(Aleksander's story was originally published on the Canadian Polish Historical Society of Edmonton, Alberta website
and is repeated here with their permission.
Aleksander Romanko, son of Magdalena and Mikolaj, was born in Szpakowce (northeastern Poland) July 21st 1921. Olek (short for Aleksander) had two older brothers, Wladystaw and Mikolaj. Olek was fond of his family and lived in Szpakowce until he was sixteen years old. He then moved to the city of Baranowicze, where he studied mechanics. He describes his experiences below:
During the bombing of Baranowicze (Poland) in September 1939, I saw people killed and seriously injured. I was affected emotionally by the suffering caused by the pilots. As a young as I was (18) I wanted to join the Polish Army to avenge our losses. The obvious enemy targets were Germans. After the invasion of Eastern Poland by the Soviet army, on September 17th 1939 - we faced two evil forces. Massive arrests and killings were everyday occurrences. The hatred of the enemy culminated when, on February 10th 1940, my parents and I were arrested by Russian soldiers and were deported to Siberia. My wife Alina in the book “From Russian Gulag - To Alberta Prairies” described our difficulties, and will to survive during the two years in the gulag “Poldniewica". She, as a girl, was a witness to the tragic events of our lives in the Soviet Union.
In February of 1942, I was informed by the N.K.V.D (secret Russian police) that I, along with Wladyslaw Lukaszewicz (my future father-in-law) and other exiles, had to go to the closest town "Wabkient" to enlist in the Polish army. At that time, we lived in a kolkhoz (collective farm) in Kuybyszew. We worked in the cotton fields from dusk to dawn, suffering from lack of food and general lack of energy. Typhoid epidemics, dysentery, and night blindness ran rampant among our people. The whole situation was desperate. The possibility of joining the Polish army brought hope for survival for the prospective soldiers and their families. In Wabkient. a medical team examined us, and then we were given a lunch of soup and two slices of bread. What a treat! We had not tasted or seen bread for months!
After a few days, we were told that we would have to take a train to Kermine, where the Polish Army was stationed. Soon after I arrived in Kermine, the talk about our evacuation from Russia was becoming a reality. We were ecstatic when, after four days of travel, we reached Krasnowodsk, where we boarded a ship that took us to Pahlavi, a port in Persia (Iran).
The journey across the Caspian Sea lasted twenty-four hours. Only the excitement and hope of freedom made this voyage bearable. Soldiers, women, and children were packed very closely together. There was no water. A few dry food items had to satisfy our hunger. Many people were ill. The rickety boat reached Persia very early in the morning. We saw the sunrise on Easter Sunday 1942, and felt that along with Christ we also rose from the grave.
Soon the ship was unloaded and we were moved to camps on the beaches of Pahlavi. The tents housed women and children. The army camped in an open space. Next day we were paraded to the bathhouses. Before we entered the bathhouse, we had to take off our clothes and leave them at the entrance. This was the "delousing program". All those clothes were burnt. After a good shower (what a luxury!) we received new, clean British uniforms!
What a wonderful feeling, being assured that starvation was part of the past. The beach was a pleasant resting place. This is how my life in freedom began. It felt like paradise. Since I had my driver's license from Poland, and I was assigned to transport the Indian Platoon, who was also serving under British Command.
The beaches of Pahlavi were not our permanent place. Everyday, trucks transported soldiers and civilians to Teheran, the capitol of Persia (Iran). Soon it was my turn. After stopping for a night at Karwin, we arrived in Teheran the next day.
Then we left Teheran and arrived in Habania (Iraq). The journey through the Iraqi desert was monotonous. We stopped at British army posts scattered across the desert. We slept in tents and next morning again traveled all day to the next camp.
From Iraq, we were moved through Jordan to Palestine (Israel). When we reached the river Jordan, our journey became much easier, for we encountered very good roads and the landscape displayed lush greenery, towns, kibbutzim and villages filled with beautiful gardens. We were glad to arrive at the Polish army training camp in Quastyna. Here the 3rd Carpathian Division was being organized under the command of General Kopanski who, as the commander of the Polish Brigade, fought in Tobruk, Libya, in 1941. I was assigned to the 3rd Carpathian Artillery Regiment.
From then on, we began very intensive military training in preparation for real military action in a war against a formidable enemy, the German army. The days were well structured and we still could not believe our luck of having nourishing meals, the freedom to travel, and making our personal decisions.
In Palestine, the land of Christ, I began my life as an artilleryman. After few days, I was assigned to drive a special truck for hauling canons and ammunition. The day began at six o'clock in the morning with vigorous exercises, breakfast, and then military training until ten in the morning. As it was very hot, the break lasted until three o'clock in the afternoon. The lectures and practical instructions in servicing and using artillery guns took the remainder of the day. After supper and prayer, at ten o'clock p.m. we were ready to take a well-earned rest and sleep.
