All Posts in WW II history

Annual Reunion of Polish Orphans

Community  |  June 29, 2017

On the weekend of June 17th, I traveled to Redding, Connecticut with my frequent collaborator Amanda Chalupa to reconnect with a group of Polish orphans who ended up in Tengeru, Tanzania during World War II. This annual gathering of about 65 people has been happening every year for over 6 years, to celebrate the birthday of Lucjan Krolikowski, the Franciscan priest who brought 150 young orphans from Tanzania to Montreal in 1949. He turns 98 this year, but the reunion shows no signs of slowing down. We gathered at the home of Brunia Marzan, one of orphans, with guests who had traveled from Montreal, Toronto, New Jersey and New York and beyond, to share stories about the past and reconnect with old friends.

Watching archival footage from the Polish refugee camp in Tengeru, recently uncovered in England.

The first time I made the trip was in 2015, after my grandmother had passed away, with the goal of meeting people who had lived similar experiences and could inform the narrative I was trying to build for Memory Is Our Homeland. Every year, I’ve met many Polish WW II survivors who are keen to share their stories of growing up as orphans in the Polish camps in Tengeru and elsewhere. While this was a formative experience for people like my grandmother and great-aunt, it was even more so for this group of orphans, who, having lost their parents, had to build a new support network amongst themselves. Through the friendships they made with each other and the priest Father Krolikowski, they were able to forge new identities and a sense of family, which they’ve held onto to this day.

Polish orphans from Tengeru recognizing themselves in archival footage from the camp, shot in 1943.

From my perspective, it’s been fulfilling to be so warmly welcomed by these people. I felt like more an outsider three years ago,but  today, as other younger generations join the gathering, expressing an interest their unusual personal family history, I’m able to share the resources that have been helpful to me over the years in terms of tracing genealogy and finding family records that have sat in archives since the end of the war. In this sense, I see myself as a sort of historical custodian, ensuring the perennity of these stories of strength and survival for future generations.

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.