What happened to Eugenia Zagajewska: discovering the story behind a name on a grave

The military section of Earlham cemetery contains graves of war victims of many nationalities, including even some German graves.  Two in the Polish section of eleven graves have always intrigued me: those of Wladislaw Slizewski and Eugenia Zagajewska.  Both died on the same day 22 April 1946, suggesting some kind of tragic incident (both were just 21 years old), and the ‘-a’ endings of the second name show that the deceased was a woman, very unusual on a military commemoration. (I know of only one other  example in the whole of Britain of a female Polish military grave).

Over the years I have been able to piece together Eugenia’s story.  I began with the cemetery records in the Norfolk Record Office (NRO, N/C 1/168): these provided clues that eventually led me to archives in London, Poland, Russia and the United States.

Eugenia was born on 7 September 1924, in the village of Ostrow in the Lwow district in Eastern Poland (now in the Ukraine and called Lviv).  She had a younger sister, Anna.  The family were Roman Catholics (Polish Registration Records on https://www.ancestry.com) .  They were still living there in September 1939 when the Second World War broke out: Eugenia was fourteen years old.  On 1 September Hitler invaded Poland and two days later Britain and France declared war, but they could do nothing to defend the country.  Two weeks later, under a secret agreement, Russia invaded Poland from the east and the country was divided into two occupied parts,  Some Poles, mainly airmen, were able to make their escape southwards through the Mediterranean and eventually to France, and, when France was itself invaded in 1940, to Britain.  Eugenia and her family in the eastern part of the country had no chance of escape: they came under the control of Stalin.  He soon began transporting thousands of Poles to work camps in Siberia: they travelled in terrible conditions herded into trains for a journey that in Eugenia’s own recollection lasted almost a month, and the camps were awful places in which to live and work.  Eugenia was put to work in the forest, collecting resin from pine trees (Kresy virtual museum, https://kresy-siberia.org/muzeum)

In June 1941, conditions for the Poles changed once more.  Hitler invaded Russia, so that Russia was now in the war on the same side as Britain and France – and Poland.  Stalin realised that the Poles in the camps could help in the war against Germany and he released them.  However, he gave them no help and they had to make their own way travelling by foot southwards towards the Caspian Sea from where they could take ship to Persia and to freedom.  Many died on this terrible march, but Eugenia was one of those who survived, and she eventually made it to Palestine where she went to a Polish training school- amazingly, an essay she wrote while there survives in an American university library! (Hoover Institute, Stanford University, USA: folder 120.2: szkola mlodszych chotniczek)

Eugenia was in Palestine for her eighteenth and nineteenth birthdays.  In late 1943 or early 1944, she had completed her training and was on the move again, this time by ship through the Mediterranean to England, risking attacks by German planes and submarines.  Once in England she settled in London and became a clerical worker in the headquarters of the Polish Air Force.  She spent her twentieth and twenty-first birthdays in London (Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum, London, www.pism.co.uk)

.

By this time, she had a boyfriend.  At some point Eugenia had become best friends with another Polish girl, Ada Slusarek, who was based at Coltishall.  She got to know Ada’s cousin Wladislaw Slizewski.  He was in the Polish navy, based in Scotland, but when on leave visited Ada at Coltishall.

This must have been the happiest time in Eugenia’s life: she became engaged to Wladislaw, and by the autumn of 1944 it must have been clear – despite the continuing danger from V-1s and V-2s in London – that the war was going to end in the defeat of Germany.

However, when the Germany surrender finally came, the Poles could not celebrate.  Their country had not been liberated but taken over by Russia: Stalin did not welcome back those who had fought – the ones who did return were imprisoned or shot.  Eugenia and Wladislaw had no country to return to, so they stayed on in England.  As the Second World War mutated into the Cold War, Coltishall became very much a base for the Polish Air Force, now facing up to the threat of the Soviet Union rather than Germany.

Eugenia was still based in London and Wladislaw in Scotland.  Both took leave on Easter weekend in 1946 and came to Coltishall to stay with Ada.  As good Roman Catholics they will have attended church on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  On Easter Monday, 22 April, they decided to enjoy themselves and the three of them travelled to Lammas on the river Bure, a few miles from Coltishall.  Wladislaw had a ‘boat’ there, really an old aeroplane fuel tank converted into use as a river craft.  He and Eugenia boarded it, while Ada remained on the bank.  In a few moments the ‘boat’ overturned, and both were thrown into the water and drowned.  Wladislaw was brought to the shore but could not be revived: Eugenia was caught up in weeds and it was some time before her body could be recovered.  The two were buried together at Earlham Cemetery on 27 April; according to the documents, the entire Polish community attended, and the Polish national anthem was sung over the graves.

Eugenia’s life was a short one, but also an extraordinary one.  On 22 April I like to think of her story and that of her boyfriend Wladislaw, two ordinary young people caught up in world affairs dying a thousand miles from their homes.  Without the Norfolk Record Office, their story would never have come to light.

Researched and compiled by Frank Meeres.

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