Piotr & Wladyslawa GRABOWSKI
By: Mary (Grabowski) Shumilak
The following description of my parent’s experience includes excerpts (in italics, with page numbers) taken from a memoir written to honour their legacy. The memoir is entitled, The Soul’s Journey: Remembering a Legacy of Heroism & Resilience (Friesen Press: www.maryshumilak.com).
Our dad, Piotr Grabowski
Our dad, Piotr, was born in 1914 to Michal and Kataryna (Woiczik) Grabowski in the Radosza district not far from Katowice. These were tumultuous times, often with confused alliances. In what was once Poland, many remaining Jews successfully fought alongside their Polish comrades to seek independence from Russia until Poland finally re-emerged on the map of Europe after World War I. Between 1918 and 1924, in spite of having a destroyed infrastructure and being mired by instability, Poland adopted a modern democratic constitution, legislated an eight hour work day, as well as developed social, basic health and unemployment insurance benefits. It became a nation again. (p. 6) During my father’s early childhood, Poland was a fragile nation at best as it continued to be threatened at its borders. Food and most consumer goods were in short supply. One third of the population lived on the brink of starvation. Children were known to be kidnapped and taken to Russia to be used as factory or farm workers. Many childhood diseases that would eventually be eradicated by vaccines were still unchecked and claimed many lives. 1914 and many years to follow in Poland were no time or place to be a child. The political upheavals and lack of opportunity lead many Poles to immigrate to destinations offering more hope and opportunity, such as to western Canada and the eastern United States. But young Piotr and his younger sister, Margaret, would be raised by their mother, a young widow in this struggling country.
With the rise of the Third Reich in neighbouring Germany, and the tensions on both the western and eastern borders, Piotr, like thousands of other proud Polish men, would voluntarily enlist in the army in 1937. Army life suited him because he valued order and decorum. He was a “spit & polish” kind of man…The skills of his new life as a trained soldier, machine gunner, and platoon leader, who achieved the rank of Lance Sergeant (L/Sgt.), would be called into action when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. (p. 21)
The resistance of the Polish Army lasted merely five weeks. Most members of our dad’s troop were either killed or captured by the Gestapo. He tried to avoid capture and almost returned to his mother’s home in Katowice, but he was viciously captured by an Alsatian tracking dog and its Nazi handler on the Vistula River bank. Now a prisoner of war, our dad’s rank as L/Sgt. meant that he was deported to a hard labour camp in Germany. Had he been a ranking officer, he would have been executed by the Soviets in the Katyn forest and other densely forested areas with other ranking officers, government officials, and many professionals.(p. 21)
To refer to the location where our dad was held as a “camp” suggests that some sort of accommodations were provided. This location was only a guarded, fenced area with no buildings to shelter prisoners. Generally, all hard labour camps, and this was no exception, had a total lack of any hygiene facilities: no washing, bathing or soap. Toilets were boards with holes over an open trench. Prisoners were given one set of clothes but no opportunity to launder them, and they would soon become infested with vermin. They slept under the stars until late October. Every day they hoped for a delivery of lumber to build a barracks or some form of shelter as the nights were growing colder. Finally, in early November, the Nazis brought in large canvas huts, similar to circus tents without a floor. Since there were no beds and the ground was cold, the prisoners slept close together in layers. One man slept on top, one in the middle, and one on the bottom directly on the frozen ground. After a couple of hours, they rotated, and that would have to suffice. Overcrowding, coupled with their close sleeping arrangements with other lice-infested prisoners, led to repeated outbreaks of typhus….Our dad recalled that during a particularly severe outbreak, when he woke in the morning, the men above and below him were dead. Although he was growing weaker, for some unknown reason he was still alive. This scenario would repeat itself during his internment. He did not ever contract this dreaded disease and believed that his life was spared thanks to divine intervention. (p. 22)
There were over 1000 Stalags built to house captured servicemen in Germany alone. Life in the camp was harsh. As time went on, we would learn that to supplement their meagre diet, in the summer the prisoners grew and ate spinach, and in the winter they would scavenge from the flesh of frozen dead horses that were piled up in the camp enclosure. Our dad said that at the end of the war he weighed less than 100 pounds and was close to death, with swollen knee joints that made walking very difficult. Since starvation was so common, and he witnessed many men die of it, he knew his time was coming soon.
