Not many South African’s know this, but during the Second World War – Jan Smuts opened South Africa to care for Polish orphans and children traumatised and displaced by the war. Ouma Smuts also played a leading role in ensuring they were correctly tutored and continued to have high appreciation of their rich Polish cultural heritage.
Many in the Polish community in South Africa to this day can trace their roots to event and this very orphanage. It is part of South Africa’s history on which we can all stand very proud.
This remarkable British Pathé newsreel film accounts the children’s home in Oudtshoorn and the “new life” afforded to these Polish children, it brings to light the character of South Africa at the time – especially the care and benevolence shown by South Africa and the “Oubaas and Ouma” to displaced war refugees in Europe at the time of their greatest need.
Take the time to watch the film and know why, as South Africans, we can stand with pride in our country and the great deeds it has done.
Military assistance to Poland was not the only contribution, the government of Jan Smuts also provided a home in Oudtshoorn to 500 Polish children who had been deported to Siberia in the early 1940s by the Soviets when their country was divided between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
On 17 September 1939, two weeks after the German invasion of Poland, Soviet troops swiftly occupied the eastern half of Poland and, after a plebiscite, annexed the area to Ukraine and Belorussia. Beginning in the winter of 1939-40 Soviet authorities deported over a million Poles, many of them children, to the various provinces in the Soviet Union. Almost one-third of the deportees were Jewish.
In the summer of 1941 the Polish government in exile in London received permission from the Soviet Union to release several hundred thousand former Polish citizens from labor camps, prisons and forcible resettlement in the Soviet Union, to organize military units among the Polish deportees, and later to transfer Polish civilians to camps in the British-controlled Middle East and Africa. There the Polish children were able to attend Polish schools.
In 1942, the London government, acting through their Consul General Dr. Mi. Stanislaw Lepkowski, secured permission from General Jan Smuts to transport 500 children to the Union of South Africa In 1943, After they had been evacuated through the southern Soviet republics to Iran, the children were then brought to South Africa.
The Polish Children’s Home (Dom Polskich Dzieci) was organized in Oudtshoorn for their temporary accommodation, care and education (located on what is now South Africa’s ‘Infantry School’ Army base(. It was run under the supervision of the South African Department of Social Welfare, as well as Polish consular and ministry representatives, it remained in operation until 1947.
This story can be seen at Ditsong Museum of Military History in an exhibit. The story is outlined in this document Kindly provided by Stefan Szewczuk who is the President of the Polish Association of Siberian Deportees in South Africa. Follow this link Oudtshoorn Polish Children poster 17 September 2012
Related work and links:
Jan Smuts and Jewish Orphans; 200 Jewish orphans saved, the story of Jan Smuts and Issac Ochberg
National Party Orphans; The Nat’s Nazi German orphan adoption program .. some good results, some very bad!
Written and researched by Peter Dickens. Film copyright African Mirror and British Pathé, Colourised image of Jan Smuts by Marianne Jerome Kristal.