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"We put more and more emphasis on promoting Poles and Polish culture among British people, trying to confront stereotypes and showing a positive image of the community. I think that in the wake of Brexit we need it more than ever before."
 

 

 

My parents met in Switzerland during the war. My father was there in detention after retreating from France. Later he escaped from the camp, rejoined the Polish army and this way made it to Scotland. After the war, in a scene straight out of a romantic comedy, he got on a motorcycle and decided to go to London in search of my mother, who in the meantime had arrived there via France and Portugal.

 

Fortunately, he found her – and that is how I came to being.

 

In those times the Polish community of London was relatively small in comparison with its size today, but already then there were parochial centres, the Polish Hearth Club with its social and cultural life, dance ensembles and theatre groups.

 

My father had always been involved in Polish community organisations. He was mostly responsible for assistance to war veterans, helping them to find work because many of them struggled in the new reality.

 

My grandfather was a good example of that phenomenon. Before the war, he was the last Marshal of the Senate in the Second Polish Republic, but here he worked on a night shift in a cake factory. He was an ordinary workman there, while among Poles he was still treated with reverence (laughter).

 

I always say I am a Pole that was born in the United Kingdom. At home, we always talked in Polish and lived in Ealing where there were many Polish families, but at the same time, we enjoyed what London life had to offer.

 

I first travelled to Poland in 1961 when I was 11 years old.  With my parents’ consent I went – alone! – to Harwich. From there, I took a ferry to Hook of Holland where I got on a train to Moscow that called at Warsaw. I was welcomed by about 25 people at the railway station, people I had never met before: closer and more distant relatives, aunts and uncles.

 

I remember how, during the journey, we waited on a bridge in Berlin, while guards with dogs and rifles were checking the carriages. This image has stuck in my mind for years: the illuminated, West Berlin on one side and the dark East Berlin on the other.

 

During my stay in Poland, the Berlin Wall was built. For me, unaware of the geopolitical implications of the decision, it was a source of joy and hope that my summer holiday could take longer and I would not have to go back to school. But I remember that many people were terrified and were buying up flour and sugar, worried that the conflict between East and West would escalate.

 

After university, I joined the British Council where I was still trying to find out what exactly I wanted to do. Due to a series of coincidences and moments of fortune I went on – in spite of my academic background in the humanities – to implement new IT systems and train our staff all over the world. Wherever I went, I was impressed by the smart way in which they operated and promoted British culture around the world.

 

I got involved in the life of the Polish diaspora through theatre. I played wherever I could: first at university, later in a Polish avant-garde group Pro-Arte. In 1984 I took over the management of the Syrena children's theatre.

 

At that time Polish London could boast a strong theatre scene: we had many pre-war actors and directors working in the Polish Actors’ Association and a beautiful theatre in the Polish Hearth Club. After the establishment of the Polish Social and Cultural Association (POSK) in the 1970s cultural life moved to Hammersmith.

 

The activity of the Polish theatre has always played a crucial role in building a Poland abroad. It was particularly important for Polish children born in Britain, as we need to help them create a bond with faraway Poland. I remember pre-war actors who had perfect enunciation from the best theatres of Lviv and Vilnus, while we children spoke Polish with our awkward London accent.

 

Things are different now. Syrena used to be a ‘theatre on wheels’ because it had no permanent location; it went to parishes and Saturday schools with hastily improvised set designs. Nowadays we have coaches of kinds coming to our theatre in POSK from all around Britain.

 

In recent years we have been putting more and more emphasis on promoting Poles and Polish culture among British people, trying to confront stereotypes and showing a positive image of the community. I think that in the wake of Brexit we need it more than ever before.

 

Words: Jakub Krupa

Picture: Jadwiga Brontē

 

 

© 2012 Ministry of Foreign Affairs