Rural Life Centre to tell Surrey's hidden Polish story

By Culture24 Staff | 27 October 2010
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A black and white photo of a family in the 1950s
Zen (far left) and Wies (far right) Rogalski, pictured at Tweedsmuir Military Camp in 1955. The brothers will create a permanent exhibition on the history of Polish people who moved to the UK during and after the Second World War
In 1948, the Rogalski family escaped a ravaged post-war Poland to find sanctuary at Tweedsmuir Military Camp in Thursley. Originally built by the Canadian Royal Engineers as a depot for thousands of Canadian troops en route to battles in occupied Europe, the camp was home to a mini-community of demobilized Polish servicemen and their dependents after the war.

But rather than proving an awkward, alien stop-out for families forced into nomadic displacement, the picturesque Surrey village provided enviable upbringings for many of the children who grew up there.

“It was an idyllic childhood,” says Zen Rogalski, who spent the first nine years of his life at Tweedsmuir. “One of my memories is of throwing fallen roofing shingles around like frisbies.”

Rogalski and his elder brother, Wies, lived in Thursley until 1960, surrounded by fellow residents drawn largely from the rural and agricultural areas of their native country.

Many of them were soon keeping cows, geese and chickens, supplementing their diet with vegetables they grew on the site. The men found jobs in local industries, such as the Dennis engineering factory in Guildford and Nutbourne Brickworks in Hambledon, and a significant proportion of the women worked at Secretts Farm in Milford.

The Rogalskis settled in Clapham after leaving Tweedsmuir, but Zen and Wies have spent years exploring the stories behind the settlement. “We have been trying to find our roots,” explains Zen. “We are trying to unravel a history that has impinged on our lives and made us what we are today.”

Their website about the camp is full of poignant, often miraculous stories from survivors of Second World War Poland. Some watched their grandparents die during harrowing journeys across Eastern Europe, relying on scarce rations and the kindness of strangers for food and shelter.

It’s easy to see why towns and cities across England and as far afield as Africa and the US were havens in the aftermath of their ordeals, and their social history is a frequently rich and compelling one, encapsulated in a permanent exhibition Zen is creating on the camp at the Rural Life Centre in Tilford.

The imaginative online archive persuaded the Heritage Lottery Fund to offer £50,000 of the money required, allowing the brothers to pursue photos and memorabilia from the community which will eventually be presented for future research at the Surrey History Centre.

A timber building similar to the barracks the Rogalskis once lived in will host the display, telling the tales of a group Zen feels are “intertwined” with the area. “We're doing this for our parents, our children and grandchildren and for all the people who were in the camp,” he says.

"It is our hope that the exhibition will give the local community a valuable insight into part of the cultural heritage of Surrey which is in danger of being lost.”

After it opens in 2012, the snapshot of an unexplored history is also expected to tour to English and Polish institutions across the country.
More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned: