Refugee Week 2018 may be over, but that doesn’t mean it’s ok to forget about them. They’re still on the move, trying to find a place of safety, trying to find a way of building a new life. And they have been doing so for generations. This is kind of a postscript to my week’s worth of Refugee Week blog posts.
Many of those posts take a broader view, looking at the history of refugees in a particular part of the world, or a particular period of history. But sometimes the most powerful way to understand is to focus on one person. An ordinary person who, because of the time and place of their birth, became part of extraordinary events. Thank you to Marek Szablewski, who presented this account of his mother’s life at the 2018 24 Hour Inspire, and kindly agreed to let me post it here.
Barbara was born in Warsaw on 2 April 1932, daughter of Zofia and Jan Czerniajew (himself a refugee to Poland from the Ukraine after the civil war which came after the revolution).
Just before the Second World War, Barbara’s parents rented an apartment on the outskirts of Warsaw in Wrzosów, and next to it they began building a house which was left uncompleted due to the outbreak of war. Barbara, together with her mother and brother, were evacuated to Warsaw.
At the end of the battle in 1939, they returned to Wrzosów where Barbara started primary school in Łomianki. During the German occupation, when Barbara played in the forest, she was witness to executions of fellow Poles by the Gestapo.
In 1944 she was deported to Germany with her mother and brother. She was forced to work in a factory peeling onions in Reichenbach in Southern Silesia. She lived through the bombing of Dresden in 1945.
In the spring of that year she survived the long march to the west. At the beginning of May she was liberated by the Russian Army near Karlsbad, from where she escaped to the American Zone 200 miles through the hills on foot. She reached a Displaced Persons camp in Hof in Bavaria, under the care of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). She recommenced her education, and joined the girl scouts, making a lifelong pledge to God, her Country and helping others. The family was moved from camp to camp, she attended high school in the Wildflecken UNRRA camp until 1948-9 when she came to England.
Her father located the family through the Red Cross, and they settled in Leominster, working on a farm and then in the Polish camp and hospital at Iscoyd Park near Whitchurch.
After high school she completed Teacher Training at Edghill College in Omskirk.
Her first job was in High Wycombe at a girls school, followed by Sheffield where she met and married Witold Szablewski in 1956.
She worked in Woodthorpe School until the birth of her son Marek in 1963, and in Carfield Junior School. After gaining a diploma at Sheffield University in ‘Education of children with learning difficulties’ in 1974, she worked in Chantrey and Oakes Park schools. For 12 years she was the head teacher of the Polish Saturday School in Sheffield and was awarded the Silver Cross of Merit for Educational Work in the Polish Community in 1998 by the Polish Ministry of Education.
Barbara worked with Polish Cubs and Brownies locally, and on leadership teams for camps in Penrhos, north Wales and Fenton in Lincolnshire.
After retiring, she interpreted for the NHS and Sheffield council, helping many new Poles to settle and make friends. She found time for all of this, despite looking after her mother for many years, and then for the last three years, her husband Witold who was seriously ill following a stroke.
She fell ill only 4 weeks after the death of her husband in February of 2008 and died in April 2008.
Barbara Szablewski’s journey involved many dangers, many traumatic experiences. It ended in safety and stability. She raised a family, she contributed to her community, she worked to help other people, from her own community and beyond it. Refugees want to contribute – Barbara was given the chance to do so and took it. If we don’t give today’s refugees the same chances, we all lose out.