Refugee stories

Refugee Week (15-21 June) is an annual event that celebrates the contributions of refugees to Britain. Many refugee stories have found their way onto our repository shelves. In this special episode, we’re sharing just a few of them. We’re also going beyond the documents, as two of our records specialists interview their own parents about their refugee experiences and connect those stories to the documents we hold.

Documents from The National Archives used in this episode:

DO 142/416; ED 128/66; MH 8/9; MH 37/322

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Matt Norman: Our repositories here at The National Archives hold 11 million records. Every document is organised into a file. Each meticulously labeled file is stored in an archival quality box. Rows and rows of these identical brown boxes sit carefully arranged on seemingly endless shelves.

It’s a big, quiet space…the lights are kept off, flickering on for just one aisle at a time as you enter, scanning the labels to find what you’re looking for.

On this occasion, we’re looking for one box in particular among the thousands of identical containers. The box we’re looking for has a thick file full of miscellaneous government template forms, signed statements, official records…and an empty luggage tag.

Katie Fox: The records in this box are connected to the estimated 225,000 Belgians who fled to Britain following the German invasion of Belgium in August 1914. This empty luggage tag was never used, but thousands like it would’ve been handed out to those Belgians who’d had enough time to grab a few precious belongings on their way out of the door.

Carefully preserved in one of our repositories, the luggage tag in many ways represents all the luggage tags and government forms filled in by refugees over the last hundred years…refugees whose survival depended on trying to fit themselves and the uncertainty of their status into just a few empty lines.

Matt: You’re listening to On the Record at The National Archives, a show that uncovers the stories hidden in our collections, stories of famous monarchs and spies…and stories of everyday people like you and me.

I’m Matt Norman

Katie: And I’m Katie Fox.

Here at The National Archives, we’re the guardians of more than 11 million historical government and public records spanning a thousand years of British history.

We’re the paper trail of a nation, and our original documents have some incredible stories to tell…if you know where to look.

Matt: In this special episode, we’re marking Refugee Week by highlighting just a few of the many refugee stories held in our archives…the real, complicated, and often heartbreaking human stories that have found their way onto our repository shelves.

The National Archives has thousands of official records relating to refugees and forced migration, but for some of our records specialists this theme goes beyond our collection and has a personal resonance. Over the next hour, we’ll talk to three of our specialists: Hannah, Iqbal, and Ela. They’ve all done extensive research on refugee records in our collection. But for two of them, the historical documents they have pulled out of our archival boxes…are also connected to their own families’ histories.

Katie: Before we get to our first story, one of our Education Officers –Hannah Carter–thought it was important that we understood the broader history of refugees in the 20th century and got an accurate picture of who refugees are and why they leave their homes.

A quick note for our listeners, this episode contains descriptions of violence, so it may not be suitable for younger audiences.

Hannah Carter: In terms of the history of refugees to Britain, I don’t think we consider this nation as one of lots of camps. Recently historians like Jordanna Balkin have challenged this idea that actually refugee camps happen elsewhere in other places.

Katie: Hannah actually did her Master’s in Refugee Studies at the University of East London. This university is home to the Refugee Council Archive, one of Britain’s largest collections of materials on refugees and forced migration.

Hannah: Over the 20th Century, dozens of refugee camps housed hundreds of thousands of Belgians, Jewish people, Basques, Poles, Hungarians, Anglo-Egyptians, Ugandan Asians, and Vietnamese people. And they were housed in anything from holiday chalets to stately homes or military bunkers. And these groups also viewed themselves really differently. So for instance, Ugandan Asians challenged the term “refugee;” they didn’t generally accept it, but other groups saw it as a badge of honor and something that to be really proud of. So we can’t generalise about these groups that came to Britain as well.

I think it’s really important to stress that refugees and migrants are not the same thing. Refugees are protected in international law, so the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, states that refugees are people outside their country of origin because of feared persecution, conflict, violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order and who as a result require international protection. This is so important because it’s not just people fleeing war context. It’s also people facing fear of persecution due to factors like race or sexuality.

So the term refugee entered the English language in the wake of Louis XIV’s persecution of Protestants in Catholic France and the English offer of refuge to the Huguenots, which is an area that we have loads of documents about actually at The National Archives. However, it’s not until 1951 that the term “refugee” gains legal recognition in the wake of the traumas of the Second World War and unprecedented mass displacement.

