History of the Polish Community in Birmingham
This page documents the history of the Polish community in Birmingham described more fully in
Celebrating Sanctuary: Birmingham and the Refugee Experience 1750-2002 by Malcolm Dick
Birmingham has been home to a Polish community since World War II. In 1939, Germany and Communist Russia partitioned Poland and refugees came to England to fight alongside Britain's armed forces.
Many individuals survived war, occupation and labour camps before coming to Britain. One man, interned in one of Stalin's labour camps, was released when Britain and Russia became allies and joined the Polish forces in the Soviet Union. He came to British India via Iraq and Iran, embarked for South Africa, sailed to Britain in a ship that was torpedoed off Sierra Leone and eventually joined an aircraft squadron at the end the war. His arrival in Birmingham involved piloting a Mustang fighter plane to Castle Bromwich airfield to begin an engineering course at what is now Aston University!
Foreign qualifications were not recognised in the UK and some Polish men found it difficult to obtain employment. Ex-servicemen, however, were eligible for grants to retrain so they were able to improve their English skills and secure qualifications. In Birmingham there was plenty of work in engineering and metal bashing.
Not all Polish refugees were ex-servicemen. Helena is one local Polish woman. As a teenager she survived six weeks in Dachau Concentration Camp and then worked as a slave labourer for the Nazis in agriculture and industry. In 1948 she came to Wolverhampton to work in Courtaulds and eventually secured employment in Cadbury's. Now retired, Helena is catching up with the education she missed and is studying English, Maths and Art. Her home is decorated with her own paintings.
How did the Polish community maintain their identity? Local priests and the Catholic Church linked 6,000 people across the West Midlands. Originally the community worshipped at the Oratory and then at St Michael's in Carrs Lane. In 1947 a Polish Catholic Association was formed later moving to Digbeth where a purpose-built centre was created in 1958. The community is proud of the fact that it was able to pay the full cost of over 8,000 out of individual contributions.
A school was formed to teach Polish, history, geography, singing and dancing to children. The centre sold Polish food, provided a social facility and offered support to older people who needed help with form filling and dealing with British bureaucracy. Many Poles have moved out of the inner city, but the Polish centre remains crucial in maintaining and transmitting a national culture to new generations and enriching the city's identity.
Polish Community Information