heels, made of good leather, were saved for church. Unlike their daughters who gloried in red lipstick, nail varnish, perms and mascara, the older women wore no make-up and little jewellery apart from tiny gold earrings and their narrow gold wedding-rings. Almost none of the older women owned a watch. The men walked around in their cloth caps, often sporting large moustaches, but they were always smart in jackets and trousers made of good cloth and good shoes. They were proud of their appearance and it was a point of honour to dress well, no matter what. They all carried the odour of black Turkish tobacco. It was a potent scent that was not unpleasant, but offered a haunting whiff of their past lives between the two wars, the smell of the second Polish republic.
In fact, they maintained the fashions and dress-codes of the pre-war Polish villages in which they had grown-up in the early years of the century. In that older generation, no-one used skin creams.
Nonetheless, despite their experience of the deportations in cattle-trucks to Siberia where they had endured hunger, cold and disease, those who had survived looked very good for their age. Clear skinned and clear eyed, both the men and the women of the older Polish generation had few wrinkles. They were healthy and thrived on the camp regimen. A significant contribution to their well-being was the excellent organic food that was their daily diet, vegetables grown in their own gardens, eggs from their own hens, fresh fish and dark black bread. The women's bodies were often as strong as those of the men, due to the physical hardness of their lives. Even so, their psychological condition was not strong. Most of the oldest Poles were permanently and incurably traumatised by what they had been through and this was also true to a lesser extent of their children, my parents' generation. Many of the older ones were truly strange in character, though audacious as tigers. They gossiped and quarrelled with each other vigorously and they told strange stories of experiences that I could not begin to imagine. "Siberia," "Siberia," over and over again, that name came up. Stories of sickness, death and hunger, eating nettles and tortoises in Khazakhstan, separated from their families, making it through by the skin of their teeth. It had all happened only ten years previously and the memories were raw. Often I began to feel as if it had happened to me, though I did not understand properly what it was that had happened. I knew that I was Polish and different, but not really sure how I had got to be this way. I experienced occasional recurring nightmares at the age of seven (the last was at Melton) during which I would walk around in a half-waking condition, a sort of trance, filled with terror, gibbering that "they" were coming to get me.
Well, the Poles were all free now, sort-of, physically if not psychically, and safe in the idiosyncratic but peaceful haven that was the camp at Melton Mowbray.
None of the older folk, those over forty, spoke English. Grandmother kept trying to learn and there were lessons available in the communal hall. The older folk, however, did not have sufficient contact with the English community which would have provided the practice in speaking English. She was then in her mid fifties and she lived to the age of 99 (dying in 1993), never understanding more than a few words of English.
Nonetheless, she gossiped with the other Poles, especially about the dreadful stories coming out of the Soviet Union. Her family wrote to her from western Poland, from lower Silesia. Not all of her family had been deported in 1940 to Kazakhstan and Novosibirsk. They had endured the German and Russian occupations and the terrorism of Ukrainian nationalists. Then after the war they had been forcibly relocated to western Poland, to the lands taken from Germany. Her brother, Leon Piatek, was there, as well as her sister and their families. Regularly, Grandmother would gather up her old clothes, or would make new ones. The she would sew everything into cloth bundles which she would post to the family in Poland. She would also buy medicines which were sent to Poland, at the family's request, through the Grabowski pharmacy in London. She usually added whatever money she could spare. My mother and father also occasionally contributed to these mercy-parcels. All the Poles who still had family in Poland did the same thing. However, of any family-members who had remained in the area taken over by the Soviet Union, there was never any word. We finally managed to contact the older branches of the Brodalka and Piatek families in the Ukraine only as late as in 2004 and then we had to travel to the village in person.
Like many of the other women, grandmother went every day to mass in the little Polish church in one of the other nissen huts. There was a Polish priest, a lively, articulate and intelligent man in his forties who fought an endless battle with the tearaway boys on the camp. These cheeked him relentlessly on every possible occasion and the priest reciprocated in kind verbally. I also attended mass with grandmother. I helped her to decorate the altars with flowers and to change the linen embroidered in red silk and edged with hand-made, crotcheted lace. I think there was only one side-altar, or maybe two, as well as the main one. Grandmother also taught me a long series of prayers to say every night which took a good half hour to complete and had to be said with the proper feeling and intonation.
Next to the church there was a communal meeting-hut in which there was a small classroom where the children attended Saturday school to learn Polish language and culture. The priest had begun to prepare some of us for first Holy Communion. (I was already seven and still had not undertaken this rite due to being moved around so much). I quite enjoyed all of this religion. It made me feel secure amidst all the mobility of our lives. We were also taught Polish songs and poetry by the volunteer teachers in the Polish school and we used to perform these, along with simple dances, on occasions such as the celebration of the Polish Constitution of the 3rd of May.
In the winter of 1957-58 I contracted a very bad case of measles; the worst illness of my life. This was the only time that I desperately, desperately missed my parents. I was so sick for three weeks that grandmother in a panic wrote to my parents asking them to return immediately. By the time they received grandmother's letter (there was not telephone communication) and had arrived at the Melton camp, I was already recovered. They were furious at having been dragged back without due cause. A Polish doctor was in attendance at the camp and he came to see me. I was also treated by the older Polish ladies with more traditional and eye-opening healing methods, such as colonic irrigation !!! (and people nowadays pay thousands for this treatment at health spas…unbelievable). This torture was, nonetheless, highly effective as a cure.
