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Character Profile: Jula Maciejewska

Character Profile  |  June 30, 2017

Jula Mackiewicz, Sheffield, UK

My great-aunt Jula was 13 when she was deported from Poland to Siberia in 1940. The second of six children, she had a significantly different experience from my grandmother, two years her junior. Unlike Kazia, who was enrolled in Communist reform school upon arrival in Siberia, my aunt Jula was pressed into forced labour, chopping wood in the Siberian forests, working alongside older men. The arrangement wasn’t negotiable: if you didn’t work, your family wouldn’t get food. The work was rough, and not without incident, as she ended up being hospitalized with injuries related to tree-cutting.

Family portrait in Tehran, Iran, 1942. Jula is second from the right, next to Kazia on the right.

When the Nazis invaded the USSR and the Poles were granted amnesty by Stalin in the summer of 1941, the Gerechs made their way 4,000 km to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where the Polish Army was forming. It was difficult to keep the family together throughout this migration - Jula joined the army cadets in Uzbekistan, while her father was recruited as a soldier and sent off to fight in Egypt, and the rest of the family made their way to Tehran.

Jula working in Nairobi, Kenya for the Royal Air Force.

When the Gerechs resettled in England after the war, Jula joined them and soon married another Pole, Antek Maciejewski in November 1948 and made their home in Sheffield. Jula knew that her traveling days had ended, she had found her new home. Unlike Kazia, however, the Polish immigrant experience in England was not an inclusive, multicultural phenomenon. Despite people pointing out to her a physical resemblance to Queen Elizabeth, Jula to this day doesn't feel British, nor did she feel at home returning to former home in Poland, now part of Belarus. Although she has raised a family and lived most of her life in England, a sense of otherness persists.

Jula did made a trip to her hometown of Ostrówek in 1990, but was disappointed in what remained of the former Polish village. The Soviets had diverted a river and bulldozed a nearby hill - almost nothing remained of the homestead. As far as she was concerned, there was nothing to go back to. When I returned to Belarus in the summer of 2016, I did manage to track down the remains of the home where she was born, now in an overgrown forest. I was able to complete the circle by bringing a brick from the home back to Jula.

Kazia (on the left) with her sister Jula on their last visit together in Sheffield, UK.

Despite the many challenges throughout her life, Jula has always had an affable, easy-going spirit. We see her in the film with Kazia, debating certain details of their long journey from Siberia to Tengeru. Although they may not have always agreed on the specifics, in both sisters, we observe an appreciation of life’s simple pleasures and a desire to look forward rather than backwards.

Character Profile: Marysia Stronska

Character Profile  |  March 6, 2017

Marysia Stronska was thirteen years old when her family was deported from Poland to Siberia in 1940. Her family history has many parallels to that of my grandmother’s, going through a similar migration through Siberia, Kazakhstan, and - after her father died in Uzbekistan, and was buried in the same cemetery as my great-great-grandmother - eventually ending up in a refugee camp in Uganda. An outspoken and tough young woman, she often had trouble with authority, whether in the Siberian forced labour camp she was sent to at thirteen, after being caught making a joke about the Soviet Union, or while challenging the “toughness” of her Polish boy classmates in Uganda.

Marysia (far right) at a Polish refugee camp in Masindi, Uganda with friends.

Like my grandmother, Marysia ended up in England when the refugee camps were closed, where she frequently had to stand up to xenophobic comments from her new neighbours and colleagues. She eventually married and settled in Montreal, Canada, where she went on to start a family and become a natural leader within the Polish community. She was not only a Polish teacher, but an organizer of Polish-African refugee reunions, and very active within the Polish church community. Having survived everything she went through during WWII and aftewards, she expresses a perpetual obligation to do something useful with her life.

Today, at ninety years old, she is philosophical about her time as a young refugee. Despite extreme hardships that she survived in Siberia and the Soviet Union, she doesn’t resent the Russians, stating that the people themselves were actually quite hospitable, considering how little they had. Her opinion of Churchill and Britain however is not so rosy. She felt betrayed as a young woman when the promise of going home vanished when England agreed that Poland would fall under Soviet control. Although she has made Montreal her home, she maintains close connections with other Polish-African refugees around the world, and serves as an inspiration to her community through her resilience and strength in the face of profound adversity.