Our popular understanding of refugee movements to Britain, I think, comes from post Second World War, but we actually have a fascinating example of a refugee movement arriving before the outbreak of the Second World War and that comes in the form of Spanish Refugee Children. So on May the 21st, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, around 4,000 Basque children arrived to Southampton dock.

These children have been separated from their families who had made the unimaginably rough decision to allow them to go to Britain for safety. At first, they were all housed in a vast camp called North Stoneham in Hampshire. Imagine rows upon rows of white tents. There had actually been huge debate about where to put these children. The government received a concerned telegram from the Southwark Catholic Rescue Society saying that putting 4,000 children under canvas was most unsuitable, especially considering the weather was pretty appalling at that time. Our ministry of health reports show that within weeks there were major problems in the camp. Sanitation was inadequate for that number of children. As a result, children were dispersed across the country and sent of hundreds of so-called colonies ranging from stately homes to cottages.

Some homes did more to provide for children’s emotional wellbeing through play and outside space, as well as taking into account their cultural dislocation with Spanish speaking staff and food. Others were less concerned with these issues. Most Basque children returned to their families before the outbreak of the Second World War. We think only around 400 remained in Britain by 1939. Heartbreakingly newspaper reports from May 1939 described children left behind, writing letters to their families every fortnight, waiting for replies, some that never came.

We do have some personal records relating to children that actually stayed in Britain. Many were given a choice at the age of 16 about whether they stayed or not. And these records often hint at quite severe trauma caused by these various dislocations that they experienced being separated from their family, the limbo status once they were here, but also that cultural dislocation.

About half of refugees today are children, and their experiences are very different from adults because they have less control over their destiny. However, there are also so many stories from the present and past about their resilience and their ability to cope with such traumatic experiences.

I think this story highlights something that we still grapple with today in relation to refugees, which is thinking about needs, but not just physical needs. So how do we provide for children’s particular experience of displacement? Do we provide food – do we just fulfill basic needs or do we also make sure that we support refugees in different ways as well?

Matt: When you think of large-scale displacement in the 20th century, one of the first things that probably comes to mind is the Second World War. By the time it ended, the Second World War had displaced at least 11 million people in Europe. This displacement was long-term for many, and it wasn’t until 1960 that the last of the refugee camps created to house these people were closed.

We’ll share a story about a Second World War refugee later in this episode, but first we have to talk about an even larger migration of refugees, when 14-16 million people left their homes and traveled by foot, cart, and train to escape political turmoil and sectarian violence.

In 1947, the UK Parliament passed an act to divide British India into two independent states, India and Pakistan. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Britain could no longer maintain its massive empire and colonies, and in the face of a growing independence movement in India calling for an end to British rule, Parliament decided to grant the region independence as two new countries. Known as Partition, the division of British India was intended to accommodate the two religious majorities…India for a Hindu majority and Pakistan for the Muslims.

The architects of Partition believed that communities who were already religious minorities in their regions would actually stay in their hometowns, even if they found themselves in a new nation governed by a different religious group, but that’s not what happened.

Instead, millions of people left their homes to seek refuge from the political turmoil…Muslims headed towards Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs towards India. Sectarian violence had already been on the rise in the lead-up to independence and Partition, and the act itself triggered riots and violence, which forced even more people to flee their ancestral homelands.

The responsibility to safeguard these people fell to the newly created independent governments of India and Pakistan, which were only a few days old.

Iqbal Singh: Independence for Pakistan was on the 14th of August 1947 and for India on the 15th of August 1947. But the announcement of the actual division, the actual partition line was actually kept back till the 17th of August 1947.

Matt: This is Iqbal Singh, Regional Community Partnerships Manager at The National Archives. Iqbal has conducted research on our records related to Partition in order to better understand what happened. In addition to his academic research, Iqbal was able to share with us a first-hand account from his mother, whose family was forced to leave their home when she was only 11 years old.

Iqbal: It was a very violent change, particularly in the Punjab where my mother comes from. It led to 4.5 million Hindus and Sikhs leaving West Punjab in what is now Pakistan to travel East into the new state of India. And in reverse, 5.5 million Muslims left India to go to their new homeland in Pakistan. The line dividing the two new nations split the Punjab in half. Partition was announced a couple of days after independence celebrations, leaving people on either side of the border with little time to make their way to their new homes. So people were left, not sure exactly where the line would finally land as it were. And I think that created a lot of the uncertainty and the anguish.

