Jan DREWNIAK Memories

I would like to tell my story, as well as I can remember, of the places that I have been and of the roads that I have traveled and how I arrived in Canada from that far country called Poland.   This I do for my children, grandchildren and their children.

 

All of these experiences have been stored for many years in my memory.   I wish to relate them to you, while I can still remember.   I shall just start at the beginning. 

 

My grandfather, that is my father’s father, was born during the Austrian occupation of Poland, as well as my father, mother, my sister Magdalena, my brother Michal and my brother Stefan.  Poland at that time in history was divided by partition amongst Austria, Prussia and Russia for over one hundred and twenty years.

 

My grandfather’s name was Feliks.  He owned much land and was rich.  He was married and had four sons and two daughters.  My grandfather from my mother’s side of the family had one daughter, who was my mother, Katarzyna Anastazja (nee Dobricka).  My grandfather’s name was Bartholomew.  I remember very little of him and my grandmother.  Their family name was Dobricki.  Bartholomew served with the Austrian army for over thirteen years.

 

In 1914, the First World War broke out and my father, Jozef, went into the Austrian army where he served until the war was over in 1918.  During World War I, the Russians overran our land, destroyed our farm, and burned everything to the ground.

 

My mother and sister Magdalena, took Michal and Stefan, who was just a baby, and escaped to another town, leaving everything behind.  My mother’s parents went with them. 

 

Four years later, World War I had ended and they returned to their land in Postolowka (Tarnopol province, Kopyjczyce region, near Husiatyn).  There was nothing left.  Only two or three houses were still standing untouched.  Our house had only one wall still standing upright.   Mother and Magdalena started to build a shelter around that wall to live in it.  My father returned from the war and then that was when I was born, September 9, 1919.  This is also the time that Poland regained its’ Independence as a sovereign country.

 

I was born in a neighboring house.  Our house was not ready to move into.  I remember our old house, as it had only one room with a little porch.  My youngest brother Kacper was born in our house.

 

Two years later, my mother passed away leaving my brother Kacper, not quite two years old and me, about three and half years old, motherless.  It was very hard for us two boys because we were so little.

 

Shortly after, my mother’s parents also passed away.  My sister Magdalena was fifteen years at the time and she looked after the two of us.   My father never re-married.

When my mother was still living, my father traveled to Canada for one year to visit his brother Kacper who lived in Buffalo, Alberta.   Another of his brothers, Nicholas, lived in Oshawa, Ontario.  My father returned home to Poland because life in Canada was very difficult during the nineteen twenties.

At seven years of age, I started school.  The school was about a half kilometer from my home.  After grade two and during the summer season, I had to look after the cows, taking them to the pasture and back during the two months until school started again.  Having skipped grade four and in grade six, I finished my schooling.   I was twelve years old.  This was when I started helping on the farm.  We made a living; but, for spending money, there was none.  You could not find work anywhere, so, we had a tough time making a living.  Later, we built a new house, three small rooms.   We moved from the old house to the new one.  There was much more space in the new house.

My sister married Jan Rekut and stayed with us for a while, then she and her husband went on their own.  We had to cook for ourselves.  My father baked bread.  We washed our own clothes and mended our pants.  Many times, there was nothing to eat.  A lot of times my brother Kacper and I cried.  There was no mother to cry to.  We were smaller and suffered the most.

At sixteen years of age, I had no money to go to a school to learn a trade.  I liked carpentry.  There was an excellent carpenter near our home.  I went and worked with him for a period of six months for no pay, to learn how to build houses, doors, windows and other useful things.  Later, I worked on my own.

Across the road, a neighbor kept many bees.   I used to go there, watching him extract honey.  Liking bees very much, I purchased three hives.  Honey production was good, until 1939 when World War II broke out!

It was Sunday, September 1, 1939.   After Mass, a large celebration was held in the park.  Children were playing games and in late afternoon, a dance was held out in the open.  Suddenly, news came that the Germans had invaded Poland.  The Polish Army Reserves were re-called to active duty.  My brother-in-law was re-called that very day.  All the fun was broken-up that day.  We lived at Postolowka, close to the Polish-Russian border, no more than 18 kilometers from Russia.

On September 17, we had another surprise!  My father woke us up at approximately three in the early morning and said, “Get up!   Something is happening outside!”  We went outdoors and saw the sky full of flashing lights with the sound like thunder.  Russian artillery was bombarding the border.  At 10 o’clock, we saw the Russians coming in columns of cavalry, wagons and many army tanks.  They were about a half kilometer from Postolowka.  There was no fighting, because no one suspected an attack from the Russian side of the Polish border.

