Pupils and staff honoured for moving WWII production

STUDENTS and staff from Ely College were awarded the medal Pro Memoria by the Polish government at a special ceremony held recently following the London showing of The Invisible Army, their play about Poland’s WWII Anders Army.

Director Jacek Polanczyk, a representative from the Polish Office of War Veterans and Victims of Oppression, who flew in from Warsaw to see the play and make the award on behalf of the ministry, said: “The young people involved have not just kept a very important part of Polish history alive, but realised it in a very special way, and brought it to the people who actually lived the story”.

The Invisible Army - researched and scripted by students and staff working with the Keystage Arts & Heritage Company, directed by drama teachers Lloyd Popp and Brian Harvey, and funded in large part by the UK Heritage Lottery Fund - brought to life the little-known contribution of the Anders Army to the British war effort between 1940 and 1945.

Following their release from Siberian labour camps when Russia was invaded by Nazi Germany, General W?adys?aw Anders and his men embarked upon what became an exodus, travelling and recruiting through a number of countries to join with British troops in the Italian campaign, most notably at Monte Cassino. However, despite their enormous sacrifice and hardship, the army and their families found themselves largely written out of history by the Allies.

For Mike Levy of Keystage Arts & Heritage, who was also awarded the medal for his work, it was “a story that yearned to be told. It brings alive an astonishing episode in Polish-British history during World War II, following the Anders Army’s almost biblical-scale exodus from imprisonment in Siberia to fight alongside the Allies in some of the turning points of the war. This is a story which unites the heritage of British and Polish peoples.”

In preparing the play, students met veterans of the army and their families, many of whom were in the audience at the Polish Social & Cultural Association in Hammersmith on the 20th July, along with representatives of the Polish Embassy, schools and other cultural organisations.

Indeed, for 80-year-old veteran Stefan M?czka of the 3rd Carpathian Division, this was his second taste of the play, having attended the first performance in Ely in January. He wrote to the students after that performance, saying : “Thank you for staging the performance, which was almost like reliving my own life story. In my own eyes it was magnificent, please accept my congratulations for the producers and performers.”