I had the opportunity to take another heritage tour this summer, as I have for many summers of late. Being a first-generation Pole whose parents lived through and participated in the tumultuous years of World War II and its aftermath, what interests me most is Eastern Europe.Much of the history of the 20th century is writ large on a back drop of the cold war with two sparring ideologies, Capitalism and Communism, battling it out for the hearts and minds of a generation.
The war began in Poland in 1939 with invasions from the west by Germany and the east, Russia. My father, an officer in the Polish army was captured and spent much of the war in a German internment camp. My mother at sixteen, along with much of her family, was deported to detention and forced labour camps in the far-flung gulags, of Russian Siberia.
In the end they somehow met, got married and emigrated to Canada, eventually settling in Sarnia. The rest as they say, is history. But that history and what people from countries like Poland had to endure both during and after the war is the stuff of great novels, movies and plays. Growing up we heard many of those stories while visiting friends and family of the Polish diaspora at home, in Chicago, and London, England, where many displaced Poles found themselves after the war.
I grew up on stories of scarcity, suffering and heroism, told not for their shock value or boasts but rather the everyday realities of war and survival. Since my formative years I have tried not to consider my life in Canada as anything but a blessing.
So I visited again, the country which informed a postwar generation. A generation who could not return to the place they loved, for fear of being killed by the communist overlords who through manipulation, duplicity and weak leadership on the part of the other allied powers condemned Eastern Europe to fifty years of suffering under the Soviet Union.
This was a huge betrayal to the Polish nation where the war began. Its occupants endured, resisted, fought and witnessed large swaths of their country levelled, and died in the millions to help defeat the Nazi menace only to be forsaken, as victors in the war, to the equally heinous ideology of Communism.
I lived in Wroclaw, Poland in 1984 as a teacher and witnessed what Poles had to endure during that time. It seemed mostly a gray and dismal place, but I marveled at how the people endured and managed to laugh and live in a land of bread lines and scarcity. But hope loomed on the horizon. The Solidarity movement was bringing about much needed reforms in the country, and the Polish pope John Paul II, had visited the very Catholic country a year earlier and met with Solidary leader Lech Walesa. I felt like I was witnessing history in the making. Sure enough, five years later the Berlin Wall came down and Eastern Europe was finally free at long last.
It was heartening to see last month, what has become of Poland since then, and I am happy to report that it is a thriving, vibrant, modern country, one of major success stories contributing to the EU. It seems the Poles wasted little time to make up for all that lost time.