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Agnieszka ZUREK

Agnieszka Zurek (nee Pieczonka) was born to Jozef and Otilia on February 12, 1908 in Connellsville, PA, U.S.A.  Her father was a coal miner. When she was four, her parents moved the family back to Polska Wola, Poland, where she spent her childhood. There she met her husband, Wladyslaw Lorenc, and they raised their young family together until the outbreak of the Second World War.

During the War, Agnes suffered great hardships, grief, turmoil, starvation and life-threatening illnesses. In 1940 she and her family were forcibly taken from their home and sent to Siberia.

They were taken to the railway station and loaded into cattle cars with 50-60 other people. This included infants, toddlers, children, teens, adults, and seniors. Most of the adults and seniors were women. The cattle car had two shelves at either end, where people could sit or sleep – the rest had to make do with the floor. There was a cast iron stove, but they soon ran out of wood to fuel it. There was also a hole in the floor that served as a toilet.

They travelled like this for weeks, and were given some water, stale bread, and watery soup, only a few times. When someone died, their bodies were cast out next to the tracks and left there. Many infants and elders did not survive this journey.

When they reached the work camp in Siberia, they were told that this is where they would eventually die, but in the meantime, they had to work in order to earn their daily ration of bread. Children as young as 13 were set to work in the forests – cutting branches from the trees that had been cut down.

Aside from the extreme cold in winter, and extreme heat in summer, they had to contend with hordes of mosquitoes and black flies, as well as infestations of bed bugs in the barracks. There were no medical facilities in these camps, and diseases ran rampant, leading to a high death toll. Agnieszka’s husband perished in Siberia.

In 1942 widowed Agnes and her young family endured a debilitating journey as they journeyed to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, in the quest to find the Polish Army that was being formed in the southern USSR. They were able to evacuate the USSR with the army to Persia (now Iran). From Persia, they were sent to East Africa, via Pakistan and India. Along this journey five of her severn children perished. Finally, they settled in the Tengeru Polish refugee camp in the foothills of Mt. Kilamanjaro for six years. Here Agnes also took in and cared for her orphaned niece and nephews, in addition to her own two surviving children.

The camp was equipped with schools – elementary, middle school, high school, and a technical school; a YMCA with sports and recreational facilities and a reasonable library; a cinema covered by a roof on stilts but without walls; and an open-air theatre. There was a co-op bakery, and a co-op store sold a modest supply of sundries along with foodstuffs from the settlement’s impressive farm. Established in order to make the settlement as self-sufficient as possible, the farm accomplished this with great success, combining crops native to Africa as well as – climate permitting – old favourites from Poland.

Following the War, Agnes and the surviving members of her family were resettled in England from where they immigrated to Canada in 1949. They settled in Winnipeg where Agnes met and married George Zurek. Together they continued to raise their blended families and welcomed the birth of their new, youngest son Kasmir.

Heroism and courage take many different forms. Agnes' life exemplified the heroism of unselfish love and devotion to the survival and well-being of her family against the greatest of odds, no matter how difficult her sacrifices. Over the past 97 years her love has encircled and nurtured so many, for which they are so truly grateful.

Agnieszka passed away in Winnipeg on May 20, 2005, at the age of 97.

Copyright: Zurek family

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