The journey to Forest Gate - (1) Danuta Gradosielska

Saturday 18 November 2017

This is the first article in an occasional series about how significant members of various immigrant groups first found their way to Forest Gate, and made an impact here, for both the newcomers and the host community.

Forest Gate has been significantly defined by various waves of immigration and major figures within those communities have played a huge part in shaping the local district and its culture.

Often the early pioneers of the incoming communities have remarkable stories to tell of their journey to Forest Gate. The determination and single-mindedness that brought them here has frequently been maintained as they helped their compatriot incomers establish their roots and contribute to the local community.

Danuta, proudly in uniform, at a
recent Remembrance Day ceremony
The now-92 year-old Danuta Gradosielska was a leading light in the immediate post WW2 wave of Polish immigration to Forest Gate. This is her story.

She was born Danuta Maczka on 21 March 1925 in Wolyn, Poland, in a large settlement given to and shared with ex-WW1 Polish soldiers. About 130 soldiers were awarded plots of land and encouraged to develop their own settlement  and make a living for their families there.

Danuta, bottom right, c 1930,
with her parents and siblings
Danuta says: "Life was very difficult and primitive in the first years, but the settlers worked hard together and the settlement developed and prospered."
The family built its own house - with help from friends in the settlement - and kept a range of farm animals and grew crops, like sugar and tobacco.

By 1937 the Gradosielska family of two adults and four children had prospered well enough to move into a new, large brick-built house (see photo). Later - during WW2 - this was to become the only building in the community that was not destroyed in the conflict - and still survives today (see below).

Danuta's house in Wolyn - still standing today -
as it was in 1985, during her visit there
Danuta learned the community-building skills that she and her husband deployed in Forest Gate in this Wolyn district. The settlers there built a community centre and a huge catholic church, a school, a post office and various buildings for the co-op farmers,  youth and other social organisations - so the inhabitants could enjoy a full life.

When war broke out in September 1939, the Germans attacked Poland from the west and 17 days later the Soviet Union moved in from the east, supposedly to help the Poles defend themselves. Danuta remembers Russian tanks passing through their settlement (osada) on the first day of Soviet mobilisation.

The Russian invasion came as a shock. There was no communication with the local community, and the Russian police took over the administration of the district. Wolyn was soon annexed into the Soviet republic of the Ukraine - where it remains today.

The police held families in the community at gun point, while they search all properties and took what they wanted "for re-distribution".

Danuta was now aged 14 and her school was taken over by the Russians, who also stripped the area of religious icons and symbols.

The family was ordered out of their home the following month, with only the most limited of possessions. The house was commandeered by the Russians. They were then forced to rent accommodation in near-by Tuczn.

In February 1940 they were deported to Siberia, 72 people in an over-crowded freight railway - with no window or seats - in what would generally be described now as a cattle truck. The journey  took almost three weeks. They encountered temperatures of -40 C, when they arrived, and were packed into a barrack room with almost 200 other deportees.

The men were set to work as lumberjacks in the forest and women were expected to undertake ancillary jobs. Soon after Danuta's 15th birthday, the family was decanted into a smaller, much better, hut with only 16 occupants. They shared bunk beds, no longer having to sleep on the floor.

As a 15-year old, Danuta was sent to the back-breaking work of clearing snow from railway lines, in massively sub-zero temperatures, for poor rates of pay. The family moved work camp once more, into  slightly better accommodation, with a small plot of land on which they grew much-needed vegetables, for their own consumption.

When the Soviet/German war began in June 1941, the deportees were give "an amnesty", but were unable to leave Siberia for three months, and given minimal food rations and provisions during that time. Danuta then began a six-week journey to freedom in Uzbekistan.

As a 16-year old, she lied about her age and joined the newly-forming Polish Army - lead by General Anders.  She was initially deployed on guard duties, but was to spend much of the next four years on the move, as part of the army's transport company - delivering supplies, food and ammunition to Polish troops, in different theatres of war, mostly during the Italian Campaign.

