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History and the Polish-Canadian community.

As the Canadian-born offspring of post-World War II Polish immigrants, I am a comparatively "rare bird" in my community, in that I have retained most of my parents' heritage, including language. For the majority of persons of Polish descent born in Canada, most aspects of their parents' culture and identity, especially the language, are lost. There have been several waves of Polish immigrants to Canada, from at least four, distinctly different Polish societies, as well as their generations of offspring.

After an era of glory in the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods, Poland sank into decline, and was under the occupation of its rapacious neighbours from 1795--1918, with numerous desperate uprisings. Apart from a few highly-educated persons like Sir Casimir Gzowski (knighted by Queen Victoria for his engineering accomplishments), most Polish immigrants to Canada before 1918 were poor peasants, coming from a Europe where a Polish state hadn't existed for over a hundred years! They typically did the dirtiest jobs, or farmed the Prairies in miserable conditions.

The first to fight Nazi Germany

In 1918, owing to the defeat or disintegration of the occupying powers, the Poles were able to regain their independence. The reconstruction was well under way by 1939, with a strengthening economy and a booming population. Then Hitler and Stalin attacked, united by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Sixty-four years ago, the Second World War began, with Hitler's savage, pitiless invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. Poland was unquestionably the first country to fight Nazi Germany, and without her resistance, it is doubtful that France and Britain would have gone to war at all. Indeed, the Great Power of France did not take advantage of the almost empty German western frontier to invade Germany from the west in 1939, and succumbed to the German offensive in May 1940 in about the same duration of time (six weeks) as the heavily outnumbered and outgunned Polish army had resisted in 1939

Poles were one of the "racial" categories slated for permanent slave labour under Nazi Germany, with the projected extermination of their entire national leadership and intelligentsia, including the Roman Catholic and other Polish Christian clergy. Stalin pursued similar policies between 1939 and 1941, especially the massacre in the spring of 1940 of 26,000 Polish military officers and state officials at Katyn Forest and other sites, and the genocidal mass deportations to Siberia and other ghastly remote regions of the Soviet Union. During World War II, over five million Christian Poles (out of a pre-war population of twenty-five million) perished. Out of the ten million minority populations of the prewar Polish Second Republic, about three million Polish citizens of Jewish faith perished as well as Ukrainians, Byelorussians, and Roma (Gypsies). (The total population of the prewar Polish Second Republic was about 35 million persons.) More Jews were shipped from all parts of the Nazi empire to Auschwitz and other death camps, as part of the Holocaust of European Jewry in which a total of six million Jews perished (including the three million noted above, who had been citizens of the prewar Polish Second Republic).

Nazi occupation of Poland

Under the Nazi occupation, the very mention of Poland or display of its state and national symbols was strictly forbidden. Polish Pomerania, the area around Poznan, and the part of Silesia belonging to the prewar Polish Second Republic, were directly incorporated into the German Reich. Most of the Poles living there were brutally deported into a rump area called the General-Gouvernment, where Germans ferociously exercised all authority.

Poles heroically participated in the war against Nazi Germany in virtually every theatre of conflict. Polish economic losses (for the German occupation alone) have been calculated at 50 billion US$ at 1939 values. The national Polish underground in German-occupied Poland was among the largest and most effective in occupied Europe, and existed in conditions of one of the most ferocious occupation regimes in history. In Western and Northern Europe, the German occupiers chose to be, comparatively, far more restrained. For example, in German-occupied Poland, there was the immediate death penalty for oneself and one's entire family for aiding or sheltering Jews, which was often enforced by especially gruesome methods, such as burning alive. The Germans would execute ten, twenty, or even a hundred Poles for every German soldier or official killed. In the larger cities and towns, the occupying forces would carry out terror roundups of randomly-targeted civilians for shipment to slave labour. There were many "Lidice's" in Poland, villages whose population was systematically liquidated.

