On 7th July a moving debate was held in the House of Lords, the second chamber of the UK Parliament. It was to mark the 75th anniversary of the arrival of a ship which is now famous in Britain, the Empire Windrush.
The Windrush had docked at Tilbury near London on 22 June 1948, carrying over 1,000 passengers from the West Indies. Among them were 66 Polish refugees, including my husband’s family. The Poles, mainly women and children, had boarded the ship in Mexico, where they had been living since 1943 in a civilian camp. They and their families had been among the 1.5 million people who were deported from eastern Poland to Siberia by Stalin in 1940-41. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union they were released, with mainly men joining Anders’ Army; the women and children going to camps all over the world. After the War, the families could not return to their homes, as eastern Poland remained part of the Soviet Union under the Yalta Agreement of 1945. They were given the right to settle in Britain under a special Act of Parliament. In total over 100,000 members of Anders’ Army plus their relatives came to Britain on ships, under its provisions.
The other Windrush passengers included around 500 Caribbeans, coming to the UK to work in response to a labour shortage. They were also followed by many thousands on other ships over several decades, becoming known as the ‘Windrush Generation’. They had high expectations of the UK as the ‘Motherland’ to the British colonies they were coming from. But they were met with appalling racial discrimination. This included a recent scandal in 2018, where their descendants were illegally deported for having no immigration documents, even though such documents were not required when they arrived.
It was the Caribbean passengers who made the Windrush famous and who were the focus of the House of Lords debate on 7th July. The Polish passengers are much less well known in the UK, as are the histories of the deportations, Anders Army and Yalta. However, the Poles were not forgotten during the debate.
Baroness Benjamin paid tribute to them stating that ‘Despite also facing adversity, [the Poles] too have made an enormous contribution to Britain and should be remembered.’ Baroness Chakrabarti stated that ‘The “Empire Windrush” brought not only Caribbean Britons but a number of Polish refugees to these shores. At the time, they were rightly welcomed by the then Government while the refugee convention was still being negotiated and settled.’
The Polish community in Britain did not itself participate in this year’s 75th anniversary; after all the Windrush held no significance for those on board other than as a small part of a long odyssey. However, going forward, Windrush Day each 22nd June presents an opportunity to achieve a more widespread recognition within the UK of Poland’s contribution, both during the War and after it. I will be doing what I can each 22nd June in honour of my husband’s family and I hope British Poles will feel the same.
©Jane Raca MBE
For more information on the Windrush Poles go to www.windrushpoles.co.uk.Poles in UK