Miraculously, through it all, our dad survived and experienced the Armistice. …No one could live through such a fearful experience and not have it permanently alter their emotional state. (p. 23)
When our dad was liberated from the hard labour camp, he and many other men and women were taken to a relocation camp in Wildflecken. Although still in Germany, this area was controlled by the US Army. There they were given a medical examination and treatment, clothing and supplies, much-needed nutrition, and hygiene facilities. After a period of recovery he joined the Polish Provisional Brigade, which worked under the direction of the US Army to keep the camp secure. He rapidly regained his strength and looked forward to returning to Poland. Then he met Wladyslawa Koziol, engaged in a six-week whirlwind romance, which was common at the time, and married her on September 23, 1945. During the coming five years they moved to three different camps: Bamberg, Coburg and Altenstadt. Coincidently, a new baby arrived at each one. After receiving a letter from his father-in-law that described the dire conditions in post-WWII Poland, our parents decided to secure a safer future for their three young children by immigrating to Canada. At the time, our dad signed an undertaking that would commit him to work at a job that the Canadian Ministry of Labour would provide before his family could join him. He was assigned to work as a woodcutter in a camp outside of Atikokan, Ontario. On November 24, 1950, he would leave his little family behind, board the General R.M. Blatchford in Bremerhaven, Germany and embark on a life-changing journey. (p. 24)
Our Mom, Wladyslawa Koziol
Our Mom, Wladyslawa, was born to Franciszek and Stanislawa (nee Pawelec) Koziol in Piotrokow on Christmas Day, 1920. She was the first born who helped to raise five sisters and one brother on a small family-owned farm. She had also cared for a younger brother who died as a young child. Following some formal education at a local school, she apprenticed as a seamstress in Lublin, a city not too far from their village and farm. It might have been a promising future. But when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, everything drastically changed.
Throughout WWII, the Nazis systematically turned neighbours against their neighbours. They demanded that a neighbour identify one member of a specified family who would then be arrested and deported to work in German factories or on farms. This policy created suspicion and mistrust amongst neighbours so that even decades later, people would not keep family photos on display at home to prevent outsiders from identifying their relatives.
The eldest child in the family was often the one identified because they would be the most productive. Our grandparents were fearful of what may become of their eldest daughter, Wladyslawa. In November 1942, their worst nightmare was realized when the SS arrived to arrest her. She was imprisoned in a holding cell in Lublin. Her parents did not know of her actual whereabouts and feared that she would be taken to Madjanek, a concentration turned death camp on the outskirts of Lublin. The holding cell was not enough to keep her from escaping custody. She climbed onto a rooftop, jumped over a fence onto another rooftop, and then ran away. (p. 31) …In 1942 she was a spry, determined young woman, who would never let fear stop her from returning home.
The SS returned to re-arrest her, but her parents were unaware that she had escaped. With the help of her sister Celina, she managed to hide. She spent two weeks in various homes and in the King’s forest….Finally, when she returned home, our grandparents hid her in a root cellar on the property where potatoes and other root vegetables were stored for winter. Not wanting anyone to know of her whereabouts, her father would only bring her food under the cover of darkness. The SS returned again and told our grandparents that they were growing tired of her tricks and that if she did not surrender to them, our grandfather would take her place. Our grandfather gave our grandmother strict orders that if he was arrested, not to allow our mom to surrender herself under any circumstances. Not long after, the SS returned and held him in Lublin. When our grandmother delivered food that night, our mom immediately realized what had become of her father. She knew what to do. After one last family meal, their eldest daughter courageously surrendered to the SS with the hope that our grandfather would be returned to provide for the family. Strangely, as promised, he was returned. She was deported to work as a slave in a German munitions factory, never to return to Poland again. (p. 32)
Our mom rarely spoke of her experiences in the slave labour camp. She did say that she lived in a barracks with young women similar in age. They were fed, had a place to sleep, and were provided with some basic necessities. For as long as she followed the rules, their daily existence was tolerable. At that time, her greatest challenge was the mental anguish of not knowing what was happening at home. She did not know of the whereabouts of her family and friends, or what would happen to her after the war. Did the SS release her father? Would she still have a home, or a country? She knew her past, lived in the present, but could not look ahead to any kind of imaginable future. (p. 32)
At the end of the war in 1945, she was taken to a relocation camp in Wildflecken, which was part of the US zone of Germany. It was full of young servicemen, who were also recently released prisoners of war, and, of course, women just like her. Everyone was displaced but, to a limited degree, free. She was fortunate to remain with three good friends from the camp. Our mom considered herself to be a bit of a matchmaker since she introduced all three friends to handsome servicemen whom they would later marry. At that time, a typical courtship was five or six weeks. Churches would perform marriage ceremonies for several couples at a time, like a wedding assembly line all day. As each friend married, it occurred to her that she had better meet someone or risk being left alone. Soon she met our dad, Piotr Grabowski, L/Sgt with the Polish Provisional Brigade. He was six years older, and a proven survivor as he had been a prisoner of war in a hard labour camp for the entire six-year Nazi occupation. She considered him to be both handsome and kind. Since everyone else was getting married, their turn was next. So after a six-week romance, they too were married in a Roman Catholic Church on September 23, 1945, with five other couples. Their marriage would last for 45 years (pp. 32-33).