The movement of people is over 14 million, so it’s one of the largest migrations of refugees in history, and I think the scale of it and the size is obviously one thing to note, but also the fact that it affected everybody regardless of their status. You could be the richest person or the poorest person, you were affected. So it had that impact as well, that you wouldn’t, you were not saved by your class or your caste or your education or your wealth.

My mother, a Sikh, was witness to the violence building up in the city of Rawalpindi towards the end of 1946. Her family left behind ancestral lands in Pakistan to go to India and never to return. I grew up with the story of Partition as both my parents were affected by it. My father, from a Muslim family in India, saw members of his immediate family left at the time of Partition and he was later to join them in Pakistan in the 1950s.

I mean the tensions on all sides were increasing as a result of disaffection with the decision to divide the Punjab and non-state actors, for example, those allied to political or religious organisations took it upon themselves to take violent action. Attacks by one community on another fueled revenge attacks. My mother’s journey to safety in India is one of forced migration. However, hers is a relatively lucky story compared to the many less fortunate families who were forced to migrate at terribly short notice.

For the many millions forced to relocate the trains became a potent symbol of the partition experience. Trains provided ideal targets, often overloaded and easy to ambush. Knowledge of train timetables and collusion with partisan or corrupt officials meant gangs knew when to strike. The height of the attacks on trains was between August and October 1947. The severity of the violence stands out. Former soldiers who had served in the Second World War were able to use their training and their contacts to access arms and carry out attacks.

Matt: In our archives, we have a number of reports and letters from British officials detailing the violence on both sides. One particularly interesting document is a letter from the Deputy High Commissioner in Lahore to the High Commissioner in Karachi, describing the extreme violence that followed the announcement of the dividing line.

Iqbal: And it kind of brings to the attention of the High Commissioner, which was the objective, the violence that is being witnessed and the sense that nobody quite knows how it has become so devastating. But certainly these reports really do bring home, the violence and the horror of the violence that took place.

I mean the lines that start to really shake you are, quote, “The site was extraordinary. On one side was a train from Hindustan packed with Hindus and Sikhs with hundreds on the roof. On the other was a Muslim train for Pakistan. In the middle was the corpse train. It had been attacked by Muslims some way out and come in an hour before. Clearly the panels had been smashed with stones first. 40 were killed, 70 wounded. The 70 were in a bad order. They had got most of the wounded away in lorries and most of the corpses out. There were about 15 still therein, the train hacked to bits, men, women, children without distinction. Just because they were Hindus or Sikhs. The place was a shambles, and the two refugee trains on either side going off like bank holiday crowds. That happened to be a Muslim murder. The same day in Faridkot State, a Muslim train was attacked and the corpse has came into Lahore.”

It gives you a really extraordinary sense of the violence and the horror of it.

Our records are very, very strong on the high politics of Partition, on what was happening in terms of the decision making processes and how they were affecting some of the key players from all sides. But as a result of this correspondence and the discussions that were taking place, we are also fortunate to be witness to these types of letters. These aren’t the first hand testimony of people and that is something that as an official archive or a national archive, you know, it’s rare to have that kind of firsthand testimony. But what we do have is something very powerful that can kind of sit alongside some of that firsthand testimony and give people a sense from these officials who were there on the ground, getting reports from their own people who are feeding these reports back often in very, very clear English. So for those who maybe don’t know much about the story it’s a powerful way to give you a sense of the gravitas and the detail that makes it invaluable.

Matt: Iqbal recorded a short interview with his mother Surjeet about her memories of leaving home with her family just before Partition.

Iqbal: I mean, my mother and me have had this conversation a number of times in trying to piece together this story of her leaving these ancestral lands, and Rawalpindi was the place where she was last before she actually left what became Pakistan. And she recalls the extraordinary violence that was taking place at the time with rival gangs, often using religious chants to intimidate one another.

Surjeet (Iqbal’s Mother): All I remember is all the fires and loud shoutings of “Allah hu Akbar” and also from Sikhs, “Bole So Nihal.”

Iqbal: And so in, in her description, that’s something that she recalls very strongly and vividly and that the fires were burning and that there’s a very unsettled home with people coming in for shelter trying to look for safety. And I think very much that was the kind of base from which she then starts to tell me her story of leaving, the family scrambling things together and trying to leave because they’d been given a heads up.

Surjeet: One of Bhayaji’s [grandfather] bosses told Bhayaji, “You leave now Rawalpindi, and take your family up to Ferozepur.”

