History of Polish Association in Slough
Poland is a European nation of some 35 million inhabitants proud of its’ culture with records going back to around the formal adoption of Christianity as the nation’s religion in 966 AD. With its’ particular geography, located as it is between Russia and Germany, Poland’s history is one of striving to maintain its independence and sovereignty.
In the Middle Ages Poland was a prosperous Kingdom, a centre of culture and learning but often called upon to repel major non-Christian attacks on Europe from the East.
In 1791 Polish nobles voted to accept a new Constitution guaranteeing all men equality and freedom, the right to religious tolerance and creating a new more democratic form of Government. Almost immediately its strong neighbours colluded to suppress this dangerous development. Between 1793 and 1918 Poland effectively disappeared from European maps having been invaded and divided up between its three large neighbours, Austria, Germany and Russia.
After numerous unsuccessful uprisings during the 19th century it was not until the end of the 1st World War that Polish patriots were able to break the hold of its occupiers and create a new and free Poland. One can only imagine the fervour with which Poles embraced independence and with what enthusiasm they worked to re-establish a nation that had not had self-destiny for 130 years. In a land capable of total self-sufficiency, for a brief 20 years Poles built and toiled, argued and legislated, laughed and cried creating their dream of a peaceful and prosperous nation built on tolerance and justice.
In 1939 Poland was attacked from the West by Germany and simultaneously from the East by Russia. After two months of heroic resistance the invaders superior forces overran Poland. Millions of Poles were forced from their homes, many escaped across borders to continue the fight in other countries. About 1.7 million people living in the East of Poland were imprisoned, transported in cattle trucks to labour camps deep in Russia and forced to work for the Russian invader while fending for themselves and what was left of their families as best they could. Many thousands died on the journey. About 20 thousand people, Polish officers, professionals and intellectuals were systematically executed in a barbaric attempt to remove those most capable of organising and leading resistance. For almost two years Russia and Germany did, as they wanted onto Polish citizens.
In 1941 Germany turned on its ally of convenience Russia and attacked it hoping to destroy it along its Eastern borders. Those Poles who had survived the labour camps in Russia suddenly became important to the Russians as potential soldiers. Russia reluctantly agreed to allow about two hundred thousand of its Polish men and their families to be trained as soldiers for the Southern front in Iran and Africa. Those that it could keep for itself it enlisted into its own defensive ranks or returned to the labour camps and so began a new phase of the war that would eventually lead to the defeat of Germany but the equally unacceptable occupation of Poland by Russia under a Communist regime.
Poles fought alongside their Allies on all fronts, in army, air force and navy to defeat their aggressors. Those that remained in Poland had to cope with cruelty and deprivation both under the Russian and German occupation. After the formal ending of World War II in 1945, for forty long years they coped under the stifling Communist regime imposed by Russia. These were tragic times for Poles everywhere. Books have been written about the heroics of Polish combatants both in Poland in various uprisings and around the world in all the major battles of World War II. Much has also been written about the extraordinary war experiences of non combatants and this period formed and hardened opinion in many Poles young and old, opinions that would leave the Polish nation with a deep distrust of their neighbours and of foreigners. Poles needed no help and sought self sufficiency.
The War ended for the Allies in 1945 but not for Poland or the displaced Poles. Two hundred miles of Polish Eastern territory was given to the Russians. With no land to call their own, no base from which to organise family life and no possessions Poles were moved from one refugee camp to another. Of the 1.7 million Poles deported to Russia only 500,000 survived the War. Finding family members scattered across Poland, Germany, Siberia, India, Iran, Africa and Europe and bringing them back together became an obsession for many a task made even more difficult by the official position of Russia which failed to acknowledge any of this human tragedy.
In the early 1950’s, after more than 10 years away from their homeland, many Poles yearned for a return to their own country but feared the Russian occupiers. They had after all known the Russian Communists first hand, had seen them at work, had had their families decimated by their inhumane disregard for peoples needs and rights. They hoped for free elections in Poland but in their hearts dreaded the reality that these would not happen in their own lifetime. Many Poles took the decision to commit their futures to building a home and family life away from Poland.
There were a number of Polish refugee camps scattered around the Slough area. Slough was a new town seeking committed workers and offering a chance to own homes for those prepared to work hard. These were not easy times to be a foreigner in England and a sense of community was desperately needed by the Poles. Many families were still trying to get back together, few people had any possessions and language was a problem for many.
