My paternal grandparents and all of their family and friends, were impacted greatly by World War II. You see, they lived in South Eastern Poland at the time, and generations of their family have been at war so many times over their land, and to fight for who they were.
My grandfather, Henryk, was a very handsome Polish Career soldier when he met my grandmother, Zofia, all those years ago. They met at a crossroads, by a set of train tracks, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. Zofia’s father was a small land holder, where he farmed and provided for his family and extended near Kałusz, now Kalush, Ukraine.
In September 1939 World War II began as England declared war against Germany, after German troops had invaded Poland. It had became clear that Hitler intended to bring all of Europe under German control.
Russian’s military entered Poland’s eastern border after the German military entered Poland’s western border, with the purpose of preventing the German military from passing through Poland into Russia, even though Germany were supposed Allies with Russia, at the time.
Poland had a Pact with Britain with the provision that England would go to Poland’s aid should Poland be invaded. All Polish citizens in proximity to the Russian border were taken to Siberia, especially land owners and their families, and particularly military ranks. Polish Military Officers were taken into the woods and shot, it is estimated that 40 thousand in total, to prevent any resistance.
Henryk had been hiding in Zofia’s father’s barn before that property was taken over by the Russian military. Henry Stasik and Zofia became lovers and did not want to be separated, so were married in Poland New Year’s Eve, 1939.
Zofia’s father, Jan,was a WWI veteran. He had tried his best to protect his property and family but the Russian military had their orders, and in the skirmish Jan was hit on each side of his face with the butt of a rifle breaking some teeth.
Jan is pictured above with his two sisters, Wictoria + Helana Jaskowska during WWI. There has been no documentation on what happened to Jan’s sisters during WWII.
Some of Zofia’s extended family had managed to run and hide when the Russians invaded their farmland. They, included a very young girl, Czselawa had watched from the hills as the soldiers ate sausages and drank well in their merriment of seizing the property. This family soon made their way safely to USA, and immigrated to become citizens in the Philidelphia area. Czeslawa still lives in the area with her family, and Zofia was able to somehow become in contact with her cousin after the war.
Henryk and Zofia, and the rest of the family who were unable to hide, were brought to Warsaw to wait for preparations to take the Polish people that had been scheduled for Siberia were completed. My grandmother had still recalled the time she saw tanks in the street, and never felt safe again for the rest of her life.
Several unheated railway box cars were assembled at various locations and the people were herded into them with barely any elbow room, and by the beginning of January 1940, the human freight began the trip to labour camps in north-east Russia.
The ill effects from all that had happened from the Russian occupation between September and January, caused Jan, Zofia’s father to begin the trip, weakened. He was sick with pneumonia for a month into the trip and died. He was tossed out of the boxcar onto the land, as the train continued the trek to the Siberia.
Pictured above is Zofia’s mother, my great grandmother Elzbeita Chciuk. She is pictured with her sister Zofia and niece, Maria.
Zofia’s mother died from exposure to the severe weather three months after leaving their home. It was Christmas Eve in one of the Siberian Concentration camps
In August 1941 after Russia joined the Allies, the Polish Government in exile in England, prevailed upon the British to oblige the Russian Government to let those prisoners free, which they did.
Once free, the Russians strongly encouraged their former prisoners of both sexes, to join the Russian military. Germany had marched through Poland by this time and the Russian Military could see the need for all, and any trained or untrained persons. Very few Polish citizens preferred to stay in Russia even with the promise of food, or other privileges.
Henry and Zofia opted to join the British Eighth Army and were stationed in Palestine for a year. During the almost two years in Siberia on starvation rations, the prisoners’ bodies had become skin and bone, their teeth had loosened, their sight had been affected, and their hair was thinning badly. My grandmother had been raped, and had a miscarriage or two in the Siberian Concentration Camps.
In Palestine under British Command, with adequate food and medical service, guarding British oil fields there, they became healthy enough after a year, to be gathered under the Polish General Anders, in the British 8th Army, and were sent for combat to North Africa.
My grandfather was General Anders driver, which I imagine he was quite proud to be, after all they had just been through such a short time ago, and still so much more to go through
When the Germans were defeated in North Africa, General Anders’ Polish troops were involved in the battle for Sicily and other battles on up through Italy to Monte Casino, on Italy’s west coast between Naples and Rome. Neither the American 5th Army, or the British 8th Army could advance to Rome until the impregnable mountainside fortifications at Monte Casino were overcome.
