Karolina Haluszczak writes about her family's displacement following the 1939 invasion of Poland, how World War II shaped the history of the Polish Scouting Association in the UK, and how the organisation fostered her passion for the outdoors...
Do you ever reflect on who or what inspired you to undertake a hobby, go on your first camping trip, hike, climb or adventure? We each have our unique stories, and this is mine.
Every summer as a teenager, I enthusiastically, but with a certain amount of trepidation nonetheless, went to a Polish Scout camp (obóz) in the UK for two weeks. This was my summer holiday. You're probably thinking of fun, action-packed days and nights spent star-gazing. There were elements of that, but the reality was far harsher; it was more like a modern day 'bootcamp.' When people ask me about my time at Polish Scouts I often describe it as follows: 'Sleeping in a canvas tent for two weeks, building beds out of wood and ropes (no luxurious feather duvets here!), doing night raids on other camps, going on long hikes with heavy backpacks, singing and chanting Polish songs around a campfire, washing our hair in rivers and even digging our own toilet!'
I get some interesting responses to this. The main one is usually: 'I can't believe you lasted two weeks without a proper wash!' Somehow we managed it! We learnt survival skills and how to live in harmony with nature. It was an amazing time where people from similar backgrounds to my own could come together and learn about their Polish culture while creating long-lasting friendships. I learnt about Polish history, culture and traditions and to this day, I still remember the songs we sang, which I could then share with my grandparents.
When I recall my days at obóz, I often talk about the happy times and the amazing opportunities we had. It was the start of my love affair with the outdoors and it inspired me to become the adventurous person I am today. So, who are the 'Polish' Scouts, and how did they begin here in the UK?
It all began in 1939 with the onset of WW2. At that time, Poland was invaded from the west by the Nazis and from the east by the Russians. The reality for many Polish families was that they were taken from their homeland either by Soviets or Nazis, put on cattle trucks to be killed or taken away to camps where many people suffered and endured atrocious conditions. Many of my family members went through this unimaginable experience and I could spend hours retelling all their stories, but I'll focus on my Babcia's (grandma's) story.
In 1939, my grandma was a young, ordinary 13-year-old girl from Eastern Poland who lived in the forest with her family and went about her everyday business as normal: going to school, helping her family, going to Polish Scouts etc. Her blissful life ended abruptly when Poland was invaded by the Germans and Russians.
Late at night, when the family were singing songs around the fire with her father playing the violin, there was a sudden knock on the door. The Russian army entered and gave them only 30 minutes to pack. What can you do in such a short time? They were taken to the nearby town of Grodno and crammed into cattle trucks along with many other Poles. It was the start of a gruelling few years. My Babcia was pulled away from everything she knew and was made to leave the homeland she loved behind. They travelled for three weeks, eventually ending up in a Gulag in Siberia. They were exiled to these camps in Siberia so that the Soviets could have more control over annexed Poland. They never saw their homeland again.
Their journey to Siberia was anything but pleasant. She would tell me that they made one daily stop for gruel, had a hole in the truck floor for a toilet and had to listen to the constant cries of the living, as the dead were thrown into the snow. Once in Siberia, my Babcia and her family were often starving in the camps and had to survive in sub-zero temperatures.
Yet a few years later when the Russians were invaded by Nazi Germany in 1941, the Russians allowed a Polish army to be formed within Russia itself. A large portion of this army, including many men from the camps in Siberia, was permitted by the Russians under General Anders to cross the border into Iran where they were put under British command and fought with British allies for the rest of the war. Both of my grandads were part of this army.
The other civilians, women and children of the camps were resettled by the British in both India and Africa for the remainder of the war. My Babcia ended up in Valivade, India. Kira Banasinka fought to make India a home for the estimated 5,000 Poles who lived there between 1942 and 1948. The locals in India welcomed the Poles with open arms, and it was a happy time for my Babcia. They created a mini Poland with Polish schools, Scouts, festivals and churches. It shows us in the UK now how refugees in India were welcomed with open arms, something we should think about more in Britain today.
After the war, the Communist system was established in Poland and thousands of Poles did not return to Poland because they feared for their safety due to the Stalinist regime at the time. My Babcia and her family ended up in the UK and were in resettlement camps before moving to Bradford in Yorkshire.
Many Polish Community Centres were set up firstly in large cities such as London, Edinburgh and Glasgow and then spread to towns and cities around the UK as Polish people found work and settled here. For many of the young people, who had been through deportations and atrocious conditions throughout the war, often losing their families, Polish Scouting became like a substitute family helping them to find their feet in foreign lands. Polish Scouts has a presence in Australia, Argentina, Canada, France, Ireland, the USA and the UK. Through the dedicated hard work of hundreds of volunteer Scout and Guide leaders, generations of children have benefited from the Scouting programmes, which continue to provide for new generations today.
I was brought up in Yorkshire, so I was part of the Kaszuby Polish Scouts in the North of England. I learnt a lot of the Polish language, songs and history and I also learnt the history of my grandparents from both my mother's and father's side. This rich culture has brought something beautiful to England.
Throughout my time as a Scout, I explored many parts of the UK and I had the privilege of visiting Poland for the first time on a Scout camp there. We always explored England by taking long hikes, camping and building our own dens. Hiking in this community allowed me to be in touch with my Polish identify and culture while also exploring the UK and all its beauty. We went to places like the Lake District and down to Wales and Southern England.
Through the Polish Scouts, I developed a passion for the outdoors and hiking. This then led onto climbing, caving and even sailing! I am still good friends with people from the Polish Scouts and I am so glad it is still running and teaching the history of why many Polish people came to the UK while offering young people a chance to experience the Great Outdoors.