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Anna Zarneki: refugee, artist, philanthopist (1926 -2018) D.E.P.

27 January 2018

Being a refugee is a disaster. It’s a great tragedy and it doesn’t matter what you think about your country. You love it or hate it, doesn’t matter. Disaster. Wars should never ever happen.

But they do…

Anna Zarneki recalled the amazement of people gathered to listen to her grandfather’s radio … the only radio in Truszeliszki, Poland… in September 1939.  Then a thirteen year old girl, she had only the vaguest concept of the world outside her corner of Poland, and certainly no idea she was about to embark on one of the great … but almost forgotten… odysses of the last century.  The Red Army, having stripped Truszeliszki of nearly anything edible, let alone useful, began rounding up the population for transport to Siberia, and forced labor.  While her grandparents were left behind, together with her parents and her sister, she worked in a gulag cutting timber.

Photo: Kresy-Siberia Virtual Museum, Julian Plowy Collection

IN 1942, by which time the British were running short of troops, Stalin offered to release the Poles for military service.  But the civilians?  The British were reluctant to take in more civilians during wartime, although they made a token offer to resettle some in their African colonies.  Mexico, however, having taken in entire communities of displaced Europeans from Spanish Republicans (the Spanish Republic in exile continued to function after being driven out of Paris in Mexico City), the entire Jewish community of Antwerp and others, almost overnight built Hacianda Rosa, to receive the Siberian Poles, and give them … if not a return to their own lives… at least a decent chance to live their lives according to Polish traditions.

Zarnaki’s father, both wanting to keep his family together, and — remembering the family had relatives around Chicago, which being in America had to be somewhere close to Chicago — took a leap of faith and decided the family would make a life for itself somewhere in the vaguely understood America.

And, so… by train across Siberia, Khazakistan, Georgia, Azerbijan to Baka, by ship to Tehran;  then onwards to Karachi, Mumbai, Sydney, Los Angeles, and… again by train to Leon, Guanajuato.  In Leon, the 1439 Poles were welcomed by a mariachi band playing the Polish National Anthem.  Hacienda Santa Rosa, never mind that it looked nothing like Poland, the language was Polish, the food was Polish (with a few chiles thrown), the education was Polish, life was Polish.  Anna would have a Polish adolesence, discovering a talent for painting, and … Mexico. One of the few Poles would would neither opt for a new life after the war in Canada, the United States, or Great Britian (only 87 of the original inhabitants of Santa Rosa returned to Poland after the war), she married well, raised a family, pursued an art career (with exibitions throughout Mexico, Poland, the United States and elsewhere), wrote her memoirs, and joined the Red Cross.

Her survival in the gulag having depended on food packages from the International Red Cross, Zarnacki was hardly the typical “ladies who lunch” when she joined the Damas de la Cruz Roja in 1975.  She took nursing training, and took her duties seriously.  A refugee, and a fortunate one at that,  she was an indefatigable organizer, with the energy and toughness of a survivor.  From fund raising and occasional visits to the Mexican Red Cross hospital she stepped up to run the Mexican Damas, then to a position on the board of the International Red Cross, to International President of the Red Cross in 2000.

Gratitude to the Red Cross, and her own status as a refugee, also led her to consider the larger questions of why there are wars, and what small part we can play in overcoming the cultural misunderstandings that lead to them.  Her Fundacion Zarnecki, focused on international cultural exchange is her legacy to not only Mexico, but to all of us who would rather understand than fight with others.




Dagmara Staga, “Being a Refugee Is a Disaster: An Interview with Anna Żarnecki de Santos Burgoa”  Culture.PL, 20 November 2015


Piotr Piwowarczyk,  “Hacienda Santa Rosa: a Polish Refuge in Mexico“, Cosmopolitan Review, 2011 VOL. 3 NO. 4

Katherine Shawver, “Colonia Santa Rosa – A Polish Refuge In Mexico” 29 June 2015

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