Massindi and Koja UGANDA
Visitors to the dense Budongo Forest of central Uganda like to track wild chimpanzees, who feast at giant fig trees in the early morning. Hikers also keep an eye out for giant jungle squirrels, red-tailed monkeys and the checkered elephant shrew with its odd, tapered, flexible snout.
"Equally bizarre in this remote patch of forest," says the popular guidebook, Uganda: The Bradt Travel Guide, "is a large church built by Polish refugees who were temporarily settled in the area during World War II.
"Many of the footpaths ... are a legacy of the same refugees."
The book says nothing more on the subject, but Mietek Greczylo has plenty to add.
He is 78 years old now, a long-time resident of Mississauga, Ontario, and for the past few years he has led an effort to restore the church as a testament to a strange and heroic survival story virtually unknown in Canada outside the Polish community.
"We had 42 new windows put in, five sets of metal doors, fresh paint inside and out, a new roof ~ a lot of work," Greczylo says of repairs sponsored by former refugees calling themselves Friends of Polish African Heritage.
"There is some sentimental attachment to the place," he also says. "I know some people who say ~ jokingly ~ that they would be willing to be deported from Poland again, just so they can end up again in this part of Africa."
Greczylo came of age in the settlement. He arrived when he was 13 and left when he was 22.
On his dining room table, he spreads out several artefacts from the period, including letters and maps, colonial Ugandan coins with a hole in the middle, and an earlier photograph showing him as a curly-haired youngster with his parents in what was then eastern Poland. In the photo, his father Michal is wearing a state police uniform.
"On Sept. 17, 1939," says Greczylo beginning his Odyssean tale, "the Russians crossed the border into eastern Poland."
Greczylo's father fled south toward Romania but was caught and imprisonerd at Ostashkow, one of three large prisoner of war camps populated almost entirely by eastern Poles in uniform.
Greczylo never saw him again. On orders from Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, he was shot in the back of the head along with 27,000 others in a crime now collectively known as Katyn, his name on an execution list made public after the fall of communism.
For a while, the boy and his mother Joanna remained in Brest, then part of eastern Poland.
"Then in 1940, the Russians came for us," Greczylo says. "They knocked on the door at 5 in the morning and gave us half an hour to pack. They said, `We will make a better life for you and you will see your husband.'"
Greczylo and Joanna were put on a box car train, much as the Jews were later sent by the Germans to the death camps. Many people died. After two weeks, the train arrived at a collective farm in Soviet Kazakhstan.
"They asked me to join the Pioneers, the young communists," Greczylo recalls. "But I said, `I can't ~ my mother and I only have one pair of boots between us. When one of us goes out the other has to stay home.'"
Greczylo considers himself lucky. Between 1939 and 1941, an estimated 1.2 million Poles were forcibly taken from their homes and deported to the Soviet Union for forced labour. Perhaps as many as half of them died.
In 1941, following the German invasion of Russia, Stalin allowed the Polish deportees to form an army on Soviet soil to help fight the Germans, and so Polish civilian deportees were freed.
Greczylo and his mother undertook the long and treacherous journey south to reach a Polish army camp, and joined 52,000 other civilians crossing the Caspian Sea to Persia (Iran) with the soldiers.
In the next few months, they covered more huge distances. The soldiers went on to Iraq and Italy. The civilians proceeded to Karachi, an Indian port city now part of Pakistan, and from there to Polish settlements in various British colonies.
East Africa took 32,000 refugees. Uganda alone took 7,000 at two sites ~ more than 3,000 at Koja on Lake Victoria and nearly 4,000 in the Budongo Forest near the town of Masindi.
Most were women and children. At the Masindi location, a 1944 census listed 330 men living among 1,546 women, and 1,769 children and teenagers.
"Mother looks tense," Barbara Porajska, a refugee arriving a few months ahead of the Greczylos, writes in her 1988 memoir, From the Steppes to the Savannah.
"Another mile or two and our travels will end. But where are we driving to? There is no town or village. The jungle is dense and impregnable and the very bumpy, narrow road is getting even worse."
With help from the British and local labour, the refugees somehow hacked a settlement from the jungle. They built eight neighbourhoods, mostly of mud and grass huts.
They also built schools, a hospital and a theatre, and in 1943 began a two-year construction of a Roman Catholic church.
"We designed it in the Roman style," Greczylo says of the building's simple lines, rounded arches and massive vaulting. "Everybody helped. Even the children were carrying bricks."
Above the front wooden doors were written the words: Polonia semper fidelis ~ Poland always faithful. And beside the entrance plaques in Latin, Polish, Swahili and English described the congregation as "... Poles in exile on the way to their liberated homeland."
"Now we wait for the end of the war," Porajska writes in her memoir, “and firmly believe that Masindi is just another stop before we can return to our country.”
"The Poles are fighting and dying on all fronts and, as soon as the Germans are conquered, Poland will be free once again."
It never happened. After the war, the Soviet Union annexed a large chunk of eastern Poland, including Brest, and took control of the rest of the country. The Polish refugees either could not or had no desire to return.
Gradually, they immigrated elsewhere ~ to Canada, Australia, England, the United States and parts of South America. In 1948, the Masindi settlement closed.
Greczylo and his mother moved to Uganda's other Polish refugee settlement, Koja, then in 1951 came to Canada.
Greczylo took a job with Mercury Photo Service downtown and in 1969 moved to the Etobicoke Board of Education, where he worked until his retirement 13 years ago. He never married. His mother died 10 years ago at 85.
The Masindi settlement mostly returned to jungle.
The former hospital forms part of Uganda's only forestry college and the only other identifiable building from the period is the church.
In 1998, a friend showed Greczylo recent photographs of it.
"When I saw the pictures I said, `Why don't we get together and try to refurbish it?'" he recalls.
With friends Danuta Zajiczek-Wojtowicz and Adolf Moszynski, he helped raise $50,000 ~ half from former refugees now living in Canada ~ and this year had the work to the church and its adjacent cemetery finished. Now they want to raise more money to build a well.
"For a young boy growing up, Africa was an ideal place," Greczylo says looking back. "Russia was so difficult. So many people died there.
"To us, Masindi was a land of plenty ~ the climate was good, the basic food was good, there was a lot of fruit. And as a young person, the whole country was open to me."
Over the years, even as it was falling into disrepair, the church continued to be packed every Sunday and used during the week for catechism classes.
The restoration at once creates a monument to the Polish refugees, Greczylo says, and ensures a place of worship for families of Africans who helped clear land and make the refugees welcome.
“Testament in the jungle” by John Goddard
Toronto Star - April 29, 2006
Mieczyslaw with his parents in Poland
Building the church in 1943
Renovated church in 2006
Renovated cemetery in 2006