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Memory is our Homeland

When talking about the beginning of World War II there is a small, yet significant fact, usually overlooked;  Poland was not only attacked by Germany, but on 17th  September 1939 it was also invaded by the Soviet Russia from the East, and it is here that this story begins.

The movie "Memory is our Homeland", which was screened at the Cinéma du Musée in Montreal gives an insight into what life was like for those in Poland during the Russian invasion, and what happened to them afterwards. The film director is Jonathan Durand. It was his personal journey deep back into the history of his family and the Polish people in general, during World War II. Poland as it was then, no longer exists. The film plot starts in a small village-like town of Ostrówek (now part of Belarus).

It was from there that eighty years ago, the Durand family was forcibly taken to Siberia. Later, like many others, the grandma and aunt of the Durand family went to Iran, Central Asia, and finally found themselves in a Polish refugee camp in Africa. Even today, this kind of Polish war stories is not well-known. 

I have to admit that the film made a huge impression on me, I heard about the deportations to Siberia, Katyń, labor camps, but I was made aware of the existence of Polish refugee camps in Africa (between 1942 and 1952) thanks to this movie. I would like to give my thanks to the film director for sharing this story with us in a form of such a beautiful, moving documentary.

It was there, far away from their Homeland, that those deported from Poland tried to regain their dignity and live in harmony again, trying to live with the memory of what had happened and all that they had lost.

The story has a very personal touch and is told from the perspective of the director’s late grandmother, Kazimiera Kołodziej, who appears in the film several times. It is clear from her testimony that, although she was forcibly uprooted from Poland at a young age, it always remained her home, and wherever she would go  it never felt the same. On arrival in Africa, they were greeted warmly and finally had the opportunity to restore a semblance of a peaceful life. Even though she finally felt safe, she would never consider it home and longed to return to her homeland.

The refugee camps in Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and South Africa were in fact shelters for many Polish women and children who were sent there. Initially a settlement with a couple huts in which they lived, was eventually changed into their own place with their schools, churches and hospitals.

Durand visited Africa, and many other places of tragic history, looking for memories, photos, places where his grandmother, aunt and other relatives lived.

The camp residents maintain these camps still house people who remember their Polish guests; the film shows us some of the photographs, documents and even a cemetery for Polish refugees as well as the first-hand accounts from the new arrivals back then. 
Thanks to the documentary film maker we discover contemporary Africa, and thanks to family stories and recently discovered old photographs (some of which with the image of the director’s grandmother) the previously unknown story unfolds. 

While watching the film sometimes I had the impression this was some sort of surreal tale or pure fantasy. Who could have known that somewhere in exotic Africa, during and after the war, there were Poles, exiles, whom the external world could have seemingly forgotten?
Yet, after the war, the Poles left Africa and were dispersed in various different countries, including England and Canada. There they built houses, started families, and somehow regained peace.

And sometimes, with tears in their eyes and a shrill voice, they would tell their children and grandchildren   their painful histories, so far unknown. Without these stories and the determination of Jonathan Durand to show them to the world, the film would not have certainly been made; thus one more story would have remained buried forever. 

The reaction of the viewers, after the film ended, shows that not only I think that it is a priceless documentary which needs to stay alive in everyone’s memory. 

My hope is that the documentary will be shown in as many places as possible, so that people remember those who suffered and endured so much. Despite the misery and pain that this world brings to us, I am happy that at last a handful of my countrymen were able to find peace and live a happy life.

Katarzyna Knieja 

Katarzyna Knieja - pedagog z wykształcenia, trochę „niedzisiejsza” miłośniczka kultury wszelakiej, podróżowania, natury i zwierząt. Ze swej pasji uczyniła zawód, na co dzień zajmuje się opieką nad czworonożnymi pupilami mieszkańców Montrealu i sprawianiem, by jej życie miało sens. Posiadaczka ubóstwianego psa o wdzięcznym imieniu Thor.

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