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Widecombe History Group Talks
The History of the Polish Refugees at Stover
by Clare Thomas.
Stover Polish Camp or to give it its correct name, Ilford Park Polish Home, was created in 1948 from a site that was previously an American Army Hospital.
This establishment comes under the rules that govern the Aliens Order of 1920, so there are rigid rules and conditions attached to this and other similar establishments that once were spread around the country. Particularly under what circumstances one can become a resident.
To try and understand this whole story one has to look at the history surrounding World War II with all the horror and implications created by "man's inhumanity to man".
In 1939 Poland was invaded by the Germans from the west, and at that time there was a peace treaty between the Germans and the Russian. That gave Russia an excuse to invade Poland from The East.
Families were given immediate notice to pick up what they could carry and in many cases were marched off to Siberia. Wives and husbands split up, men taken as Prisoners of War and the wives and children sent to Siberia where the temperature was often -40 Centigrade.
Stories of unbelievable horror, dieing on the trains with the cold. Young men out tending their stock could only grab a few meagre possessions and be marched away. Some looked back at their farm to see everything they had, being burnt to the ground, one terrible thought remained with these poor people for the rest of their lives, were their stock being burnt alive, destroyed in the sheds unable to escape. What an horrendous thought - it gave them nightmares for the rest of their lives.
c1941 Germany invaded Russia. That put paid to their long standing treaty and a man by the name of General Anders led the Poles as an organised force through Iran, Iraq and Palestine.
There are those that will remember battle of Monte Casino and the activities and bravery of the 2nd Polish Corps. The Polish Airmen of The Battle of Britain fame, their bravery in Italy and many other places must be remembered. Many of the people that ended their years at Stover were still living through those terrible experiences and the associated horrific stories that they kept bottled up inside them.
Many Polish soldiers marched from Siberia through Russia to the Middle East and eventually into East Africa. Many women and children reached Tehran, a city that became known as 'The City of Polish Children'. Many are buried in cemeteries in the Middle East.
A question often asked is why did they not go back to Poland after the war. The reason is that the whole political framework of Poland had altered into a communist state. They feared that if they did return, they would have been at least imprisoned, but more than likely killed.
One thing that created problems was that after the war the British men were looking for employment and so resented the Poles getting work, work that they considered should be for the British. The sacrifice and fighting that the Poles had done was quickly forgotten when it comes to self preservation, even after the horrors of war - charity begins at home!
The Polish people sought accommodation, their language created problems for employment, they were prepared to work but jobs just were not there, they became what could be described as 'Stateless Aliens'.
Winston Churchill, no longer Prime Minister, declared in parliament that the contribution that the Polish people had made, had to be recognised, they had made great sacrifices and massive contributions in the winning of the war and their part had to be acknowledged and 45 Polish Resettlement Camps were set up. Ilford Park is now the only one left in existence. This as the only remaining Camp has some of it's original residents but also some of the past residents of the other establishments, now closed.
In 1992 the now modernised camp was built, The Ilford Park Polish Hostel, and all the old 'Nissan Huts', 'hospital wards', 'army blocks', call them what you will, have been demolished.
Before that was done it is believed that a photographic history/archive was created. Recently some photographs have appeared in the local press showing the interior of some of the deserted 'sheds'. There is The Personnel Veterans Agency that does a great deal for these "Stateless Individuals" and the Ilford Park Polish Hostel Veterans Welfare Service. Both of these still dedicated to helping this small community.
There still about 100 residents and a dedicated workforce almost as large looking after them twenty four hours a day. There are certain strict conditions for anyone entitled to stay at Stover. Husbands or wives of those that served their country and ours. Children of those couples and a waiting list of suitable entrants still exists. The Polish language is spoken by the residents and as most of them are Roman Catholic there is a resident priest who daily takes Mass for them. There is a purpose built R. C. Chapel on site. Like any other 'home' the one at Ilford is strictly controlled, regulated and inspected. Recently it has been awarded a prestigious Three Star classification. All the staff are justly proud of this achievement.
Within the walls of this establishment there is a very strong community, this helps some members to manage the traumas of the past that are still so strong in the minds of some.
They celebrate all the Polish National Days and hold special events with the associated special Polish National Food. For instance Christmas Eve is celebrated with more fervour than Christmas Day by Polish people the world over.
They have been able to find here in the Devon Countryside, peace, companionship and understanding and Clare emphasised the satisfaction, and some time frustration, that she has experienced working with them. They are a proud people, they like nothing better than cultivating their own plot of land and growing their own food. They are by nature a productive people.
Ilford Park has given them a sense of belonging and when one considers the way that they were 'hounded' around the world in the 1940s one should be pleased that in their remaining years they are able to enjoy some state of belonging.
There is a Veteran's Helpline : 0800 169 22 77 which is recorded here.
People can remember them visiting the local markets and bartering for food and commodities.
They will trade anything that comes their way. It is part of their make-up. They like their independence and will try anything to achieve that. When they first arrived at Stover the first thing they did was to dig up all the lawns and grass and till vegetables. This is their way of life and they have been able to keep their dignity by creating ‘a little Poland’ in the Devon countryside.
We remember with affection Mr & Mrs Zab who lived and farmed at Widecombe for many years, and their son Jimmy and his family. Mr & Mrs Zab were separated during the war and had completely lost contact with each other for several years and one day they were re-united, at a railway station here in Britain, by pure chance - What a lovely ending to a tragic story!
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