ARUSHA – On the fringes of a small Tanzanian village called Tengeru lie buried 150 Polish war refugees, who did their best to make a life there.
The Third Reich invaded Polish territory on September 1, 1939 without declaration. It was the beginning of the Second World War. The Molotov Pact , signed one week before the invasion of Poland, partitioned more than half of Polish territory to the Soviet Union, beginning a campaign of terror against the civilian population.
Deportation to Siberia began on February 10, 1940 following purges of the Polish civil elite. When German armies invaded in 1942, the Polish government sided with the USSR in exchange for the release of Polish deportees, as well as 47 000 exiles. Many were sent to United Kingdom colonies – of those, about 18 000 Poles were sent on to refugee camps in East Africa. There were six camps in Tanzania, the largest of which was in the village Tengeru, with 5 000 refugees.
The Polish “settlers” developed a life for themselves, running specialized farms, small businesses, and nearly a dozen schools. They built clinics, hospitals, churches and one synagogue. In their history, it’s recorded as becoming a “scrap of distant homeland.”
With the end of the war, the refugees were able to return to Europe, but many had nowhere to go and no one to go home to. Some were taken from regions lost to Poland in the Yalta Agreement. Others were too afraid of the Soviet proxy governments to return. For almost a decade, these wayward peoples dispersed across the world. About 1000 remained in their African settlements – 151 of those stayed in Tengeru.
Today, hundreds of pilgrims come every year to the cemetery where 150 of them lay buried, the only vestige remaining of the refugee camp except for its sole survivor, Edward Wojtowicz. Wojtowicz, 94, still lives in Tengeru, and one day he will be the last person ever buried there. His mother was buried in 1985, his grandmother in 1955.
Simon Joseph is a local Tengeru man who operates the cemetery all on his own, as caretaker, gardener, contractor and guide for the many who visit. He says most visitors are descendants of the original 5,000 who lived there who come to trace a piece of their own history to those difficult times.
“All people buried here are refugees. They suffered here from malaria and influenza,” Joseph recalls.
“Before here they were in labour camps in Siberia. They were forced into slave labour.”
He lives just five kilometres away with his wife, Rota, and six children. He says he loves his work, and knows the history inside and out, telling the story again and again for each new visitor.
In 2015 all of the graves are set to be renovated, paid for by the Polish government, who has funded the cemetery all this time since the first Polish refugee, Michael Tchorz, was buried on October 23, 1942. There are just five Jews in the cemetery, buried separately near the wall which was erected in 2001. Joseph says the cemetery will be maintained in Tengeru forever.
The local villagers rarely come by, but they all know it’s there. The place where 5000 foreigners, abandoned by the rest of the world, made a little piece of home for themselves in the dusty plains.