Born: November 12, 1922, in the village of Antoniówka, near the town of Żurawno, 60 kms south of Lwów, woj. stanisławowskie, Poland
Died: March 13, 2020 in London, Ontario, Canada
Buried : St. Peter’s Cemetery, London, Ontario, Canada
Family: father Józef; mother Anna (maiden name: Jas)
Married: Wacława Choja
Military Medals: Polish: Krzyż Walecznych (2 Times), Srebrny Krzyż Zasługi, Medal Wojska, Krzyż Kampanii Wrześniowej 1939, Krzyż Pamiątkowy Monte Cassino; British: Star 1939-45, Africa Star, Italy Star, Defense Medal, War Medal 1939-1945, 3 Stars (for being wounded three times).
Fates before joining Anders Army : In 1937 Jan joined the cadet corps in Żurawno at the age of fifteen. He was assigned to a national defence unit after completing his second grade of military training and was later reassigned to the National Defence headquarters in Stryj. In April 1939, Jan was drafted into the Polish Army as a soldier in the 52nd Infantry Regiment.
When Germany attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, Jan’s regiment was given orders to pull back towards the Romanian border. However, on September 17th the Soviet Union attacked Poland from the East, and Jan and his fellow soldiers were soon taken as prisoners of war by the Soviet Red Army.
On February 12, 1940, the High Court of the Soviet Union sentenced Jan to five years of hard labour for conspiring against the Soviet Union and the Ukrainian nation. He was 17 years old at the time. Jan and other Polish soldiers were then forced onto freight trains destined for Siberia. The trains stopped in Taigi Nizina on February 26, 1940, and the men then had to travel by foot for sixteen hours to Sosnowska (approximately 3,600 kilometres east of Warsaw). When they arrived at dawn, they were put into barracks that “looked more like dilapidated barns.”
Once the Polish prisoners of war built additional barracks, they were put to work in the Voroshilov platinum mine, which was located four kilometers from the camp. Jan worked in this mine for seven months before being moved to work in another area, known as the Lenin mine. Jan and his fellow soldiers laboured every day, under terrible conditions, never knowing if they would ever see their families or homeland again.
On June 22, 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union and the Polish nation now found itself allied with the Soviets against their common enemy. On July 30, 1941, the Polish Government-in-Exile based in London, England, and the Soviet Union signed an agreement for mutual aid in the war against Germany. The Soviet authorities granted an amnesty to all Polish prisoners in the agreement. A Polish Army was soon organized by General Władysław Anders, who had just been released from a Moscow prison.
Military history: After many months of imprisonment as slave labour in the Soviet Union, Jan and his fellow Polish soldiers were finally released as free men. In October 1941, they marched from the Lenin Mine to Taigi Nizina and boarded a freight train to the Russian city of Sverdlovsk. From there, they continued south to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where Jan joined the 5th Infantry Division in November. Once the soldiers completed their three months of training, Jan, at the age of 19, was assigned as the group leader of the first company of the 14th Infantry Regiment, 5th Division. The troops were then transferred to Błagowieszczenka, Uzbekistan, where they began training with their new British weapons.
While Jan was in Uzbekistan, he miraculously reunited with his sister Maria (Marysia) at his base camp in May 1942. She told Jan that, back in February 1940, their parents and the eight children had been deported from Poland to a labour camp deep in Russia near the Ural Mountains. Sadly, however, their father had been arrested along the way and was never seen again. Since Jan’s family was living in a camp only thirty kilometres away, he was able to obtain a pass to visit them. When he finally reunited with his family a few days later, Jan found both his mother and sister, Helena, gravely ill. Within a few days both died and Jan and his siblings had to bury their mother and sister together.
Shortly after, in June 1942, Jan registered his four youngest siblings with an orphanage organized by the Polish Red Cross. Jan was very grateful that Kazimierz (Kazik), Władysława (Władzia), Antoni (Tosiek) and Aniela were now going to be taken care of. They would soon be transported out of the Soviet Union to a Polish orphanage in South Africa, the country that would eventually become their permanent home. Since Maria (Marysia), Stefania (Stenia) and Marian were older, they soon joined different Polish service units, that were being organized in the Middle East.
In July 1942, Jan’s division crossed the Caspian Sea from the port of Krasnovodsk in Turkmenistan and arrived at the Iranian port of Pahlevi. From there they travelled to Khanaqin, Iraq, where the Anders Army officially became the 2nd Corps under the command of the British 8th Army. Jan’s battalion, part of the 5th Kresowa Infantry Division, set up camp and was assigned to guard the oil pipelines from Mosul to Kirkuk and the Khanaqin refinery region.