The British had reached Monte Casino by Autumn 1942. First the New Zealanders, with their expertise in mountain scaling, were sent to capture that highway blockage. The German bunkers were placed strategically encircling the Monte Casino mountain overlooking the highway, and state-of-the-art equipment with experienced German personnel were atop the mountain, prepared to repel prospective invaders.
The New Zealanders, after a brilliant effort, were forced to withdraw. Next an experienced Regiment from British India, were sent, but were forced to withdraw also. A Free-French Regiment whose homeland was German occupied, was assigned next, and were also overcome.
By early 1943 the Americans bombed the prestigious Monte Casino Monastery unmercifully, razing the 400-year old stone edifice extensively to about a foot of base around the perimeter.
After that had been accomplished, the American troops were assigned to take the mountain, but also failed and the task was left to the British 8th. So Canadians were sent in, but with no more success than others, with the usual loss of life. A hardened British Regiment was assigned next, but had to retreat.
Polish troops had been camped by the town at the south side of the mountain since late winter. Henryk as an Officer’s chauffer, and Zofia had been enlisted as an Army truck driver. Alexander G., one of the people my grandparents befriended during this war, was one of those combat troops that stormed Monte Casino mountain from the opposite side of the highway to Rome.
The Polish campaign began May 1st, 1943. Since Polish troops had lost their homeland to the Russians, they were told they must NOT retreat. The 2 thousand plus Polish troops that were killed during the 17 days of that campaign before the Germans were defeated, lie in the Polish cemetery at the back of the mountain, 1500 in marked graves, plus 16 large mass graves of Polish personnel unnamed.
In 1942 in British Africa where pregnant Polish women were hosted to have their babies, Zofia gave birth to a son, who survived only approximately 48 hours. My uncle’s name was Stanely.
Later Zofia was obliged to return to her duties as truck driver. After hostilities ceased, some Polish Officers traveled through ex-German-held Europe up to the then Russian held territory, to seek out Polish citizens and collect data on their wherabouts and their wellbeing.
Many Polish resisters (who had been taken by the Germans) had been put to death in German Prisoner of War camps and were killed in the ovens and gas chambers, as Jewish people had been.
Henryk remained a driver for Officers, as did their friend Alex, who also became an Officer’s chauffer when war ended, for such fact-finding missions.
Henryk and Zofia stationed in a camp in Trani Italy welcomed their son, my father Jerzy(George) into the world in March 1946. My father was named after King George in England in gratitude for helping my grandparents and their countryman when they were in such dark times.
Pictured above, are my grandparents and my dad in Italy.
Henry and Alex became acquainted, and kept in touch. When the chauffer assignments ended, Henry and Sofia left Italy for Northern England temporarily in November 1946. but as Britain was very crowded at that time, and low on food stuffs, only British natives were encouraged to stay. Polish and other misplaced persons were encouraged to go to one of the ‘colonies’.
Henryk and Zofia then decided on Canada, and came as soon as Polish married couples were allowed in.
My grandparents travelled on the Aquitania, where it docked in Halifax, Nova Scotia on June 1, 1948. The picture above is of my grandma and dad on the ship during their voyage.
They chose to be close to Alex, not knowing anyone else here. Henryk’s brother Jozef, also came to live with them for a time. He and Zofia, with 2-year-old George, were assigned to the Bell farm in Kippen, Ontario. The house still stands today.
After having lost everything in Poland, Zofia and Henry aspired to acquire their own property in Canada. On completion of their obligation with Mr. & Mrs. Bell, they made a down payment on a 50-acre farm near Kippen, with money saved from the British Military. After a couple of years of working the farm as well as being employed by an area plumber, Henry bought a used car.
My grandparents not much later on, ended up selling the property in Kippen, and bought a 100 hundred acre property just outside of Hensall. They were very hard working people, who had overcome some things in life, that many of us can never imagine.
I am very proud of my grandparents and dad, for all that they achieved, and the path that they were able to lay down for myself and so many others.
Zofia Stasik, my grandmother
Mary Gartenburg, a family friend