The first year passed under Russian occupation.  There was not much civil law at the time.  People carried on and worked as usual.  Then, supplies in stores sold out and not replenished, and you could not find hardly anything. Even shoe laces and shoe polish, because no one was re-supplying the stores.

Property owners who owned a lot of land had their land confiscated and the land was given to the poor people who had worked for them.  The Soviets were coming to the property owner’s homes at night, knocking or breaking down doors, saying, “Come out!  Take all you can carry with you!”   Then, the Soviets loaded them onto waiting trucks and transported them to labour camps in Russia.  The people took all the belongings that were left behind, piece by piece, until nothing was left.   The Soviets called this action, “Roshkulasly”, that is, “Take from the rich and give to the poor.”

Many people could not sleep at night, as they did not know when their own door was going to be knocked down.  Life went on, people were getting married, and babies were being born and christened.  One of the pleasures of life - liquor, was not readily available.  My friend and I started to make home-brew and sold the brew to those people who were in need.   After a while, the Russians enforced laws forbidding home-brews.  The year was 1940.

In 1941, I was twenty-one years old.  I had a girlfriend.  We liked each other; but, the relationship did not last very long.  On a Sunday in April, while I was attending Holy Mass, some men came looking for me.  They gave me a piece of paper from the Russian authorities and said, “Come with us to the Military Office!  You have to go to the army, the Russian army!”   The Russians were conscripting all the young men from the occupied territory into the Russian army.  Only four of us boys were taken at that time.   For me, it was very hard to understand!  I could do nothing.  The date to go was April 17, 1941.   I was ready to leave home.  We attended Holy Mass and received Holy Communion.  I remember, Michal Dobrus and my other friends.  All of us thought that this would be our last time together.  My gunnysack was half-full and I was ready to go.

The next morning, good-byes were said to my father, sister and brothers; Magdalena, Michal, Stefan and Kacper.  Michal did not come to say good-bye, he felt so bad.  Stefan called me religious.  They said that I would not survive because I was so quiet and never asked for anything.  The wagon and horses were ready.  We picked up the others and traveled eighteen kilometers to the train station.  The Soviets gave us our medicals, a shave, haircut and bath.  All of us boarded the train.  Our destination was Koliepiatz, where I was assigned to my army company.  I met many boys from different parts of Poland.

Stalin was short of military instructors to train his army, so, the Russian Company commander gave me a platoon to train. Three months later, we received letters from home, saying, “Swallows are laying eggs, already!”  Translated, meaning, that the German planes were attacking the Russians; but the Russians at Koliepiatz did not know what was happening at the time.

Shortly after, the Russians called us outside and asked thosde who had relatives in America or Canada to step forward.   Because I had two uncles in Canada, I stepped forward.  The Russians from that time on did not trust us, especially to send us to the front lines.  They took our army equipment away and transferred us to the labour battalion.  We were sent to a city close to the battlefront called Horel.  There was a small forest near there and we stayed in that forest.  A civilian camp was nearby in the forest, where men were awaiting equipment, army clothing and weapons.  From the civilian camp, those men were sent directly to the front.  In our camp, we lived in dugouts, under ground.

One day, I went to the kitchen for breakfast and I heard the sound of German planes approaching Horel, bombing the airfield, which was near the city.  The people were terrified and started running into the forest and open fields, some with belongings, others with nothing, leaving behind everything that they owned.  After the attack was over, we slept outside in the fields on the bare ground for two nights.  Later, they shipped us by train to a new location where we were to build a new airfield.

One evening, they unloaded us at a train station called, Proceizna.  It was dark and we had had no supper.  We began looking for a place to sleep with loose dry leaves or grass, to make a mattress on the ground.  It was very cold.  We found and moved into an old empty house.  Inside, it was much warmer.  The house was built of timbers and it had a wooden floor.  We had a piece of candles to light a room.  When we settled down, the light was extinguished and we went to sleep.  A few minutes later, everyone started talking, that something was wrong.   I started scratching my neck, squashing and smelling something terrible!   Then one of my friends re-lit the candle and we saw thousands of bed bugs running into the cracks of the floor!  Quickly, we moved outside into the cold.  Later on, we found a more pleasant and permanent place.

The airfield was built by hand, pick and shovel.  We loaded dirt onto the horse-drawn wagons.  Russian girls were driving these wagons, because all of the men were serving in the Russian army to fight the Germans.  The girls dumped the dirt into the low spots to level the ground.  They also hauled rocks from the demolished churches from the town.  The Russians told us to crush the rocks by hand using hammers to make gravel for the airfield runway.  Two labour battalions worked on this airport.  They were stationed about one kilometer apart.  My friend Michal Dobrus was there and I visited him.