The Warsaw Uprising

In the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, over 240,000 Poles, many of them young people, had their lives snuffed out, and virtually the entire city was methodically reduced to rubble, with the surviving population deported to concentration camps. This tragic uprising occurred when the Soviet armies had reached the east side of the Vistula River (Warsaw is on the west side), which was unlike the strategic situation at the time of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, where the Soviet front was several hundred miles away, and the Germans were in absolute control of the ground-down country. Some historians have suggested that from August to October 1944, Stalin deliberately suspended all Soviet offensive operations, in order to allow the Germans to crush the uprising at leisure. Although this might not have made any real difference to the outcome, he was also culpable in that he refused landing rights to western Allies aircraft that were endeavouring to airdrop munitions, food, and other supplies to the insurgents.

Poles without a country

After the Golgotha of World War II, rather than reaping the rewards of their enormous sacrifice, the Poles' unforeseen "reward" was incorporation into Stalin's Soviet empire, and the displacement of their frontiers westward, with a net loss of territory of 20%! The hundreds of thousands of Polish servicemen who had fought heroically by the side of the Western Allies (for example, in the aerial Battle of Britain, at the battle of Monte Cassino in Italy, and the closing of the Falaise Gap in Normandy) were stranded without a country. Many chose or were effectively forced into exile in the West (hearing about numerous cases of Polish exservicemen who had returned to the Sovietized Poland and were brutally incarcerated). Indeed, a ferocious civil war raged in Poland between the remnants of the national Polish underground and the new security apparatus of the Soviet regime. Over a hundred thousand Poles died resisting Soviet Communism, abandoned and betrayed by the West.

Postwar immigration

The third main wave of Polish immigration to Canada (the second, interwar wave being rather small because of Canada's exclusionary immigration policies) was the postwar immigration. These were mostly Polish soldiers who had fought at the side of the Western Allies, some who came to Canada directly, and others who moved to Canada after settling in Britain. Those Polish soldiers who came directly were, as the price of their admission, required to work for two full years on remote farms--where conditions were sometimes none too pleasant.

As things improved, many ex-soldiers went to Poland to marry, especially after the 1956 post-Stalinist "Thaw." Although the Polish Communist leader Wladyslaw Gomulka was later criticized by various oppositionists, his achievement in 1956 was in many ways a fundamental breakthrough. He essentially polonized the regime, taking it away from the grinding totalitarianism which had characterized the 1949-1956 period, which even the Communists would later call "the period of mistakes and misdeeds." The union of the Polish ex-servicemen and the Polish women they married as a consequence of "the Thaw" produced a generation of children who are among one of the largest demographic sectors of the community. However, few of them have maintained a serious element of Polish heritage.

This was the young generation's own cultural tragedy it has existed on a "cusp" between a time when assimilation was to a large extent demanded and government benefits to immigrants nugatory, and a time of fantastic opportunities for newcomers. Its Polish heritage was largely sacrificed for the sake of economic and social advancement, but this sacrifice turned out to be unnecessary.

The Poles who arrived in Canada in the 1970s-1990s have value-systems that are in many cases radically different from those held by the earlier waves and partially passed down to their offspring. So there are value-systems in dynamic conflict between older and newer immigrant waves, and their generations of offspring.

However, all Polish-Canadians exist in a context where there is scant attention paid by Canadian governments, media, and corporations to Eastern and Southern European ethnic communities in Canada.

It may to some extent be surprising that these groups (with the exception of Ukrainians and Balts, who tended to support the PCs) have generally voted Liberal. For example, many characteristics of the Polish-Canadian community today are, by current-day standards, remarkably socially conservative. It is possible that in the future Polish-Canadians could become a fertile recruiting ground for socially conservative tendencies like the anti-abortion and pro-traditional family movements, or possibly for the Canadian Alliance.

The situation of Polish-Canadians today points to a dilemma for current-day North American society: how are persons who are often "Old World" in their social and cultural outlooks to be assimilated into the prevailing "liberal lifestyle" order, when they are often inimical to it, and such assimilation is often equivalent to the annihilation of their cultural identity?

Important issues of what could be called "white ethnic" identity in Canada--and of its multifarious dimensions and possible place in the Canadian future--remain undiscussed in the Canadian media today. Indeed, many Canadians lack even the most basic information about the histories and historical contexts of these groups in Canada.

Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher. He had continued to a variety of publications.
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Title Annotation:Feature Writer
Author:Wegierski, Mark
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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