In Jerusalem, I followed the Via Dolorosa, the route that Jesus followed to His crucifixion on the Golgotha. Nazareth was important because it was the place of the birth of the Holy Virgin Mary. I thanked God for the opportunity of visiting the Holy Land.
In September of 1942, Persia opened its borders to receive a second transport of the Polish Army and their families from the Soviet Union. At first, my hopes soared at the thought that my parents might be among the new arrivals. It was with great sadness that I received the news of their death in Kermine.
In the meantime, the 3rd Carpathian Division was moved to Kirkuk, Iraq, where temperatures in the tents reached 50°C. Training took place only very early in the morning and evening. It was necessary to pour water over both tents and bodies. Drinking water, kept in bags, was always lukewarm.
In October, we went to Qassasin in Egypt, where we had to wait for transport to Italy. In December of 1943, it was decided that our training had prepared us well to take our place at the front. My unit left Alexandria in January of 1944. After four days' journey, we arrived in Syracus and then to Taranto, Italy. Finally, we were again in Europe, where our enemy was spreading death and devastation.
At the end of April, we arrived in the region of the St. Michael mountain peak, number 782, near Monte Cassino. This region played an important role in the outcome of World War II and the history of Europe. From then on, we prepared for the fourth battle of Monte Cassino. Since January 1944, the allied forces made three attempts to conquer this difficult strategic point. The Germans fortified themselves in the monastery and surrounding hills, to block the passage of allied forces to the Liri Valley leading to Rome. The battle of Monte Cassino, therefore, became the battle for Rome.
Since January 1944, three attempts by allied forces to conquer Monte Cassino were led first by the Americans; second the British; and finally the New Zealand and Hindu units. The fourth one was scheduled to begin at midnight on May 11th. It ended in victory on May 18th due to gallantry of Poles who captured the high areas, which had not been taken by previous fighters.
Preparations for the attack were done in total secrecy. Artillery guns and ammunition were moved to their positions on the mountains and in the valleys, during the cover of night. Our trucks were covered with brushwood and other materials. Our regiment had 24 artillery canons: each one requiring 800 pieces of ammunition, which we had to pull up with ropes from the place where the trucks had to stop. This required tremendous effort. After we completed putting the canons in the proper positions, I had to return the truck to Venafro, located 8 km from our area. It was dark, the roads were terrible, and there was constant danger of German fire.
At 11 o'clock, all hell broke loose! Over a thousand allied artillery guns fired on German positions for two hours, causing great devastation. We saw flickering lights and heard thunder that caused the ground to move. All this stayed in my memory for many years and I experienced the same sensations every time I revisited the Polish cemetery at Monte Cassino on special anniversaries of the battle.
On May 12th, we knew that we had not reached our objectives and that the fight must go on. The casualties were very heavy. We had to exchange one of our guns. Fear or not, this dangerous manoeuvre had to be performed, which we successfully completed during the next night.
On May 13th, all drivers had to go to one place, to be ready to move in case of an unexpected enemy attack. As I drove my vehicle, hundreds of jeeps and ambulances surrounded me, bringing wounded and killed soldiers. These were the sombre and tragic events of the war that brought tears to my eyes and pain in my heart. Among the dead and wounded were some of my close friends. My feelings intensified when I came to a bend in the road and saw General Lees, Commander of the Eighth Army, standing on a jeep, saluting all those who were passing by.
On May 17th, I replaced one of the artillerymen. After discharging 150 shells, I could not hear the officer's command and realized that my hearing was gone. Released from my post, I sat by a brook but could not hear anything for three hours. It was a very frightening experience, and I was very happy when some of my hearing slowly returned.
On May 18th, our army captured the Monastery of Monte Cassino and placed the Polish flag at its top. Feelings of pride and happiness were mixed with sadness. We opened the road to Rome for the allied forces but lost so many young people who, in their short lives, experienced much suffering in Russian slave labour camps and the campaign of 1939. Our Commander, General Wladyslaw Anders congratulated us and expressed sadness because so many lives were lost. There was another reason for anxiety and sadness. He could not promise us a free Poland. Was this super human effort of Polish soldiers, and victory won with such sacrifice, for nothing? Not quite. Polish soldiers were always faithful to the motto: "We fight for our and your freedom". Did the world recognized this significance?
