As she slowly walks the corridors, wrapped in a long wool topcoat and leaning on a cane, only one thing seems out of place: the headphones clamped firmly over her traditional Polish head scarf. The woman’s portable radio, tuned to an English-language station that she cannot understand, was suggested by a staff member to keep away the haunting memories of a night nearly 50 years ago when she watched invading soldiers murder members of her family. Another woman, in her 80s, anxiously goes to the camp office several times a day to ask when the truck is coming to deport her to wartime Poland. At the Ilford Park Polish Home in southern England—the only camp for Second World War Polish refugees that remains of the 40 established by the British government after the war—those events are commonplace. They are also a clear indication that, for many of the residents, 43 years of peace have not erased the nightmare.
Because Poland was divided between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939, then totally overrun by German
forces in 1941 when Adolf Hitler launched his invasion of Russia, many Poles suffered atrocities at the hands of both German and Soviet armies. After the war more than 130,000 Polish refugees, resistance fighters and exsoldiers who had fought with Polish units attached to the British army set-
The camp has retained a distinctive Polish identity and it also provides the best of both worlds for its elderly residents
tied in Britain because of the government’s commitment to shelter Polish refugees. Over the years, many of them left the refugee camps and became assimilated into British society. Many others died. But 135 Poles who were unable to integrate into British society now live at Ilford Park—five kilometres northwest of the south
Devon market town of Newton Abbot. Under the terms of the 1947 Polish Resettlement Act, the government is still committed to their welfare. The camp, run by the department of health and social security, has retained a distinctively traditional Polish identity. Known locally as “Little Poland,” it also provides the best of both worlds for its elderly residents, most of whom speak little or no English and adhere to Polish customs.
From the outside, the 38-acre camp still has the austere look of the U.S. military installation that it was during the war. The more active residents live in separate oneand two-bedroom apartments fashioned inside the long concrete-block buildings that once served as barracks. More than 90 live in single rooms within other refurbished barracks. And another military barracks has been converted into a Roman Catholic church, where daily masses are conducted in Polish.
Near the church is a small shop run by Janina Swiecicka, 61, a robust and cheerful blonde who was incarcerated in a Soviet labor camp before fleeing to Iran, Iraq and Palestine, and finally arriving at Ilford Park in 1950. Swiecicka, who no longer lives in the camp, sells what her customers demand: fresh vegetables, goods such as Aspirin and pantyhose and, of course, Polish sausage and
Sauerkraut and Tatra beer from Poland. “Everyone had a very bad time in the war,” she said. “But it is a very comfortable life here—and freedom is the most important thing.”
Ilford Park residents have used that freedom to dictate much of what happens at the camp. Years ago, when the British staff scheduled English mealtimes, the Poles protested vigorously. As a result, meals—many of them Polish and prepared by a Polish head chef—are still served in the two communal dining halls at traditional Polish times: lunch at 11:30 a.m. and dinner at 4:30 p.m. “These are not people to be pushed around,” said Peter Davies, a health department spokesman. Of the camp’s 52-person staff, many of the 30 non-Polish employees say that they love the communal spirit. “It is not simply an old folks’ home,” said Ilford Park manager Maurice Clark. “It is a community where the boundary between the residents and the staff is very hard to define.”
The bond to Ilford Park often extends
beyond the original refugees. Both the daughter and granddaughter of Helena Kunaszkiewicz, 76, whose tidy room contains a flowered carpet, flowered tablecloth and Roman Catholic religious pictures, work and live in the camp.
Kunaszkiewicz’s daughter works as a health care assistant, and her granddaughter, 20-year-old Helena Sokolowski, is an office clerk. Although Sokolowski spent two years working in Israel, she returned to Ilford Park last year. “The day I will have to move from here will be very sad,” she said. “I have enjoyed growing up here.”
Last November many residents were clearly shaken by press rumors that the government planned to close Ilford Park and sell the land to real estate developers. But government spokesmen pledged that the camp would not be closed, and when Clark relayed that information one lunch hour to the residents, he received standing ovations. Changes may still take place at Ilford Park though. Clark said that over the next decade the government may sell some of the land and demolish old buildings to construct new and more comfortable dwellings. But he added that the residents will always be cared for on the same site for as long as they live.
That has clearly reassured the Poles of Ilford Park. In their room, Sofia Krynska, 87, and her 88-year-old husband Ceslaw—who lost a leg to diabetes six years ago—said that they could not imagine living anywhere else. “Is very good here,” Sofia said in halting English. “Is not Russia.” And another resident, a 69-year-old Polish army veteran who asked that his name not be used because he fears reprisals against relatives in Poland, summed up the feelings of many who now make Ilford Park their home. “Even if you offered me a better place,” he said, “I would not be very happy about it.”
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