How Scotland helped turn Polish refugees into medics


Dr Anna Sokolowska: She provided some of the exhibits

A WARTIME medical school that transformed the victims of Nazi persecution from refugees to doctors was remembered in Edinburgh today (Mon).

Anna Sokolowska, 88, was one of hundreds of Poles who fled from their occupied homeland to Edinburgh during the Second World War but were still able to study medicine.

Today Anna returned to the building that once housed The Polish Medical School, where, in 1941, she started her studies as a doctor.

The school awarded the Polish medical degree, the Dyplom Lekarza, to 246 students before it closed in 1949.

An exhibition telling the story of the little-known institution and the lives it helped transform opened today.

Anna recalled:

“I was born in northern Poland but moved to free France. We moved from Paris to the south and then from a port on the Spanish border to England in June 1940. “

After just a few months in London, Anna’s mother took the decision to move her family to Scotland where her father was already working as a surgeon at the hospital in Edinburgh Castle.

“In London it was Blitz and Blitz and Blitz’, Anna explained.

“That’s why we came to Edinburgh, we were bombed twice so we moved from London to Edinburgh. “

After completing her high school education in Edinburgh, Anna paid two and a half guineas to become one of the first students of the new Polish Medical School when it opened in 1941.

“I always wanted to go into medicine, ever since I was four or five.

“It was a very good experience. When I studied I had to study with a dictionary because I didn’t understand English and the professors were very good and helpful. “

After graduation in 1946, Anna then spent time studying neurosurgery before gravitating towards psychology and eventually moving to practice in Canada.

Looking to the future: Dr Sokolowska (third from left) and her compatriots at the school in Edinburgh

Anna still has fond memories of her time at the school, despite the difficulties of living in a different country during wartime.

She said:

“I enjoyed my time at the Polish Medical School but you had to struggle to learn the language and adjust to things. There was black outs and there were rations and it was a different life.

“There was no choice, you did what you were told to do. You were told to pass your exams and study hard, so you did.

“You went to school and waited for the end of the war. “

Dr Maria Dlugoleka-Graham, who curated the exhibition, said: “Life would have been very different for them without the Polish Medical School. People like my father, who was a linguist, ended up making tartan slippers.

“Life was very hard for these people, they were fleeing for their lives. It was war and people get killed in war.

“They arrived here with nothing, they had to leave everything behind, and they couldn’t sell their houses because they’d been taken over or bombed.

“A lot of the Poles who didn’t go back, couldn’t go back and after the war ended they had to compete with the returning British for jobs.

“People were competing for university places too.

“The Polish Medical School helped them fuflil their ambitions in a very bleak time.”

She added:

“Now, with the new young generations of Poles living in Scotland, I think it’s important that they know something about the history that their forefathers have created.

“I hope that Scottish people will come along and feel proud of what we Scots did and for Poles to learn about the importance of what it means to work together under really difficult circumstances. “

Anna has helped Edinburgh University curate its exhibition detailing the life of the Polish Medical School.

Amongst the items on display are items from her own time studying in the city, including her university matriculation card.

The exhibition runs from May 4 to June 25 at the Edinburgh University’s main library in George Square.