In 1951- 2 a number of Polish families decided to settle for the foreseeable future in Slough. They took out mortgages to buy land and property in the Slough area. The Catholic community in Slough was approached and church services were arranged in Polish at St Ethelbert’s church. A Polish priest was employed to help with the religious education of the community, a Saturday Polish school was started at St Anthony’s Catholic School to teach Polish to youngsters and mindful of the need for recreation and getting together for old soldiers, a Polish Club was organised to run at the Baylis House Annexe on Stoke Poges Lane.
The first AGM of The Polish Social Club in 1953 attracted about fifty members who elected Trustees and a Committee to look after the affairs of the Polish Club. In 1956 the Iron Curtain descended across Europe and many more families, finally understanding there was to be no early return to Poland, chose to join the Polish Community in Slough. The Polish Club Committee members, all Polish soldiers who had vowed to fight until Poland was free, now turned to bringing their children up in the traditions of the Polish nation, and worked to bring about freedom for Poland by peaceful means when they might be at liberty to return home. Meanwhile, the Polish Community in Slough became a model of diligence, good education, good behaviour and good citizenship.
By and large over the last 50 years the Poles, distrusting politicians, have sought little or no local political power, have tried to be good neighbours and have integrated well with the community at large becoming well known in local businesses and schools while slowly improving their homes, the Polish Parish and the Polish Club (renamed the Polish Association).
In 1976 circumstances combined favourably for the Management Committee to purchase for cash the current premises then known as “Vacuna” from PB Cow Ltd. A program of development added the Hall, the Car Park, extended the pavilions and generally improved the property to its’ current state. The name was changed to “Gryf” which is Polish for a Griffin, a mythical creature in folklore which like the phoenix rises gloriously from the ashes. Successive Committees have encouraged young people of Polish origin to join as Ordinary members and those not of Polish origin to join as Associate members to share the wonderful facilities here.
In 1989 when Poland regained its sovereignty after the historic exploits of Solidarity and Lech Walesa, we expatriate Poles stood proudly and watched the President of the Polish Government in Exile in London, Ryszard Kaczorowski, whose office we had supported for 50 years, formally hand over the insignia of the free pre-war Polish nation to the new President of a free and independent Poland. A chapter in Polish history had come to an end and those still alive with first hand memories as well as those who were brought up to be aware could share in the significance of the moment.
I still occasionally hear calls from uninformed people to ethnic leaders that they should abandon their old cultural ties and integrate more fully into an English way of life. It has not ever been easy to explain to those that do not want to listen why communities like ours prevail. There is no mystery. In a land that offers freedom, citizens are free to be aware of their cultural origins, to recount tales of exceptional hardships, to describe deeds and accomplishments, share hopes and fears. Openness in such matters is an attestation of values necessary for youngsters, families, communities and nations. Poles have a history within which the prize of freedom was withheld for many hundreds of years, where even the use of the Polish language was banned for many decades. The English have never lost their freedom and yet have exported their traditions, values and language far and wide. They have also supported other nations striving for freedom. Tolerance is built through awareness of others needs and views. The consequences of intolerance, not understanding people and their culture are there for all to see in history.
By bringing up children to cherish our values we each fulfil our personal destiny and build a basis for an improved world. My parents and those of their generation were taken from their homes, exposed to incredible dangers and left to cope alone in foreign lands.
They coped magnificently and flourished because they knew who they were and what they wanted and organised themselves to act together. Because of them, we understand the World better, know who we are and share a deep sense of purpose.
Slough has grown as a town and so has the Polish Community in Slough. Poles have prospered here, as has the town through the efforts of its community, many of whom have non-English ethnic origins. We have come to understand and even perhaps appreciate cultural diversity. It is a strength not a weakness.
The Polish Association in Slough is a testament to the efforts of one generation of Poles and a base on which to build the future for successive generations of our members families. As the EEC has opened its borders to several new nations including a free Poland it is my hope that in Slough we will have learned from the previous fifty years that through better cultural awareness there is an opportunity to improve the quality of life for all members of the community and also for the new extended community of nations.
May we prosper together in harmony and understanding.
Chairman of The Polish Association in Slough