A Visit to the Cemetery of Polish War Refugees in Tengeru

Tengeru cemetaryI stepped off the dala-dala mini-bus along the highway and immediately felt the intensity of the blazing mid-day sun. It’s not ideal to do any strenuous activity in the afternoon in Tanzania, but today I was on the hunt for something a little unusual, a cemetery.

A Canadian friend of mine living in Nairobi, Kenya was in Arusha for the weekend. A journalist like myself, he decided to contact me a few weeks before inquiring about a little known cemetery outside of Arusha for Polish war refugees. Immediately I started doing some research. The only thing I could find online was an article published in the Arusha Times newspaper a few years ago.

I led the three of us, including another Canadian journalist, into the Tengeru market. On Saturdays this is one of the most bustling markets in northern Tanzania. We cut our way through the crowds and made it to a boda-boda motorcycle taxi stand at the other end of the market. I asked one driver in English if he knew where the Polish cemetery was located. I received a blank stare, so I turned and asked another. This time I got a response in English. He said: “I know it. I can take you there.”

“How much?” I asked. “2,500 shillings each,” he responded. Each one of us got on the back of a different boda-boda and we were off. A 10 -minute ride through rural countryside brought us to the campus of the Livestock Training Institute. This collection of buildings once housed the 5,000 Polish war refugees that arrived during the Second World War.

When we arrived at the gate of the cemetery, we were all reaching for our cameras in awe of the beautiful surroundings. A manicured lawn and flowers encircled the grave site while off in the distance you could spot Mount Meru on one side and Mount Kilimanjaro on another. Quite a majestic burial place.

Joseph unlocks gate

Approaching the gate, a lone man emerged from the side of the entrance. He introduced himself as Simon Joseph, the sole groundskeeper and, as it seemed to me, landscape artist. Joseph unlocked the gate and let us enter. The three of us fired questions at him almost like it was a media scrum. We were just enthusiastic reporters looking for possible story angles to pitch to newspapers back home. If there was a Canadian angle, of course.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t one. But we did read up on the history of why and how these Poles came to call Tanzania home. I’m going to be honest and say I can’t remember the exact details or dates, but they were fleeing the Nazis, so what else is there to add. The one thing that stuck out in my mind the most from the trip to the Polish war refugees cemetery in Tengeru was the five Jewish graves.

As per Jewish tradition, these Poles were separated from the Catholic majority and had their own area within the graveyard, segregated near the wall. And Joseph recounted the terrible violence they were fleeing as refugees, as the world would be shocked to find out soon after they fled. In all, I thought a day trip out to the Polish war refugees cemetery in Tengeru was one of the highlights of my time in Tanzania so far.

Polish war refugee gravesWe thanked Joseph for his time and effort in maintaining this important historical site, because we all knew it was a monumental task to cater to non-paying tourists. “I accept charitable donations,” Joseph said as we made our way to the gate. All three of us looked at each other like we were offered a bribe. As a journalist on a story I couldn’t give any money but I didn’t judge those who did.

For more background and photos from the day, check out Jared Knoll’s story in JHR’s Speak magazine.

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Adam Bemma is a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Montreal, Quebec.

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One comment on “A Visit to the Cemetery of Polish War Refugees in Tengeru
  1. Nick Moroz says:

    I am the son of parents who were refugeed here in 1942-1947. They wee born in (now) belarus, towns of Luninets and Stolin n the thirties. On 14 Feb 1940 stalin rounded up about 100,000 “ememies of the state” as my families were called and sent them on trains to siberia for hard labour.
    18 months later the germans invaded russia and the people were let out of the gulags to find their own way with NOTHING.
    My parents, in different camps and not known to each other, painfully headed south through russia, kazakstan, Turkmenistan, over the Caspian sea to azerbaijjan and down to persia (iran) to Tehran, all as refugees taking polish status as if they admiteed to be russian, they wouldbe sent back. My grandad died of illness through starvation 2 weeks before the camps let them out and he is buried at the cemetary there i siberia. I have nearly found it on google maps but not quite. My 6 year old aunty Lousia died of disentary in tehran and is buried there.
    They (my granny, aunty ola (14) and my dad (8) Wlodzimierz continued onto bushshr on the persian gulf and got the boat to Karachi, then to Bombay, then to tanganika, now tanzania, here they stayed at Tengeru until 1947.
    My mums family had a similar story but she was too young to remember the journey. Ironically, she ended up in the same camp as my dads family.
    As my Dads older brother was in the 8th allied forces, he was injuered at Montecasino in itay and sent to england to hospital. My mums uncles have the same story.
    so 2 years after the war ended the two families were reunited and both my mum and dads families came on ships to england. Sadly my other gran (my mums mum) died of celebral malaria 2 months before they left and she is buried there in the cemetary in arusha.
    My parents never knew each other, however met in 1957 in a london dance hall called The Hammersmith Palais in west London and married the same year.
    My (late) brother and I were born 1 mile east in Kensington in 1959 and 1961 and lived one mile south in Fulham (right net to the football ground) until 1987 when they moved to Surrey.
    Granny died in 1980, my brother in 1982 and dad in 1994.
    In 2005, after getting as much of the story written down as I could from my remaining aunt ola, I found the cemetary and arranged to take my mum back there, which I did.
    We had three great weeks staying with new friends in arusha and ere very lucky to be looked after so well.
    I found the hospital where mums mum died and she remembered the exact place where the bed was…it was a very special moment.
    The only photo mum had was of the funeral of her mum at the cemetary, and as they were russian orthodox the coffin was open, and a 6 year old girl in a hite dress standing by her mums coffin.
    The first time we went to the cemetary we met simon, the keeper, lovely boy.
    It was tearful standing by the grave after all the years.
    Me and my big mouth, not usually lost for words, said the firstthing that came into my head. Putting my arm around mum I said “do you realise that your mum has Nazi i her first name and Jew in her second name”. she laughed and called me a stupid boy. It lightened the moment although it was unintentional.
    Thats it, mums gone now, aunty olas hanging on, I have 2 sons grown up who know their history. I now live in surey, phone 07932748314.
    I sarted writing a book but a publisher refused the title. (My gran who livd with us here was called Zina Moroz.)
    The title was to be “Both my grannies had Nazi in their first names”….maybe tongued in cheek but thats the way it is.

    My Granny ZIna is buried with her eldest son Mikolaj (My eldest uncle who was in the allied forces), in Brompton cemetary in Earls court, London.
    My Mums mum (my other gran) is buried at the cemetray in tengeru. As you go through the gates her grave is the second on on the right near the corner chapel.
    Her name is Nadzia Gajewska and I had simon add some words on her grave. so if you ever go there, please say a prayer for her.

    The words I had simon engrave are:

    “In the soft brown earth that holds her, Forever always young”

    May your god go with you.

    Kind Regards,

    Nick Moroz

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