Iqbal: Her grandfather was quite well connected, and he’d been speaking to some senior people and they had said, you know, you need to get out. And so the reason why my family–or my mother’s family– left in 1946, at the end of ‘46, is because I think they could see the writing on the wall. And arrangements were made for them to get out. And that was the journey where they had to then go to Ferozepur which is on the border, literally a border town between the new states. And from there they then had to regroup, settle themselves for a little while as arrangements were being made in India in a place called Dehra Dun for them to then go there. And it was a cousin who was helping to sort out this arrangement so that they could settle in their new home.

For my mother, I think the main thing was as a child coming in as a refugee, speaking Punjabi–which was the language that she had grown up speaking– in an area where Punjabi wasn’t spoken, she stood out on a language level. People would make fun of her language. People knew that they were refugees. And that I think also added to that sense of just being an outsider.

Surjeet: Papaji [father] had to find a school for us. And schools were all Hindi. Seth Ram Kishore’s sister-in-law, she was giving tuitions to refugees to learn Hindi. So we went to Shanti Bhainji and we learned Hindi there, but we were in Mahadevi Kanya Pathshala [school]. All I remember we used to walk from our house to our school and the main thing, I remember the language; we were totally Punjabi speaking and there it was all Hindi.

Iqbal: I think for the family itself, I think it was the adjustments that were made for her father. I think he found the transition very, very difficult. But overall I think the family did cope, and I think in that sense they were luckier than many others, because arrangements had been made and they were able to settle.

Surjeet: It was….integrating was harder. You have to be really strong. And that’s all I remember.

Iqbal: I think she finds it still very difficult to speak about and I think she herself says that she doesn’t remember that much detail. I think some of that, from having spoken to her a number of times, is part of her just wanting to forget. It’s not something that she necessarily wants to remember in too much detail. It’s difficult, Matt, because I think the thing is for her, it’s still an uncomfortable conversation. And that may maybe, you know, similar to many others who’ve experienced that kind of refugee experience where they hold on to a few things. But I mean sometimes she will tell me some of the details of, there was a flooding in Ferozepur, you know obviously things had become a lot more dramatic, and arriving in Dehra Dun, I think, you know, that sense that the status that they had before…They were, you know, reasonably well off. Their grandfather was a civil surgeon. He was a medical doctor. But he and his family and my mother, they all did struggle. So this was the point about Partition. It didn’t in that sense have, any discrimination. Everyone was affected, and everyone felt shaken by you know, the experience. But as this document that I’ve shared shows, for some, the experience was far, far more horrific.

Partition has been referred to as a kind of madness that took people over. But madness does not do justice to the very systematic and clinical way in which the killing was conducted. Partition was the seeking of refuge in the face of violence or the impending threat of violence. It was people literally fleeing for their lives to seek out relative safety. It’s a stark reminder that people do not leave their homes unless there is something genuinely that they are afraid of. The partition of British India and the resulting refugee story is a story of people finding safety and trying to remake their lives, often in the face of great adversity. For the over 3 million people of South Asian heritage in this country, Partition can still have very personal relevance. It is a story….it is a story that still impacts many of them, both in seen and unseen ways. I can say this more naturally if you want.

So yeah, I mean I think the violence is at the heart of it, something that the people who experienced it, I mean people were seeking refuge from violence and the threat of violence, they were fleeing for their lives. And in so much of what we hear about even today when people say why do people leave, it’s often, if not invariably the only reason a person leaves their home [is] because they are fleeing something or something is so disturbing that they have to leave. I think this particular story kind brings that to life where people are fleeing…often systematic violence, violence that’s being orchestrated by gangs and by people who are hand in glove with officials. And I think it’s this which needs to also be sort of highlighted.

And for those in this country of South Asian heritage and many of the friends and family and people that they live with and are part of, these stories are not somehow stories that we can somehow just leave as a side show. They are very relevant and many people don’t even realise what impact they have, not only on them, but those that they love or others

I do find it difficult to talk about this, but maybe that’s part of my own catharsis, my own process.

Matt: After our interview, Iqbal told me a bit more about his mother’s life after Partition. In her new home in India, Surjeet trained as a painter and musician. In 1960, she left India to study fine art in London. She returned to India for a few years to work as a head designer for a carpet manufacturer, and then in the late 60s she returned to England to marry her friend from Pakistan who she’d met while at college in England. After starting a family and running a local corner shop, she went on to train as an adult education teacher. She taught textiles for over 25 years, becoming a specialist in Indian textiles. She and Iqbal’s father still live in London.

Katie: Our second story for this episode also brings together the formal records of our archives and the personal, family history, of one of our record specialists.