In July 1943, Jan’s division was transferred to Palestine to complete its military training. In February 1944, the Polish soldiers then sailed from Egypt to Taranto, Italy, and Jan’s battalion soon established a defensive position along the Sangro River in central Italy. Shortly after arriving there, Jan was wounded by German gunfire. He spent three weeks recuperating in an army hospital and then returned to his unit in March.
During the 2nd Corps’ preparation to attack German positions at Monte Cassino in April-May of 1944, Jan’s battalion moved to San Pietro, which is south of Monte Cassino. He was in his company’s first front-rank platoon. During the battle of Monte Cassino Jan was wounded in the chest by German gunfire a second time and spent three weeks recuperating in the Third Polish Field Hospital.
In June Jan returned to his battalion, which now occupied a sector by the Adriatic Sea. In July 1944, the Polish soldiers captured Ancona after three days of heavy fighting. They then captured Loreto and moved on to Palacio Del Canone. Their next order in April 1945 was to seize Gaiana, the last German line of opposition south of Bologna. During this battle Jan was wounded by German gunfire a third time and spent three weeks in a field hospital. Shortly after, in May 1945, Germany surrendered.
Following his recuperation, Jan rejoined his unit in Bologna and looked forward to returning to his homeland to help rebuild Poland. However, the Allied powers had shifted the eastern border of Poland 160 miles to the west, which meant that Jan’s home town was now in the Soviet Union (present day Ukraine). To add insult to injury, Poland and other countries in Eastern Europe were now governed by the Communists, who were under the influence of the Soviet Union. The Polish Communist government had become very unsympathetic to the Polish soldiers wishing to return home and even stripped General Anders of his Polish citizenship in 1946. Jan and his fellow soldiers were stunned. They had spent years fighting the war for Polish freedom as well as for freedom throughout the world, and now they were not even welcomed back home. Where were they supposed to go?
Post-War: At this time the British government informed the Polish soldiers, that they had a few options: they could return to a “free” Poland, remain in Italy or settle in Great Britain, Canada or Australia. Jan’s brother, Marian, decided to move to Australia, while his sister, Marysia returned home to Poland. Jan had long discussions with his close friends, Klemens (Klimek) Mitoraj, Teodor Gnidec, and Antoni (Antek) Sawicki about what they should do. Jan initially wanted to move to England, where his sister, Stefania (Stenia), now lived and he wrote to her for advice. She, however, informed him that the English people were against additional Polish immigrants because they could now return home to a “free” Poland.
In 1946 the Canadian government agreed to permit Polish ex-servicemen to immigrate to Canada, and Jan therefore decided to leave for Canada along with approximately 4,500 soldiers from the Polish 2nd Corps. Unfortunately, the Canadian authorities placed a condition on their immigration, that required each soldier to commit to a two-year labour contract in farming, mining or forestry. This was the price, that Jan and other Polish soldiers were willing to pay for freedom and a new life in Canada, and approximately 500 of them agreed to work on farms across southwestern Ontario. Many of these men would be replacing German prisoners of war, who had been freed and sent back home to be reunited with their families.
In the summer of 1946, Jan’s group, called ‘Camp Canada,’ was transported to Cesena, where they took a course in farming. At the beginning of November 1946, the Polish soldiers bound for Canada boarded an old ship, in terrible condition, called the “Sea Snipe” in Naples and sailed for twelve days before arriving in Halifax, Nova Scotia. When Jan disembarked, he had to turn over all of his military belongings with the exception of his uniform, boots, knapsack and one blanket. Jan had three hundred English pounds he received as soldier’s pay in his Polish Army bank account, but this money was now frozen by the Canadian government. He was told, he would receive a small monthly allowance from his account and that the balance of the money would be returned to him once he completed his two-year contract.
From Halifax, Jan’s group travelled by train to Camp Fingal, located southwest of London, Ontario. They then endured fourteen days of quarantine and underwent medical examinations at Westminster Hospital in London. In late November, the men attended a work assignment meeting and this is where Jan first met Andy, the farmer he would be working for in Mount Brydges. Jan signed a two-year contract and his wages were forty-five dollars a month plus food. At the age of 24, Jan now began his new life in Canada.
