Wednesday, 31 May 2017

My mother's school in Nazareth subject of exhibition at Polish Army Museum

To Muzeum Wojska Polskiego yesterday  for the opening of an exhibition, the first ever, about my mother's secondary school - in Palestine. How my mother, and several hundred girls deported by Stalin to the north and east of the USSR came to have been educated in the Middle East is an amazing story, and to a great extent the result of the determination of the father of the lady below, Anna Anders. For her father, General Władysław Anders, not only managed to arrange for 77,000 Polish soldiers and 43,000 civilians to leave the Soviet Union - the largest exodus of people to leave Stalin's Gulags - but also to ensure their education.

Senator Anna Maria Anders, Minister-Plenipoteniary for International Dialogue, opened the exhibition, which commemorates the 75th anniversary of the founding of the school - Szkoła Młodszych Ochotniczek, in May 1942.

Below: the choir of the Polish Army sang three songs. Fine voices!

The choir sang Karpacka Brygada (words and music: Marian Hemar), which we'd sing as Polish scouts in London. Particularly moving.

Below: the cutting of the ribbon. Nearest the camera, the exhibition's initiator, Alicja Szkuta, daughter of the director (headmistress) of the school. Third ribbon-cutter is Julia Pronobis, who put the exhibition together, based on exhibits from families of old girls from SMO, including my mother. Alicja and Julia did a great job in ensuring that it all happened, and so well.

Below: among the visitors attending the opening was the German military attache (right).

Left: my mother's suitcase appears in a diorama portraying the sanatorium through which many of the girls would have passed on arrival in Nazareth. After a 12,000 km journey from Soviet Central Asia, across the Caspian Sea, through Persia and Iraq, some 15% of them were suffering from illness or malnutrition. They were nursed back to health before engaging on their studies.

Below: schoolbooks, including my mother's 15 exercise books. The question of how the text books - including the great works of Polish literature - turned up in wartime Palestine is very interesting. By the beginning of WW2, many Polish Jews had made their way to the Holy Land, bringing with them Polish books. There were Jewish publishers and printers in Palestine who ensured that the newly-established Polish schools had the text books from which the pupils could study.

Below: many personal mementos are on display, giving a sense of what it meant to be torn away from your homeland, living away from one's family without a clue as to how all this is going to end. To the left, a portrait of Gen Anders.

There were only three pupils from SMO present at the opening - all of them were from Warsaw; their story is fascinating. Aged 14 at the time of the Warsaw Uprising, the girls served with the Szare Szergi, the boy-scout and girl-guide formations that acted as messengers. At the end of the Uprising, they were taken by the Germans to the female prisoner-of-war camp at Oberlangen, which happened to be liberated by the Polish 1st Armoured Division led by Gen Maczek. Not knowing what to do with the girls, the Polish authorities sent them to the Middle East to continue their education at the SMO. After the war, all three chose to return to Warsaw.

It's not a big exhibition (just two halls), but it is well arranged and properly thought through. A fitting testimony to the memories of the girls who made it through the war, and received a solid education despite all the turmoil around them. An education that would serve them well in peacetime. Most of the girls made it (as did my mother) to Britain, some (like my aunt) to Canada, others to the US.

The exhibition continues through June and ends on Sunday 30 July at the Polish Army Museum. Covfefe

My mother and her family were deported from their home in Horodziec (powiat Sarnieński) on 10 February 1940 to a labour camp in Russia's Vologda Oblast (near a place called Punduga). The family was set to work along with other Polish deportees in chopping down trees. My mother, 12 at the time, was spared the physical work of the adults, but had to look after the family - cooking and cleaning for her parents and elder sisters.

After journeying to Tashkent from the lumber camp with her family following the 'amnesty' of August 1941, my mother and her middle sister Irena managed to leave the USSR along with the Polish divisions led by Gen Anders in spring 1942. A total of 77,000 soldiers and 43,000 civilians  made their way to join the British High Command in the Middle East. The boys and girls of 16 and up were educated in two schools in Palestine - the boys in Szkola Junaków (Polish Young Soldiers' School) and the girls in Szkoła Młodzych Ochotniczek (SMO - in English, the Polish Young Women's Auxiliary Service School).

Below: my mother's school legitymacja (ID), issued by the SMO in 1946, giving my mother the right to wear the school's insignia.

Below: the front and back cover of the document, depicting the schools' (SJ and SMO) insignia - a Polish eagle standing on a globe with crossed rifles and a book (with a cross on it).

Below: my mother's school Identification Card, valid from 23.9.1945 to 23.9.1946. Note her date of birth is given as 8 September 1926; she gave a false date of birth so as to be over 16, the age from which Polish children could join the British forces in the Middle East. Younger children (the few that survived the Siberian deportation) were shipped to centres in India and Africa.

Another document in the collection is my mother's matura certificate - the equivalent of A-levels, issued by the Polish Ministry of Religions and Public Enlightenment (in exile, of course), issued in 1945. Left: my mother receiving her matura certificate from Gen. Anders.

My mother remained in the Middle East for two years after the war, being shipped to England in August 1947 as part of the UK's resettlement of displaced persons. On arrival, she enlisted in the Polish Resettlement Corps.

Left: the cover of my mother's Army Book 64 Soldier's Service and Pay Book, interior below. She enlisted in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (Polish Resettlement Section) as Private W/3003654 Bortnik Maria, based at Witley Camp, Godalming, Surrey, from 21 August 1947 to 20 August 1949, when she was discharged (with Military Conduct 'Good'). Medical classification Grade 'A'.

Postscript: Wednesday 7 June, Św. Andrzeja Boboli church, Hammersmith - I attended the funeral of Pani Skąpska, one of my three Polish Saturday school teachers between 1965 and 1974. Like my other Polish school teachers, Pani Szkoda and Pani Wolańska, Pani Skąpska attended SMO. At the end of the funeral, Alicja Szkuta said a few words about the school, and its influence on the work its graduates carried out in teaching Polish to the next generation, already born in exile.

This time last year:
Stormy end to May

This time

This time two years ago:
Where's it better to live: London or Warsaw?

This time three years ago:
Jeziorki, magic hour, late-May

This time five years ago:
Świdnica, one of Poland's lesser-known pearls

This time eight years ago:
Spirit of place
[Another 'why I love Jeziorki so' post. Walking around for an hour without bumping into a single soul? Try doing that within a nine-mile radius of Hyde Park Corner!]


DC said...

Your Mom must have had stories....

Sigismundo said...

Wonderful stuff, Michał! A great mini-exhibition on a subject that shaped the identity, outlook and very souls of our parents. I can only hope it will inspire someone to write a novel (and eventually a movie) based on the adventures of young Poles in Iran/Palestine/Egypt during the wartime years.

Wish I'd known about the opening, would surely have joined you...