Second World War turned royals into refugees
PUBLISHED: 13:08 10 February 2015 | UPDATED: 13:08 10 February 2015
The outbreak of the Second World War had a significant impact on millions of families across Europe.
For one Stratford woman, who wasn’t even born at the time, it saw her family home turned into a Jewish ghetto.
Mir Castle, in modern-day Belarus, belonged to Princess Maria Sviatopolk-Mirski’s family since it was sold to her great-grandfather Prince Nikolai in 1895.
When he died three years later it was inherited by one of his seven sons, Prince Mikhail, but in 1939 it was seized by the Nazis, leaving Maria’s family homeless.
“We were refugees,” she said. “We went to Poland, then to Germany, where I was born.
“I wasn’t quite two years old when we came to England.”
Maria, who now lives in Victoria Street, moved to Wales with her parents, Simeon and Nadezhda, and her two older sisters, Anastasia and Irene.
“It wasn’t a happy time,” she said. “I was seven and nine years younger than my sisters, who used to beat me.
“I was sent to a convent when I was three, which I hated. We had to do a lot of cleaning.”
The town of Mir had around 2,300 Jews living there, many of them refugees from central and western Poland, when the Nazis occupied the town in June 1941.
That November, 1,500 Jews were murdered in the town, and the following May the remaining 800 were transferred to the castle.
With only one entrance blocked by barbed wire and high windows, it seemed difficult to escape.
Despite that, 500 attempted to do so.
These days, Mir Castle is listed as a Unesco world heritage site.
It was restored in 1982, with a memorial to the prisoners killed during the war ensuring the atrocities that happened there will never be forgotten.
Aged six, she was removed from the convent. Her parents had by that point separated and after initially living with her father, she was sent to Aberystwyth to stay with her mother.
Just a couple of years later, they moved to London, initially living in Earl’s Court.
Nadezhda remarried twice, both times to men named John, with her daughter playing a part in one of her relationships.
“John died just a year after marrying my mother,” said Maria.
“She said to me that she wanted to marry again, and I said I’d find her a husband.
“There’s a festival in October called the feast of the cossacks, and we were at a celebration in Holland Park when I pointed out a man to her.
“An hour later they came back and he asked if he could marry my mother. They were married 26 years.”
Her mother’s marriage did not mean Maria could finally settle in one place, though.
The family moved around London, with Maria spending time at a convent on the Isle of Wight where she was bullied for “having a long name.”
As an adult, she had several jobs, initially working as a copy typist for the London Electricity Board as well as her favourite role, working for the South East Metropolitan Regional Hospital Board.
It wasn’t until later in life, though, that she started to look into her ancestry and her family’s castle.
“When my mother died in 1983, I started to look into my family history.
“I found a postcard in a drawer of Mir Castle, which was dated June 13, 1938 - my birthday, but before I was born.”
That research has led to her being featured in two books and visiting Mir Castle four times.
One thing she didn’t discover was her status as a princess - she had been aware of that since childhood.
She said: “My mother told me in the bath when I was nine years old.
“I didn’t go around talking about it; everyone would have thought I was weird.”
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