Tweedsmuir as a Polish Refugee Camp (1947 to 1960)

(From "Living in Tweedsmuir Camp - 1948 to 1957" / First published in 2003, held at the History of Thursley Society. A Book by Wies and Zen Rogalski)

Chapter 4: Cultural life

The Polish inhabitants of the camp were, for all intense and purposes, isolated physically and socially from the English community. As children, we were immersed solely into Polish culture and custom. This was the case until we reached school age, when we were enrolled in the ‘Elstead Junior Mixed and Infants School’. From that moment on, our anglicisation began.

Fig. 4.1: A sketch map showing the position of Tweedsmuir Camp's chapel, community centre and nursery. The map is not to scale.
Cultural life in the camp revolved around the chapel, the community centre and our own kindergarten, or nursery. All three were converted barracks and, as Fig. 4.1 shows, in close proximity to each other. Graphically, the sites identified in Fig. 4.1 correspond to the drawings shown in Fig. 4.2 below.

The chapel was divided into three sections, a vestry, altar and nave. The seating was purely functional, consisting of army canteen benches without backrests. Each bench had folding steel legs, with slatted seats made from three pieces of six foot (about 2 metres) long timber. The width of these benches was probably something in the order of 12 inches (about 300 mm).

Since our legs were short, they dangled unceremoniously in mid air when we sat on a bench. A distinct memory is of an unnerving sensation as the bench rocked backwards and forwards when the adults stood up and sat down at appropriate times during mass. At the back of the chapel was a small organ which accompanied the congregation when singing hymns and, on special occasions, the choir.

Fig. 4.3: Corpus Christi 1953. Father Bystry praying at a 'field altar' constructed in front of one of the Tweedsmuir barracks, while the congregation kneel in silence.
The Polish priest, Father Bystry, was spiritual leader. He came to Britain as an army chaplain attached to the Polish Forces in southern Europe. We attended mass every Sunday and took part in other religious festivals deemed important in the Polish Catholic calendar. One memorable festival was the Corpus Christi procession which took place on Whit Sunday. In the week leading up to this occasion all the adults would construct and adorn ‘field altars’ around the camp which acted as focal points for prayer.

Fig. 4.4: Tweedsmuir Camp 1953. Corpus Christi procession led by an 'elder' carrying a three foot tall cross. Zen is second from the front in the right hand column.
Each altar was visited in turn by the congregation in procession. An ‘elder’ of the community led the way by carrying a three foot tall Cross (Fig. 4.4), followed by altar boys ringing hand bells, and flower girls who sprinkled petals on the ground from carefully made baskets.

Fig. 4.5: Corpus Christi 1953. Father Bystry at a 'field altar' under an oak tree, offering up the Holy Sacrament.
Then Father Bystry, carrying the Holy Sacrament shoulder high, followed in prayer and, since this was a tiring task, two men supported his elbows. Father Bystry walked under a bright, gold coloured, square canopy, the corners of which were attached to mahogany poles crowned with brass crosses (shown in Fig. 4.5) borne by four men. The rest of the camp’s community followed reverently, singing hymns and reciting prayers (Figs. 4.6).

Fig. 4.6: Corpus Christi 1953. Some of the congregation taking part in the procession. Centre right - Wies being carried by dad.
At the end of the Corpus Christi procession, a commemorative photograph of Father Bystry together with the altar servers, altar boys and flower girls would be taken (Fig. 4.7).

Fig. 4.7: End of the Corpus Christi procession, 1953. Commemora tive photograph of Father Bystry (back row in the centre), altar servers, altar boys and flower girls. Zen is in the front row, sitting second from the left.
The chapel was the setting for celebrating First Holy Communion; a very grand event which took place in the middle of summer. Since this occasion was deemed very important in a Polish child’s life, parents made a special effort to ensure that their sons and daughters were dressed and equipped according to tradition, with no expense spared. Each child had to have a Polish prayer book, a rosary and a candle (Fig.4.8). The boys’ prayer books were bound in navy blue, and their rosaries studded with black beads. The girls’ rosary beads were white as were their prayer books. Boys wore a navy blue suit with short trousers, white shirt and socks, black shoes, and a white ribbon on the left lapel, which
Fig. 4.8: First Holy Communion, 1956. Father Bystry, Zen, first on the left, and 3 colleagues. Zen remembers how Father Bystry muttered quietly to the children to smile and stand up straight as the photgraph was taken. In the background is the entrance to the chapel.
represented peace. Girls wore a delicate, white headpiece, white dress, socks and shoes. Each child was given a commemorative picture signed by Father Bystry (Fig. 4.9).