Winter came.  Living in a tent, it was very cold.  There was no mattress or blankets to sleep on – just the ground.  The temperature dropped to below zero, Fahrenheit.  We went to a nearby village to steal straw and went to sleep in that straw, just like pigs.  The next morning, I stuck my head out from that straw and saw that the straw was white from frost.

The next day, we started digging a hole in the ground, six feet deep and ten feet long, by twenty feet wide.  Timbers and dirt covered the top.  Then, we built a stove, using stones.  There was lots of wood in that place.  A fire was started which made it warmer inside.  Our food was very poor, a fish soup and one slice of bread, every meal.  Not far away there was a potato patch.  In the dark, we went there, dug up the potatoes, baked them in a fire, and ate them.  The Commanding officer found out; he saw us, kicked, and scattered our fire and potatoes all over the place.  We had to hide in the bush.  My friend and I would go into the heavy bush at night and cook soup made from the potatoes and some water.  We added stolen salt from the kitchen, made two gallons of soup and ate it!   The soup made our bellies so full, we sometimes found it difficult to walk.

The Russians moved us further East, as the Germans were pushing them very hard and fast.  Many refugees were coming from the West and with them, all the factory machinery that the Russians did not want to leave behind for the Germans.  The Russians moved this machinery over the Ural Mountains to a place called, Nizhny Tagil, where they setup and built a factory that produced military armaments such as Soviet Tanks for the war in the West.

One day, the Russians loaded us onto a train, in boxcars, like cattle.  Thirty men to a boxcar, we headed east.  It was very cold!  The snow was on the ground and we headed northeast, where it got even colder!   All that time, we did not even have one blanket among the thirty of us.  A week from the station and further and further, until one night, the train arrived at Switlovsk and stopped a short time.  The train backed out and took a different track.  From Switlovsk, we traveled to Nizhny Tagil where the factories were built and awaited our arrival for us to work in them.  There were no buildings to live in.  We moved into dugouts that the Russians called, “Zamiyankie.”  Twelve men to one dugout.  Again, no mattress or blankets!   Just wooden boards on the ground!  In the morning when we got up, we could see the frost on the underside of the boards.  The toilets were located outside, just a hole dug in the ground, with wooden boards across them to sit on.  A board wall surrounded the place for some privacy; but, the top was open and people from the second or third floor of the factory building could watch you when you sat doing your business.  The kitchen where they cooked food for our meals was about 300 yards distance.  If you had a can and a spoon, you could get some food.  If you did not have these items, you would go hungry.  We used to make our own utensils, the cans, spoons, and these we carried close to us on our belts.  Even at night, we carried them so no one would steal the utensils.  There never was enough food to eat.  Macaroni soup mostly, sometimes a little meat, beer and one slice of bread at every meal.

One day, the Russians asked if anyone knew how to repair boots.  My friend and I volunteered and took on the job.  Instead of going to work at the factory, we stayed in the camp and repaired boots.  We received a little bit more food for the two of us, which was given to us in separate portions.

Every night, we would go to the factory to unload the heavy cold sheets of steel, which were used to build army tanks.  It was so cold that our leather boots would freeze to the steel when you stepped on the sheets.

One day, we were unloading coal at the dumpsite.  The coal chute door was open; but the coal was jammed.  I went to the top to break the frozen layer and, dislodging the coal, I went through the coal chute door, down the chute with all the coal, right to the bottom.

Sometimes, working very late during the night shift, we had a meal, too.  After shift, some of the fellows would check the slop barrels for bones, potato peelings and such.  They would bring this stuff home and make soup from it.  I could not bear to eat this stuff!  Maybe, I am alive today because of that!

Sometimes, we would go to a restaurant.  They would sell you soup and two hundred grams of bread.  We would buy three or four portions just to have some bread for the next day.  Other fellows were stealing spoons and the next time we went to the door of the restaurant, there was a man that took our caps and handed us a spoon.  When we left the restaurant, the man exchanged our caps for the spoons. 

Winter was very cold!  The ground was frozen almost six feet deep!  All we wore was light clothing and leather boots.  The boys were still eating from the slop barrels, bones, peelings and molasses from the factory.  Their bodies started to swell like balloons.  They got Typhoid and started to die.  One friend from my dugout, Jozef Konoptka, went outside, fell down, and died.  The next day, the Russians asked us to dig a grave for him and we received four loaves of bread.  Four of us went to the graveyard to dig.  We dug and dug.  The ground was frozen so hard that for two days we had only gone one meter deep.  We buried our friend in that grave.  A woman came, carrying a small box with her dead baby in it.  She asked us to bury her dead child in the fresh grave.  We buried her child for one loaf of bread.

Days passed and I met a friend from my hometown.  The Russians had sent him to this place to work.

