An interesting object was recently donated to the Ditsong National Museum of Military History. It was a poster, printed on canvas, entitled, 'The Polish Children of Oudtshoorn - Their story in brief'. It commemorates a small, unique part of South Africa's history: the arrival of 500 Polish children in South Africa in 1943 during the Second World War (1939-1945). Their story starts off tragically, as these Polish children were refugees who had been separated from their parents and families and sent to the Soviet Union after the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in September 1939. Many of these children remained in South Africa and formed the nucleus of the Polish South African community after the war.
The Soviet invasion of Poland was a consequence of the infamous MolotovRibbentrop Pact signed between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany on 24 August 1939. The German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 and the subsequent subjugation of the Polish people to the Germans is a welldocumented reality. The Soviet occupation of the eastern section of the country is not as well-known but it was at least equally brutal, if not even more ruthless.
After the division of Poland by the two conquering powers, the Soviets embarked on a process of systematic destruction of the leaders of Poland and the Polish way of life in their sector. At first, they targeted the intelligentsia, both military and academic, and over 15 000 prisoners were taken, including military officers, doctors, lawyers, teachers and engineers. In the spring of 1940, many of the prisoners were removed in batches to the forest of Katyn near the prison camps of Kozielsk, Starobielsk and Ostashkov in the western Soviet Union where they were shot individually and buried in shallow graves.
The Soviets also turned their attention to the civilian Polish population. During the winter of 1939 to 1940, over a million Poles, many of them children, were deported to various parts of the Soviet Union. More than 1 200 000 Poles were later deported in four waves, of mass forced removals lasting from February 1940 to June 1941.
On 22 June 1941, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. Through the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement, the Polish government-in-exile in the United Kingdom re-established relations with the Soviet Union and received an undertaking from the Soviets that Poles located in labour camps, prisons and forcible resettlements in the Soviet Union would be released and transferred to British-controlled areas in the Middle East and Africa. This agreement was enforced until 1943, when, following the discovery of the bodies at Katyn and the subsequent Polish demand for an independent Red Cross investigation into the atrocities, the Soviets broke off diplomatic relations with the Poles. This left orphaned Polish children in a terrible predicament. Aware of their plight, and in an effort to spare them any further atrocities, the Polish government-inexile made a plea to all Allied nations to provide a safe haven for 10 000 Polish children.
In the Union of South Africa, the appeal was presented to the South African government by the Polish Consul-General in Pretoria, Mr Stanislav Lepkowski. After an initial hesitation, the South African government, having agreed in principle with political parties to curtail European immigration for the duration of the war, and after subtle urgings by the Polish Government in exile and the government of the United States, the Prime Minister, Field Marshal J C Smuts, eventually gave consent for 500 Polish orphans to be given temporary refuge in South Africa.
These 500 children, along with 51 adult medical personnel, teachers and support staff, were first evacuated to Iran after which they were transported on the SS Dunera to Port Elizabeth where they arrived in April 1943. From there they were moved to the Karoo town of Oudtshoorn on 10 April 1943 where, with the assistance of Zofia Anna Lepkowski, the wife of the Polish Consul-General, the Polish Children's Home of St Andrew Boboli (Dam Polskich Dziecli had been established. The home was placed under the joint supervision of the South African Department of Social Welfare and the Polish Consul-General's office and remained in operation until 1947.
The Oudtshoorn community, and its Catholic congregation in particular, received the children warmly and donated all manner of equipment, clothing and money required. During holidays, children were invited to stay at the homes of local residents and a holiday home at Groot Brak was also made available to them. Their schooling proceeded well and it was not long before specialised classes were provided in needlework and sewing for the girls and commercial and engineering classes for the boys. Cultural activities played a big part in the children's lives, a successful choir being established while colourfully clad dance groups enthralled audiences not only in the immediate area but also throughout the country.
