Irene's story is a compilation of several interviews
she has given over the years
I was born after my family was deported, so my own memories began during the time I was in Africa. The things my family experienced before that time were described to me by my parents and sisters.
My father was from Brzesc and his family was fairly well off. All the children were university educated. They also had a small estate outside Bzesc. Father’s mother was in her 60s when she was taken – alone - to Kazakhstan in later deportation. She returned to Poland in 1948, having walked back all the way from Kazakhstan. Other family members hid on the German side of Poland and avoided deportation.
My mother’s family mostly lived in Chajnowka. Her parents started out poor and ended up building a comfortable life for themselves and managed to educate all their children.
In September1939, Poland was invaded from the west and the east by the Germans and Russians, respectively. In the eastern part of the country, the Russians deported about 1.5 million Poles to distant outposts of Joseph Stalin's gulag prison system. It was ethnic cleansing as a terror tool. It destabilizes the population and removes any leadership possibilities.
My father, Feliks Tomaszerwski, was a forestry engineer working for Bialowieza. His occupation was the reason our family was deported on 10 February 1940. My parents, Feliks and Anna, and my sisters Halina (age 8) and Wanda (age 6) were forcibly taken from their home and endured a 3-week journey in an unheated cattle car in temperatures reaching minus 40 Celsius. My sisters recall how Father kept them distracted the entire time by telling them stories.
Their destination was the Rosochy Soviet prison camp in the Archangelsk Oblast of Northern Russia. My mother was 6 months pregnant at the time, yet she and my father had to chop trees in the forest. I was born there in May 1940. My starving mother had no breast milk, so I was fed by soaking bread in water and squishing it into my mouth.
The family never thought I would survive. My mother used to look at me and wonder if I would survive the day, and if I did survive, what would I be like. In later years she would tell me, with a smile, that I had turned out to be reasonably intelligent.
At first, the family were together at the Rosochy Camp, then my father was sent to a harsher camp where he became very ill with Typhus. He eventually rejoined the family, but there were further separations on the journey south once they were liberated.
When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, one of the conditions for Stalin joining the allies was the release of Polish prisoners, which he did in Soviet style. They were free, but it was up to them to get out. Some used trains, but trains were overcrowded, and stations were a nightmare. They had to go east first and not straight south because the German front was advancing there. Food was a major problem. Many people died on the way – in train stations, and on roadways. It was not uncommon that children had to bury their own mother.
General Wladyslaw Anders's army of deportees went to join British forces in Persia, and the commander insisted - over Soviet objections - on taking Polish women and children with him. They couldn't leave them in the Soviet Union to starve. Anders knew that if he abandoned the women and children, it would sabotage the morale of his troops.
Once we reached the Polish Army, my father joined the Polish 2nd Corps, while my mother, my sisters, and I, went on to Persia via the Caspian Sea. There was also a huge convoy of trucks that took children to Persia across the mountains. Persian orphanage called Meshed.
On arriving in Pahlevi, the ragged and starving refugees were greeted by natives in Iran throwing pomegranates to them - one of many examples of the kindness of strangers.
Hundreds died soon after arriving in Persia – some collapsed on the shore in Pahlevi. For example, 10-year-old Halina Babinska was with her two younger sisters when their mother collapsed on the beach on the way to the tent hospital and died. Some died because their systems could not handle the new quantity of food.
My mother had one of her poems published in the Polish newspaper in Teheran – the poem was about my birth in Rosochy. When my father read the poem, he recognized it as having been written by his wife, and so he knew that they had made it out of the USSR.
I recovered in Persia, but Halina had an ear infection the entire time, and her hearing permanently damaged as a result. Wanda was diagnosed with TB and the doctors did not expect her to live. My mother was told to leave with the other two children and leave Wanda, but she refused. To everyone’s amazement, Wanda did survive.
While the Polish 2nd Corps went on to distinguish itself in the Italian campaign, notably in the great battle for Monte Cassino, about 50,000 non-combatants left Iran because it was not considered a safe place. Everyone had spies there. They were taken to refugee settlements in the Middle East, India, New Zealand, Mexico, and Africa.
