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In 1943 a group of 1434 Polish refugees from the Soviet Russia, including a few hundred orphans, arrived in an abandoned ranch of Santa Rosa at the invitation of the Mexican President. Santa Rosa, near Leon, Mexico became their home for the few years to come. Earlier in December 1942, Prime Minister of Polish Government in Exile – General Władysław Sikorski arrived in Mexico to sign an agreement with President of Mexico Avila Camacho to set up such a camp. Mexico was the only country outside the British Commonwealth, which offered assistance in solving the humanitarian crisis of thousands of Polish civilians displaced in temporary camps in Iran.
The exile from deep Russia to Mexico led the first group of Polish refugees through Los Angeles, where their ship docked on June 25th, 1943. To their surprise, the Americans locked them up in an internment center for the Japanese immigrants, who were perceived as enemies of the state.
After the end of the war and the closing of Santa Rosa colony, only 87 refugees returned to Poland. Most of them emigrated to the United States. Those who settled in Chicago set up the Santa Rosa Club and once a year they gather to reminisce the good old daysto the sounds of music remembered from childhood. Currently, Santa Rosa houses an orphanage run by the Salesians of Don Bosco.
Joanna, who lives in Szczecin, Poland and her father Bogdan, who was the first child born in Santa Rosa take us for a journey to Santa Rosa. It takes a one kind of a journey to find a missing piece of a family puzzle.
Here is what Joanna writes in her diary:
“I’ve been hearing about Santa Rosa ever since I was a child. My father was born there. Words like Guadalajara, Guanajuato, Leon were pure poetry to me. Tales of leather chests, of a donkey that bit my dad, of rancheros were the most beautiful fables from the land of spicy dishes and tasty beans. Instead of the usual “and they lived happily ever after”, they ended with “and we’ll also go to Mexico one day”
I knew my family ended up in Mexico because of the war. I read about the deportations, Katyn and Starobielsk, the Anders’ Army. But there was very little information on Santa Rosa. When my grandmother passed away, I realized I knew nothing about my grandfather, besides that he had died in Mexico at the age of 26. After the war, grandma remarried and never spoke a word about her first husband. We don’t even know where he is buried.
I decided to solve the family mystery and I bought tickets to Mexico.
Will we be able to find the grandfather’s grave?
At the airport we were welcomed by Mrs Anna Żarnecka and her grandson DanielaCarlos. The traces I encounter in old albums and diaries only raise more questions.
How did my family really get here? Was it only chance that determined their destiny?
Where did grandpa spend the last days of his life? Our first attempts to find the grandfather’s grave were in vain. But thanks to Anna, we meet more people who can shed light on his story.
I’m hoping to get some information from Gloria Cereño and Celia Zak de Zuckerman, historians and authors of a book on Santa Rosa titled “The Illusory Agreement”
Joining us from Chicago is Teresa Sokołowska, who enjoys reminiscing her childhood years in Santa Rosa. Teresa joins us for the next leg of the journey tracing the mysteries of Santa Rosa. We’re traveling 250 miles out of Mexico City, to Leon where the first train carrying Polish refugees arrived on June 1st, 1943.
I was hoping that in the reminiscings of the three veterans of Santa Rosa, who settled in Leon, I would find the key to the mystery about my grandfather Wierciński. They led us to the church where some Santa Rosa inhabitants are buried and to Don Juanito who was waiting for us under an old tree. As a child he helped his father who worked in the colony. Could he remember the Polish children from so far back?
My journey ends here. As I was following the memories of people whom I met along the way, as I was discovering my family history, I was searching for my own identity. The politicians might have invited the Polish refugees in an act of an illusory agreement but for my family, it was a jackpot in a lottery of life.