Memories of WWII refugees live on in Tanzania

ARUSHA – On the fringes of a small Tanzanian village called Tengeru lay buried 150 Polish war refugees, who did their best to make a life there.

Occupants of Tengeru village go about their daily lives.
The Third Reich invaded Polish territory 1 September 1939, without declaration. It was the beginning of the Second World War. The Molotov Pact of 23 August 1939 partitioned more than half of Polish territory to the Soviet Union, beginning a campaign of terror against the civilian population. Deportation to Siberia began 10 February 1940, following purges of the Polish civil elite. When German armies invaded in 1942, the Polish government sided with the USSR in exchange for the release of Polish deportees, as well as 47 thousand exhiles. Many were sent to United Kingdom colonies – of those, about 18 Thousand Poles were sent on to refugee camps in East Africa. There were six in Tanzania, the largest of which was in the village Tengeru, with 5,000 refugees.

The Polish “settlers” developed a life for themselves, running specialized farms, small businesses, and nearly a dozen schools. They raised clinics, hospitals, churches and one synagogue. In their history, it’s recorded as becoming a “scrap of distant homeland”.

With the end of the war, the refugees were able to return to Europe, but many had nowhere to go, and no one to go home to. Some were taken from regions lost to Poland in the Yalta Agreement. Others were too afraid of the Soviet proxy governments to return. For almost a decade, these wayward peoples dispersed across the world. About one thousand remained in their African settlements – 151 of those stayed in Tengeru.

Young Edward Wojtowicz, perched amidst fellow refugees.

Today hundreds of pilgrims come every year to the cemetery where 150 of them lay buried, the only vestige remaining of the refugee camp except for its sole survivor, Edward Wojtowicz, 94. He still lives in Tengeru, and one day he will be the last person ever buried there. His mother was buried in 1985, his grandmother in 1955.

Simon Joseph is a local Tengeru man who operates the cemetery all on his own, as caretaker, gardener, contractor and guide for the many who visit. He says most are descendants of the original 5,000 who lived there, come to trace back a piece of their own history to those difficult times.

“All people buried here are refugees. They suffered here from malaria and influenza,” Joseph recalls.

“Before here they were in labour camps in Siberia. They were forced into slave labour.”

He lives just five kilometers away with his wife, Rota, and six children. He says he loves his work, and knows the history inside and out, telling the story again and again for each new visitor.

In 2015 all of the graves are set to be renovated, paid for by the Polish government, who has funded the cemetery all this time since its first inhabitant, Michael Tchorz, was buried 23 October 1942. There are just five jews in the cemetery, buried separately near the wall which was erected in 2001. Joseph says the cemetery will be maintained in Tengeru forever.

The local villagers rarely come by, but they all know it’s there. The place where five thousand foreigners, abandoned by the rest of the world, made a little piece of home for themselves in the dusty plains.

Polish refugee settlers in Tengeru

First published for Speak Magazine.

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