Polish immigrants to Lambton County couldn’t go back home after the Second World War
John DeMars speaks with Krystyna Stalmach following her presentation at the Sombra Museum in April. Stalmach spoke about her project commemorating the sacrifices of Lambton-area Polish war veterans entitled Our History, Our Heroes: Polish War Veterans — From Fighting Wars to Farming Fields in Lambton. (HANDOUT/ SARNIA OBSERVER/ POSTMEDIA NETWORK)
While Nazism had been wiped out in Europe, the encroachment of Stalin’s Red Army behind the Iron Curtain meant thousands of Poles who had fought against Hitler’s legions weren’t able to return to their homes, their families or to their land. Soviet oppression had replaced German tyranny as the occupying force in their homeland.
Recognizing that reality and appreciative of the valiant contributions of Polish soldiers during the war, the Canadian government offered refuge to many Polish vets, prisoners-of-war and refugees who were left stateless after the conflict. With a shortage of manual labour in rural Canada, the government offered full citizenship for these immigrants, provided they spent two years working on a farm.
The government’s offer attracted thousands of applicants. From 1946 to 1952, approximately 39,000 Polish veterans, displaced people and refugees poured into Canada. Over half of the new arrivals settled in Ontario and some sought to make their future in Lambton County.
Krystyna Stalmach’s father, Jan Pradyszczuk, was one of those new arrivals in Lambton. Pradyszczuk was a veteran who had fought alongside Allied forces at the Battle of Monte Cassino, a bloody, costly struggle in southern Italy that was the prelude to the Allies’ capture of Rome.
When fighting ceased in Italy and the young veteran realized there was no returning to his occupied homeland, so he decided to take up the Canadian government on its offer.
Pradyszczuk climbed aboard the first ship full of immigrants destined for Canada, which arrived in Halifax on Nov. 12, 1946. He was one of seven Polish veterans onboard that first ship – the others included Michal Waldemara, Jan Prozorowicz, Michal Radziewicz, Aleksander Salaz, Antoni Fiedukowicz, and Jozef Lopata — all of whom were to make Lambton County their new home.
Scores of Poles followed this first group to Lambton County over the following seven years – some veterans coming from the French and Dutch campaigns, some coming from Italy, others coming from Poland’s vaunted air squadrons in England — gradually building a vigorous and vibrant Polish community in Sarnia-Lambton.
After spending two years working on the Lambton-area Macdonald farm, Pradyszczuk, like many Polish immigrants in the region, traded toiling soil with work in one of Sarnia’s plants.
When Pradyszczuk died in 1999, his daughter wondered whether the history of these brave veterans would be forgotten.
“I was very concerned since my father died that a lot of the artifacts that were from the war were just going to disappear,” Stalmach said. “Children and grandchildren don’t really value them, don’t care for them as much and they’re not organized properly… things are stored in garages and basements.”
For 14 years, though, her plan to commemorate Lambton County area Polish veterans lay dormant. It took a conversation with a local history buff to whet Stalmach’s interest in memorializing these Polish immigrants.
“We had a book sale at our church in 2013, and I had a discussion with Ted Gil, who was very interested in military history,” Stalmach said. “The project came about just because of that conversation.”
The pair discussed the massive, often unheralded contributions that Polish soldiers made during the war and the courageous service many local Polish war veterans made in fighting fascism.
So in early 2014, Stalmach and a small group of volunteers started researching the project that would eventually be known as Our History, Our Heroes: Polish War Veterans – From Fighting Wars to Farming Fields in Lambton.
Immediately, Stalmach recruited a trio of dedicated volunteers – Barbara Ozbrun, Barbara Bozek and Krystyna Rozek – who along with Stalmach and Gil started investigating Lambton County’s connection with Poland’s armed forces during the war.
“At the annual Polish Christmas dinner, we went from table to table to ask if people had anything from their fathers and mothers,” Stalmach said. “Surprisingly, we found quite a few things that people treasured – they were stored in basements, closets, drawers and garages.
