Remembering a life, after the trauma and dislocation of war.
Contributed by Mark Smyka
It started out as a regular Sunday night dinner. I had prepared a prime rib roast, my parents’ favourite meat-and-potatoes meal. Dad, still independent and driving in his mid-eighties, pulled into the driveway and then, clutching my mother’s arm in his gentlemanly way, escorted her up the front stairs and into our living room. Mom was her usual elegant self, dressed in her best, with everything matching perfectly, right down to the lovely scarf, pearl necklace and earrings.
There were five of us: my Mom and Dad, my wife, my son, and me. I’m not sure what prompted it. I doubt that it was pre-planned. I sometimes think it was simply the presence of my 10-year-old son, who was sitting next to my Dad and leaning slightly into his beloved Dziadek. For whatever reason, at some point towards the end of dinner, my Dad, without warning or expectation, opened up about his past. For the first time in my life I heard him tell his whole story … the harrowing escape from Poland in 1939 as war broke out around him, and then, in vivid detail that left us all breathless … what happened afterwards.
I knew some of the historical background from the private lessons my brother, sister and I took about Polish history and culture on Friday nights while other kids were out cavorting.
And there were brief glimpses into the past that my Dad offered during unguarded moments, or when he was fully at ease, like while cooking on camping trips in his favourite kitchen, which was at the end of a picnic table in front of a Coleman stove.
But these were all short, disconnected flashes that he had offered about his life. They felt more like dream sequences. At dinner that evening, we got to see the full nightmare.
Here is my Dad’s story.
May 9, 1920 – September 6, 2017
Our Dad was born on the outskirts of Warsaw on Sunday, May 9, 1920. He was the first of three children. He had a younger brother Wladislaw (our Wojek) and a sister Maria.
His father, Felix Smyka, was a game warden who lived a peaceful life with his three children and his wife Wanda.
Tragically, peace was something that our Dad was not to know again until very much later in his adult life.
Before his eighth birthday, Dad lost his father to complications resulting from a forest accident. Overwhelmed by the loss of her husband and the prospect of raising a family of three young children on her own, Dad’s mother Wanda sank into a debilitating depression.
The Smyka family was shattered. With Wanda unable to cope, the Smyka children were pulled from their home, separated and placed in the care of family and friends.
Dad and Wojek were sent south to Krakow, where they became the wards of a joyless woman who dutifully, but reluctantly, fulfilled a promise to her friend Wanda.
The few snippets we learned from Dad of his life during this time were dreary and tough. The only exceptions were his memories as a Boy Scout, which partly explained his love of nature and the outdoors that he shared with us with such passion in our childhood years … but also, as he often told us, accounted for his ability to survive the truly harrowing experiences that were yet to come.
In 1939, with Dad still a teenager, Poland’s brief period as a reconstructed and independent nation abruptly ended. German Panzer divisions crushed Poland from the West and Russian forces moved across the Polish plains from the East. What remained of the Polish government and Polish Army fled the country to re-establish itself in exile in Britain.
Dad and Wojek vowed they would join them … and take up arms in the fight for Poland.
Their plan was to make their way south, plotting a route through the Ukraine and the Balkans and eventually the Middle East where they hoped to meet up with Polish and British forces that were mobilizing there.
But their journey was short-lived. Somewhere along the Polish/Czech border, Dad, Wojek, along with a small band Polish boys, were captured by a troop of Ukrainian soldiers. Dad and Wojek were among the lucky ones. They weren’t shot.
But their fate was only slightly less brutal.
Dad and Wojek were sent to Moscow where they appeared before a kangaroo court to face false charges of political subterfuge. The sentence was years of hard labour at a forced labour camp in the Siberian gulag.
The next two years were punishing beyond imagination. The bone-chilling, relentless cold. The sparse food rations – Dad told us of a soup that consisted of a pot of boiling water with turnip scraps, potato peelings and assorted fish – and the numbing work of crushing rocks for Siberian railway beds.