Spring came and it was much warmer.  One day, the Russians took our whole company to a river to wash our clothes.  There was no soap and no clean change of clothes, and the clothes that we had, had not been washed for over six months.  The clothes were infested with lice.  When we finally got to the river, we took off our clothes and washed them in the cold water.  We sat on the grass, naked and waited for our clothes to dry.  Then, we put these clothes back on, still with the lice, because they refused to swim in the cold water.  We wore those clothes back to the “Pigsty”, where we lived. 

Two or three times, we went to another place that had a steam bath.  After undressing, we tied up our clothes in bundles and put them in a hot air furnace to kill the lice.  We took a steam bath, but there still was no soap to wash ourselves.  The picture wasn’t very pretty, you could easily see the naked bodies of many friends, swollen so badly from the belly-Typhoid.  The Russians released the sick men and let them go free to wherever they wanted to go, knowing that these men were going to die somewhere along the road and there was no cure for them.

Since the Germans were attacking the Russians, the Russians were now looking for assistance.  General Sikorski, a Polish General, exiled in London, negotiated with Stalin to organize a Polish Army in Russia.  Stalin agreed.  General Sikorski placed Lt. General Wladyslaw Anders in command of the new Polish Army.

General Anders started organizing in Posuluz.  In Russia, there were many prisoners from the Polish Army and many Polish civilians.  Before the Polish Army was organized, the Russians had killed twenty-two thousand Polish officers and intelligentsia at the Katyn forest.  The Red Cross later revealed Stalin’s secret massacre. The Germans discovered the massacre when they captured the Katyn area.  The Red Cross opened the mass graves and saw that all the Polish officers had been shot in the back of the head, with their hands bound behind their backs with barbed wire.  Now the Russians started to release Polish soldiers from the labour camps and they released the civilians, too.  So the new Polish Army was formed in Russia.

One day, four Polish officers came to Nizhny Tagil to sign up the Polish lads into the new Polish Army.  Some Ukrainians wanted to sign up too, but, the Russians would not allow this to happen.  We waited three days for the train to take us to Bozuluk where the army was organizing.  Again, we were in boxcars!  Forty men to a boxcar.  We were so crowded there was no place to sleep.  If you wanted to go to the bathroom, well, that was a tricky job!  You had to keep the door open, just so much, so you would not fall off the train!  There was a small heater in the center of the boxcar to keep it warm.   At every station, we had to steal some coal.  Nothing was given to us.  For two weeks, we traveled with very little food, just a little dry bread.  From the bread, we made a soup, putting the dry bread in hot water.  Every time the train stopped at a station at night, we looked around to see if there was anything on the next track.  One night we discovered that a boxcar next to ours was transporting dried peas and everyone made a dash for those dried peas.  Soon after, everyone was cooking peas.  I think that those peas saved us from starvation!

On another day, during a night stop, the lads discovered a sealed boxcar on the next track.  Two fellows from my boxcar, Jozef  Keilba and his friend, broke the seal on the boxcar door and brought back a sack of flour, spilling a trail right back to our boxcar.  They tried to sell the flour to the other men.  Early the next morning, the guards came and tracked them from the broken-in boxcar to ours, because the flour trail led them directly to us.  The guards took the two culprits and the sack of flour with them.

All the time, we were getting closer to our destination.  I met up with my friend, Michal Dobrus, who gave me a jacket.  We arrived at the place where the Polish Army was gathering. After signing up, I went to the market to sell my old jacket, since I did not need it any more.  I sold the old jacket to a Cossack for 130 rubles.  Some of the money was used to buy tobacco to trade for bread.  You could not buy bread for money.  I purchased two glass measures of tobacco and placed the rest of the money in my pocket, not knowing that there were many pickpockets around.  A little while later, I placed my hand into my pocket and discovered that someone had stolen all my money.

We received new British equipment, new clothes, blankets and much better food.  Our Polish commander started organizing transports out of Russia, before Stalin had any second thoughts.  The Polish commander tried to take more people than normally possible, both soldiers and civilians.  The ship was ready and waiting for us.  Soldiers, civilians and families were loaded onto the ships, healthy and sick.  It was so crowded on board the ship that the people were sleeping on deck.  Men, women, and children were using the same toilets.  There was always a long line-up for the toilets.  Drinking water was scarce and people were pulling up and drinking seawater!  After that, there was many diarrhea attacks.  Two days later, we landed at Pahlevi in Persia (Iran).   There, we had supper after sunset.  I felt blindness and could not see. This was caused from malnutrition and the affliction lasted for about one week.  I regained my eyesight after eating food that is more nutritious.

