Wladyslaw Niewinski, a Polish combat veteran of WWII, recalled taking the train all the way from Halifax to Lethbridge and standing outside the depot, a man without a country. “Farmers started arriving to pick up soldiers,” said Niewinski. “They were picking us up like piglets.”
Niewinski was assigned to a farm near Cremona, Alta. where he slept in the barn. Later he moved to Calgary, and served 15 years as treasurer of the Polish Credit Union.
Calgary was home to so many Polish war veterans they formed a club, Polish Combatants’ Association Branch No. 18. Author Aldona Jaworska interviewed the last survivors for Polish War Veterans In Alberta, a haunting account of a little-known corner of Canadiana, the 1947 Polish Resettlement Act.
At war’s end some 250,000 Polish veterans were stranded in Europe. Returning home was a ticket to the Soviet Gulag. The Resettlement Act assigned veterans to Commonwealth countries. Canada accepted 4,527 as contract farm workers at $45 a month, 25 percent less than prevailing wages. Some 750 landed in Alberta.
They were “like slaves”, Niewinski recalled. At 92, he told his story over tea and banana bread in his tidy Calgary bungalow. “Nobody came for me,” he said. Author Jaworska writes that Niewinski seemed pleased to find someone interested in his story.
Anatole Nieumierzycki, who died at 94, remembered a treasured 1937 Polish travel book on Canada. “The way the author described Canada inspired me,” he said.
“We couldn’t return to Poland because we already had our Polish citizenship taken away,” said Nieumierzycki. “We learned that if we returned, we would be taken to Siberia.”
Nieumierzycki worked two years on an Alberta ranch, was cheated of a year’s back pay – all the veterans complained of unpaid wages – and later became a Calgary electrician. “I’d trained as a telemechanic while in the Army,” he explained.
Canada accepted Polish veterans on four conditions: young, single, fit for hard labour, with some agricultural know-how. Zbigniew Rogowski remembered his immigration test: “They put seeds on the table and asked me to recognize them” – wheat, oats, barley. “I know all the grains. ‘Good! You will go to Canada,’ the examining committee told me.”
Rogowski was an 11-year old schoolboy when the war broke out. “The Russian police officers in blue uniforms came to our home to arrest my father,” he tells Jaworska. “I was still in bed. As they were taking my dad away, he looked at me and nodded toward my mother and my three younger sisters. I understood that he wanted me to take care of them.”
Author Jaworska is a passionate writer. Her interviews with survivors are compelling. Polish War Veterans In Alberta has a melancholy quality – no survivor dreamt of working as a Prairie farm labourer – with a very human ending. Electrician Nieumierzycki cannot forget his 1937 travel book.
“I was never disappointed,” he said. “Canada is a beautiful country.”
By Holly Doan
Polish War Veterans in Alberta: The Last Four Stories, by Aldona Jaworska; University of Alberta Press; 328 pages; ISBN 9781-77212-3739; $29.99