Prior to their immigration to Canada, they lived in three different relocation camps: Bamberg, Coburg and Altenstadt. Coincidently, there would be a new addition to their family at each location (Anna, Zbigniew, Jan)…Our dad worked security under the direction of the US Army, and Mom, of course, cared for their children. She said that the Americans gave special consideration to families with children and ensured there was ample milk to drink and enough fresh food. She knew our dad was a good man who loved his children greatly. She often recalled how he would never eat a meal with them but rather sat and watched while they all ate, and then only finished whatever was left over. The pain of having come so close to starvation was always with him, and he would never want his family to ever experience it (p. 33)… Living conditions in the relocation camps were bearable, certainly better than what it was during the war. Both she and our dad described the struggles they overheard and saw in their apartment block. Screams from night terrors down the hall and sleepwalkers on the roof were common. Even though the war had ended, and time would heal the physical injuries, it did not erase the psychological damage that would follow each displaced person as they slowly tried to create a new life. Our parents and many others never escaped this painful reality. (pp. 33-34)
In 1950, our dad left the family in Altenstadt while he proceeded to Canada…On July 20th, 1951, our mom with two preschoolers, one baby still in arms, and one brown valise to hold their belongings, heroically embarked on a three-week trans-Atlantic voyage aboard the MS Nelly. They were safely delivered to Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia…Without knowing a word of English, the four of them took the train from Halifax to Winnipeg, Manitoba where they were greeted at the station by our dad. The last leg of the journey was just over twenty miles, from Winnipeg to Selkirk. It would end in front of a two-room shanty on Dufferin Avenue. Their shanty looked similar to a Polish farm-house. Our mom recalled seeing it and thinking it was a nice little house. Her children could play on the grass in the safety of a fenced yard, totally unlike the camp that was left behind. This was finally their home (p. 35).
Our family’s future would unfold as most futures do, with little fanfare. But our story was framed within a challenging history that began long before our parents were born. Home for the Grabowski family became Selkirk, Manitoba. We attended Notre Dame Church every Sunday morning. Our dad worked for Abex Industries, a steel foundry. But in 1952 he suffered a setback when his leg was crushed in an industrial accident. This accident, of course, was extremely painful with a long and difficult recovery. They were resilient, and with the help of a wise Dr. William Easton, and modern medicine, the leg was saved.
In 1956, they moved to a larger house at 224 McLean Avenue. After a long recovery and a temporary return to the Atikokan area to work, he was rehired to work at the steel foundry. In spite of wishing for a paying job, our mom remained a homemaker and took great pride in her cooking, baking and sewing skills. She often sewed for others. The fabric of many graduation and bridesmaid gowns in the Selkirk area flowed through her skilled hands.
Our dad was a member of both the Royal Canadian Legion and the Army & Navy Veterans. Both veterans’ associations provided important, albeit unofficial emotional support and a social outlet where my dad had the opportunity to listen and share stories with men who also had war time experiences. In their later years, many a Saturday night dance at the Army and Navy was spent in the company of their friends who were members too.
In spite of the fact that they had very little money, they maintained strong ties to my mom’s family in Poland. They exchanged regular letters that tied us to the old country. In response to the stories of hardship, our parents sent parcels containing an assortment of consumer goods…They would then share the contents. Our parents sent what was most needed, like sewing notions, zippers, elastic, and bolts of fabric. They also included bigger things, like men’s suits, Anna’s wedding gown, the occasional doll, and new blue jeans that would be sold on the black market for cash…If there was an upcoming wedding they sent real coffee, an improvement over the roasted grain that Poles were used to drinking. They also included boxes of tea bags, sugar cubes, raisins, nuts, baking chocolate, and anything else that would help with the preparations for the special day. Neither of our parents ever returned to Poland because they couldn’t afford to send the much needed parcels and pay for the extravagance of a long-distance flight. It was one or the other, and that was understood. (pp. 37-38)
Raising their three and eventually four children in a new country with different cultural norms that often conflicted with their own upbringing was a huge challenge. They had unrelenting fears for their children’s safety. Our parents tried their best. Although we didn’t have many of the extras common to many households, we were well fed, dressed and loved. They valued hard work, education and faith. They were able to enjoy the weddings of all four children and lived to hold all nine grandchildren. There was no greater joy than for them to hold the next generation.
Our dad died of cancer in 1990. He agreed to one surgery but politely declined all other surgeries and treatment options. He even clearly stated prior to having the first surgery that nothing would help because his time had come…But he did not fear death for one minute. He always knew that he could have died earlier. Our dad absolutely believed that God had saved him for a purpose, and that was to bring their children to safety, raise them as best he could, and welcome nine grandchildren into the world…He strongly believed that heaven was waiting and accepted his fate without reservation. (p. 28)
Our mom did not do very well after our dad died. Although they did not always see eye to eye, she clearly missed his companionship. She became afraid of being alone. As time went on, she became afraid of the dark, confused, and lost. In 1994, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and finally succumbed to it in 2007. (p. 41)
In spite of the challenges, our parents would have considered themselves blessed by God who they believed helped deliver their children to a safe, democratic country with limitless opportunities. It was all they ever wanted and in spite of all of the fears, loneliness, sacrifices and difficulties, it was a goal they proudly achieved. It was for each of them, the soul’s journey.
Copyright: Mary (Grabowski) Shumilak