In 1942, when we had moved from Iran to Palestine, we joined the Polish Brigade from Tobruk and re-organized. My rank was Lance Corporal, and my Serial Nunber in the 3rd Carpathian Rifles Division, 3rd Battalion, was 1919/30).  We stayed in Izdud and trained there. Our next move was to Iraq through the city of Baghdad, to Mosul and Chiara, where we stayed a longer time.  I completed the Sub-officer’s school and received my Roman Catholic Confirmation. From Chiara we went to Damascus in Syria. From Syria, we returned to Palestine and stayed in Haifa.  From Haifa, we moved to Lebanon where we trained for war in the Lebanese Mountains. Then we learned that our Brigade was going to Italy. In Lebanon, I completed by course for operating motorcycles.  I had the opportunity to visit the Holy Places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. We moved to Port Said in Egypt.  From Port Said, we sailed to Italy where we landed at Tarranto.  It was 1943. From Tarranto we moved up the Adriatic to Isernia and relieved the front line of British troops.

My company occupied a school that was vacant. From Isernia we drove twenty kilometers every day to the front line at Vianarro.  Isernia had been badly bombed and lay in ruins. Thousands of people had died under the ruins very close to where we were living. There were civilian houses where we took our clothes to wash.  We had a lot of soap; but the civilians had none. They wanted to wash our clothes, just for a little soap. We gave them our clothes to wash, some soap and we paid them, too.

Without knowing the Italian language, we tried to make conversation with them, using our hands.  At one house, where I was washing my clothes, I met your mother, Lucia Materiale. Our company stayed in Isernia for a couple of months. We fed many people, old and young, those who had lost their families under the bombed ruins.  These people used to sit by our kitchen window, every day, waiting for some food. 

As time passed, the Allied troops advanced closer to Monte Cassino and could not advance any further.  Monte Cassino is about thirty-five kilometers from Isernia.  The Germans had occupied the town and monastery, and were entrenched on the mountain.  At the top was a huge monastery and from that height, the Germans had visual control of all the important roads joining Naples and Rome. It was very difficult to capture that position.  Many soldiers died there - English, French, American, African and “Ghurkas” from India.

The time came; it was our turn to go to Monte Cassino. The British Eighth Army commander chose the Poles to do the job!  This was top secret and the Germans did not know whom they were going to meet up against this time. We moved to the front line.  Because I had been trained in explosives, mines, booby-traps and bridge building, my friend and I were assigned to one platoon of Infantry to clear the roads of explosives when necessary.  All night we waited in a deep ditch for our fighting orders. Somehow, the orders were delayed and about two o’clock in the afternoon, we began moving up the mountain, passing alongside the dead mules used for delivering food and ammunition.  We passed an old house used by the field medical doctors who administered to the wounded soldiers that were brought down from the mountain. There was a narrow path made by the soldiers so that the medics could transport the wounded on stretchers from the mountain to that little old house down below. In that old house, the medics changed the bandages and loaded the wounded soldiers onto ambulances transporting the wounded to the main Army field hospital. 

While we were ascending the mountain, following the narrow trail in single file, separated about twenty feet apart from each other, the whistle of mortar shells sounded and the explosions peppered alongside the mountain trail! Immediately, we fell to the ground. Behind me, seven men had been hit! Three of them died where they fell. One minute later, a mortar shell burst just beyond me, about thirty feet away. I was hit! The shrapnel had pierced through my upper right leg! 

While the medics were bandaging the wounded near me, I had to wait a few minutes before I was assisted. The medic carried me to a shell crater that was nearby and there I waited for an empty stretcher for almost two hours. Two medics came and took me down the narrow trail, to that old house. I was then transported to the army field hospital where I stayed for fifty days. All of this happened on May 14th, 1944.  Four days later, Monte Cassino was captured by the Poles and the road to Rome was opened.

While I was in the Army hospital, the Polish army moved to Ortona, near the Adriatic Sea, to relieve the Canadian Army. The Poles pushed the Germans back along the Adriatic Sea. When I was released form the Army Hospital, my company was stationed at Senegalia where I re-joined them. Two days later, I was placed back on the front line. 

One night, we approached very close to the Germans. Our mission was to clear the road of mines to prepare for an early morning attack. The road was heavily mined.  We removed the mines and piled them on the side of the road. There were many dead Germans there, too. After, we had a rest we moved to Fredappio and from there, one officer suggested that we should go to visit Isernia for a few days. It was Christmas. Some of us had girl friends, so we loaded food for ten days on a large army truck and off we went. It was a delight to see people that we knew.  A heavy snowfall blocked all the roads around Isernia.  We were stranded. Food and cigarettes had run out. The officer contacted Company Head Quarters, which sent us food. By the time they came, the road was cleared and we returned to our company.  From that Christmas visit, I was constantly writing letters to my girl friend, your mother, Lucia. At that time, she did not entertain thoughts of marriage.

