We’ve come to Oudtshoorn in the Little Karoo and rather unexpectedly met 500 Polish orphans. They lived here for four and a half years, but this is the first time I’ve felt part of their lives. That’s the joy of Oudtshoorn’s CP Nel Museum – there’s always something new to discover.
But the story about the 500 Polish orphans who came to Oudtshoorn between 1943 and 1947 was something I hadn’t found before – proof that there’s always another layer of history to be uncovered in our museums.
They came at the invitation of Jan Smuts and were accommodated in a military barracks, 21 kids to a room, with a teacher and supervisor. Some 12 000 went to places around the world after an Anglo-Soviet alliance of 1942 allowed them to leave Siberia. They had been forcibly removed there after Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the Red Army’s annexation of eastern Poland in 1939.
After the Anglo-Soviet alliance, they went south to Uzbekistan, where many people died of typhoid, including both Irina’s parents. Later the children were taken to Teheran where her remaining brother joined the cadets and left, never to be seen again.
A barracks was converted into dormitories and a school was established. The camp became almost entirely self-sufficient, with teachers, a chaplain, doctor, nurse, cooks, dressmakers and a barber. Slowly life returned to normal for these children who had seen so much hardship. There were concerts, outings into the mountains or to the Cango Caves and an ostrich farm. As one of the photographs shows, Irina even had tea with Ouma Smuts.
When the camp finally closed, about half of the young people joined family members in other parts of the world. Girls without surviving relatives went to convent schools in Graaff-Reinet, George and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), and most of the boys to a Catholic school in Cape Town.
This is why I love museums; every visit is a journey through time and into someone else’s life. Without museums to preserve such memories, so many valuable stories of human interest would be lost.
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