Ela Kaczmarska: Hello, my name is Ela, and I work at The National Archives. I’ve always had a great interest in, um, certain collections, to do with Poland because of my roots, my heritage. I was born as a child of refugees. And the history has always been incredibly fascinating and a lot of it was hidden as well. So the archives have given me a chance to delve into the history a little bit more deeply and find out some of the things that weren’t spoken about when we were children at home

Katie: Ela Kaczmarska is the Publishing Executive here at The National Archives. She’s done quite a bit of research on Polish refugees in the Second World War and has a Master’s in Holocaust Studies.

Ela: There are about 84,000 files on Poland at The National Archives. If you look in Discovery, that’s the number you’re looking at. And a thousand of those are related to Polish resettlement, the resettlement of Poles who came over here as a result of the war and were allowed to stay under the Polish Resettlement Act.

Katie: In the early years of the Second World War, Soviet authorities ordered over 1 million Poles to be deported from Soviet-occupied Eastern Poland to the Soviet Union. Some of these people were already refugees, having fled the regions of Poland occupied by the Nazis. Half a million Poles were labeled “anti-Soviet” or “socially dangerous.” They were sent to labor camps in Siberia and Kazakhstan along with their families, where everyone was forced to work in the harsh conditions of the frozen north. Food and medicine were limited, and many people never made it out of the camps.

By 1940, many Polish airmen and soldiers had already left Poland for Britain to join RAF squadrons and the newly formed Polish 1st Division.

In 1941, the Soviets joined the Allied Forces against Nazi Germany. One of the Allied conditions for that agreement was the release of Polish prisoners of war, the reestablishment of the Polish State, and the formation of a Polish Second Corps. Many soldiers in the Polish Armed Forces went right from camps into the newly formed army to fight the Nazis.

In 1947, six years later, Parliament passed the Polish Resettlement Act, the first-ever mass immigration legislation in British history. This was a chance for thousands of Polish soldiers and refugees to make a permanent home in Britain.

Ela: The first thing I really wanted to share with you was a document which I found recently here at The National Archives. In fact, very recently, just a few months ago. And it comes from a collection of data which was created postwar by the Board of Education. They’re very short life sketches. Some are longer than others, but they’re mostly quite brief, some written in English and some in Polish, but they actually give us an extraordinary insight into the sort of extreme hardships these refugees endured. And they also tell us the ways in which they had to adapt after imprisonment, you know, from Nazi camps and Stalin’s gulags, and the displacement that resulted in that.

The one I’d like to share with you is quite personal. I found it fairly recently, Allenwood Camp, near Cheltenham, and it was written on the 19th of June in 1947 by Jerzy Maresch. And he writes, I was born on the 26th of July in 1923 in a town called Inowroclaw, the son of Karol and Stanislawa Maresch. I finished my earliest school in Torun, and in 1937 was accepted into the military Academy in Rawicz here I finished my schooling. I was living with my family in Warsaw when the Germans invaded. I completed my schooling in 1942. During the German occupation, I was a member of the home army. On the 27th of October, 1942. I was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Pawiak Prison on Aleja Szucha in Warsaw. And from there, deported to the concentration camps of Majdanek, followed by Flossenburg, Gross-Rosen Mauthausen, and Mauthausen-Gusen. After my liberation on the 5th of May, 1945, I managed to get across to the British military zone in Germany. In July, 1945 I stood in front of the commission in Lille and was accepted into the Polish Armed Forces, where I began a course in trade and commerce. I qualified in March, 1947 and on May the 8th, I left Germany under the artillery division of the Polish forces.”

So that’s actually a short life sketch, which I didn’t know existed at all of my father. My father died when I was 21. So I hadn’t really known anything about his time in the camps. It was never spoken of at home. And I did find his, his pink card where he had all his camps listed. So I was able to do so a lot of research and I have been researching many of these places for many, many years.

But something like this was really crucial because there were a couple of elements of that story that piece together a bigger jigsaw puzzle for me. I didn’t know he had a pseudonym in the Polish Home Army. I can look now more deeply into that particular archive. He joined Polish Resettlement Corps in order to be able to come over to Britain with the Polish forces and with my grandfather who was a high ranking officer at the time in the army. And in fact, when he was liberated…in fact exactly can you believe it’s 75 years ago today that he was liberated from Mauthausen-Gusen, and the story tells us of one aspect of how the prisoners of war and the concentration camp survivors really had nowhere to go. They couldn’t return to Poland because Poland was communist and they would have been enemies of the state. So their lives were at risk there.