The community centre was a large barracks containing a hall. It had a piano against the wall immediately opposite the entrance and in one of the corners stood an improvised telephone booth. It was from there that Dr Lascelles could be summoned, or an ambulance called. The centre was a place for people to unwind, share a packet of cigarettes and catch up with each other’s news. Our father played the piano for his and, since no one complained, presumably other people’s enjoyment. A Polish barber visited the centre every few weeks to cut men and boys’ hair. As we write, it has come to mind that we do not know where the women of the camp had their hair done. If only one paid more attention to such details when a child! The seating in the community centre was purely functional, comprising folding chairs made from beech and a few wicker chairs.

Fig. 4.9: Zen's first Holy Communion commemorative picture, signed by Father Bystry on 10 June 1956.

In Poland, Christmas celebrations occur on Christmas Eve and so it was in the camp. Mum spent many days beforehand making special Polish dishes like barszcz (beetroot soup) and pierogi (pasta parcels stuffed with mashed potato or cabbage). The acquisition of a kitchen range in 1953 gave her the chance to bake Polish cakes like makowniki (poppy-seed cakes) and serniki (cheesecakes). Dad also helped in the preparations for Christmas by bringing home a small pine tree and fixing on the branches star shaped candle holders which would contain real candles to be lit over the festive period. At this special time we used the lounge/dining room where our meals were eaten and the tree positioned by a window. Many adults would fast all day on Christmas Eve according to Catholic custom, and there would be no meat dishes eaten that evening. The traditional meal was served at dusk when the first star was seen in the evening sky. However before this, a consecrated wafer was broken and shared between the family whilst good wishes were exchanged.

Following the Wigilia (Christmas Vigil) at home, we walked to the community centre for collective celebration. It was there that Father Christmas, accompanied by an angel, distributed presents to all the camp’s children (Figs. 4.10 and 4.11).

Fig. 4.11: Christmas 1956. Zen (right) receiving the tricycle mentioned in Chapter 2. Our mother is sitting in a wicker chair on the left.
Fig. 4.10: Christmas 1955. Wies (left) and Zen (right). In the back row, stand Father Christmas, an angel and between them, the menacing devil.

Peculiar to Polish tradition the devil also attended the occasion, but we as children resisted his evil temptations. The adults of the camp took it in turn to ‘play’ the main characters for these festivities. The costumes were very imaginatively made, obviously in secret, and they looked very impressive. One year it was our dad’s turn to be Father Christmas. When we asked whether indeed it was him, he denied any involvement but the broad smile on his face gave his secret away. The presents we received were substantial and we never felt short changed by them. Looking back this was remarkable given the situation and conditions under which we lived, for we were loved, cared for and appreciated.

Like Christmas, we celebrated Easter according to Polish tradition. On Easter Saturday we took a decorated basket containing bread, salt, pisanki (hard boiled eggs which were painted and decorated by us), and Polish sausage to the chapel to be blessed by Father Bystry. The blessed food was eaten the following morning as part of an Easter breakfast.

Fig. 4.12: 3 May celebration, 1953. This photograph was taken on the edge of the parade ground, just off the camp's main road. In the back row, second from the right stands Mrs Obara and to her right, Father Bystry. Zen is standing in the middle row, first on the right.
All children under the age of five attended a nursery run by a teacher, Mrs Maria Obara, who qualified in pre-war Poland. She provided a curriculum based on Polish history and culture. We learned the Polish language and sang Polish nursery rhymes. One historical event commemorated was the signing of the Polish Constitution on 3 May 1792. It was only the second such document to have bee n agreed in the world, after the signing of the American Constitution, and the first in Europe. For Polish people this has always been, and continues to be, an important historical and national event celebrated with a public holiday. Indeed in the late nineteenth century, a hymn was written to commemorate the occasion which is often sung at Polish masses throughout the world on 3 May. This tradition was observed in Tweedsmuir. Children were dressed in traditional Polish costume for the occasion, which took place on a Sunday afternoon after the celebration of a special 3 May mass. Mrs Obara gave the children a brief talk about the Polish Constitution and this was followed by a picnic lunch and Polish folk dances.

Mrs Obara also organised nature trails into the woods above the camp, which we particularly enjoyed. Although the woods were military land, no one seemed to worry about the safety of such activities. To us the woods were a wonderful resource to be used and enjoyed. The children, barely visible above the bracken that grew there, would snake along unmarked paths holding hands and listening to Mrs Obara’s stories.