We went to India in a series of truck convoys (we did not sail there), and we spent a short time at the Country Club transit camp. We then sailed from Karachi to Mombasa in East Africa, and then by train to Tengeru. From the train they could see giraffes grazing on the leaves of trees, zebras roaming the plains, and monkeys would jump on the roof of the train whenever it stopped. This is where my own memories begin - in Africa. Since we were there for such a long time (from age 2.5 to age 8), I remember Africa quite vividly.
Many believe that these settlements were organized and supported by the British Government. In fact, the Brits simply provided the place and agreed to have the Poles inhabit land in their territories. It is the Polish-government-in-exile that organized everything, with help from the American and Polish Red Cross and Polonia. It was a huge effort, but it was worth it as the children were Poland’s future. For instance, they received clothing from America, and one such shipment contained sequin evening gowns. Clearly the senders had misunderstood the context. But nothing was ever wasted, and the gowns were used later for costumes for children putting on plays. Culture was important in these settlements.
In addition to the support of the Polish-government-in-exile, the soldiers serving in the Armed Forces sent some of their pay to their wives and children. Moreover, the soldiers voted to send a percentage of their pay to support the orphanages.
For the adults, going to Africa filled them with terrific apprehension. Living in round mud huts, with open doors and windows – anxiety and despair in the jungle - the fear that they would be forgotten there. They ended up staying there for 6, 7 or 8 years.
They were there for so long after the war because they would not go back to Poland because it was now under Communist rule. They could only go where they were accepted. In Europe, refugees were living in horrid conditions and so they were the priority. Older Poles had tremendous PTSD after the war, especially when Poland was betrayed.
None of the children have bad memories of Africa. They had great memories because of the organizations that were set up for them: scouting, theatre groups, dance groups, choir groups, field trips, and the schools were super. It's not often that refugees have reunions. This is an exception. When the Polish refugees get together, they use expressions such as 'this experience brought back my childhood' or 'it restored my faith in humanity’.
I had an idyllic childhood in Africa. It was a beautiful place, and I spent most of my time with my mother, while my sisters went to school and participated in a variety of activities. I remember swinging on vines in the jungle – how many grandmothers can say that about their childhood!?
My father was not there, but neither was anyone else’s. Fathers were photographs / memories, but not something tangible. My father’s photo was prominently displayed, along with that of Gen Anders, and at times I wasn’t sure which was which. I always thought of Anders as my godfather.
Anders was always important – he had saved us. Years later, I found transcripts of Anders’ conversations with Stalin, and he did not disappoint. How he stood up to them, how he made them mad, how he fought not only for his soldiers but for the civilians. Reading this reinforced all that I had heard about him at the dining room table over the years.
There was a large orphanage in Tengeru, and everyone felt that the orphans were truly special because of what they had endured, and this had to be respected. A great deal was done to help the orphans recover from their trauma. The orphans were cared for by women who knew exactly what the children had gone through.
We were civilians of an allied country, so we did not live in camps – we lived in settlements. The adults argued this point with the English. Our refugee experience was one of pride and dignity. We now have reunions! Our time in these settlements restored dignity and self-worth.
The educational ethos among the refugees was restoration of the emotional health of the children - that their tragedy was not normal, and they did not deserve what had happened to them. Children were taught they would have important things to do in life. Numerous cultural activities were created for us, in the form of theatrical and musical presentations. There was even a very well-equipped library in Tengeru.
We must not confuse the Poles' situation with the wretched conditions that prevail in modern refugee camps. Tanzania was not Darfur, and the Polish women and children enjoyed a fair degree of autonomy. They were living in thatched-roof houses with small European gardens around each one. There was self-sufficient farming. There were schools and a hospital. It was all run by women and financed by the Polish government-in-exile.
I led a Polish life there, in a Polish settlement. Everyone was dedicated to the children, as they were Poland’s future. I only attended one year of school before leaving for the UK. My mother worked for the school and later also taught English. I have no idea how come my mother spoke English. She either had a tremendous knack for learning a new language in her 30s or she had learned it earlier in the Kresy. In the latter case, she would have had to teach herself, as it was not a language that was taught in schools at the time. My mother made friends with English people in Arusha, so we were not entirely confined to the settlement.
