Degrees of Freedom

In May 1945, New Zealanders and Britons danced in their streets to celebrate the end of war in Europe, then continued to make sense of their new post-war lives.

Three years later, 19,000 wives, widows, children, sisters, brothers, and a handful of elderly relatives of Polish soldiers, airmen and seamen remained in limbo in Polish refugee camps in Africa. With other Poles who refused to return to a new, post-war, communist-controlled Poland, they were among the last to be, grudgingly, granted passage to Britain.

British politicians lamented their post-war “Polish problem” for years, and seemed befuddled why the Polish military and their families would not want to, in the words of British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Ernest Bevin, on 20 March 1946: “go back [to Poland] in order to play their part in the reconstruction of their stricken country…”

Both my then-widowed grandmothers, my mother, and four uncles lived in Polish refugee camps in Africa for five years. My paternal grandmother and uncles lived in Tengeru in then-Tanganika (Tanzania). In 1946, authorities had moved my maternal grandmother, with her surviving three children, from Rusape to a “transit camp” in Gwelo, in then-southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). They all arrived in Southampton, aboard the Carnarvon Castle, on 28 June 1948.  

My mother told me how she had pleaded with her mother on that sea voyage, to go back to Poland. My mother thought she could return to Śmigłowo, but their home in that tiny settlement of 50 houses just north of Zaleszczyki, was no longer theirs to return to. As early as December 1943, in Teheran—the same city that hosted the mainly mothers and children in civilian tent-camps for Poles who had escaped the USSR—US President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill promised Stalin that half of Poland that he invaded in 1939. In 1940 and 1941, Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, removed at gunpoint around 990,000 civilian Poles who had lived in eastern Poland, and sent them to forced labour facilities in northern Russia and Siberia. Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s calculated and cynical move meant that those civilians who survived, and who escaped with the Polish army in 1942, had no homes to return to: they would have to be absorbed into the new post-war communist-controlled Poland.  

By 1948, my maternal babcia knew from family left in Bratkowice just how tough life was under a Moscow-led regime, and also knew she had no choice. A widow with children aged 12, 14 and 16, she had to accept the British gesture.


For purely selfish reasons, I am always so grateful to meet with any New Zealand Pole who has been through Africa. I have written about three: Wisia Sobierajska Watkins, Joe Gratkowski and Joanna Adamek Kalinowska.

My mother’s memories were scant. She told me about her dad being attacked by a wolf the first night they walked out of Taishet on Lake Baikal, and their neighbour saving him. When I asked her how they knew where they were going, she said, “You saw a queue, you joined it.” My mother’s family was lucky in that they were not hijacked along the way to work on digging canals in the desert, like Pani Wisia’s, or collective farms, like Pani Joanna’s, but my mum’s three-year-old sister did not survive the nearly 4,000 kilometre journey to Uzbekistan, where they heard the men could enlist in the Polish army.

My grandparents may have sheltered their children as best they could. At six to eight years old, my mother may not have picked up much of what was going on around her, but her young memories remained strong. She remembered that her sister died days before a family friends’ baby. The two were buried together next to the road. Caskets? No. How would people with nothing, walking through a desert, find anything with which to make a casket? I know the bones of my mother’s sister, and the baby, were probably eaten by dogs. I stopped trying to find out more about the circumstances of her sister’s death when, during a phone call to her in South Africa, she said, “I’ve gone cold. I’m freezing. I can’t get warm.”


Perhaps the Polish civilians in African refugee camps were left there for so long because the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) had more pressing matters to deal with. SHAEF graphs show 5,726,000 displaced people in Germany on 7 April 1945, and little more than 2,000,000 on 21 July 1945. If more than three million people were repatriated within four months, one can only conclude that the balance felt unable to return to their home countries.

Britain did finally accept responsibility for the Polish military and their families from former eastern Poland. Polish troops made up the fourth-largest group of allies in WW2, had made significant contributions to the war victory, and had been attached to the British Forces.

It was as if no one knew what to do with the displaced people left in defeated Germany. The International Refugee Organisation (IRO) took over their care in April 1946. Poles made up the largest nationality of the stubborn 2,000,000—891,000.

At least in Africa, Poles lived within the warmth of gentle people, settings, and climates. In post-war Germany, the displaced populated stark, dark, multi-storeyed buildings in grassless yards.

New Zealand accepted just 4,500 displaced people between 1947 and 1952. Zenona Cyckoma Pąk, her parents and brother, arrived in Wellington on the IRO-chartered Hellenic Prince, in October 1950, which carried 949 of them, mostly from Poland and the Baltic states, and others from Yugoslavia, the Ukraine, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Russia. Halina Kuźmiuk Aman, and her parents, Pawel and Irena, were on the same vessel.

The immediate post-war dancing in the streets had long finished. Grateful for the chance to start again, that is exactly what the new Polish arrivals did.

—Barbara Scrivens

31 January 2021


Halina Kuźmiuk Aman’s story:

Zenona Cyckoma Pąk’s story:

Wisia Sobierajska Watkins’s stories: ; ;

Joe Gratkowski’s story:

Joanna Adamek Kalinowska’s story:


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