Polish Air Force in the UK
Jozef Palimaka worked hard building a good life for himself and his family in Canada after surviving a Soviet invasion, starvation and disease in a Siberian gulag and then serving in the Polish Air Force in the UK.
Jozef was born the son of a soldier in 1926 in a small town near Krakow, Poland.
The family, including Jozef's sister and two brothers, moved to land his father bought in 1936 in Eastern Poland.
After Stalin invaded that part of the country in 1939, the family was among the hundreds of thousands forcibly taken from their homes and deported to work camps in Siberia. There, they had to cut trees, or build railways, or work in mines in order to earn a meager piece of bread per day. Many did not survive the hardships.
“We stayed there suffering hunger and diseases,” he said. “I never thought I would be able to get out. I thought I was going to sink down in Siberia and never see the light.”
At age 13, he came closing to dying while the family was still interned in the labour camp. “I remember going already to heaven, and it was quite an experience,” he said. “I felt so good going to a light, like the sun. I was warm, very happy.” And then, he felt pain and heard voices saying, “he's coming back, he's coming back,” Jozef said. “And, I came back.”
In 1941, the Germans turned against their ally, Russia, so Russia then changed sides and became an ally of the west. Stalin then agreed yo ‘amnesty’ the Poles who had been deported to Siberia and have them form a Polish army in the south of the USSR. Jozef and his family left the labour camp and made the arduous journey over thousands of miles to reach the Polish army. The family evacuated with the army to Persia (Iran) where Jozef’s father succumbed to disease and malnutrition and died in Teheran.
Only 112,000 soldiers and civilians evacuated to Persia before Stalin changed his mind and closed the borders.
Jozef’s mother and three siblings were sent to a Polish settlement in Rhodesia, Africa, while he signed up as an RAF cadet in Palestine, spending a year training in Gaza before being sent to Great Britain where he received additional training as an engine mechanic.
Through the rest of the Second World War, he served in the ground crews of several squadrons, including No. 303, a celebrated Polish fighter squadron that was part of the Polish Air Force in the UK.
Following the war, Jozef joined the Polish Resettlement Corps and attended a school set up to prepare servicemen for civilian life. His mother and siblings joined him in England and they lived in a Nissan hut on what used to be an army base.
That's where Jozef met and married Frances, a fellow native of Poland who also spent time during the war at a Polish settlement in Africa.
Jozef found tool and die work while attending night school, but he was ready to leave England. “The English weather was very bad for my health,” he said. Pointing out his kitchen window on a rainy, cool day, he said, “That's English weather.”
In 1955, he came to Canada with Frances and the first of what would eventually be a family of seven children.
Jozef had offers for jobs in a few Canadian cities when they left England, and Frances decided on Chatham, Ontario.
He worked there for a time and then took a job at a tool and die business in Wallaceburg, Ontario, where he later set up his own business, Five Star Tool and Die, with partner, Walter Hoja. “We ran this business for 26 years, and then decided we'd had enough,” he said.
In 1985, they sold the business and Jozef and his family moved from Wallaceburg to Port Lambton, Ontario.
Frances died 20 years ago and, in his retirement, Jozef became involved in Polish Canadian organizations, and continues to sit on the Windsor branch of the Canadian Polish Congress.
A few years ago, Jozef was awarded the Gold Cross of Merit by the Republic of Poland at a ceremony attended by the Polish Ambassador to Canada.
“I'm glad that I managed to bring my family to a different level, a different life than I had,” he said, “But, it was hard work.”
Jozef at age 91
(Photo by Paul Morden of the Sarnia Observer)
Polish: Bronze Cross of Merit, with swords