This section includes information designed to help younger British readers understand why Poles came to Britain after the Second World War, and why Poland is still relatively poor today. For further details please read professional histories like Prof Norman Davies' Oxford History of Poland "God's Playground" or Adam Zamoyski's "The Polish Way".

TRUCK No. 233: 27 JANUARY 1990

"The truck was loaded with more than 17 tonnes of goods in about 1000 bags or boxes. The consignment consisted of, among other things, baby milk, gluten-free flour, drainage tubes, hypodermic needles and syringes, 3 wheelchairs, walking frames, and cod liver oil. There were special consignments for Kraków, Zabrze, a children's home in Kochowice, and Poznań. The consignments for the hospital in Zabrze and the children's home were sent as a direct result of the BBC documentary, "A Poisoned Inheritance", shown on 16 November 1989, after which L70,000 in contributions was sent to MAPF, some of it earmarked for the institutions shown in the film.[...]

As we were driving through the Katowice conurbation I couldn't help noticing domestic and industrial chimneys pumping out clouds of smoke ranging from a sinister yellow to the deepest black. Later, on foot in Katowice, I actually had a moment of déja vu which took me back to Glasgow in the winter of 1967-68 when I was a student there. The damp, acrid smell of coal smoke was the same, and the pale winter light on the blackened buildings. In the town centre all the vehicles puff out dirty exhaust. There is no lead-free petrol in Poland. Everyone knows about the pollution and the implications for public health, but yet I saw raw meat being sold at a grimy intersection amid all the exhaust fumes.[...]

At Katowice the truck was unloaded by an impromptu band of unloaders. They, including a few children, were clearly very experienced unloaders, and they had it down to an art. The goods from the truck were stowed in the Caritas warehouses, which are guarded by amiable but noisy dogs.[...]

Doctors have said that the children of Katowice must get out of their polluted environment for at least two weeks of the year. Seventy percent of the children have health problems, mainly caused by environmental pollution, which in this area is over-whelmingly chemical rather than biological. Asthma and bronchitis are rife, and also speech impediments and difficulties. Sometimes an affliction which seems to be orthopaedic turns out to be neurological. Besides the air pollution, other factors detrimental to the children's health are bad nutrition and lack of exercise. There are no youth clubs and the main recreation of the children is watching television."

Excerpts from a truck report
by Sarah Lawson
27 February 1990


 

 

 

History

The Yalta Conference

The Second World War lasted six long and bloody years, from September 1939, when Germany and Russia (officially the Soviet Union) invaded and split Poland between them, to summer 1945. Towards the end of the War, in February 1945, the British and American leaders, Churchill and Roosevelt, met with the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, at a fateful Conference in Yalta, a Soviet resort in Crimea, by the Black Sea. At that Conference they confirmed what we now know they had already been discussing for a couple of years: in the case of Poland, that the borders of the country would be moved Westwards, leaving nearly half the country in the East to become formally part of the Soviet Union, while large parts of former Germany to the West would be transferred to Poland. Cities like Lwów, today as big as Warsaw, and Wilno, both with prestigious universities, beautiful archtecture and numerous cultural and business institutions, which had been at the heart of Poland for centuries, were taken away. In return Germany had to concede great cities like Wrocław (Breslau) and Szczecin (Stettin) to Poland.

Much of the country taken by the Soviet Union under Yalta had already been under Russian occupation from the time of the German and Russian invasions in 1939, until summer 1941, when Germany suddenly betrayed and attacked its Russian partner. During this time the Russians, like the Germans, had taken hundreds of thousands of Prisoners of War. The Soviet security police, the NKVD, had then also shot and massacred many leading Poles such as over 15,000 officers, including leading Generals, politicians, policemen, postmen and the chief Rabbi of the Polish army, in what became known as the Katyn massacres. In addition, as part of an ethnic cleansing and social engineering campaign, they had deported perhaps a million people, including the families of the victims, the identifiable elite and whole villages of peasants and small farmers (the NKVD did not publish statistics) in unheated cattle trucks to Siberia, where they were left to fend for themselves in desperate conditions. Plays have been written about how, for example, a rabbi, two nuns, five peasants, a Jewish tailor and the local Catholic landlord got on in a train carriage for a week and then for years in the wastelands of Siberia, and who survived.