This was not the end of the action. We began bringing our guns down and worked hard on clearing the area. At the end of May, we were given a short rest in the city of Moreona. On June 3rd, we were sent to Ortona. Here we took part in a fierce battle alongside the Canadian army. Next, we took Pescara, Fermo, and Loreto. After the victory at Loreto, I was transferred to the reconnaissance unit. Now I travelled on a motorcycle and closely followed the infantry positions.
Polish Lancers of the Carpathian Regiment were moving toward Ancona, and our artillery supplied the shielding fire. After many fierce battles, Ancona was captured and it became a main supply base for the allied forces in Italy. Next came Senigalia. The German army fought hard to stop our advances by planting mines on roads and in fields. When our troops, together with the Canadian division took Metauro, the Gothic line was broken, and the German Army was in retreat. We then entered Pesaro, which we considered our final battle in the Adriatic campaign. We were proud and happy. Our rest period was earned and welcomed.
In January of 1945, I was chosen to attend the non-commissioned Officers Artillery School in Marcerata-Saracena. The program ended in April 1945. We received our diplomas in the presence of Colonel, Z. Lakinski, commander of Artillery of the 3rd Carpathian Division, who congratulated me on achieving very good results and a promotion. That night the celebration included a banquet and dance, to which Italian girls were invited.
On April 3rd, I returned to my artillery unit. Lieutenant Styczynski welcomed me, and expressed his pleasure on having a knowledgeable artilleryman. However, after a few days he informed me that, in spite of his petition to have me stay with my unit, I was transferred to regimental headquarters, where my expertise was put to very good use.
Our regiment supported lancers & infantry in a forceful attack at the River Senio and Santemo. In addition to the difficulties of the battle, we suffered heavy losses from the allied air forces (friendly fire). Our infantry, with the help of the artillery and tanks, broke the German lines of defence. General Rudnicki was in charge of this action.
The fighting continued. General Rudnicki now concentrated on the advance on Bologna, which was liberated by the Polish army on April 21st 1945. We entered Bologna before the Americans.
Soon, Winston Churchill declared that since the war was over we, the Polish soldiers, should return to Poland. After the strong intervention of the Polish Government-in-Exile, Churchill agreed to have the Polish army transferred to England for a temporary stay. A special Polish Resettlement Corps was organized, to prepare the transition of Polish soldiers to civilian life or emigration to other countries.
I arrived in England in November 1946. On November 4th 1946, I signed a two-year contract with the Polish Resettlement Corps that allowed me to continue to receive my soldier's pay, and allowed me to continue my education as part of the preparations for civilian life.
On completion of the program at the Commercial College, I had to leave the Resettlement Corps. To obtain my discharge, I had to go to Newmarket. In November 1948, I received my final discharge papers. In the meantime, many Polish families living temporarily in India and Africa began joining their soldiers in England. In May of 1948, the Lukaszewicz family, including Alina, arrived in Daglingworth, Gloustershire.
I had met Alina in February 1940 in gulag Poldniewica, when she was only fourteen. She became my wife in April 1949 and together we raised a family of four sons. Two of them, Bogumil and Lech, were born in England. In 1955, we immigrated to Alberta, to start a new life in Canada.
The beginnings in Canada were very difficult, but in our home, there was love and cooperation. Sons: Bozek, Leszek, Mark and Adam received a very good education. They gained good positions in their professions, and started their own families. Our family grew by four grandchildren.
After the war, I was promoted to the rank of sergeant and, in recognition of my service, I received the following medals:
From the Polish Government-in-exile:
Bronze Cross of Merit
Cross of Monte Casino
Gold Cross of Merit (1960)
Gold Medal (1990)
From the Italian Government:
The Star of Defense (1939-1945)
From the British Ministry of Defence:
The Medal War (1939 - 1945).
There were many other awards and recognitions.
My political and community involvement, that began in England and which I continued in Edmonton, as chairperson of the Canadian Polish Congress - Alberta Branch, the National Treasury, Friends of KUL. I was the chairman of the Polish Flood Relief Committee in 1997 ($ 100,000 was collected) as well as a member the National Council of the Polish Government-in-exile and a board member of the Millennium Fund in Toronto. Together with my wife, we were involved in Holy Rosary Parish in Edmonton, as lectors and Eucharistic Ministers.
Text by: Aleksander Romanko
Edited by Zofia Kamela and Helena Fita
Note: The above text is based on Mr. Aleksander Romanko's narrative which is contained in the book by Alina Maria M. Romanko, "From Russian Gulag To Alberta Prairies," as well as hand written information, provided by Mrs. Alina Maria Romanko (January, 2011).
Unfortunately, descriptions were not provided for the photos.
Copyright: Canadian Polish Historical Society of Edmonton, Alberta