Shortly after, my friend, Lucien Michalski and I were assigned to instruct infantry soldiers on the handling of explosives, mines and booby-traps. I was later assigned to a group for eight months, to train for operating and guiding pontoons with sections of a bridge attached to them. I operated four motors on a pontoon.  This bridge was to be constructed on the Po River. At Capua, we practiced our maneuvering of the pontoons on a river near there. That is where I heard the bad news that my friend Lucien had died by stepping on an anti-personnel mine.  We had been very good friends.

Later, my company moved on again until we arrived at Castrocano where “The Duce, Mussolini” had had a villa there. We checked all the villa buildings for mines and booby-traps. We stayed there for two weeks.  I passed a course to drive trucks and received my first driver’s license.  Occasionally, I returned to visit my friends in Isernia, the Materiale family at Via Marianino, No. 11.  Your future grandfather, Francesco Materiale and future grandmother, Leonarda, had two girls, Lucia and Wanda; and one boy, Tomasso. Tomasso was thirteen at the time. Today he lives in Canada with his own family.

Shortly after, the Polish Army moved again, pushing the Germans towards Bologna. We saw a good sign; the Germans were pulling their tanks and trucks, one behind the other. They were low on fuel and some of the vehicles had been abandoned in the ditches. We had advanced very near Bologna. Our soldiers entered the city of Bologna and the war for us in Italy was over.  It was May 5th, 1945!

I was very fortunate that the bridge on the Po River did not need to be built.  We returned to Porto San Georgio for a rest. This town was very close to Isernia. My friend Wladek Koschewa and I went to Isernia, catching rides on trucks and trains, through the mountains.  Hitchhiking to see our good friends.

The war was over and Italy was free; but, still in Poland the battle was being fought. In Warsaw, the Polish Army was fighting the Germans. The Russians and the other Polish Army was also advancing on the Germans. My three brothers and brother-in-law were joined in the battle against the Germans. My brother Kacper was a Captain in that Polish Army. As we all know today, Poland is now a Communist Country. Berlin was captured shortly after. Then the Yalta Conference of the Big Three was held, with Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin.  This is where our Allied friends betrayed the Poles, and Churchill and Roosevelt gave to Stalin parts of Poland. 

At the end of the war, I was awarded the following medals: 

  • The Cross of Valour, an honorary decoration for wounds,

  • The Monte Cassino Cross,

  • The Army medal,

  • The 1939-45 Star,

  • The Italy Star,

  • The Defence Medal,

  • The War Medal 1939-45

 

The territory where I used to live and call my homeland, where I was born, grew up, and lived for twenty-one years, was given to Russia. Most of us Poles, on Italian soil, did not have a homeland to return to. At the time, I did not know where my immediate family was and I did not know for five years more. I did not know whether my family was dead or alive.

The time came for the Polish Army to be moved to England and for the soldiers to be discharged to civilian life. The soldiers could immigrate to wherever they chose. The British Government would pay the expenses.

To keep from going to England, I requested to stay in Italy. I remained with the trucks and equipment that was being transferred to the Italian Army. I asked for this detail, because I planned to be married.  I had begun to issue the proper documents while our headquarters was still in Italy.  I requested the Italian government for a “Sogiorno”, to stay in Italy. I received permission to stay and I stayed in Isernia with the Materiale family that I had known for three years.  I asked Francesco and Leonarda Materiale for permission to marry their daughter Lucia. There was a lot of hesitation, for at the time, I had no home and they still did not know that much about me.  Somehow, they agreed. I married Lucia Materiale on August 8th, 1946, in the same house that I had met her for the first time. From my side of the family, I had no one at our wedding, no friends, only myself, because all of my friends had left for England. After the wedding, Lucia and I left for Porto San Georgio, hitchhiking, carrying our luggage on Army trucks, and changing trucks, occasionally.

For me it was easy, I was used to this; but for my new bride, well, she had a real experience. To this day, I do not think that she has ever forgotten that experience. We arrived at Porto San Georgio.  Many soldiers were married to Italian girls, from many different parts of Italy. We had a huge kitchen cooking for us, in a building that used to be used as a school.  The room in which we stayed was very large and twelve married couples stayed there. A curtain of blankets divided each bed. We stayed there for a little while.

Shortly after, we moved to Grotto Mare, and stayed there for a while.  From there we went to Macharatta where I was discharged from the Polish Army. I received civilian clothes and a little bit of money. We returned to Isernia to my wife’s parents. Lucia was expecting our first child.  It was 1947.  My wife gave birth to a baby boy and named him Joseph after my father.  In Isernia, I worked at carpentry and upholstery; but there was not much work. We moved from the old house in Isernia to a newer one, all of us, my wife’s parents, their family and our little family, until my little family immigrated to Canada.