So that’s a very personal story and, and very much something that was never talked about, as I said, when I was a child. But my childhood memories of living within the Polish community were nothing but happy. We had a very humble lifestyle, but we were very much involved in the Polish community and it was a great, great childhood. And this was something that was, was not, it was not talked about and not delved into, but with the opening up of archives and various archives right across Germany and across the world, more and more you can find out more and more.

Katie: The journey to Britain was a long one for many Polish refugees. The men, women, and children who’d been prisoners at labor camps in Siberia and Kazakhstan were released in 1941, but the Polish Resettlement Act wasn’t passed until 1947. In those years in between, many Polish civilians–mostly women and children– ended up making temporary homes in Iran, India, Uganda and other countries in the Empire and British Protectorate. Thousands of Poles made their way to England via British territories in the 1940s. Among them was Ela’s mother.

Ela: So Russia freed the men and the men ended up forming the Polish Second Corps, and they ended up fighting with the allies through the Middle East. But the women and children, they obviously couldn’t go with them. The older women, and the older girls I suppose, ended up, a lot of them ended up in Palestine actually, sort of driving ambulances and working for the Red Cross.

But the mothers and children, the younger mothers and children, they were sent to either the British Protectorate or British colonies. So they ended up going across to Persia to a place called Pahlevi through Persia. So Iran, Iraq, and across to India, and some stayed in India. And from India, some caught the boat to Mombasa and ended up in Uganda. There were about 3000 women and children in one particular camp in Masindi. And we’ve got actually, funnily enough in our records, we’ve got old school reports from that time. The camp had a British camp commandant who oversaw the running of the camp. The camp was divided into mini villages if you like. There was a church built there. There was a big community.

Katie: Ela’s mother Eugenia also has an interest in history and using archival records to uncover the past. Together they’ve spent years researching the history that Eugenia lived through as a child, trying to fill in the gaps. Ela sat down with her mother for this episode to record her story.

Ela: Mama, you were just a little child when your refugee journey began, how much of it do you remember?

Eugenia (Ela’s Mother): Well, I was five when the war broke out. So my memory is not that rich, but I do remember, times which caused me to cry because I didn’t know what was happening. All of a sudden we were woken up in the middle of the night by the policemen who were looking for my father who wasn’t at home and uh, told us to pack up whatever we can because the winter is severe, and we’re going to be deported to Far East; he didn’t actually say Siberia or Russia or whatever. So we didn’t know. Obviously my mother was frightened and um, I was holding onto her dressing gown crying, and um, it was in turmoil. So eventually with their help we were packed, and they didn’t actually wait what is happening with the father, whether to wait for the father or whether to look for him. Uh, the orders were to take the whole family, and were just put on a sledge. It was severe winter, lot of snow. My oldest sister by 10 years, and my brother, who was seven at the time, and I was five, we were just bundled into this sledge and taken to the nearest railway station, which was Postawy, where we were together with other Polish families from Postawy were packed into the cattle trucks and the following day we’re off through Minsk to the far East of Russia.

Ela: And what do you remember when you arrived at your destination?

Eugenia: Well it took us three weeks. I do remember. It was very tedious, very tiring. A lot of people are very sick. Eventually we stopped at a local station and we’re taking on a sledge again and were taken to a place called Zmienogorsk far away into Siberia. The whole time mountains were nearby and also the border with China, and Kazakhstan. Unknown place. And this is supposed to be our home.

Yes, there must’ve been about 120 families that were taken from our Postawy district. So, we knew most of them. Um, so were very helpful. I mean, we didn’t, we didn’t have our father with us, so other men helped us to erect this hut and the inside, et cetera.

Ela: What happened to [grandpa], where was [grandpa]

Eugenia: Well, my father was in Vilna, um, at the time and he was, he was in touch with my uncle who was also an officer in the army and he was bound to be evicted sooner or later. Once he learned that we were taken to Siberia, he turned up at the police and said, “Take me with them. I want to be with my family and we shall share whatever fate there is together.” And so he joined us almost when we reached Siberia. I do remember, the doors of this cattle truck opened and he walked in, was pushed in actually. So we’re so happy that he was with us.

Katie: When hundreds of thousands of Poles were released from prison camps in Siberia, many of them were in poor health, and they had nowhere to go. So an arrangement was made to transport them to refugee camps in Iran. At one point in 1942, as many as 2,500 Polish refugees a day were landing in the port city of Pahlevi. Ultimately, 116,000 Polish refugees were sent to Iran, including Ela’s mother Eugenia, her sister, and their mother.

