In 1896, a baby was born in Debow, a small village in the south-east of Poland – he was baptised Josef Cłab. He now lies buried in small graveyard just outside the North Yorkshire village of Sutton-on-the-Forest. I don’t know the precise chain of events that brought him to Yorkshire, but we can hazard a guess. He would have been about 44 when Stalin began to annexe Eastern Poland, including the area of Poland in which Josef left. Whether he fled left as a refugee or as a member of the Polish army is not clear – given his age it may have been that he had children in the Polish Armed Forces in Exile. They may have spent time in exile in Siberia, where many Poles then left for Displaced Persons camps in India and both West and East Africa. Many members of the Polish forces fought in the Near East and in Europe. As the war came to an end, it would have been clear that Poland would be under indirect Russian control and would remain the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. For many Poles, this meant that a return home was impossible. In 1946 many were thus enlisted into the Polish Resettlement Corps, part of the British army, before they were demobilised in 1948.
The soldiers and their families were offered new lives in Britain – and for many this initially meant staying in a network of Resettlement Camps, often located on former military and air-force bases, as they had a pre-existing infrastructure ready to be occupied. Initially, there were over 2000 camps. Many settlers were helped to emigrate and others moved out of the camps to forge their own lives in towns and cities across Britain. However, there were still around 50 camps in the mid-1950s and the last one was not closed until 1970.
Whatever his journey, Josef ended up in one of these resettlement camps – at East Moor, near Sutton-on-Forest, just to the north of York. This site had originated as an RAF base, established in 1942. Like most airbases in this part of the country, it was used for bombers by both the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Air Force before closing down in 1946. However, this marked the beginning of its new life as a Resettlement Camp in 1948 and within a year there were 201 families with nearly 190 children resident at the site. Many of the buildings were converted for communal used – including a library, a games room and a church. Life slowly became less communal with a move away from shared catering and a shift towards private, self-sufficiency. There are still pictures showing life at the camp – there were choirs, bands, dances and schools for children and for adults to learn English.
Many moved on, but some died at the camp and, although Catholic, were buried at the Church of England cemetery of the nearby village. Today, there is now a small area of the cemetery given over to these graves – maybe twenty of them. Some with inscriptions in Polish, some in English – some of individuals who had died at the camp, others clearly family members of those who had died here, and had come back to be buried with their loved ones. Although the bulk of the burials are from the 1950s and 1960s, there are some as late as the 1990s. In other cases, older graves seem to have been replaced with newer ones, perhaps as families established themselves and were able to afford something a little more substantial. I’m going to write some more about these in a future blog post.
Today, very little of the camp and the RAF base seems to survive- most of the buildings have been demolished, although a tiny number of structures seem to still survive as a small industrial estate, with most heavily repurposed or converted for other purposes; although one building still lows derelict. All that remains of this transient community of Poles, who after a journey around the globe, via Siberia, Persian, East Africa and the theatres of conflict in Western Europe, are the graves in the cemetery. Although the Polish community in the village has long gone, it is clear that most of the graves are still visited and cared for, although some of the older ones are falling apart. After a lifetime of transience, it is pleasing that even if in death, there is some sense of permanence for these people.