When Germany suddenly invaded its partner the Soviet Union in summer 1941, it pushed Russia involuntarily into the Allied camp. (The Allied camp at this stage was really just Britain, helped by Poland, as the United States only became an Ally when attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbour six months later in December 1941.) Stalin eventually permitted up to 150,000 half starved ex-Prisoners of War and deportees from Eastern Poland to leave Russia in 1942 under the leadership of General Anders, so that the soldiers could help defend the oil rich areas of Iran and the Middle East against possible German attack. General Anders later permitted Jewish soldiers who so wished to leave the Polish army to join the Israeli independence movement, while many other Jews stayed in the Polish army and continued loyally to fight the Germans. However hundreds of thousands of the Polish deportees in remote parts of Asia, who could not be notified or get out in time before Stalin changed his mind, took years to get out, or died there in extreme hardship.

The millions of people in the Eastern part of Poland who had not been not killed or deported by the Russians during these two years then (like those in the Western part of Poland, who had been under German occupation all the time) suffered another two years of brutal occupation by the Germans, who pushed deeply into Russia before eventually being turned back. This included for example the massacre of all professors of the University of Lwów, massacres of civilians by the Germans' Ukrainian allies, massacres of nearly all Jews and other suffering too extensive to be adequately described here. The small chances of survival of Jews earlier deported with other Poles to Siberia were ironically better than the negligible chances of survival of other Jews left behind in Poland itself, now entirely under German occupation.

The Yalta decisions in February 1945 meant that when the Second World War supposedly ended, millions of people left in the Eastern part of Poland, who had somehow survived the Russian and German occupations, now finally and irrevocably lost their homes and livelihood there and were deported to the ex-German territories in the West. A few somehow still remain in cities like Lwów and Wilno, there is still a Polish minority of 2 million in Belarus today, and other Poles are left scattered all over Asia to Kazakhstan and beyond.

Churchill and Roosevelt also agreed at Yalta that the newly shaped Poland would be part of the Soviet zone of influence, destined to be a communist country for ever. This meant that in both "old Poland", left over from before the War, and "new Poland", brought in from Germany, all businesses and investments were lost, all homes over a certain size were lost, all farms were lost and people had to move into small crowded flats. There were even people who returned to Warsaw, rebuilt their houses devastated by the war with Germany, and then found that they were expelled and their newly rebuilt houses confiscated in 1948.

People with "politically incorrect" social backgrounds could not get other than menial jobs. Anti-semitism was encouraged, contributing to the Kielce progom in 1946. The NKVD and the new Polish security police hunted down leading generals and fighters who had been fighting against the Germans for six years as part of the Home Army ("AK") in Poland, or with the British and other Allies in the West, also those who had risked their lives in underground schools, universities and other efforts to maintain Poland's identity and education under the German occupation. Perhaps another 100,000 people died in the resulting fighting and executions, a time when Poland was truly alone. Victims included sixteen leading politicians and army officers left in Poland after the War, whose names and addresses were given to the NKVD by the British (who had been promised by the Russians these individuals would not be harmed). Marcel Porowski, Mayor of Warsaw during the desperate 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the German occupation, was arrested by the communist authorities as late as 1951 and condemned to death, but luckily released in 1957. Another example is that of "Inka": as a young teenager she had been a nurse with the underground army fighting Germans. She was arrested for no apparent reason by the NKVD/Polish communist security police and then rescued by an AK unit, which she joined. She was arrested again later, breaching all international rules concerning the treatment of nurses, tortured and asked to reveal the identity and location of her army commander (whom Inka suspected the new communist rulers would execute). They said that if she refused she would be tried and condemned for herself fighting against the NKVD and Polish security police, which they openly admitted to be a false accusation, as many witnesses confirmed seeing her with first aid equipment not weapons. She still refused - a brave decision for a 17 year old girl - and so was tried and sentenced to be shot by a firing squad. The ordinary Polish soldiers, paid extra money by their communist rulers to shoot her, still "missed". The commanding officer had to go up to her and kill her with a single pistol shot in the face. It took years for the security police eventually to find her commanding officer Major Łupaszko, and he and other senior officers in his Brigade were shot in 1951. One of his officers successfully adopted the false identity Paweł Jasienica and became a famous historian, revealing his true identity when the regime relaxed long afterwards.

