After having a mouth-wateringly tasty conversation with a fellow ex-pat, it got me a-thinking about where I come from and what has become of the community I left in England over ten years ago. EU accession has changed the face of the Polish communities of the UK which were once respected and cherished as part of the rich cultural tapestry of the United Kingdom.
I am the child of immigrants. My father was born in Uganda and my mother was born in Poland. They met in Derby, England where I was born, in 1973. I grew up in a loving and happy family within the Polish community in Derby. I automatically became part of the greater Polonia (Polish ex-pat) community of the United Kingdom. I knew (and know) Polish people and communities throughout the UK. There was a time when I could turn up in just about any city in England and Scotland and have somewhere to stay.
We were a tight-knit but integrated community. We had a good opinion within the local community. We went to ‘Polish school’ every Saturday and church every Sunday. We were a good crowd and there were no animosities towards us from the larger local community. In fact, we enjoyed good relations with just about everyone.
Brick by Brick
The Poles who set up the first post-war (minority) communities were hard-working people who built their own ‘Polish Centres’, ‘Polish churches’ and ‘Polish Clubs’ with, literally, their own hards, with their own money and their own time. They received no handouts, no help. Many of them didn’t even have houses to live in when they first arrived in England. My father spent several years living in barracks (–> Springhill Lodge Camp) when he arrived in England from Africa after the war. My parents and their peers put their whole life into building up a community which represented family values and an honest life.
Supporting the Motherland
The Polish minority communities spent a large part of the 1960s and 1970s building up a vast network across the UK (church communities, Polish school network and even a Polish scouting association). “God, Honour and the Motherland” were key words. The Polonia pumped large amounts of money into educating the West about the problems of communism and Eastern Europe in an effort to emancipate the ‘lost homeland’. These were people who had often been dispersed by war and suffering, many of whom had fought alongside the British (and had made up a large part of the air force) only to discover their country had been given over to the Soviets and they were unable to return for fear of persecution.
The 1980s and 1990s saw a small influx of Poles following martial law but generally speaking, the communities began to shrink as many Polish people married Brits and became fully ‘integrated’. As time passed, classes in the Polish schools had to be merged or even done away with, branches of the scouting association in smaller towns and cities were disbanded and the churches began emptying at an alarming rate. The older generation of immigrants (war veterans and the suchlike) had begun to die and there were fewer younger people willing to uphold the traditions. The community was literally on its last legs…
Part II to follow…