When recovered, I had a few playmates among the other Polish children. I never had a chance to make friends with the English children as we lived so far away from Melton, though previously at Welford, most of my friends had been English. "Cave men," whom we were studying at the English school, was my favourite game and it seemed to go on all year. The game involved caves (the communal toilets), making flint-tools, boats and skin clothes (any old rags). I also socialised with the adults, visiting mostly the ones who possessed especially beautifully-dressed dolls in home-made clothes. Some of these were dressed in silks and satins, with earrings and fringed shawls. These same homes would also often have plush tapestries, decorated with tigers and palm-tress, and silk cushions, or ones covered with Jacobean embroidery. One lady who grew a lovely garden of large flowers, poppies and dahlias, taught me to knit using thick nylon threads. I also played houses underneath the sheets of my bed, imagining the day when I would have a real big house and how I would furnish it. Grandmother taught me how to make dolls and I did a lot of sewing. I also read many books, borrowing them from school. My parents also brought me books and comics in English from Rugby, as well as occasional toys and sweets.
We have no photographs, regrettably, of our time at Melton, since my parents were mostly absent and it was my father who was the photographer.
Everyday the Polish children were sent by bus to Melton Mowbray where they attended the Roman Catholic Sacred Heart School. All the Polish parents were obliged to contribute a small sum towards their children's education there since it was a private school run by the Sacred Heart nuns. It was my first experience of an education within a religious establishment. Prior to that, I had attended the excellent little state primary school at Welford. I did not find the Sacred Heart to be particularly congenial. We seemed to be given an awful lot of religious education, taught as we were by nuns and priests, to the exclusion of maths, English and history. Then there were all the religious processions and Holy Day holidays. It was also the first time that I had encountered corporal punishment in school, being beaten several times with rulers across the palm of my hand or across the shins. This was phenomenally painful. The punishment was doled out for the least misdemeanour, such as chatting in class, or standing out-of-line, or being reported by the class-monitors for minor infractions. The little boys lifted the little girls' skirts and tried to kiss us. I had never encountered this sort of behaviour in the state schools. I had always known little boys as straight-forward friends, both in the Polish community and at Welford.
During my first day at the school, one of the secular male teachers kept my class behind which meant that we missed our special bus. A large group of us, aged seven years old, had to walk the three or four miles home. No-one rang ahead of us (no phones) and we arrived after six to be greeted by our distraught parents, or in my case my grandmother. I had also fallen over and hurt my knee. The next day I spent in bed and did not return to school for several days. My grandmother was angry and did not want to sent me back to school.
What I did like about the Sacred Heart school was the gardens and the grotto to Our Lady of Lourdes. I also enjoyed the clean, modern school buildings, especially the school hall which seemed beautiful to me with its parquet floor which I saw for the first time. The school-rooms had very large windows and were painted yellow. I was also given the chance to do a lot of drawing, though it seemed to be mainly of heavenly subjects. I have carried away a memory of real delight in the physical look of the place, so shiny and new and so different to the huts at the camp, even though in educational terms it left me disadvantaged in comparison to children in the state sector. When I entered Bloxam School in Rugby at the start of the second year in 1958, I was way behind in the mathematics syllabus and I never caught up.
The school was peripheral to my real life which was literally miles away in the fields around the camp and with the Polish community. Saturday mornings were definitely a relief to me and a source of joy. There was a lack of contact for the youngest and the oldest with Melton the town, more so that had been the case at the camp in Sulby with the community in Welford. This could not have entirely true, however, for the young people in their twenties and thirties who worked in the town, or who had their own transport. Cars and motor-bikes were becoming more common in the camp and many people certainly had bicycles that they rode into town and could go to shop there, as grandmother and I could not. Of Melton Mowbray itself, I saw very little. I was impressed by the leafy trees around the school and it seemed to me, what little I saw of it at the age of seven from the school bus, as a place of wealth and glamour, removed from my own realities.
Grandmother and I pegged away together and really enjoyed doing our own thing. It was a very special time. Just before my eighth birthday in the October of 1958, we were given a council house in Rugby and we moved away from the Melton camp.
I still dream of our last Polish home at Melton Mowbray. There was a special sort of atmospheric about the camp in the late 1950s, a nostalgia and letting-go, an understanding that it was the end of a unique Polish culture. This had been specific to the immediate post-war period from 1948-58 and was related both to the recent history of the inhabitants and also to the inter-change of Polish and British culture. It was a quite new way of being Polish, distinctive from the type of Polishness being developed in the People's Poland of the communist era.
When we finally left the camp, none of the adults regretted leaving behind the inconveniences and the endless damp. On the other hand, it was the last of pre-war Poland, the last time all the Poles would share their culture with each other in an integral manner and on a daily basis. Truly, no-one was ever quite so happy again.
Out of the remains of the Polish camp was organised the thriving and important Polish community and Polish Roman Catholic parish which exists to the present day in Melton Mowbray.