The Allied decisions were particularly shocking for Poles. The surviving Air Force, Navy and Army had been evacuated from Poland in 1939, when it became clear Poland could not win when invaded by both Germany and Russia, and had travelled thousands of miles to continue fighting in France and then from Britain. They believed they had made a major contribution to the British war effort including:
• Polish intelligence kick started the British Enigma deciphering efforts by giving British intelligence the deciphering programme and a model machine in August 1939;
• the Polish Air Force's world famous contribution to defending the UK in the Battle of Britain;
• fighting alongside the British in France, Narvik, North Africa, and numerous other locations;
• contributing to convoy protection. and numerous naval actions including defending ports and sinking the Bismarck;
• the famous victory of Monte Cassino in 1944 and other achievements of the Polish Army in Italy;
• wearing down the German fighting machine by more or less continuous attacks by the Home Army in Poland ("AK", which reported to the Government-in-Exile in London) from 1939 onwards, including most famously the desperate Ghetto Rising of 1943 and Warsaw Rising of 1944;;
• supplying the British with an example of a V1 rocket obtained in Poland;
• supplying the British with what The Times newspaper described as perhaps the most important intelligence secrets of the entire War, regularly obtained from the Agent code-named "Knopf", who worked closely with Hitler in German High Command, but whose identity the Poles rightly never revealed.

Britain had also Guaranteed in March 1939 that if Poland was ever attacked, Britain would come to its assistance at once with all means at its disposal.

In 1946 Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Secretary, wrote to Polish soldiers who had been fighting with the British urging them to return to Poland. The vast majority understandably did not wish to return. One or two fighter aces who had fought so well in the Battle of Britain and did return to Poland were jailed and persecuted for years. The letter continued with an alternative invitation: the soldiers and their families could settle in the UK. So that is why so many Poles settled in Britain. Stalin also prevented Poland from benefiting from money the US poured into Western Europe under the Marshall Plan, and so Poland, with a communist economy, stayed poor long after countries like Germany, France and Italy had been able to recover from the destruction of the War and then became wealthier within the EU.


The Cold War

A period of tension between the West and the Soviet Union, known as the Cold War, developed soon afterwards. In Poland, people gradually adapted to their destiny as members of the communist bloc and had to get on with their lives: follow Western advice and cooperate with their rulers, get jobs in universities, banks, nationalised industries and, in many cases, join the communist party as a pre-condition for promotion if not getting the job in the first place. In Britain, despite the Cold War, there was reluctance to antagonise the Russians. The British Government would not officially admit that the Katyn massacre was committed by the NKVD or permit the Polish community to erect a monument anywhere more significant than Gunnersbury Cemetery. Many British individuals however bravely remembered the Polish contribution to the War and remained loyal and supportive throughout. Their exceptional attitude is gratefully remembered today.

In Poland many nevertheless continued the struggle for freedom:-
• in 1956 worker riots in Poznan led to a relaxation of government oppression, some easier travel opportunities, a change of government, and the return of small holdings to farmers;
• in 1968 there was a new wave of opposition from intellectuals and students. The government countered with a disgraceful new anti-semitic purge blaming the Jews for Poland's troubles and getting people to demonstrate with placards with ridiculous slogans like "Zionists to Siam". Many Jews who had somehow survived the War, some collaborating with the communist rulers and others heroes of the opposition, were forced to emigrate. But the people were not fooled, they knew the fault lay with the communists, whether Jewish or not. Some Jews stayed, many of them opposition heroes, and are leading political and cultural figures in Poland today;
• in 1970 more worker riots, mainly along the coast, supported by intellectuals, forced another change of government;
• many individuals remained consistently opposed to the regime throughout, writing in the underground press, opposing injustice, and paid for it by losing out on promotion or losing their jobs altogether.

The government tried to use the period after 1970 to improve economic growth by incurring large international debts, but investments were unfortunately still being made in large state-owned projects, many of them uneconomic, and so most of the investment was wasted and the country teetered towards bankruptcy.