My first cousin Phillip lived in Canada and our decision was to go to this new country.  Money was a problem, as we did not have any.

Joseph just began to walk at this time.  He was fourteen months old.  We packed all our meager possessions; I did not have any, just the clothes that I wore - the clothes with the empty pockets.  My wife had a mattress and some sheets. We packed those things and we were ready to go. The belongings had to be shipped to Genoa; but we had no money. Your grandparents, the Materiales, borrowed 10,000 Lire and paid for shipping our belongings to Genoa for us. We said good-bye to Isernia and everyone else and left for Torino. Near that city, there was a camp and we waited there approximately two weeks for the transport.

We boarded a Polish ship “The Sobieski” at Genoa and departed for Canada. The ship sailed through the Mediterranean and passed Gibraltar. That part of the journey was not too bad; but on the open Atlantic crossing, now, that was really something else!  Your mother got so sick on the rough ocean; she could not get up from her bed. She could not eat either. Lucia and I were separated for two weeks. The women slept in one place and the men in another. During the daytime, we could come together. All that time, I was washing Joseph’s diapers until we arrived at the Port of Halifax at Pier 21, our first stop in Canada.  The date was December 1st, 1948.  Our pockets were empty, not a penny to our name.

We passed the Custom’s inspection and the Canadian Government gave us thirty dollars to buy food on our train journey to my cousin’s farm at Lanfine, Alberta. We boarded the train and headed towards Winnipeg, Manitoba. There we stopped for one day. We arrived on a Saturday night and the weather was very cold!  Mother and I had some warm clothes; but Joseph had come to Canada in shorts.  I had to go to a store and buy warmer clothes for him. I found a store where a Ukrainian-speaking girl worked. We spoke in Ukrainian and I asked her for a snowsuit and paid $3.60 for that suit. Then, I bought food for four days and the money was getting low. We still had a week to go. Each time the train stopped, I would go buy some bread and sausage to eat. Joseph was eating bread, dipped in coffee and milk. We only had one warm meal on the train. Finally, we arrived at our destination, Lanfine, where my cousin, Phillip Drewniak was waiting for us.  The night that we arrived, the weather was very cold. Phillip took us to his house on the farm. In 1948, there was no electricity, only kerosene lamps for light. We stayed at Phillip’s farm for about one month. I helped Phillip with his work on the farm, feeding the cattle and milking the cows.

From the first day, Joseph was not feeling well. He cried a lot, at night. My cousins were annoyed with all the noise. We began looking for some place else to go. We went to my cousin Barbara’s at Sedalia. There we stayed for a few days. Mother stayed for two weeks with Joseph. I found a job in Cereal, Alberta and went to work on the Canadian National Railway track as a section man.  I worked at Cereal for one month and then moved to Hanna, Alberta. I worked there for three weeks.  No house could be found to rent. In Hanna, we lived in a rooming house – all three of us in one room. There was not any place to cook or wash clothes. We ate at the restaurant, three times a day and it was very expensive. From Hanna, we moved to Chinook, Alberta. There was an empty bunkhouse for a CN employee. One room, a single bed, a table and the wood stove heater in the middle of the room. We moved in.  Joseph slept with his mother and I slept on the table every night for two weeks. When I went to work, I was as stiff as that table!

Later, my cousin Phillip brought us the mattress that we carried from Italy. It was much better to sleep on.  When I received my first CN paycheck, $74.00, I thought I was rich!  Three months later, I bid on a more permanent CN job.

In 1949, I was stationed at Pinkham, Saskatchewan. I did not even know where that place was. I went first, leaving Mother and Joseph in Chinook. I figured that if I went first, I would find a place to rent and then call for them.  I was surprised again!  I found no house to rent, especially in such a small place!

Again, we moved into a bunkhouse. We stayed in Pinkham for six months, then we moved to Alsask, Saskatchewan in 1950.  Again no room!  Again, we moved into a bunkhouse! Our second son, Francis, was born July 31, 1950 at Oyen Alberta General Hospital.  In the meantime, I purchased a house in Alsask that had been damaged by fire and I rebuilt the house. We lived there for one and a half years.  A CN man had been laid off and I was moved again.  In 1953, we moved to Kindersley, Saskatchewan. Once more, there was no room and no house for rent!  We did manage to find a little shack with two little rooms, no water and no toilet.  Michael, our third son was born September 5th, 1953 at the Kindersley General Hospital. We sold the house in Alsask, saved some money and Mother went to the Town of Kindersley to buy a lot on 2nd Avenue.  I built a new home that had two bedrooms, a living room, bathroom and kitchen. Mother had a hard time, not knowing how to speak good English and doing all the chores around the house, while I was on the CN job and working on the new house until late at night.

