Thursday marked the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks on June 22, 1948. It was, of course, a momentous landing. Lured to these shores by promises that were broken, the Caribbean arrivals of the “Windrush generation” had every reason to feel betrayed. Rightly, we heard a lot about them last week. Monuments were unveiled, documentaries shown. But what you probably do not know is that there were 66 Polish travellers also on board.
They were mostly women and children. All arrived on the same Windrush that brought the West Indian hopefuls to Britain. The 66 Poles who arrived at Tilbury were also looking forward to a better future. But this Windrush generation, the one no one knows about, had already survived a painful decade of uprooting.
Their story goes back to 1939, when the Soviets invaded Poland. Stalin’s “non-aggression” pact with Hitler had temporarily cast them on the same side. While the Nazis invaded from the west, the Soviets came in from the east, gathering up civilian Poles and packing them off to Siberia in cattle trucks.
An estimated one and a half million Poles were deported to labour camps in the Russian east by the invading Soviets. Among them was my mother. She was 16 when they shipped her off. The train journey took many weeks. For a lavatory, they cut a hole in the middle of the carriage. For water, they were allowed off the train to collect snow.
After two years in the labour camps, where the Poles were so hungry they were sometimes forced to eat the bark from trees, they were abruptly released. Hitler invaded Russia, so the Soviets switched sides and opened up the camps. Everyone who had survived was free. A new Polish army was being formed in the south under General Władysław Anders, so off they all marched, on foot, to join it.
Eventually they got to Iran, which was then under British control. Hundreds of thousands of Polish refugees, mostly women and children, riddled with typhoid and malnutrition, with nowhere to go. Who wanted them?
Until now, my mother’s story had gone hand in hand with those of the 66 Poles on the Windrush. Now it diverges. Among those who offered to help the refugees in Iran — my mother loved describing how it was so hot you could bake an egg by cracking it on a rock — were the Maharajah of Nawanagar, the Jewish Agency in Palestine, the prime minister of New Zealand and the government of Mexico. Time for the diaspora to be dispersed.
Mum managed to get to Palestine and, from there, eventually, to Scotland. The Windrush Poles took a stranger route. In 1943 about 1,400 of them were packed off to Mexico, where the government offered to house them in the tiny village of Colonia Santa Rosa, near Leon. When they finally arrived, after another interminable train journey, the locals greeted them with an orchestra playing the Polish national anthem. Some of the Mexicans had learnt Polish.
“Until now, we were unwanted trespassers, who bring with them illnesses and suffering. Here, they met us as awaited guests,” remembered Anna Zarnecka de Burgoa, one of the Santa Rosa survivors.
In London, the British government had passed the Polish Resettlement Act, pledging to support those Poles who had aided Britain in the war. After months of bureaucratic toing and froing, the 66 Poles of Santa Rosa were picked up by the Windrush and brought to Tilbury. All but one were women and children. Their men had been separated or lost.
So why do we never hear about them? Because their tiny story cannot compare with the huge global consequences of slavery and empire. Because they never had to deal with crushing racism.
If you come from Poland, you’re used to pain and invasion and uproot. It’s all you’ve ever known. So you tell your children what my mother told me: “Keep quiet and get on with it.”
The 66 Poles on the Empire Windrush would not expect monuments or documentaries. Yet their stories are inspiring — and should never be forgotten.