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Memories of WWII refugees live on in Tanzania

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.

Occupants of Tengeru village go about their daily lives.

Tengeru locals go about their daily lives.

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.

Young Edward Wojtowicz, perched amidst fellow refugees.

Young Edward Wojtowicz, perched amidst fellow refugees.

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.

Polish refugee settlers in Tengeru


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6 thoughts on “Memories of WWII refugees live on in Tanzania

  1. Michael Colegrove


    I was a Peace Corps volunteer at MATI from September 1964 – August 1966. I taught Soils Science, Surveying, Land use Planning, Agric. mathematics. I shared a House #4 with Alan Smith who was British and a UN volunteer.

    Edward Wojtowicz was assistant Farm Manager and a great person to work with and he and I laid out tennis courts near the guest house, and a volleyball/basketball court near the student dormitories.

    My experience in Tanzania and Tengeru in particular was a life-changing experience and I decided to devote my whole career to international agricultural development. I retired in 2014 – 50 years after Tengeru. I now live in New Zealand.

    Please contact me if you have any common experiences or acquaintances. PARTICULARLY if Edward is still alive.

    Asante sana,

    Mike Colegrove


  2. jerzy zbigniew kuczynski

    i was born in Tengeru in 1943 my mother was weronika kuczynski.ihave a lot of fotos from there.any ideas

    • Barbara Watson (Wilk)

      I was born in 1945 in Tengeru, a twin (my brothers name is Zbigniew), Mother was Rozalia Wilk and sister Irene who was 15 at the time of our birth . Interested if you or anyone you may know, knew of my family . I live in Perth, Western Australia and came here around 1950 on the ship the General Langfit and we settled in
      Cunderdin along with other Polish refugees. Look forward to your reply if possible. Regards. Barbara.

  3. John Murray

    My fathers uncle John Minnery was the commander at Arusha/ Tengru refugee camp during WW2. There is a web site dedicated to his military life in Tanzania. I wonder if any of the survivors as noted would remember him and could give an account of his personality? John lived in Africa from after WW1 to late 1967 and was the game warden for that area.

  4. Rebecca Purchon

    Hello, I’m seeking the email address or contact details of Simon Joseph. I am searching for the identity of my father-in-laws father who was a refugee at one of the polish refugee camps at Tengeru. I know the identity of my father – in lwas mother and have a photo of his father but nothing else. My father in lwa is now 70 and it would be terrific if anyone has any information on a man of french origin who woned the bike shop.
    Many thanks


  5. John Cooper

    Next month, October, my wife Margaret and I shall be in East Africa again – in Kenya, as usual, but I am also visiting Tanzania to commemorate my arrival there as a VSO Volunteer back in 1966 (fifty years ago) and to remember friends and colleagues from those days.
    Our daughter (who lives in the USA but was born in Kenya) is going to join us in Nairobi in early October and she will travel to Tanzania to accompany me so that someone from “the next generation” will know about my happy days there.
    I want to pay tribute, in whatever ways might be appropriate, to those with whom we all lived and worked in 1966-67 – both expatriate and African. We will spend time in Tengeru, of course, visiting the Training Institute and the Polish Cemetery (I last saw Edward four years ago, on my last visit to Tengeru; he has since died, sad to relate)..
    We should be happy to hear from other people who knew Edward and/or Tengeru and the Polish Cemetery.
    John E Cooper (England)


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