Yet somehow, Dad’s will to survive was inextinguishable. Twice, his life went to the brink and he was read the last rites. On one of those occasions, a fellow inmate who had trained as a veterinarian, plunged a syringe into Dad’s lung and drained a litre of liquid, saving him from pneumonia.
During this time, Dad lost track of Wojek, knowing only that he was somewhere in the camp because he could hear Wojek’s surname called from time to time over the camp’s loudspeakers.
Mercifully, and with its own touch of irony, Dad and Wojek were both saved through the political machinations of Joseph Stalin. In 1941/2, two years after their sentencing, Polish political prisoners were released from the Siberian camps as part of a pact that Stalin made with the Allied Command.
Dad was freed. Yet he still had no contact with Wojek.
But there was no time to waste and no certain reason to delay. So Dad threw in with a group of fellow liberated Poles and they began their harrowing trek south, by train, by foot, by whatever means they could find. The destination, as was the case two years earlier, was the Middle East, and a hook-up with the British and Polish armies.
It is difficult to fathom, but somehow, armed with nothing but their own resourcefulness, these desperate young men made their way across an entire continent, eventually to Iran where they found refuge in a Polish army camp.
One day, while resting in a tent, Dad was casually talking with a Polish soldier, who in conversation said that he had just met a young man who bore a strong resemblance to him. Dad rushed madly through the camp, found the tent that he was searching for, flung open a flap and there saw his brother reclining on an army cot, looking up at him.
The brothers’ reunification was brief.
Dad felt the need to escape the heat and the sand of the Middle East. He enlisted to become a fighter pilot, placing him on track to be sent for training in Calcutta and Durban, South Africa before final deployment to England.
Wojek remained in Iran and become a tank soldier, later seeing action in North Africa and the vicious battle of Monte Casino.
Meanwhile, Dad, while in training discovered that he had a heart murmur, which disqualified him from being a pilot. But he remained attached to the air force and sailed to Scotland where, after a gruelling training program, became a member of the British Army’s Polish paratroop brigade.
In many ways, being a paratrooper defined Dad. Both in those wartime days and throughout the rest of his life as he socialized with former comrades at the Polish Veterans Hall in Toronto or when he stood upright beside them, dressed in beret and blue blazer at countless ceremonies honouring their service.
But nothing forged that identity as a paratrooper more powerfully than the moment that Dad, along with a planeload of pimply Polish youth, were dropped from low-flying Dakota bombers into a hail of German sniper fire over the Dutch town of Arnhem in September 1944. It was one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War.
Dad made it through that dark encounter and the rest of the war and took up his next assignment as a member of the post-war occupying forces in Germany.
It was there that he met the artistocratic Polish beauty Iwona, a veteran of the Polish Home Army, the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944 and another witness to the horrors of war. They fell in love and on March 2, 1946 began their incredible 71-year journey of marriage and unshakeable togetherness.
Mark's Mom and Dad at a soccer game in Germany in Spring ’46, and a portrait from their wedding day.
After a honeymoon and romance on the French Riviera, Dad and Mom returned to Germany where their first son Jacek (Jack) was born. It was also the scene of the next reunion between Dad and Wojek.
One day, Dad responded to a knock on the door. When he opened it, his jaw dropped at the sight of his brother standing on the doorstep. The celebratory dinner they enjoyed that evening could have fed an entire platoon.
It was surely one of the cruelest injustices of the post-World War II period, that the Polish patriots who fought so fiercely and so bravely to liberate their homeland, were prevented from returning to their native soil because the Communist Soviet regime had taken control of Poland after the war and would choke the country for the next four decades.
Poland was betrayed at the Conference at Yalta. Most say that a war-weary Churchill was simply indifferent to Poland’s fate. Others accuse FDR of ceding to Stalin in exchange for an agreement to help in the fight against Japan … but however history records the narrative, the Polish nation was, yet again, the loser.