Ela: I know that there was a huge refugee camp, especially built for Poles in Pahlevi, because our War Office files actually have, there’s a six, seven page report, by one of the officers who was in charge of setting that camp up. It was around six km long, this camp, and it housed 70,000 Poles.

Eugenia: But they also had over a thousand graves there as well, people just simply died on the journey to Persia from Siberia. There were so exhausted and they had all sorts of illnesses.

Katie: The Poles were treated well in Iran, where the warm climate helped many recover from the physical toll of Siberia. The Iranian government provided supplies to Eugenia’s camp and Polish schools were created to help give the refugees some sense of normality. But Iran didn’t have the resources to care for the Polish refugees long-term, so they found themselves traveling once again to a new and foreign country.

Eugenia: We didn’t stay long in Tehran, because for obvious reasons they Persia didn’t want us to stay permanently. And it was a very, very haphazard arrangement. So the British and the Polish, um, government were very keen to move on, to take the refugees out of that area into Europe. Apparently dragged Britain refused because they said they have no room. They had, I mean, so many thousands of, um, wartime, Germans, prisoners of war. America also rejected and said, you know, that they can’t do it because they are so busy with the war effort, et cetera. So it was decided that the refugees, the Poles will have to be settled temporarily at the British colonies. That was Africa and South Africa. And also there’s the central et cetera. And this is where all the camps were erected and made for them. So they’ve traveled straight from Tehran to Africa. We were the last one to leave Tehran, and there were 5,000 of us and we were sent to India.

Well, it was a very tedious journey, very dangerous because we traveled in the lorries overland through Afghanistan and Pakistan on to Karachi. In Karachi, we were put out there in sort of a temporary camp, which was called, um, Country Club. And that was in the middle. Yes. It was in the middle of nowhere…it was like a desert. So that was sort of an intermediate stage of our stay. And we were also the last one to move on from Country Club back to Bombay. We traveled on the Polish ship.

So we landed in Bombay and then were put on to train and taken to a place called Kolhapur. Famous for its sandals. Yes. 5,000 of us. 5,000.

Ela: And where, where was the space created for you then?

Eugenia: The British decided that they will build a provisional camp for us. The Polish consulate in Bombay was very, very adamant that it should be a good place climatically for us. So it isn’t, you know, high temperature. We couldn’t get away from monsoon. We had our share of monsoon. There, there’s no winter whatsoever. And 5,000, we’re just like a little town who has, we had schools, we had a hospital, we had a cinema we had a church. So it was sort of almost self-sufficient. We existed on the Polish pension.

Ela: I want to really ask you a little bit about your life in India. I do remember that you, you telling me a lots of stories about the help that you got from the local Indian, villagers and they came, sold you lemonade and it all sounded very happy. Was it really that happy?

Eugenia: Oh, it was because the sun was shining really almost a full year. We were very self-contained, so we were allowed, and it had to have permission, to go to Kolhapur, town, which was our local town, I don’t know how many miles, probably about four or five miles away. If you wanted to buy some material or just, do some shopping or whatever, you were allowed, but you had to come back, at 10:00 PM exactly back. So we were sort of looked after.

Ela: I’m intrigued about the language. I mean you obviously only spoke Polish.

Eugenia: Yes. But they’ve learned, I mean the Indians are very clever, very clever. They picked up Polish language in there. Obviously it wasn’t gramatic, but they did, if you wanted to sell a you know, um, lovely juice or ice cream, you had to learn “Pani, pani proze, ice cream, lody lody?”
So it was, it was fun. Yes, very much so. But the first year was a sort of like a settling down. Of course schools were full of children. A lovely hospital as well where my mother stayed for a while because she wasn’t very well after Russia. I have lovely memories and I did go back, yes, 50 years after, after departure I went with a lot of my other friends.

Katie: Around the same time that Iqbal’s mother and her family left their home in Rawalpindi to escape the rising violence of Partition, Ela’s mother boarded the SS Empire Brent in Bombay with other Poles headed for Southampton on the south coast of England. She’d spent two years in Siberia, a few months in Iran, and five years in India. Now more than seven years after leaving her home in Poland, she was on her way to Britain, a Polish refugee on a boat from India.