In 1955, Thomas Materiale came to Canada from Italy. Thomas stayed with us. Shortly after, in 1957 our only daughter, Annamaria, was born on September 17th, 1957.  We decided to sell the house in order to build a larger one. Again, we built a new house from scratch.  The second house is located on 4th Avenue West in Kindersley, where Mother and I are presently living.

All of you children finished High School and graduated in Kindersley. In 1961, I bought my first car; a 1959 Fairlane Ford. It made it easier to get around. In 1966, I was promoted to Section Foreman with more pay! I worked the CN track until 1984, when I retired in September with thirty-five and a half years of service. All of you children have grown up and have married with your own families and homes.

From the beginning, there were only two of us and today only two of us again. We watched our children grow and now our grandchildren, looking towards their own futures. We pray for their happiness and peace in the City of Calgary, Alberta.

Postscript:

The war was over, but I had had no news from home. My family did not know where I was, whether dead or alive. One day a letter came from within Canada from my good friend, Michal Dobrus.  While I was still living in Italy, Michal had gone to Canada before me. His father had written to him from Poland and he had told Michal that he had seen my brother, Stefan.  Stefan had given his address to Michal’s father. I at last made contact with my family. We wrote letters to each other. I found out that they had left everything, the house and land, for the Russians and had moved to the West and settled on land given to them by the Polish-communist government.  My father was staying with my sister Magdalena. My brother Michal was with his family, living in Beholiwice near the Czechoslovakian border.

My father died in 1950, the year that our second son, Francis was born. My brother Michal died years later, as did Stefan. My sister Magdalena is eighty-two years old and still lives at the same place. My brother Kacper was a Captain in the Polish Army and now lives in Szczecin and he has two sons.

After thirty-five years, I visited Poland to see them for the first time since the war. I brought my brother Kacper to Canada for a thirty-day visit, so he could see how we live here. They were surprised when they came and saw what we have, especially our freedom. I went back to Poland twice, with Mother, and we made four trips to Italy.

The time is overdue to thank my traveling companion,

who has been with me all these years….

Lord,

When I recall,

All these things from the past,

In my mind I see,

You were always with me.

From my native land,

On that Russian train,

Through the Ural Mountains and its plain,

There, where no one would care,

You were with me there.

In the places where I did weep,

And the places where I did sleep,

On that bare ground,

In my clothes so torn,

It was You, Lord who kept me warm.

Everyplace that I went,

Sleeping below zero in that tent,

There where no one did care,

You, Lord were with me there.

I saw those small Spruce trees,

Where I was once on my knees,

At the end of each and every day,

That’s where I went to Pray,

By that little Spruce tree,

I knew Lord, You were with me.

I saw Lord that you had a plan,

To deliver me a slave in that Russian land,

As in the Bible, I did see,

You placed me in a boat on the Caspian Sea.

Through so many Arab lands,

Over the hot, dusty desert sands,

Across the Jordan to the Holy land,

A land full of thorns,

I saw Bethlehem where You were born.

I saw the rock where You did pray,

The Olive trees in Gethsemane,

From the garden very straight,

I saw Jerusalem’s Golden Gate.

You walked through this gate many times,

And, Lord I know Your last walk,

Through that Golden Gate, you took,

Before You died,

For the City of Jerusalem, You cried.

I saw where You had the Last Supper,

With Your chosen ones,

And the narrow crooked road

That winds up high,

Where You carried Your cross and died.

Lord, I know, only through Your Grace,

I had seen that place.

I went to Your tomb, for I care,

Lord, I was very glad,

That You were not there.

Thank You, Lord,

For the so many thousands of miles,

That you traveled with me,

Showing me the things that I may see.

From Palestine,

Over its hot desert sand,

You went with me to the Egyptian land,

Then across the Mediterranean Sea,

To Tarranto, Italy.

When I lay wounded on the ground,

So scared, Lord, You were with me there.

Even after, You cared for me,

Again, across the Atlantic Sea,

No sand, to Canada, My promised land.

Now, I stop and think awhile,

I thank You Lord for so many thousands of miles,

Over the land and sea,

Thank You for traveling with me.

From the first mile, when I did start,

I thank You, Lord, with all of my heart.

Today, I am old and gray,

Please travel with me Lord, the rest of the way.

Blessed be You in Your Glory,

For giving me a chance to tell my story.

Just the same, Lord, Blessed be Your Holy Name.

March 16th, 1987

Jan Drewniak, Age 67