But that was the reality, and the Poles grimly accepted it, choosing to restart their lives in small ex-pat communities across England and North and South America.
Dad and Mom chose the industrial town of Bradford in the English midlands. Wojek joined them there and returned to school to study chemistry. Dad, however, had a family to support. He stepped into an upholstery workshop, picked up a hammer, and began an apprenticeship that turned into a life-long obsession with quality and craft.
After the arrival of their second son Marek (Mark), Mom and Dad had a life decision to make. Whether to remain in England, where they and their children would be forever stigmatized as immigrants and foreigners, or to find a new, more welcoming home … and the opportunity to truly shape their own future.
With the savings from Dad’s soldier’s pay and a modest investment from the sale of their home in Bradford, the Smyka family boarded the ocean liner SS Franconia and sailed across the Atlantic, disembarking in Montreal before making it to their final destination in Toronto.
It was the classic immigrant story. Meagre funds. A few words of English. Mouths to feed, which shortly after coming to Canada became five with the arrival of the third Smyka child Monika (Monica).
There was no support from immediate family. No relief from parents or grandparents. They were alone and on their own. But they were filled with a spirit of hope and optimism … and a fearsome work ethic and a rock-hard determination to make it. There was no other choice.
Dad found a job working in a west-end factory, getting paid a small sum for every piece of furniture he finished upholstering. Every morning he boarded the Queen Street streetcar from the one-room townhouse he bought on Coxwell Avenue and crossed the city to his bench at a factory on Dufferin Street.
While the job, and Dad’s industriousness, provided enough for his family, it did nothing for his soul. Dad couldn’t take orders from anyone. His pride was everything. And so, with halting English and a rudimentary understanding of business, Dad struck out on his own and opened his one-man shop, Chester’s Upholstery.
The first location was an unheated garage in a back lane off Dupont Street. He started by reupholstering vinyl kitchen chairs, upholstering as many as he could. He struggled. He hustled. And through dogged determination began to expand his customer base.
Dad’s marketing plan amounted to one print run of a simple business card that read “Chester’s Upholstery” along with an address and phone number. He never had to print a second batch. Within a few years, his reputation as an honest and highly skilled craftsman spread. His calling card was his work.
Dad’s business grew entirely by word-of-mouth. Soon he became the upholsterer of choice of Rosedale and Forest Hill matrons, high-end hotels and discerning antique dealers.
They all recognized that Dad was much more than an upholsterer. He was a man of character and substance. He was a principled, old-world craftsman who cared deeply over every single stitch, over the perfect alignment of pattern and piping, over the precise composition of feathering and every other detail … on every single piece that left his shop.
Dad made it. He faced down every trial that came his way. He adapted. And he felt a deep sense of appreciation for his adopted home. Dad was as Canadian as he was Polish. Dad embraced Canada with the same warmth and openness that Canada showed him.
Of course Dad had his scars. But he hid them well. He never uttered a word of regret or complaint … and he never sought to lessen his pain by deflecting it onto others. After all, where would be the dignity in that?
Dad was lucid and fully engaged right to the end. He followed current events. Read the papers. Spent his evenings watching movies with Mom. He eagerly anticipated visits from his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. And he regularly followed the sport of tennis which he so admired and engaged in no end of commentary on the ups and downs of his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs.
Our Dad was an outstanding soldier, a highly skilled craftsman, a caring father, a devoted husband, a gentleman, a toughie and a softie, a trophy-winning ballroom dancer, a bridge player extraordinaire, a Polish patriot, a chest-pounding Canadian citizen, a model human being and an everlasting inspiration to all of us.
Mark also shared his mother's story, and his beautiful memories of her life, in The Globe and Mail.
How do you remember your loved ones? Have you recorded their story to make sure that their history, their passions, their perseverance, and their memory live on? Is there something about your own personality, or your current traditions that they influenced? Share in the comments below.