It had always been the intention to return the children home to Poland once the war was over. However, at the Yalta Conference of February 1945, the fate of Poland was sealed when the country came under Soviet influence and was destined for communist rule for the following 44 years. Thus it was decided to assimilate the orphans into South African society by sending them to schools around the country. The girls were sent to convent schools, primarily in the former Cape Province and Natal, while the boys were sent to various technical schools. Despite the painful circumstances of their youth, some of these Polish children rose up to become significant achievers in their fields. For example, in the construction of the new Durban Harbour passenger terminal, two of these orphans, Leonard Ryniewicz and Mark Masojacia, who graduated in engineering, provided valuable support to the project designer, Prof Michal Zekrzewski.
In the years following the closure of the Polish Children's Home in Oudtshoorn, some of the orphans formed the Polish Association of Siberian Deportees in South Africa and re-visited the town on special occasions. In 1993, during the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of their arrival in South Africa, they donated a framed image of Poland's most valued treasure, the Icon of the Black Madonna found in the Monastery of Jasna Gora in the City of Czestochowa in Poland, to the Cathedral in Oudtshoorn.
On the same occasion, they launched a new book, We have survived, which is described on the poster as ' ... a diary, recollection and also a historical source for all generations who might be interested in our saga. By our conduct we have proved that only peace and honest work can be constructive. Everything else leads to destruction and disaster. We want to leave our grandchildren a rhapsody of peace and love, as a positive contribution for all human life. This we have learnt during our half-century in this hospitable land.'
On the occasion of their 60th anniversary, the surviving orphans unveiled a beautiful altar constructed for the cathedral chapel. The chapel was consecrated on 6 May 2003 by Bishop Edward Adams, the Bishop of Oudtshoorn, and Archbishop Wesoly, the Vatican Envoy for the global Polish community.
In 1947, the archives of the Home of St Andrew Boboli were transferred to the office of Dr Lepkowski in Pretoria. They later came into the possession of Mr Tadeusz Kawalec, a former Polish consular official who had participated in the work of the Home, who, in 1975, donated them to the Hoover Institution Archives in Stanford, California, in the United States, where they remain today. The files contain lists of the children sent to the Home, which includes their place of origin, the names and locations of their parents, and their fathers' occupations. They also document people who visited the home, families who hosted the children during holidays, courses undertaken by the children and their destinations after the closure of the Home.
The poster includes a lot of narrative which epitomises the story of the Polish orphans against the backdrop of the turbulent history of their country of origin. It begins with a brief history of Poland from its establishment as a country until the Second World War. The second and third sections deal with the events of the Second World War described above. The plight of the orphans and the opening of the Home in South Africa are described in the fourth section, while the fifth section highlights Poland's triumphal transition in 1999 from a communist state to a democratic republic. The text on the poster was compiled by Mr Stefan Szewczuk of the Polish Association of Siberian Deportees in South Africa and is dedicated to those Polish citizens, in particular the children, who did not survive their imprisonment in the Soviet Union: ' ... But what happened to the rest of the hundreds of thousands of deportees who did not get to leave the Soviet Union at the time the Polish Children of Oudtshoorn came to South Africa? For tens of thousands, Siberia became their resting place thousands in unmarked graves. Another quarter of a million were repatriated to the recovered territories of Western Poland during the massive population exchanges that followed the Second World War. Some of these children may still be in Siberia.'
The story ends on a positive note. In spite of the horrors they had endured as children, the Polish orphans who came to Oudtshoorn in 1943 thrived and eventually became South Africans in every sense while never foregoing their Polish heritage. As stated by Prof Philip Weyers in his address at the 2007 commemoration of the Warsaw Airlift organised by the Warsaw Flights Association, Poland's sad loss was doubtless South Africa's considerable gain'. The donation of this poster is a welcome addition to the growing collection of the Ditsong National Museum of Military History.
Poster: The Polish Children of Oudtshoorn, in the Second World War collections at Ditsong National Museum of Military History.
Address by Prof P Weyers at the 2008 commemoration of the Warsaw Uprising and Relief Flights.
Internet research, accessed 2014:
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