“After that I thought, ‘if we (volunteers) find a way to organize these artifacts maybe we can save a big part of our history’.”
The volunteers’ investigation uncovered many gems. The group of five found a treasure trove of medals, letters, uniforms, keepsakes and artifacts from veterans across the region.
“We discovered a full uniform with rain coat, battle dress of a soldier who fought with General Maczek,” she said.
Maczek was Poland’s most formidable and decorated general during the Second World War; he fought against the Nazis with his armoured division in Poland, France, Holland and North Africa. Stripped of his citizenship by the communists following the war, Maczek was eventually awarded the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest military honour, following the collapse of the communist regime. When he died in 1994 at age 102, Maczek asked that his body be buried alongside his fallen comrades in the Polish military cemetery in Breda, Holland.
But even more importantly than the artifacts, though, were the stories that Stalmach and her team uncovered.
Stalmach met a mechanic, Jozef Polimaka, from Poland’s storied ‘303 Squadron’, the Polish air squadron that played key roles in the Battle of Britain, Dieppe and on D-Day. Polimaka emigrated from England to Port Lambton shortly after the war.
Stalmach also uncovered the story of Sarnia resident Mr. Switocz, a member of Poland’s domestic underground army who fought in the ultimately unsuccessful Warsaw Uprising of 1944.
And she also talked to Emil Hajko, another veteran of the Italian campaign and a Special Forces officer who was dropped in Poland to organize underground structures against Poland’s occupiers.
In all, the group found enough material to make 22 shadow boxes, filled with the stories and sentiments of some of the Polish heroes who made Lambton County their home.
“We’re not a museum, but we organized everything and gave them back to the people and families. It’s our way of saying thank you,” Stalmach said.
“What we have left is information about the achievements of these people. We have archival photos, and when we took these boxes out on display we created three different traveling displays so we could share their story,” she said.
Our History, Our Heroes: From Fighting Wars to Farming Fields in Lambton documents three distinct aspects of Lambton County veterans’ war experiences. The first display deals with Polish veterans of the Italian/Normandy campaigns, the second display pertains to veterans who participated in the Warsaw uprising and the group created a children’s display documenting the story of Wojtek the Bear, a brown bear who had been adopted as a mascot by the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps.
The displays have already been taken across the province, exhibited at museums, schools and at events around southwestern Ontario and beyond and have met with resounding praise Stalmach said.
“We’ve brought it to the Polish Hall (in Sarnia), Art Walk, a Polish teachers’ convention in Burlington, Sarnia Library, Moore Museum, Sombra Museum and the Polish Combatant’s Association in London,” she said. “They all loved it.”
By retracing her father’s own steps and by investigating the numerous and fascinating stories of other Polish veterans in the region, Stalmach said she found a new respect for these brave souls who gave everything up and took a big risk in coming to a foreign country. Their tales are far different from typical immigrant stories, she said.
“The people who came here (after the war) really couldn’t go back. They didn’t have a home to go back to. Many were afraid, because of the Soviets, and rightly so,” she said.
“People didn’t have a homeland to come back to, and they were all very grateful to Canada and made this land into their new homeland.”
While the story of Polish efforts in the Second World War is often overlooked in history books – in part due to Stalin’s efforts to demonize Poland’s non-communist fighters – raising awareness about these veterans is important work, Stalmach said.
And the recent liberation ceremonies that took place in Holland reinforced her drive to get these stories out.
“When I watched the liberation ceremonies in Holland, I almost wanted to cry,” Stalmach said, pausing. “I’m not sure if people realize that the Polish First Corps was fighting together in the Canadian campaign in Normandy, or that part of the contingent of Polish soldiers went to Holland. They helped liberate Holland along with the Canadians.”
“I want people to know this… and I think that the displays we’ve made are a lasting memorial to our heroes and their families,” she said.
For more information about Our History, Our Heroes or to share a story, contact Krystyna Stalmach at firstname.lastname@example.org