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Cemetery of Polish refugees in Africa

Published 28th June 2010 - 39 comments - 32613 views -

When I think about refugees nowadays my thoughts go to Somalia, Iraq, Burmese in Thailand, Polish centres for Chechens... Imagine how shocked I was when I dicovered a big Polish cementery of refugees in Tanzania. Of course I was aware that many Poles where sent to Siberia to the work camps... Then they settle down in Great Britain or Australia. I have even friends with this kind of family story.  Yes... Australia, England... But our "poor" Africa... was it a "safe" place for "our refugees' camps"... The history has turned it page back. In 40's the British government built many refugee's camps for around 20 thousand Poles in British colonies in Africa. Today cemeteries reminds that our ancestors where refugees as well.


This is the story which goes back to II WW.  UN was created that time to protect Human Rights. On Sunday, 20th of June there was the World Refugee Day.

Let's remember about it everyday. Still so many people live in the exile.


Cemetery of Polish refugees in the shadow of magnolia trees

Tengeru, Tanzania - a small cemetery is overlooking at the second highest mountain in Tanzania, Mount Meru (4,570 m). It is surrounded by high, grey wall. There is the white-red inscription on the gate and the signboard. You can read "Cemetery of Polish War Refugees 1942-1952". Among148 graves, most are Roman Catholic. There is also some Orthodox and Jewish. When you enter the gate high magnolia trees welcome you.


Welcome to the largest Polish cemetery in Africa.

Photo: Iwona Frydryszak,


I visited the cemetery on 1st of November. It is a special day so on each of the tombstones there is a rose. It is the All Saints Day - very important day in Catholic Church tradition. Edward Wojtowicz has taken care of the cemetery for yeares. He is barely leaning over and putting a bunch of flowers on the grave of Sabina Szeliga. Thanks to him this trace of Polishness in Africa is so well preserved. Privately, they both had a sense of duty. At this cemetery their parents are burnt. Edward Wojtowicz went to Tanzania following his mother, Sabina Szeliga arrived here as a teenager and stayed till the end.

Photo: Iwona Frydryszak,

For many years there was no interested from Polish government side to look after the cementery. That's way the only one who really care was Mr Edward and Mrs Sabina. "Before 89 in Poland there was a time of socialisms. People from Embassy just came to visit Tengeru few times. They didn't want people to be aware of  general Anders Army. In school they tough kids that he was a trader. Noone wanted to speak about Polish War refugees" - Wojtowicz says.

Shortly after the attack on the Soviet Union by Germany on 22 June 1941, Anders was asked by the Soviets to form a Polish Army to fight alongside the Red Army. Continued friction with the Soviets over political issues as well as shortages of weapons, food and clothing, led to the eventual exodus of Anders' men – known as the Anders Army – together with a sizeable contingent of Polish civilians via the Persian Corridor into Iran, Iraq and Palestine.



During 1939 to 1941 the Soviets deported 1,200,000 Poles to the Soviet Union for forced labor or resettlement, of which perhaps 146,000 died.

 The amnesty for the Polish people in Soviet Union came about as a consequence of an agreement between Stalin, Churchill, Anthony Eden and the Polish government in exile in London. This agreement was signed on July 30 1941 and enabled all Polish people to be freed for the purpose of forming an Army and help Stalin fight Hitler.

These included 200,828 ethnic Poles, 90,662 Jews, 31,392 Ukrainians, 27,418 Belorussians, 3,421 Russians, and 2,291 persons of other nationalities.

 The far-flung Polish exiles began to make their way as best they could southward, to where Anders' army was forming, in the hope of liberation. These journeys, often several weeks long, brought new suffering and tens of thousands died from hunger, cold, heat, disease and exhaustion on that trip to freedom.

The first stop of the refugees evacuated with Anders' army was Iran, where they found temporary quarters in large transit camps initially located in Pahlavi and Mashhad, and later in Tehran and Ahvaz. By the end of 1945, another 4,300 were evacuated to Lebanon.

In Palestine, the camps for the over 5,000 refugees transferred there were located in Nazareth, Rehovot, Ain-Karem,and Barbara.



In the 40's  20 thousand Poles reached the British colonies in Africa . Most of them were women, children and men unfit for military service. In total twenty two Polish settlements were established, most of them consisted several thousand residents and had their own schools, hospitals, churches and cemeteries.

