WW2 refugees on today’s refugee crisis

PICTURE MIKE SEWELL. PLEASE NOTE: WE ARE CALLING HER EB because she does not want to use her full name. Pictured is Emilia Bisewska, a former refugee from Poland, talks about her experiences and what she thinks of today’s refugee crisis. (for Cat Turnell) Contact: Emilia on 254 7701.

The totally lovely EB

Sometimes she’ll find herself alone in the middle of a deep forest. In the dream, she’s a shivering nine-year-old girl again, searching for mushrooms and berries.

It’s then, as she hunts for food among the trees, she’ll be gripped by an old terror. You’re lost, says the panicked voice in her head. You’re lost and alone in the forest.

“On other occasions, I’m in Kyrgyzstan on the journey from Siberia – we were in the mountains,” explains that nine-year-old, now an 85-year-old sat comfortably in an armchair in Leicester.

“Me,” she says, “I’m climbing the mountains,” and mimes the action with her hands.

They’d arrived in winter, she adds. Her mother was dangerously ill with typhoid, and she was scrabbling over the rocks, searching for wild garlic to cook and eat.

“I’m climbing the mountains,” she says again, clawing the air. “In my nightmares I’m still climbing up the mountains.”

It’s been a lifetime since the lady with the recurring dreams was a child refugee, one of thousands wrenched from their homes in Poland in February 1940 and forced on to railway cattle trucks and trundled north, in harrowing conditions, to toil in the forests of Siberia.

Lately, this lady has been watching the news. Well, sort of. She can’t really bear to see it, she says.

The civil war in Syria. The refugee children. Crying. Scared. Washed up on the beaches of Turkey.

“In these days of civilisation and modern technology, children have to suffer so much I just can’t bear it,” she says. “It’s difficult to look at it.

“I’m an elderly person,” she explains, “not politically-minded, my childhood trauma comes back in my nightmares. I have a great sympathy and sorrow for these people.”

Our interviewee is sharing her thoughts on the current crisis and her memories of being an innocent caught in the machinery of war.

Nobody, after all, really knows better what it is to be a refugee than another refugee.

That’s why we’d started this interview a week earlier, at The Polish Centre, in Evington. But it’s no easy thing dusting off those kinds of memories when you’re surrounded by people catching up over a coffee.

At her home today, she has a raft of notes to hand about what happened to her – experiences mirrored by many from Poland who made England “dom” in the 1940s.

“The stories are all very similar,” she admits.

“They used to be our bedtime stories, when we were children,” says her daughter, sat nearby.

It may seem strange, but while our interviewee is happy to have her photo taken – “just a little one” – she would rather just be known as EB, her initials.

“I would like to stay anonymous,” she smiles, “you know what people are like.”

At The Polish Centre, a week earlier, many fellow refugees didn’t want to speak to the paper. Admittedly, it’s an uncomfortable situation when a journalist asks about such painful memories.

“I don’t want to talk to you,” one lady tells me, rather forcefully.

Another says there was a recent article in the Mercury about a Polish refugee couple from Melton.

“That’s the story,” she snaps, “every story is the same.”

She puts her nose in the air and storms off. She comes back later, to sit next to me while I’m interviewing, and proceeds to tut, harrumph and sigh loudly.

Another woman, with immaculate hair, beautifully-manicured nails and jewellery, tells me she’s sorry, but she won’t talk to me about the war. I tell her that’s okay. So she tells me a story about her rings instead.

And there’s another lady, who, almost as soon as the pen reaches the notebook has tears in her eyes. She begins by saying she really needs a translator to tell her story.

“I can’t say everything I know,” she says, “I didn’t have chance to learn English, I go straight to work.”

In 1940, she was a young girl. One night she was asleep in her bed – it could have been 2am or 4am – when the Ukrainian men hammered at their door.

“They didn’t even let us take clothes, nothing, they just grab us. They took us to the town from the village. And my sister, she was two, she was crying. A Russian man says to me, ‘Why she crying?’ and I say ‘because she’s hungry’.

The two girls sit on a sledge and the Russian returns with some bread.

“A Ukrainian man grabbed from mum that bread. Ukrainian man really horrible. They took everything we had – new house, stables.

“You never forget, never. I think what happened to family in Ukraine happened to all Polish families.

“The Ukrainians just come in the night and kill us. Men mostly. Kill with knife.”

With the Russians turning Poland Communist, and various parts of the country switching nationality, the interviewee, and thousands of others didn’t return. Their country had gone.

“I’ve been very pleased (living in England), never experienced racism. Our neighbours were very good. We were very poor. We worked hard. I’m just pleased they (England) took us. It’s not been easy.”

As for today’s precarious planet and the human turbulence in mainland Europe…

“How to solve the crisis? I don’t know,” she says. “I’m sorry for them because the children don’t know anything.”

Do you see any similarities with what you went through?