Ela: So you arrived from India as a displaced refugee in September, 1947…
Eugenia: Stateless

Ela: September, 1947 Southampton docks on the SS Empire Brent, I know that because I managed to track you and the rest of the family down on our board of trade passenger lists that we’ve got. And you came quite early, ‘47. A lot of Poles came over in 1948 and they came over obviously on these ships with a lot of Indians who were leaving with other nationalities because of obviously all the troubles in India at the time. Do you remember any of that?

Eugenia: No, we just missed it. There were skirmishes around, which didn’t affect us in the camp, but we knew there was something boiling, and a revolution was coming in. And um, so, uh, we’ve only learned while in England about the fighting and then the segregation.

Ela: How did you feel about that when you heard that news? I mean, you were very young, maybe you didn’t sink in?

Eugenia: Well, I, I sympathize with them and said everybody wants their own country. Why they shouldn’t have an independence? So, we lost our independence because of some of this, you know, grudge or superiority, whatever. But I didn’t… I had so much to take on being in Great Britain.

Katie: One of Eugenia’s big challenges when she arrived in England with her mother Antonina and her sister Aniela, at age 12 was to learn the language. Just like Iqbal’s mother, Surjeet, who had to learn Hindi in order to navigate her new home.

Eugenia: I had to start first of all by listening to what they were saying to me, I didn’t understand them, but I just caught on eventually, what they mean. And I repeat, I was repeating after them.

Katie: It must have been challenging to adapt to her new home. Our historical records show a mixed reception to Poles in Britain, but despite all the challenges, Ela’s mother has positive memories of going to school and starting her career in England.

Eugenia: Physics and mathematics. And that was my line, you see. Which I enjoyed because I was the only girl among boys, so that, that was all right. And that puts me on a different level of people, meeting people. We had conferences, international conferences,

And met a very nice young man, George. We’ve met while hiking on Ingleborough mountain in beautiful Yorkshire Dales. And that’s that.

Ela: That was my father. Yes. Yeah.

Ela: So how do you see yourself? Do you see yourself as a Polish refugee on foreign soil or do you see yourself now as a different person to the one that left Poland in 1940?

Eugenia: You know, I haven’t got a very strong connection with Poland because I left when I was five and I haven’t lived there, and yet I knew and I carry with me the culture and the language of my fathers. And there’s another country which took me on, Great Britain–or England I like to say–England is my second home, but the nationality is immaterial for me. I can have five or six or seven nationalities if I like or if I want to. It doesn’t mean anything to me. It is how I feel about the country. And England is most accommodating country to settle. So I’m very happy here.

Ela: Well mama you’re the best. You really are.

Matt: Sometimes it’s difficult to make connections between archival records and people’s lives but in these instances the connections are clear. These records reflect the life-shaping experiences of people still alive today… friends, neighbours or –in our case– colleagues.

Katie: To wrap up this episode, we asked Hannah Carter to tell us why she thinks it’s important to continue researching the history of refugees and uncovering the individual, intimate, and personal stories in our archives.

Hannah: The idea or label refugee, I think for many of folks, a very clear image, maybe of masses of people struggling with their possessions or rows of white tents. And I think this can contribute to an anonymization of refugees, but actually people in societies are affected so differently by crisis and we’re able to make different choices even if those are extremely limited. Not all refugees experience displacement the same. Some might not seek shelter in a traditional tented refugee camp for instance, or they may be able to travel in different ways. But if there was a commonality to experiences, I think it would be trauma that’s often repeated, dislocation, and limbo status, which can have a really severe impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing.

The theme of Refugee Week is Imagine. Refugee Week are encouraging refugees and others to share video messages, jokes, and stories. This will be a celebration of individuals’ resilience and achievements.

Our collection at The National Archives is full of fascinating personal refugee stories, as I’m sure you have become aware of over this podcast. But there are so many that are yet to be uncovered and I think my hope is that they continue to be studied and we can use that to really think about how we treat refugees in our society today.

I’d like to imagine a future where all of these incredible stories in our collection continue to be studied and we can think of creative ways to celebrate the achievements of refugees in this country, but also across the world.

Matt: Thanks for listening to On the Record, a production of The National Archives at Kew.

Katie: For more information on Refugee Week and to discover their 8 Simple Acts that we can all do to stand with refugees and make new connections in our communities, visit

Matt: Stay subscribed and stay tuned, as we have more amazing stories planned for this podcast. Lockdown has delayed our production schedule, but I promise it will be worth the wait.


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Thank you to all the experts who contributed to this episode. This episode was written, edited, and produced by Hannah Hethmon for Better Lemon Creative Audio.

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