Tengeru: A Long Lost Polish History

Cemetery in Tengeru on the outskirts of Arusha. Photo/David Meffe

Cemetery in Tengeru on the outskirts of Arusha. Photo/David Meffe

Throughout the world, November 1 marks All Saints’ Day, a Christian holiday celebrated to remember and pay homage to all those who have obtained beatific vision in heaven.

In many parts of Christendom, the day is a national holiday commemorated by a visit to graveyards, in order to plant flowers and light candles in remembrance and celebration of one’s ancestors. This tradition is especially prominent among the people of Poland and Eastern Europe.

However, one such visit this month took place not in Poland, but curiously enough, here in East Africa, in a small village called Tengeru on the outskirts of Arusha, Tanzania.

Despite its decidedly Tanzanian feel and market culture, the small community boasts a little known history that begins in war-ravaged Eastern Europe and ends in the shadow of nearby Mt Meru.

In the early years of the Second World War, Poland was invaded and occupied by Germany in the West and the Soviet Union in the East.

Many Poles were forcibly sent to hard labour camps in Russia, known as Gulags, in order to support the war effort. Others formed underground movements and fought in exile alongside the allies.

When Germany betrayed and invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, many Poles were released from the camps in order to raise an army and aid in the national struggle against the Nazis.

Many of these troops fought in the Mediterranean theatre of war such as during the Allied invasion of Sicily and the liberation of Italy. However, many others released from the camps were simple citizens and farmers with nowhere to go and no land to return to.

In the years that followed, the British, then allies of the Soviets, agreed to a proposal in which refugees from Europe would be spread across the vast British Empire for safety.

After a long voyage across Europe and Iran, one such group of roughly 5,000 Polish citizens ultimately found refuge in a small village called Tengeruin what was then known as Britain’s Tanganyika Territory.

Here, the Polish refugees lived for nearly 10 years in harmony with the local residents, after which some continued with their journey, finding homes in Britain or America, while roughly 1,000 decided to settle and call Tengeru home for several generations.

Today, most traces of the refugees have faded from popular memory into esoteric history and myth; the original homes have been destroyed or reconverted and what was once their hospital is now the site of the new Serena Hotel.

However, in a small field, tucked away from view, lies a tiny walled cemetery where 149 refugees are buried under white stone crosses or Jewish Stars of David, backdropped by bright red flowers and distinctly African canopy trees.

In the early years of the settlement, many refugees, especially children, died as a result of diseases like malaria that are not native to Europe. Others lived long healthy lives and were eventually buried along with their compatriots.

Today, Tanzanian Simon Joseph is charged with preserving the cemetery and acting as a curator for visitors and the hundreds of pilgrims who come every year to pay respect to the storied history of their long lost ancestors.

Joseph inherited the site from his father who lived and worked with the small Polish community for many years.

Adjoined to the cemetery stands a small stone gazebo that showcases greying photos and written accounts of the history, in Polish, English and Kiswahili.

Above one installation, a quote by Polish author Adam Mickiewicz reads: “If I forget about them — you, God in heaven, forget about me,” which is decidedly the unspoken mantra of the site.

The maintenance and upkeep of the graveyard is funded entirely by the Embassy of Poland in Kenya, as well as by visitor donations.

“They’re not just common cemeteries; they are a reminder of history. That whole history, very sad in some parts, but very exciting as well, should never be forgotten,” said Aleksander Kropiwnicki, Minister-Counsellor at the embassy of Poland in Nairobi.

Today, only one living refugee of the Tengeru community remains, 97-year-old Arusha resident Edward Woytowicz. As Joseph points to a small patch of grass, he says that once Mr Woytowicz dies, he will be the final soul laid to rest among his people, the end of a journey that spanned several thousand kilometres in search of peace and freedom in East Africa.

“We are grateful to Tanzania as well as Kenya and Uganda for accepting these refugees and we remember it as an act of friendship towards the Polish Nation” said Kropiwnicki.

– The East African