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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.

In conversation with Jonathan Durand

Behind the scenes  |  October 3, 2016

We recently sat down with Memory Is Our Homeland Writer & Director Jonathan Durand to chat about how this film came to be, it's evolution over the years, and the impact that he hopes it will have once it's completed. Here is a slightly abridged version of our conversation:

You’ve been working on this project for several years. At what point did you decide that the best way to tell this story was a documentary film?

When I was a young kid, I knew two things about my grandmother: that she was Polish, and that she had grown up in Africa. At first, these facts didn’t mean much to me, but as I got older, these two ideas were less easy to reconcile. That’s when I started becoming more interested in my grandmother’s story, and her community more broadly.

From there, the project naturally evolved as a documentary. I was living in South Africa about ten years ago, and using video to tell the stories of community groups there. That's when I started asking questions about my own family history - why was it that I felt so at home in southern Africa? It was an easy transition to beginning to film my grandmother and her friends - I would set up a camera, and the sharing of stories felt natural.

How did your family and other characters respond to your filming and telling of this story?

In terms of Polish-African refugees like my grandmother, you can pretty much split them into two categories: those who don’t want to talk about it, and those who want and have a need to tell their story, because no one has believed them their entire lives. I was lucky to grow up in a family of storytellers. At the beginning, my grandmother would talk about "The Eye" filming her, but then she got used to it. Most of the characters are so accustomed to talking about their lives, that with time they didn’t notice that the camera was on.

What impact do you expect the film will have on the Polish community?

This has always been a community project - even though the characters are spread out around the world, the people at the heart of this story grew up as a tight-knit group in East Africa. There is still a strong sense of something shared even though they’re very spread out geographically. Now with the benefits of technology, they’ll be able to access it online. So in this way, the film can serve as a means of bringing people together - not only those who survived this ordeal but their children and grandchildren as well. In a real sense the film is part of the larger evolution of a shared myth, over time.

Have recent changes in media technology influenced approach to making the film?

When I started the project it was very modest, using a very simple and intimate way of filming. Since then, cameras have evolved, the filming process has changed a bit. The biggest change, however, has been in terms of sharing the story more broadly. Social media barely existed when I started researching this history, and YouTube was a new thing. Today, when I put things online, people that I’ve never met will get in touch and ask questions about the project, because often they share a similar background or curiosity. So technology hasn't massively changed how I operate in filming, but it has had a big influence on connecting with new people and getting the word out.

For those who may not be familiar with the history, what is the short version of how did this group of Poles end up here in Africa?

People usually know about main actors in WW II, but less so about the fate of Polish refugees, because it was happening behind the scenes, it didn’t fit within a straightforward narrative. From 1939-41 the Soviet Union deported somewhere between 300,000 to 1.5 million people from Poland to work camps across the Soviet Union (the numbers are still a matter of debate). They were not interested in one ethnic group in particular, but rather any Polish citizens - not only men but entire, multi-generational families, to work in mines and forestry. Then everything changed when the Soviet Union was invaded by Nazi Germany. All of a sudden, the Soviets were on the Allied side with the British, Americans, Canadians -  and with Poland. A negotiation ensued, and it was agreed that families, meaning mostly women and children, could be sent through Iran to refugee camps in Africa, India, Australia, Lebanon, and all over the world.

What does homeland mean to you?

It's not necessarily a physical place - I grew up knowing that my family was Polish, but also that they had been living in East Africa. I began trying to connect who they were, and where they were from, but the places they are from aren’t part of Poland anymore, so there isn't a physical "homeland" to go back to, strictly speaking. I've spent years trying to figure out where they’re from and concluded that your homeland is a place where you have the strongest memories. In my family's case, this is often Africa, but it's also a transient notion of home that incorporates many of the cultures and places they've lived in.

Has your personal sense of homeland shifted over the course of making the film?

I consider myself a Montrealer, a Quebecer, and a Canadian. But I've come to feel connected to all the various places that I’ve been to, and that my family has passed through, like Tehran or Sub-Saharan Africa.  It's hard not to feel a sense of connectedness to these places. I've also explored my roots in Eastern Europe, having become friends with people who worked and lived next to my family seventy-five years ago. So I feel connected to many places simultaneously.

Where does the title of the film come from?

Many years ago, I found myself on rideshare to Toronto sitting next to a spoken word artist. We were chatting the whole drive and finally discovered that our Polish ancestors could have been neighbours, having gone through the same experience of being deported to Siberia and then Iran. l was blown away by the coincidence, not having met many people like this before. That’s when it struck me that a sense of homeland and community isn’t just rooted to a particular place, but to the memories that we carry with us.

Why should people see this film?

This is a project dealing with a specific diaspora story of Polish refugees in Africa that very few people know about. At the same time, as soon as you start understanding their experiences, it's easy to make connections with all sorts of cultures. So many people have had their stories written out of the official history books, whether First Nations in Canada or African communities who were told by colonizing powers that their communal memories weren't “real history”. This film is about how history survives even when it’s erased, through grandparents telling their children, and then their grandchildren. It’s the oldest form of preserving history. I’m looking forward to connecting with audiences, showing them these images and sharing this very specific, but ultimately universal, story.