Cadet of the Polish 2nd Corps
Marian Wiącek was born in 1930 in Korzec, pow. Równe, woj. Wołyńskie, Poland. On February 10, 1940, there was the bang on the door in the middle of the freezing night. Soviet soldiers armed with bayonets stood outside.
Ten-year-old Marian, his nine-year-old brother Tolek, four-year-old sister Lala and their mother, Zofia, were ordered to pack what they could carry and be ready for transport in a waiting sleigh. Three days earlier, their father Antoni, a former Polish military officer, had been arrested by Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD. – he was eventually executed at KATYN.
While the sleigh waited, Zofia handed the boys a small box containing their father’s war medals. The boys quickly hid the box behind a loose brick.
As the sleigh pulled away, little Marian turned to look back, trying to memorize everything about the home where he grew up.
His childhood had been idyllic. “The summer of 1939 had been long and hot and for us children this meant it had been a glorious time of swimming, fishing and playing. But suddenly the world around us started crumbling. The atmosphere in Korzec grew very tense. The Ukrainian people, who had been our friends, suddenly seemed to have a lot of anti-Polish feelings and stopped talking to us. The Jewish people in town were very quiet. They had heard about the terrible things going on in Germany.”
Although the family had been advised to flee, Wiacek’s father believed Poland would be able to defend itself — a mistake that would cost him his life.
The family were sent to Poldniewica, Szarynski rejon, Gorkowskaja Oblast in Siberia.
Marian credits his boy scout training for giving him the skills to survive. From the moment the family was herded into the cattle car on the train, he was determined to outsmart his captors. In Siberia, his mother became a slave labourer. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat,” the guards told them. It was so cold, the children wrapped their legs in linen and strips of willow, and poured water over them to make boots out of ice.
Marian put his scouting skills to use picking berries and mushrooms to help feed the family. As other prisoners died of cold and starvation, their bodies were left outside because the ground was too hard for burial. Ten-year-old Marian fell ill with Typhus, was pronounced dead and thrown on top of the pile of corpses. A friend of his mother’s saw his body and went closer. Realizing the boy was still alive, he plucked Marian off and saved his life.
In spite of the hardship, Marian never lost the sense a magic childhood brings: picking berries one day in the woods, he came face to face with a wolf. The two stood still, staring at each other, a moment of rare beauty that remains emblazoned in his mind.
When they were released on ‘amnesty’ in the fall of 1941, they traveled over the Ural mountains south to Taszkent, Samarkand, to Buchara. Then by camel-pulled "arba" to Wabkend. Eventually from there to Czolungo where his Mother organized a small orphanage.
Marian scrounged constantly for anything edible, played in the looted and burned out mosques and marvelled at every new thing he encountered: tumbleweed, scorpions, silkworms and fat-tailed Karakul sheep. He was inspired by his mother’s strength. “I never saw her cry, or if she did, she hid it from us,” he said.
In 1942, they evacuated to Persia with the Polish Army, and became refugees under the protection of the British and the Polish-government-in-exile in London. In December of that year they were sent to a Polish settlement in Kpja Uganda, where young Marian and his brother explored the jungle, playing among lions, snakes and elephants.
In 1944, Marian left Koja to enlist in Junaki (Cadets) in Palestine. He decided to become an engineer so he applied to join the IV Gimnazjum Mechaniczne. Over the next few years, the school was stationed in several locations: Kiriat Motzkin, Sarafand, and Kfar Billu.
In 1947, they were shipped to England where Marian joined the Polish Resettlement Corps and graduated from the Gimnazjum in Millom. After demobilization he had to go to work in order to bring his family from East Africa to England.
In 1975, with wife Danuta (nee Binieda ) and three small children, Marian emmigrated to Canada, first to Montreal, then in 1979 to Mississauga near Toronto. Marian worked for Duracell as a Product Development Manager.
In 1988, Marian transferred to the U.S., as Duracell had a worldwide research center in in Needham near Boston. There again Marian worked as a manager developing improved alkaline and zinc-air batteries.
In 1997, Marian retired and headed back to Canada, where he and Danuta built their log house on the shores of Kootenay Lake in British Columbia.
Marian never returned to his childhood home, but his memories survived. As a gift to his family, and perhaps a final act of defiance, he has written a stunning memoir, Window to Freedom, of his family’s fight for survival and the incredible seven-year odyssey that took a small boy to the Gulags of Siberia, then to Persia, Africa, Palestine, England and finally, Canada.
Marian passed away on February 16, 2017
Tolek, Zofia, Marian and Lala Wiacek . Photo by Mark Yuen /Vancouver Sun
Marian Wiacek’s father Antony Wiacek. Photo by Mark Yuen /Vancouver Sun
Marian Wiacek in 2016. Photo by Mark Yuen /Vancouver Sun