When the mail arrived, there was great urgency to get to the post office and people would open letters on the spot. Some people cried, and I later realized it was because the men were now fighting in Italy and there were casualties.
We were reunited with Father in England in 1948. I recall our ship, the Carnavon Casle, going through the Suez Canal and past Gibraltor. I finally met the man in the photo, and he was not a disappointment. He lived up to all I had heard about him.
We lived in Hatherly, in Devon – in rented rooms. My father attended a number of courses with the Polish Resettlement Corps and learned a number of skills. We had gotten to know Father Jan Sajewicz of Winnipeg in Africa and he knew people in Canada who owned a lumber company and needed forestry engineers. So we emigrated to Canada. The salary turned out to be very low and caused extreme hardship for the first three years in Pembroke, Ontario.
The adjustment in Canada was harder than it had been in Africa and England. They anted to set us back a year at school because the school authorities felt that we could not possibly be up to Canadian standards, even though we could speak English fluently by then. Our parents won and we were not set back, and we did very well. We went to the convent school where kids were better behaved than those in the public schools. My older sisters had a harder time adjusting than I did.
Father had to find a way to get out of the extremely exploitative work contract, after which things improved. In his 40s, he was lucky to find work in his own field. Eventually, a good chuck of Algonquin Park was re-forested by my father. Sadly, he died prematurely in 1962, so our mother was left alone after having had so few years with him.
When I went back to school in the 1980s to pursue a Graduate degree, a professor spoke of the Soviet Union in a very favourable light and insisted that they never deported anyone. When I gave my own family experience as an example, he said that I was either lying or the family had been fascists (including my 6 and 8 year old sisters).
I decided to write a paper about this and found that there was nothing on the subject at Concordia library, and nothing at the McGill library. Only the Hoover Institute in California had information about the deportations. The suppression set me off on all the research I have done in my life. To lose your history and pre-war culture is a subsequent injustice. It shows a lack of respect for that generation.
I read all the parts about Poland in all of Churchill’s books, and it was enough to make you cry. Something terrible happened during the war, but then something terrible happened after the war – erasing the history!
My family always spoke of their experiences in the USSR, but my parents surely edited the story to omit the most horrifying things so as not to have us become bitter or resentful. But I have always felt that I missed out on something that was important to the family. It was an indescribably important event in their lives, that marked them forever, and I have felt left out because I was just a baby at the time. It may be why I have done so much research about Poland - unlike my sisters – I guess it has been my way of trying to establish more of a connection to it. I missed out on something important that I could not know about and could not understand.
Irene was a founding president of the Canadian Foundation for Polish Studies.
She co-authored, with Tecia Werbowski, "Żegota: Rescuing Jews in Occupied Poland, 1942-1945", about a clandestine organization that helped Jews in occupied Poland during WW2.
She wrote the screenplay for the 1999 film based on the above book, titled "Żegota: The Council for Aid to Jews in Occupied Poland, 1942-45".
Irene was one of the founding organizers of Poland in the Rockies, which debuted in 2004 as a joyful, stimulating, totally original symposium that explored being Polish, no matter where you were born or what language(s) you spoke. The participants came from all across Canada and the United States, as well as from Europe and even South Africa.
She translated the text and acted as editor for "Inside a Gestapo Prison: The Letters of Krystyna Wituska, 1942-1944", published by Wayne State University Press in 2006. Her translation was published earlier in 1997 under the title, "I Am First a Human Being: The Prison Letters of Krystyna Wituska".
She was the editor of the , the quarterly, English-language magazine on Polish affairs "Cosmopolitan Review".
In 2014, Irene was the keynote speaker at the opening of Toronto's presentation of an exhibit about Jan Karski, "The World Knew – Jan Karski’s Mission for Humanity. Along with Polish writer, Małgorzata Dzieduszycka-Ziemilska, she was instrumental in encouraging contact and dialogue between Jewish students and Polish students during the annual March of the Living program.
Irene's translation of Andrzej Bohomolec's book "The Voyage of the Yacht, Dal" was published in 2019.