“It’s completely different,” she says. “The people are coming with money. My parents lost everything. You go hungry straight away. The people that come from Syria must have the money to come in a boat, they have to pay.

“We didn’t leave – we were taken.

“I listen to the telly, I see the people, how they stand up and shout ‘we need this and that’. We didn’t shout. We wanted nothing. They want everything free. If you come to England you don’t have everything free. We worked straight away.”

Two months into the Second World War, EB’s father – a Polish patriot, a military man in both wars, albeit briefly – was murdered by partisans. They didn’t find out what had happened to him until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989.

As for a little bit of EB’s background, she’s a widow, with four grown-up daughters, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

She retired 25 years ago from the shoe industry and still enjoys regular meet-ups with her work friends.

When she first came to Leicester in 1948, she, too, could barely speak a word of English.

Today, there are similarities with the crisis, she acknowledges, with suffering being the main one.

“It was different circumstances,” she adds. “English people responded very kindly. We found a lot of kindness and understanding from individual people. Most people in England are also very sorry for them, the Syrian refugees.

“To be honest, I would be happy if they were treated humanely because,” she exasperates, “we are human beings.”

“The crisis can only be solved by governments involved in this situation,” she believes. “They need to negotiate at the round table on a civilised basis.

“We ordinary people can’t do much but pray to The Almighty to help, to pray for these victims, especially the children.”

Ryszard Szpek is 68 and charting the journey of Polish refugees, such as his parents, using a map which spreads itself across a wall at the Polish Centre.

He doesn’t believe what’s being broadcast on the television is a 100 per cent refugee crisis.

“I don’t buy it,” he says. “We’re talking people from Syria, yes, but Eritrea, Libya – I reckon they are a mixture of people: economic migrants, probably traffickers and refugees.”

Talk turns to the abysmal images of the little Syrian boy’s body being carried from a Turkish shoreline by a police officer.

“I blame the mother and father,” says Richard. “If you put a child in a dinghy don’t you put a safety vest around him, so they don’t drown?

“If he managed to pay $1,000 for a boat, what’s $50 for a safety vest? I wouldn’t take the kids on a boat in the first place. His wife begged him not to. She died, too.

“I would have listened to my wife. If it was so bad, why would I go back to Syria to bury them?

“He was an economic migrant and I believe he wanted to join his sister’s family in Canada.”

Richard was born in England and went to live in Poland soon after the war. He returned to live in England in 1974. He married a British woman of Polish descent and has two grown-up kids.

So how would he, the son of two refugees, deal with refugees coming to England?

“I wouldn’t put them in hotels or rooms, I would put them in camps so it’s not rosy,” he says. “And I would send these people on language courses, rather than paying for interpreters. Why should we?

“Compared to the hardships my parents experienced, there was no food and they had to work.

“You let one (refugee) in,” he says, “and their whole family want to join them – that’s my opinion.

“What skills do they have? How many will go back to help their own country? None.”

Do you really think that?

“I don’t think, I know.”
Edward Bolc is sat in the kitchen of his daughter’s home in Western Park. He’s a very youthful 83.

He comes from a hamlet in Eastern Poland, which now belongs to Belarus.

“It was given to Russia by Churchill,” he says, dispassionately.

His journey went from his father’s farm in Poland to Russia to Kazakhstan to Iran to India.

“I was about eight, I don’t remember it. I remember travelling in a big train. They pushed as many as they could in. I had no idea what was going on at the time.

“There was my mother and four of us. My dad was caught by the Russians and taken to Russia.

“I saw my father again when I came to England. He joined the Polish army that was formed in Russia under British command.

“After the war, he came to England, we joined him and that was that.”

Edward and his family spent two winters and two summers in Russia.

“Everybody was working in the forest. Cutting the trees down. We lived in barracks. And everybody was hungry, that was normal.”

Edward’s younger brother, Zigmund, was six or seven. He’d got cold, says Edward, when he was taken on the journey from the railway station. He died in hospital.

From Russia they went south to Kazakhstan, to Iran, from Iran to India.

“We were separated from my mother and put into a camp for children. She found us through the Red Cross.”

The questions come and Edward, growing uncomfortable, waves them off.

“It was all right,” he says, clamming up, “to be honest, I don’t know, I can’t remember.”

His sister died as well, interjects his daughter.

“She died in the south, in Kazakhstan,” says Edward. “I’ve got the certificate somewhere. She was two years older than me, she was 10, 11 or 12. I can’t remember her face but I’ve got a photograph of her somewhere.”

They came to England in 1947 after four years in India. Ashby Folville, near Melton, was their third destination. In the grounds of the manor house he shared a Nissen hut with another family.

“It was okay,” he offers.

Asked about today’s crisis he gives a heavy shrug of the shoulders.

“I feel sorry for them but what else can I do? Nothing. Some of them are looking for a better life. If they are refugees we should take them. Cameron says 20,000. But whether he will or not is a different story,” he adds. “People promise a lot.”

First published in the Leicester Mercury in September 2015.

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