Our interview with Michael Glasser of Wilstone raised another interesting occupation of the Airfield; he had a pleasant memory of film nights after the war, hosted by Polish displaced persons who had made their home there after the Americans went home. This was in the part of the Airfield located in Marsworth so, using existing contacts there with a similar interest in local history (many thanks to Sandra Costello and Tony Gabis) we tried to find out more. We discovered that Sandra, Tony and other volunteers, in addition to creating that excellent memorial on Long Marston Road had also created a well-designed website which tells the story of the ‘Marsworth Polish Hostel’.
Finding Out More
The website content – including some personal stories of individuals – only made us want to know more and we thought that Long Marston had enough claims to joint ownership of the Airfield land to justify more research. We wanted to replicate our existing approach and look to interview anyone who was in the Hostel and could provide the personal insights which help readers to get a real feel for life around that time. Tony agreed to write to their known contacts and we had a quick response from Jo Glinska.
Jo was born after her family left the Hostel but offered to arrange for me to interview her mother Bronia. I knew from the Marsworth website that Bronia had come to the UK in the late 1940s after some traumatic wartime experiences. I was keen to hear about this first hand so we set up a Zoom call. Jo was present but only intervened to correct any misunderstanding because of my ‘talking too fast’. She had earlier encouraged me to ask lots of questions because her mother ‘could not understand why anyone would be interested’.
The Road to Marsworth
Well, she needn’t have worried. Bronia’s teenage years before she came to the UK are a story on their own and put all our present troubles into perspective. After the outbreak of World War II, her family in Poland were taken from their home by the Russians and transported to Siberia where she was [they were?] forced to work felling trees in the forests. Along with over 90% of the Poles who were sent to Siberia, her parents did not survive but Bronia did and, when the war ended, she was transported to Iran and then on to Africa where she had to work hard to catch up on her school work. Finally it was agreed that she was allowed to settle in the UK and she sailed into Southampton on a cold rainy day in the Spring of 1948.
The road to Marsworth was not quite complete yet because, as if fate had not already dealt her enough blows, she now had to spend many months in different UK hospitals because of medical problems with her legs. Finally she arrived in Marsworth during another cold Spring day and recalls having to burn her school books to fire the stove in her allotted accommodation. And what were her feelings as she faced this new phase of her life alone? In her own words there was:
‘Relief, freedom, safety, happiness, the end of waiting, the start of a new phase in my life’.
Life at the Hostel
Though the Marsworth Polish Hostel only consisted of ex-army huts for servicemen, most of the memories are positive; the welcoming attitude of local residents, the joy of being with so many young people, the help given by the government officials and the wonderful feeling of ‘freedom to make your own decisions and to go anywhere you want’. Fond memories include trips to the Cinema, watching football matches and long walks to the local villages at weekends. It had to be weekend because soon most people found work in local companies; one feature of this post war period was that there were plenty of jobs around.
Bronislava remembers that there were lots of weddings in those early years and it was not long before she was the one to be married. Her husband was Michal, a true war hero, who had managed to escape from Poland to France and joined the resistance movement before serving in the Polish Army, fighting the Nazis in Italy and being decorated for valour. The British government showed their gratitude to Polish soldiers by bringing them to live in the UK because it was still not safe to return to Soviet occupied Poland. The new bride and her war hero were married in 1951 and their first child Krysia was born the following year.
The new joys of family life added to the pleasure of being at Marsworth. It was however not always easy for the newly married couple to adjust, particularly for Michal who, like many war heroes, sometimes found the transition to normality quite challenging. Initially he tried to apply his military approach to family life but Joanna reported that, by the time she was around, he was more laid back and his main priority in life was to ensure the best possible future for his daughters. He was pleased to find a job on the railways, where he had previously worked in as a young man in Poland.
Looking back on life in the community, Bronia recalls that Hostel residents were happy with what they had, even if that was very little; the important thing was their community. As long as they had their family and friends, somewhere safe to live and enough money to get by on, life was considered good. They were resourceful and resilient in achieving their modest aspirations, which helped them adapt to their situation.
After 10 years of life in Marsworth, the family realised that their time there was coming to an end and closure would happen before too long. By that time Bronia’s sister Aniela and her husband had arrived and they looked for a house to live together, at the nearest place to their work. This turned out to be Luton where she and Joanna still live today.
The memories of the time at the Hostel are that it was like one big family and, in the period afterwards, many of the residents kept in touch. There were many visits to the new homes; Sunday afternoons were the time when visitors would regularly call. And two of Bronia’s surviving brothers were now living in the UK and there were frequent visits for family get togethers. Christmas and other traditions were celebrated with the extended family, gradually moving over time from the Polish traditions to a pleasant mix of those of the two countries.
When I asked about surviving relatives in Poland, the memories were not quite so fond. Bronia had a brother over there and there were several visits which only confirmed that there was no going back. This was while the country was still under Soviet occupation and visits were kept short because of safety fears. Everyone had to be careful what they wrote in letters because mail was examined and censored.
I tried to project my own feelings by suggesting that the painful experiences of Bronia’s teenage years might have lessons for today’s younger generation, some of whom may be tempted to complain about their lot. The response perhaps showed more wisdom than my own thinking; ‘You cannot compare the life experiences of different generations’ was the response. As Joanna had predicted, her mother found it strange that anyone could be interested in hearing about those traumatic experiences of her early years and her adjustment to life in the UK. I hope and believe that readers of this article will find it hard to agree!
Thank you to Sandra Costello & Tony Gabis for providing information about the Marsworth Polish Hostel, for putting us in touch with Jo Glinska and her mother and for permission to use their photos.