1980

In 1980 it was clear that the country was bankrupt and food prices had to be sharply raised. Strikes broke out again at the shipyards and spread throughout the country as millions of people suddenly discovered that their neighbours were also willing to stand up against the regime. A Committee representing hundreds of factories and institutions, supported by a team of intellectual experts, was formed and negotiations began with the government, which was desperate to get everyone back to work. At the end of August 1980 ground breaking agreements were signed in the Gdańsk and Szczecin shipyards under which strikers would return to work in return for a list of government promises including the release of all political prisoners. On 17th September 1980 the Solidarity Trade Union, the first free trade union in any communist country, was formed. However it was evident to all observers that the situation was unstable - would the wave of opposition grow and destroy the regime, or provoke Soviet intervention, or would the government fight back?


1981 & 1982

In August 1981 the Federation of Poles in Great Britain received a letter from Solidarity Chairman, Lech Wałesa, appealing to the Polish communities abroad for medical aid. In London, a group of doctors led by Dr Bożena Laskiewicz had already assembled a container load. Medical Aid for Poland was formed.

On 13th December 1981, in a freezing winter with the country covered in snow, in a dramatic effort to stop the democracy movement, General Jaruzelski declared Martial Law, sent tanks on to the streets of Poland, closed down places of work, ordered a permanent curfew, cut all telephone and mail communications, and arrested thousands of opposition leaders and Solidarity activists. In January 1982 Medical Aid for Poland sent its first three trucks of aid and in February 1982 another two. On 10th March 1982 a Declaration of Trust was signed creating The Medical Aid for Poland Fund, which was then registered with the Charity Commission of England and Wales.


Father Popiełuszko

A great friend of our Fund, who always offered our trucks hospitality when we brought aid to the country, was Father Jerzy (George) Popiełuszko. He was chaplain to the medical community from 1978, priest at the church of St Stanisław Kostka in the Warsaw suburb of Zoliborz from 1980, and was a charismatic figure. He was famous for his crowded "Masses for Poland" and had enormous support from the ordinary people. Even in the worst days of Martial Law and food rationing, they gave him food, clothing and medications, all of which he passed on to the families of internees and the oppressed. He was constantly spied upon, attacked and arrested by the Security Police. In October 1984 he was arrested for the last time, tortured and brutally murdered.

In the meanwhile we continued to send help to Poland at regular intervals for years. Our help was a drop in the ocean compared to the needs of Poland but it was greatly appreciated by those who received it.

Father Jerzy was Beatified by Papal Delegate Archbishop Angelo Amato from the Vatican during a Mass attended by around 100 bishops, 1,600 priests, and 150,000 faithful in Warsaw's main Pilsudski Square on 6th June 2010. We fervently hope that he is continuing to pray for our efforts.


1989

In the years following 1982 the people gradually won their struggle: Lech Wałesa and other internees were freed, and tentative economic reforms were started, albeit unsuccessfully. In the West attitudes also changed with the advent of politicians like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who were willing to support attempts at freedom in the communist bloc.

Even as late as January 1989 priests were being murdered in Poland, but the communist government had reached the conclusion that it could not continue fighting the people forever. From February to April 1989 the epoch-making Round Table negotiations between the government and Solidarity took place, finally agreeing that one third of MPs in Parliament could be appointed by way of free elections rather than effectively nominated by the communist regime, and in general elections in June all these "free" seats were won by Solidarity. Later that year the Berlin Wall fell and by the next year Poland was practically a free country again, 51 years after the War began and 45 years after communism was installed.

Many different people and politicians later claimed credit for the fall of communism, a far cry from the atmosphere prevailing among Western governments after Yalta.


335 trucks

In total our Fund sent 335 trucks of aid to Poland, the last in 1996. By then it had become practical to buy medical supplies and equipment in Poland directly for hospitals and patients as described in the section What we do.


Today

The fall of communism enabled Poland to introduce many economic reforms leading to a steady improvement in living conditions. Poland joined the EU in 2004, bringing more people to the UK in search of jobs. Much progress has been made in the country and a new wealthy elite has appeared. But millions of poor in the countryside, the industrial suburbs, in closed factory towns and left behind in the poorest parts of today's Ukraine, Belarus, and scattered throughout Asia, remain in need of our help.

 

Jan Ledóchowski,
Treasurer