Danuta's war time journey
- then onwards to Britain
At her first major stop - Teheran, she contracted a bad case of typhoid and was out of action, and near death's door for almost four months.  On recovery, she was on the move again, with the Transport company, to Baghdad, then Palestine and Cairo.

Danuta in Teheran, 1942,
recovering from typhoid
By May 1944 she was participating in the Italian campaign, aged 18, supplying food and ammunition to the allies.  She stayed in the country for over two years. Three months after the conclusion of the war, she married Lt Jerzy Gradosielska whom she had met in the final days of the conflict, in Italy.

Danuta in Jerusalem in 1945
Two  years later she was in Wales as a refugee at a re-settlement camp, where she learned English, and completed her war-interrupted education. Once again she experience community building in practice, as the Polish refugees  set to work building a chapel and other social institutions in the camp in which she lived with her husband.

The newly-weds, Danuta and Jerzy
Elizabeth (who has transcribed and edited Danuta's story - upon which this post is based) was the Gradosielska's  first child, born in Wrexham in 1948. A year later the family moved to London. Their first house was in Dames Road, Forest Gate, which had few amenities when they moved in.  They set about refurbishing and modernising the house, until a decade later when the expanding family moved to near-by Spowston Road, where Danuta still lives today.

Danuta's house in Spowston Road today
In that decade Danuta improved her English and understanding of local culture via the BBC radio's Home Service. She and her husband Jerzy combined these newly acquired skills and combined them with the community-building experiences they had encountered at earlier periods of their lives.  And so, they began to help establish sustainable Polish organisations for their fellow country folk, in Forest Gate (see here for an article on the first Polish community in Forest Gate).

The couple helped to establish a Saturday-morning Polish school, at St Anthony's church, to teach the language and help preserve and promote the culture for the ex-pats in East London. Danuta helped organise a large number of other community-supporting activities and was even a member of the Polish Government-in-exile for a number of years.

She worked for the British Refugee Council in helping the second wave of Polish immigrants to settle into East London in the 1990's and for over a decade was employed as a translator/interpreter by Newham Council.

Danuta with ex-Polish Prime Minister
and now President of the European Union,
Donald Tusk (far right), and Prince Harry,
immediately behind her at a remembrance
ceremony in Monte Cassino, Italy in 2012
In her "spare time", Danuta has brought up six children in England and had an opportunity to visit the former family home - still in the Ukraine. She has represented the Polish women's auxiliary armed forces in delegations to Poland, Italy and Iran and featured in an Italian exhibition about the role of women drivers in WW2.

Danuta's visit, as part of a delegation to
Tehran in 2012, recalling her time
there as part of the Polish army
Aged 92, Danuta continues to live in Sprowston Road. She has been a member of the Conservative Party for many years, having stood - unsuccessfully - as a candidate for the council on four occasions. Her husband Jerzy died in 1989, but she continues to be comforted by her large family of six children, 11 grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

Danuta's has, indeed, been a full and varied life. Her contribution towards "capacity building" within the local Polish community is legendary - much learned from her earlier experiences in her home settlement and in the various "deportee" and "refugee" camps within which she has lived.

Danuta, surrounded by her large family,
in 2009
Her role has been invaluable within the local Polish community, which has helped many of its members with both assimilation into UK society and preserving and celebrating their own Polish national culture.  There are other significant characters, like Danuta, from other migrant communities in Forest Gate, whose stories we will endeavour to record in future posts.

Footnote: This article is a summary based on a great autobiography, prepared by Danuta's daughter, Elzunia Gradosielska Olsson, to celebrate Danuta's 90th birthday, to whom we are most grateful for its content, including photographs.


  1. Thank you for posting this wonderful story of survival and resilience. Danuta is part of a generation that inspires us all!

  2. She is an outstanding role model for us all! I am exceptionally pround to teach Polish at PSS that was created out of the initiative of Mrs Gradosielska!

  3. Incredible story, thank you for sharing


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