Jan’s first task on the farm was to cut down trees in a nearby bush. Since Jan’s only coat was his army uniform, he asked the farmer to take him to a store, where he could buy some work clothes. The farmer took Jan to the barn, showed him two black overalls hanging on a wall with the letters WP (War Prisoner) and told him he could wear these instead. Jan became quite upset and told the farmer, that he wasn’t going to wear some left-over German POW hand-me-downs. The farmer replied, that the German boys had worn the overalls without complaining. Jan became quite angry and reminded the farmer, that he wasn’t a German prisoner, but a free man. The next day the farmer took Jan to a store in Strathroy, where he purchased some work clothes.
Soon after Jan signed up for an English language course taught at a school in Mount Brydges. Although he had to walk four miles each way, Jan was eager to improve his English and to meet some of his friends, who were also working on other farms in the area. Unfortunately, Jan’s work schedule soon made it impossible for him to continue with this class. He started working early in the morning and finished late in the evening, twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Even when Jan had some free time, the farmer often sent him out to help neighbouring farmers with their ploughing and other farming tasks. Although Jan was grateful for the opportunity to live in Canada, the farmer was clearly taking advantage of Jan’s situation. Eventually Jan went to the Work Bureau office in London and expressed his concerns regarding his working conditions to an office manager. Within a few days Jan noticed, that the farmer’s attitude had changed for the better and the food had even improved somewhat.
Throughout it all, Jan kept a positive attitude and worked hard until his two-year contract ended in November 1948. When he left the farm for the last time and headed for a highway bus stop, Jan had some time to reflect on his life – past, present and future. In Jan’s words:
“It was a lovely day. I could feel a light wind blow through my hair as I approached the bus stop on Christina Road. My thoughts returned to the past eight years of my life. I had wandered the earth because of events and circumstances that were beyond my control. I had no opportunity to go to school or learn a trade. I very much wanted to learn English, but had to change my plans. I tallied the last eight years of my life: two years spent in Russian captivity and hard labour, four years of service in the army fighting for independence and two years on the farm. I was also feeling so thankful for the kindness of strangers. Standing there at the bus stop I truly felt free and independent for the first time in my life. From that moment on, I would make my own decisions and choices. The future lay just beyond the horizon. It would be a future of my own making”.
In 1948 Jan moved to London and began working as a carpenter building passenger train cars at the Canadian National Railroad (CNR) car shops, that were located across from the Western Fair.
In early 1949 Jan met Wacława Choja at a dance at the Polish Hall. Wacława came to Canada in 1948 and was working with her sister, Maria, at the Byron Sanitarium (CPRI today). In October, 1949, Jan and Wacława were married at St. Peter’s Cathedral.
Jan left the CNR car shops a few years later and began working in the home renovation business. He would buy and renovate older homes and then resell them. He was a “house flipper” before it became a popular occupation. Jan eventually purchased an apartment building in the early 1960s, that kept both Jan and Wacława quite busy until they built their retirement home in 1973. Jan always enjoyed skiing, golfing and playing chess, whenever he had some spare time.
Jan was a skilled wood craftsman, who greatly enjoyed creating many intricate wood carvings and figurines. In 1967 Jan picked up an artist’s brush for the first time in his life and realized that he had a hidden artistic talent. Within a few years his paintings were being purchased by many Londoners, who admired Jan’s picturesque landscapes.
Wacława sadly passed away in 1990 at the age of 61. In 1992 Jan was very happy to be able to reunite with his five surviving brothers and sisters in South Africa for the first time in 50 years.
Jan was a founding member of the London branch of the Polish Combatants’ Association (SPK) and served as branch president for many years. He was also a founding member of Our Lady of Czestochowa Catholic Church and helped to build the church in 1952. In fact, Jan built all sixty church pews during his spare time, while he was employed at the CNR car shops (with the company’s permission). Between 1988 and 2000 Jan was a member of the board of directors for London Polonia Towers, a non-profit apartment and townhouse organization, that provided affordable accommodation for many members of the Polish community.
In 2006, at the age of 84, Jan wrote an autobiography about his life growing up in Poland before the war and his military experiences as a young Polish soldier. His book entitled My Journey Into the Unknown: 1939-1948 is a fascinating historical record of Jan’s life, that can now be passed on from generation to generation.
author : Stan Skrzeszewski
source : “Book of Remembrance / Książka Pamięci”, Polish Combatant’s Association, Branch 2. London, Ontario, Canada, 2018.