The Polish-American newspaper Am-Pol Eagle will mark this year's 100th anniversary of Poland's restoration as a sovereign state with a special ceremony at St. Adalbert Basilica in Buffalo. Among those to be honored as part of the celebration are surviving Polish-born World War II veterans.
Fewer than ten who still live are residing in the Buffalo area: Stanley and Antonina Markut, Jozefa Solecki, Casimer Kawalek, Janusz Nieduzak, Walter Futyma and Stanley Nicewicz. They share a common story of being born in Poland, being forced from their homes by Soviet invaders and brought into forced labor in Russia, trekking across Central Asia and taking up arms on behalf of the Allies and then ultimately moving to America.
Advanced age often takes a great toll on one's memory and, in at least one interview, the children of one of the veterans helped sort through the replies to check for factual correctness. There were some clear moments, though. Solecki recalled the morning Soviet troops forced her family from their home.
“Five o'clock in the morning they knocked on the door with a gun,” Solecki recalled. “Get out! You don't belong here. You are going with us.”
Where the family went was to Siberia. Solecki and her family would work in the forest from seven o'clock in the morning until seven o'clock in the evening. They spent the day cutting dead trees, chopping the branches and then burning them. Kawalek, her brother, went to school to learn the Russian language. The instructors, he recalled, also attempted to erase one of the traditions he brought with him, his family's Catholic faith.
The instructors failed to do that, he recalled, and Kawalek added that even in their situation, teenagers could be brazen.
“He locked in a classroom, locked the door and left us. We stayed for a while, I don't know how long. We opened a window and out by the window we would go.”
Stanley Markut, meanwhile, recalled both his story and his wife's story, explaining that she would not necessarily be able to share in detail. Antonina Markut, dressed neatly in her uniform, sat and listened as her husband spoke.
“They were living close to the Russian border,” Mr. Markut began about his wife's history. “A week later, or 10 days later (after the Soviet invation of Poland), the Russian military arrested her father because he was a soldier of (Józef) Piłsudski in 1920. Then a few months later, in June, they took her and her mother.”
Mr. Markut, meanwhile, and his family were taken by the Soviets but not to Siberia. Instead, they were forced to live and work in the forests of Arkhangelsk, located along the White Sea, roughly 200 miles from the Finnish border.
Fortunes turned in 1941. In June of that year, Nazi Germany broke its alliance with the Soviet Union and launched Operation Barbarossa, an invasion of Russia intended to occupy and repopulate the western portion with Germans while forcing Slavic peoples into labor to support the Axis war effort. The Soviets, now needing to focus on a new enemy, agreed with Poland's London-based government-in-exile to grant amnesty to tens of thousands of Poles it had rounded up in 1939, giving them the opportunity to leave Russia and , giving them the opportunity to leave captivity and enlist in the military to help defeat Hitler's regime.
Nieduzak did not share as much about his family's history during his interview but spoke in detail about preparing to fight at Monte Cassino.
“The high command asked General (Władysław) Anders 'will you take this?' They gave him ten minutes, I think, but he said OK, we'll try,” Nieduzak said.
Kawalek, meanwhile, recalled completing his trek from Soviet territory through the Middle East into Egypt. He was recruited into the military and was also on his way to Italy, but did not see the same combat as Nieduzak, given his younger age. After Italy, he went to England.
Solecki made her way through central Asia, down to Africa into Tanzania. From there, she made her way to England and would meet the man she'd eventually marry.
“My husband was a radio operator and I was a technician,” she said.
Stanley Markut had not yet left Russia when he enlisted: "In 1942, I joined the army over there. I wore the English uniform in Russia. The while unit went along the Caspian Sea toward the Middle East. Now the situation was in England that there were too many with big ranks. They needed privates. So a couple thousand, they sent to England. Me, they sent to England.”
He served in a tank brigade. The woman he would later marry in 1954, meanwhile, lied about her age to join the military. The young woman then known as Antonina Klimaszewska joined the Polish Army to help ensure her sister would be cared for under sponsorship of the military. She recalled in a 2012 Am-Pol Eagle article that the younger sister stayed in an orphanage in South Africa while she reported for duty with the 317th Transport Company, stationed in Palestine.
Although they served critical roles in the Allied Forces' win over Adolf Hitler, Polish soldiers felt betrayed. They had no free homeland to which they could return. At the February 1945 Yalta Conference, Allied leaders Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Josef Stalin agreed Poland should have a “government of national unity” formed, including communist and non-communist representation. However, by the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, Churchill lost his election and, feeling emboldened, Stalin moved to arrest non-communist leaders. While this angered the other Allies, they did not act to restore non-communists in the Polish government.
“Many soldiers were very mad at the British and the Americans then because Poland was already sold to Stalin,” Markut said. “They were so mad. Some even wanted to rebel. They wanted General Anders to stop it but he said they could not stop it.”
Furthering their frustration, he added, was the difficulty in finding work in England.
“The British government promised we'd be treated with a job, or we could emigrate,” he said. “But, at that time, the union didn't take us. So, Churchill and the government said one thing, that the Poles could work in cement, making bricks. We were equal but not equal because we could not go to the factory from the beginning.”
The United States, however, granted the opportunity for thousands of Poles to relocate to this side of the Atlantic. Solecki, with the sponsorship of a U.S.-based priest, moved across the Atlantic and soon convinced her brother to bring his family. He found work in short time at Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna.
Although the interview process for this story was difficult at times with working through struggles to remember accounts, Nieduzak brought a thoroughly-prepared album filled with various photos, letters, news clippings and other printed resources offering extensive details of his personal experience.
It was prepared for him over the years by his wife, Krystyna (Christine), who passed away in June 2017 at the age of 88. She, too, was a survivor of the Soviet Gulag. According to her Am-Pol Eagle obituary, published June 15, 2017, she was born in Poniatowka and, at the onset of World War II, was along with her family rounded up and sent into forced labor in Siberia. There, she had lost her brother, Tadeusz. They were allowed to leave upon her father and brother joining Polish 1st Armored Division and they left Siberia, traveling first to Tehran, Iran and then into Tanzania.
Yet Nieduzak and his fellow veterans lamented the many other details of their lives that have been lost to faded memories.
“It was started too late,” he said. “When we were younger and were easy to refresh something.”
Yet with a smile, he recalled a vintage song: "Those were the days, my friend..."