Like most Polish adults in the camp, our parents read about world events in the Dziennik Polski i Dziennik Zolnierza, which translated means the ‘Polish Daily and Soldier’s Daily’. Established during WW11, the newspaper flourishes today (albeit renamed as the 'Polish Daily') bought by Polish people living in various parts of the world. A photograph of the paper, in which we placed our mother’s obituary, is shown in Fig. 4.13. It is dated Tuesday 21 September 1999, almost 60 years to the day after her deportation to Russia! Although we do not know how they acquired the ‘Polish Daily and Soldier’s Daily’ when living in Tweedsmuir Camp, Zen remembers how in the 1950s, mum and dad discussed the Korean War and their fear of yet another world war in the making.

Fig. 4.13: 'The Polish Daily and Soldier's Daily', dated 21 September 1999. In the 1950s, the title was printed in black.

The Moat, just off Thursley Road, was a different place to what it is now. During the 1950s it was more of a recreational facility where swimming and paddling were allowed. In the summer, our Sunday treat after mass was to make a picnic hamper, walk from Tweedsmuir Camp with mum and dad and spend the afternoon playing around the water’s edge with other children from the camp. Parents would sit in a large circle exchanging stories and news whilst we splashed and played in the water. Our swimming trunks were, of course, of the homemade, knitted variety with knicker elastic threaded around the waistline. After a few minutes in the water, they invariably ended up down around our knees!

Although we were a virtually self-contained community within the camp, we did have some contact with the inhabitants of Thursley Village. For example, we attended bonfire nights on Guy Fawkes Day on Thursley Green. It was there that we saw our first fireworks, but at the time did not understand their significance in English history. One year we were invited to a Christmas party in Thursley Village Hall where the Polish children were encouraged to sing English carols and songs. We also joined in traditional party games and quizzes.

Fig. 4.14: An 'Austin' CXB coach, similar to the one that took us to and from Elstead Junior Mixed and Infants School in the 1950s. (Photograph courtesy of Peter Rigarlsford at ''
At the age of five, some Tweedsmuir children were registered at the ‘Elstead Junior Mixed and Infants School’, which stood on the corner of Thursley Road and West Hill in Elstead, to which we were taken by a school coach every day similar to the one shown in Fig. 4.14. The journey was obviously short, but to us Elstead might as well have been on the other side of the world.

Starting school is traumatic at the best of times, but for the Polish children in Tweedsmuir Camp it was doubly so. We were entering what seemed to us an alien environment, for which our parents could never have prepared us. To a few local children we were foreign, therefore ‘strange’ and tended to be shunned in the school playground. Consequently we stuck together and learned very quickly to look after one another. Some teachers made little effort to understand our social needs or educational requirements, which did not make integration easy. Understanding this, our parents would always be forthright in ‘fighting our corner’ if they felt we were not being treated fairly or justly. However we do remember one teacher, a Welshman called Mr Davies, who was very kind and considerate to us. They say, “you never forget a good teacher” and so it is that we have never forgotten Mr Davies.

Fig. 4.15: Elstead Village Recreation Ground, October 2001. Site of an egg and spoon race won by Zen in June 1956.
The few words of English we spoke in those early days put us at a distinct disadvantage in the classroom. Nevertheless, we did make progress in our studies, particularly in subjects, which were non linguistic. The subjects we excelled at were Maths, Nature Study and Physical Education. In fact, in June 1956, Zen won an egg and spoon race on Elstead Village Recreation Ground (Fig. 4.15) for which he received a prize; a book about amphibians and reptiles.

Another difficult adjustment we had to make was to school dinners. English meals were strange to us and we would not eat them as we were unfamiliar with some of the food. We remember the many times we were kept behind in the school canteen as a punishment for not finishing our dinner. This was often the case on Fridays, being fish and chips day.

ig. 4.16: Elstead, October 2001. On this site stood Elstead Junior Mixed and Infants School which Zen attended from September 1953 to July 1957, and Wies from September 1955 to July 1957.
The school has since been demolished and the site redeveloped into flats (Fig. 4.16). The present drive into the flats was our school entrance in the 1950s. The school canteen was a wooden building, e rected under an Oak tree, which overshadowed the playground. Today, the tree still stands on the left of the entrance to the flats. We remember the private house on the corner of Stacey’s Farm Road and West Hill as a sweet shop which to date still retains some of the shop front characteristics.

As we progressed through our education, we began to think in English, speak in English and ‘feel in English’. Our schooling was completed in London and although it had to happen, we slowly became more English. This was no bad thing, for we had to integrate into the English way of life. But one unforeseen consequence of all this was that it began to distance us from our Polish roots and to some extent, from our home. We feel we became cultural hybrids, not really English and not really Polish. We lived and learned in a kind of cultural ‘no man’s land’.