*** From [EMAIL PROTECTED] (Konrad M Lepecki)

The Guardian (London) February 21, 2001

SECTION: Guardian Society Pages, Pg. 6
HEADLINE: Facing up to the past;
The Horrors Of Persecution And Gulags Still Haunt Many Polish Exiles In
Britain. Could A New Book Help Social Services Be Sensitive To That Trauma?
Chris Arnot Reports

   Stanislaw Stepien looks slightly surprised when I turn down his offer of
another glass of vodka. It is late on a dark winter's afternoon and I have
already accepted a good slug on top of a cup of tea and a ham sandwich.
   Politely, I hope, I have declined further offers of cake and apple pie. Even
by Polish standards, the Stepiens are generous and hospitable people. Stanislaw
tops up his own glass. Then, eyes twinkling mischievously beneath bushy
eyebrows, he leans forward and says: In moderation, I can take plenty.'

   He is a powerful-looking man with a military bearing. In his 89th year, he
is still tilling a fertile acre of garden behind a semi on the edge of
Bradford. His wife, Leonia, is 84 and slightly stooped, but just as full of
fun. You can laugh; you can cry,' she says at one point. And in the course of
nearly three hours of conversation, she does both, occasionally dabbing her
eyes with a neatly folded handkerchief.

   She talks with measured composure about wartime experiences of unimaginable
cruelty and deprivation. Along with her first husband and his family, she was
rounded up by Soviet troops and transported to Siberia in cattle-truck trains
soon after Stanislaw and his comrades had fought a brave but doomed battle
against the Nazi invaders from the west. Having survived the packed, freezing,
insanitary trucks, she was put to work helping to fell trees in a forest. She
worked for 12 hours at a time, up to her chest in snow. If you cried, the tears
would freeze on your cheeks,' she recalls. She drank melted snow. The
brick-like bread she was given to sustain her had to be melted over pieces of
burning wood.

   Leonia was freed after Hitler's armies invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. So
began an epic journey, all the way down to the Caspian Sea, across to Tehran
and then on to Palestine. From there, she was flown to Britain. Her first
husband, Romuald, was killed in 1945 while flying a Lancaster bomber over
German cities. She met Stanislaw after the war, in the Leicestershire town of
Melton Mowbray.

   The remarkable thing about the Stepiens' story is that, in Polish terms, it
is not particularly remarkable. Almost as remarkable is how little most of the
indigenous British know about these stories. Large numbers of Poles have been
living among us since the second world war. Over 160,000-strong at the time,
they made up the biggest group of political exiles to settle here since 1918.
Yet sometimes it seems that not much has changed since the 1950s when Leonia
revealed to workmates at a Bradford textile mill a little about the appalling
conditions she had endured in Siberia, and somebody asked her: Why didn't you
write and complain to Stalin?'

   Forty years on, the first generation of settlers are reaching an age when
many of them need help from the caring services. Are those services geared up
to cope with their special needs? They will be in Bradford, if Barbara
Stepien-Foad, daughter of Stanislaw and Leonia, has anything to do with it. As
social services development manager in the city's Shipley area, she is well
aware that there are elderly Poles who are more isolated and more mentally
scarred than her own sprightly parents.

   Yet our home-care people providing services in eastern European homes were
finding clients very reluctant to ask for help,' she says. They have always
been self-reliant survivors. But they've carried what happened to them between
1939 and '45 into old age. In retirement they have more time to dwell on the
past. Too often we are reaching them at a crisis point when what we really need
is more preventative work. To give them appropriate help, though, we have to
understand what they have lived through.'

   Accordingly, she has set up a course to educate social workers and others on
the culture and wartime history of Poles and other eastern Europeans. I'm not
aware that other areas are doing what Bradford is doing, apart from Reading
where Age Concern set up a similar scheme that has since collapsed because of
lack of funding,' says Michelle Winslow, co-author of a new book which should
prove invaluable for those who want to know more. The book, Keeping the Faith:
the Polish Community in Britain, provides an outline of how their country was
carved up by invaders from the west and east, coupled with extracts from the
personal stories of elderly Poles.

   Winslow took her tape recorder to centres all around the country. But many
interviews were done in Bradford and her native Sheffield where she was, until
comparatively recently, a state enrolled nurse. A career break led her to a
history degree and a PhD on Polish migration to Britain. In the course of it,
she became aware of the high incidence of mental health problems among
immigrants from eastern Europe. As long ago as 1956, the rate was identified as
four times higher than that of the indigenous population.

   The reasons are not difficult to discern, as Winslow points out. Apart from
all the trauma they went through during the war, at the end of it they faced
the crushing blow that they couldn't go back without risking death or arrest.
They'd lost their families and their homeland. Meanwhile, Soviet propaganda had
got through to some people here who were shouting fascist' at them in the

   The post-war Labour government was evidently not immune to Soviet propaganda
either. Foreign secretary Ernest Bevin urged the Poles to return to their
liberated country' and, in order to appease Stalin, Polish servicemen were
excluded from the London victory parade in 1946. Never mind that one in eight
of the pilots who fought against the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain had
been a Pole.

   It's hardly surprising that many survivors remain obsessed with the second
world war. It was that obsession that intrigued Tim Smith, a photographer with
an interest in oral history, who provided the pictures for Winslow's book (of
which he is the co-author) and carried out a few of the interviews. Many
British people went through awful things during the war,' he says, but at the
end at least they knew they were on the winning side and they still had a
homeland. The Poles had lost everything and had nowhere to go. No wonder they
see it as the pivotal event of their lives.'

   And no wonder it still haunts them in old age. I wanted to go back,' says
Stanislaw, but I knew friends who did and finished up in Siberia. I stayed in
England because here I was free,' he says, hammering the table with a heavy
forefinger. I try to look forward rather than back,' he goes on. Tomorrow is
more important to me than yesterday - tomorrow when I know which seeds are
going to come through in my garden.'

   But he also knows that for himself, his wife and other elderly Poles, the
horrors of yesterday retain an all too powerful grip on today. Keeping the
Faith, The Polish Community in Britain, is published by the Bradford Heritage
Recording Unit in association with the University of Sheffield at pounds 9.95.
To order at a special discount price of pounds 7.95 plus p&p, call Culture Shop
on 0800-3166 102.

Konrad M. Łepecki

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