How a displaced Polish family found itself as refugees in Tanzania

Friday June 19 2015

The Polish cemetery at Tengeru in Northern Region of Tanzania. Many Polish pilgrims visit the site every year. PHOTO | COURTESY

The letters are written in ink in a tight, classic script. There are some blotches, many exclamation points and charming drawings of a mountain called Meru, a volcanic lake called Duluti, thatch-covered rondavels and women carrying firewood on their heads.

Some of the earlier ones are datelined Teheran or Morogoro, but most were written from Tengeru and addressed to “Our dearest Papa.” They end with “I kiss Papa’s hands and cheeks, your sincerely loving son, Stach O.” And they are written in Polish.

The letters are mostly about mundane events: Doing poorly in Latin class, preparing for Christmas, going to the cinema, creating a historical atlas, fetching water, hiding hard-to-find Vatican stamps from other eager young stamp collectors and how a lion got into an enclosure for goats being raised for their milk.

But then on 6.V.45 there is this: “An enormous pile of firewood surrounded by Allied flags has been laid near the church. It will be lit as the capitulation of Germany is announced, something we are awaiting any time now. Dearest Papa, you can imagine the joy of this highly anticipated event by all those displaced people who will have waited for this moment for years.”

The writer of this momentous news was the almost 13-year-old Stanislaus Odolski, who lived, along with 5,000 other Poles, at Tengeru, northern Tanganyika, one of the first refugee camps in Africa, from 1944 to 1948.

His odyssey had begun some four years earlier after Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the west and the east in 1939 and divided the country between them. Soviet officials wanted to destroy the Polish army and murdered most of its officer corps in Katyn Forest in 1941.


Anton Odolski (“Dearest Papa”) was one of the few officers not rounded up at that time. But he was later shipped from eastern Poland to a prison camp in Siberia, leaving his wife, daughter and son behind.

But soon they, along with thousands of other Polish civilians, were also loaded into box cars (goods wagons) and travelled east for days until they ended up in a prison camp in Kazakhstan.

Tanganyika became part of the British Empire in 1919 when Germany, the previous coloniser, lost the First World War. Then Britain was attacked by Germany in 1941 at the opening of the Second World War.

Many people in East Africa were affected by hostilities connected with both wars. And many East Africans lost their lives serving as porters and soldiers both in Africa and in British colonies in faraway Southeast Asia. But few East Africans ever expected to see large groups of Polish people deposited in their midst as refugees.

In 2000, the UN General Assembly resolved that from June 20, 2001 — the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees — World Refugee Day would be observed annually on June 20. This had already been African Refugee Day for some years. But by then few knew of or remembered the Poles.

How did they come to Africa?

In August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, but in June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, thousands of Polish soldiers and their remaining officers were languishing in Soviet prison camps while their families were not much better off in holding camps in the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan. Germany appeared to be on a roll as the Wehrmacht moved farther and farther into Soviet territory. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin began to look for help from Britain and other nations — including the Poland that he had claimed two years earlier no longer existed.

In the late summer of 1941 the Polish government-in-exile in London signed an “amnesty” with the Soviet Union that allowed the release of those soldiers and officers who remained alive in the gulags and prisons and for the transfer of Polish civilians out of Kazakhstan.

Anton Odoloski was among the 78,470 Polish officers and soldiers who left the Soviet Union in 1942 on their odyssey through Iraq to Great Britain to join the new Anders’ Army — the Free Polish Forces led by Gen Wadyslaw Anders. Two and half years later he was among the 51,000 soldiers of the II Polish Corps who spearheaded the final onslaught on Monte Cassino in southern Italy in May 1944 to open Europe’s southern flank for Allied forces.

Meanwhile his wife, daughter and son Stan were among the 37,272 Polish — but stateless — civilians, including 13,948 children, who were evacuated from the Soviet Union and travelled overland to Teheran and then on to various parts of the world under British influence for resettlement since they could not return to Poland. The Odolski family landed in Nairobi; some of the Polish refugees went to Masindi in Uganda. They went to Tengeru via Morogoro.

On December 14, 1944, Stan wrote to Anton wishing him well “in his battle against the Germans” and for “a swift return to our homeland where we can meet again — something we are all yearning for.”

A short while later Stan moved with his mother and sister to Tengeru where he sang in the choir, began to paint and decided he wanted to be a writer. His missives were written on special air letters provided by the British military and were mailed to England in care of the Polish Forces on Active Duty. Somehow, they reached Anton; he saved them all.

After the end of the war, the British did not give the Polish refugees the option to stay in Tanganyika, and the Odolski family could not join Anton, who had gone to England after the war to settle there, so Argentina agreed to take a number of Polish refugees as did South Africa and a few other places.

It just happened that the boat headed to Argentina left at a date that was convenient for the Odolski family, which is why they went; none of them spoke Spanish. They and dozens of other Polish refugees landed in Buenos Aires, in 1949, with their Nansen passports for stateless persons.

Later Anton joined the family and got work as a stevedore at the port, and Stan and his sister Lidka went to college; their mother never learned to speak Spanish.

On May 25, 1974, I met Stan Odoloski in Buenos Aires, Argentina where his family, including Anton lived. He stood in the doorway of an old house on Pacheco de Melo street, lifted his hand and said “Jambo!” The friend who introduced us had told him I had also lived in Africa.

Stan later moved with his Argentine wife to Paris in 1980 where they both become French citizens. In August of the same year he returned to Poland for the first time since 1941 to a country in the midst of a political and social revolution. His father and mother, his sister and his niece had all moved to Warsaw and begun new lives.

In December of 1998, Stan returned to East Africa, and together with my 85-year-old mother, we drove to Arusha in search of the camp at Tengeru. In the waning years of the British protectorate the authorities had taken the successful dairy farm the Polish refugees had left behind and turned it into a veterinary and agricultural college. When we finally found it and drove through the broken gate, things didn’t look very promising.

Stan began to think we were in the wrong place until he saw the shell of the camp’s Catholic church, but he couldn’t seem to find his bearings. That evening we stayed at a nearby lodge that consisted of makuti-topped rondavels. Dinner was in another building, and as he walked through the room, his eyes lit up and he hurried to the verandah.

From there, barely visible in the dusk, was a volcanic lake. “Duluti,” Stan exclaimed. “That’s where we used to hike to — and here — in this building — was the camp hospital.”

Nearby among flowers and canopy trees lies a small walled cemetery containing the graves of 149 Poles; it is carefully tended by Simon Joseph, a Tanzanian.