Fifteen years old Sabina Szeliga ended up in  Tengeru, a camp for five thousand refugees. "There was a very large farms. They had everything there, "- says Wojtowicz. Later British turned the farm into an agricultural school. Szeliga has retained his position. Then
Edward Wojtowicz came from England to live with his mother and was hired in Tengeru as a technical administrator of the infrastructure facility.

Photo: Iwona Frydryszak,


On the 1st of November there was a modest mass held, organized by the Franciscans. In the shade of tall magnolias few people gathered to memorize the Polish refugees. Shadow is a relief in the tropics. Only Wojtowicz shakes his head anxiously.

"They plant these magnolias, because they thought that they will grow a small bushes. And look how it looks now. It's without any logic. It's impossible to even  break them out. Its roots grow into the graves "- complained Wojtowicz.


Africa provided another safe harbor for the Poles. In mid-1944, East Africa hosted over 13,000 Polish citizens. They settled in transit and permanent camps in the British colonies of Uganda, Kenya, and Tanganyika. In Uganda, the camps were located in Masindi and Koya on Lake Victoria. In Kenya, they were located in Rongai, Manira, Makindu, Nairobi, and Nyali near Mombasa. In Tanganyika, the largest settlement was Tengeru (4,000 refugees) and smaller camps were located in Kigoma, Kidugala, Ifunda, Kondoa, and Morogoro.

South Africa, South Rhodesia, and North Rhodesia also became the home of Poles. The largest of these settlements were: in the Union of South Africa Oudtshoorn; in North Rhodesia Abercorn, Bwana M'Kubwa, Fort Jameson, Livingstone, and Lusaka; in South Rhodesia Digglefold, Marandellas, Rusape, and Gatooma.

In Africa, Polish schools, churches, hospitals, civic centers, and manufacturing and service cooperatives were founded and Polish culture prospered. African radio stations ran programs in the Polish language and there waseven a Polish press. In South Africa alone there were 18 Polish schools with about 1,800 students in attendance.


Category: Poverty | Tags: tanzania, tanzania, refugees,


  • Giedre Steikunaite on 28th June 2010:

    It’s never a one-way street. Traffic goes both ways, and it’s important that more people understand this. It’s not about “us” and “them”, it’s about people in need and people who can help.

  • Hussam Hussein on 29th June 2010:

    this world is indeed interconnected

  • Iwona Frydryszak on 30th June 2010:

    It’m amazing to realize it. And your right Giedre. The situation with Polish refugges that we are all conneted and that we are just all people.

  • Luan Galani on 01st July 2010:

    Incredible! I had no idea of that.
    Yeah, you’re all right. Everything is interconnected, like a web.

  • Daniel Nylin Nilsson on 09th July 2010:

    Interesting. It’s a great example that people move in differnt direction at different times smile

  • Raul Cazan on 10th July 2010:

    this is truly extraordinary. I had absolutely no knowledge of this!

  • Helena Goldon on 04th October 2010:

    Hi Jonathan.
    I would love to meet you as well as I did some projects on Polish refugees in Tanzania as well.
    I am now in Tanzania (till 3rd December) and then in Warsaw.

    Is it possible for the three of us to meet? smile

  • Helena Goldon on 14th December 2010:

    Hi Bernard,

    Lovely to meet you and thanks for appreciating my post (which? wink.
    Would be great to meet you in Dar, where I am staying at the moment (and most probably will be staying also in February, except the first half when I am in Kenya as 15 other winners from this platform smile.
    There are a few cemetaries (about three in the South of Tanzania and some in the North as well).
    Our Polish community in Dar is quite strong and you are mostly welcome to meet us. Feel free to contact me@ .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

    All the best and take care in Afghanistan.


  • Iwona Frydryszak on 14th December 2010:

    It’s amazing that this topic makes people so active in commenting and use it as a source of information. Helena, check the comments in the Polish version of it:

  • Helena Goldon on 14th December 2010:

    Wow! It’s amazing indeed! smile This platform brings people together definitely, my dear flatmate!

    It also shows that there is a lot of need for bringing people related to this topic together - it seems they need a platform to be able to exchange their experience.

    Maybe a Facebook page? Any other idea?
    Greetings from Amsterdam wink

  • Helena Goldon on 10th March 2011:

    Dear @Basia, I am based in Tanzania at the moment and I know people who may help you in finding her grave/sending you the picture of the grave. Please, contact me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

    Dear @all, I have an impression a Facebook group is an urgent necessity!

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