Saturday, 10 April 2010

Polish community grieve in Shepherd's Bush

The tragic news today of a plane crash which claimed the lives of 94 people, including the Polish President, has resulted in an outpouring of emotion in our area. Shepherd's Bush and Hammersmith has long been a centre of the Polish community in the UK, and one of those who died on their way to marking the Katyn Forest massacre was a local priest at St Andrews Bobola Church in Shepherd's Bush. People are gathering there now in shock and to lay flowers.

I studied history at University and spent nearly two years looking at the story of the Poles in the twentieth century. Theirs is a story not just of incredible hardship and brutality at the hands of Germany and Russia - but of betrayal by Britain. At the end of the second world war Churchill signed a scrap of paper with Jozef Stalin that condemned much of eastern Europe including Poland - tens of thousands of whose sons had fought either in the resistance or as part of the Polish forces in the British Army - to 50 years of oppression. The Katyn Massacre that the delegation on the plane was on the way to mark the 70th anniversary of today, was officially denied by Russia until very recently. Britain knew about that massacre of Polish prisoners of war from intelligence reports at the time but chose not to raise it with Stalin. We didn't even protest.

Later in life one of my first jobs was at the Royal British Legion, an amazing organisation that looks after ex service men and women. That was in 1997 and part of my job involved having access to the case files of people that the Legion was looking after. I remember seeing reports of Polish men that had suffered horrendous war wounds from which they still suffered as pensioners that qualified them at the time for immediate discharge (and therefore survival) - but they kept re-enlisting, and kept fighting on our side.

Polish ground troops fought with British forces in some of the worst encounters of that war, including Monte Cassino, and the Polish air force played a critical yet unsung role in the Battle of Britain. And yet we didn't stand by them when it was all over.

I don't think people here now really understand the debt we owe that proud nation, and the dark side of our behaviour towards them in the past. That they continue to enrich our part of London by being here and contributing to our cultural life and economy in my mind makes their presence a very special part of Shepherd's Bush and something we should value a great deal.

And think of them on yet another cruel loss - ironically suffered on the way to mark the anniversary of even darker times past.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Chris.
    I have a good friend whose parents were among the Polish soldiers & civilians moved by Stalin from Siberia to Iran, overland and by ship, in 1942. Pure horror.
    I'm glad the Polish community is so strong here - am always amazed there's not more lingering bitterness about the way we sold them out after tens or even hundreds of thousands of them died for our freedom. Our politicians apologise for so many things now, you'd think this would be one of them.