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‘Here comes another madman’: Ukraine’s painful echo for Polish Canadians who fled Soviets


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‘Here comes another madman’: Ukraine’s painful echo for Polish Canadians who fled Soviets

Eighty-nine-year-old Conrad Busch of Vancouver Island remembers holding the hands of his two younger sisters, his baby brother clinging to his back, as they pushed their way through a crowded railway station in Jablonowo, Poland, to escape the advancing Soviets.

It was the winter of 1945 and his father was away fighting. His mother was with the children but, incapacitated by stress, was unable to help. She had grabbed a bag of sugar when they fled their home and ran ahead at one point, leaving her children behind.

“We were lucky to get on a train,” he says. “The sky was red. There were blasts around us and above us.”

Since the start of the conflict in Ukraine, Poland has welcomed more than two million Ukrainian refugees and worried it might be next Russia’s next target.

For Busch, watching civilians escape the war in Ukraine has brought back painful memories of his own escape and having to leave his friend Wanda Kuhn behind, he says. For him, and other Canadians with Polish roots, images of Ukrainians suffering the horrors of the latest Russian invasion echo their homeland’s painful history.

In September 1939, Poland was invaded by Germany in the west and the Soviet Union in the east. By January 1945, the Soviets had moved into western Poland, where Busch lived. The invasions were marked by persecution, brutality and summary executions.

“I remember hearing about the Russians raping Polish and German women and cutting off their breasts,” says Busch, a retired helicopter company owner.

When their westbound train broke down outside Poznań, Busch says, he decided to trudge through the snow with his siblings to the train station instead of waiting. Those who stayed on the train froze to death, he says.

Busch says he feels grief and terror for Ukrainians who must flee and live as refugees as he did. He kept his family alive for eight months in a garden shed on the Polish-German border, with the help of freed prisoners of war, before letters he wrote found extended family in West Germany.

“It is horrendous to see what is happening,” says Horst Wohlgemut, of Galt, Ont., who was born near Warsaw in 1939. Most Canadians, he says, watch the exodus from the comfort of their homes and can’t truly imagine the suffering of those who are there.

Wohlgemut remembers fleeing with his mother and two younger siblings after his father was captured by the Soviets in 1945. The barn they stayed in one night was bombed and they had to hide in ditches to avoid Soviet planes, he says. He will never forget seeing a girl’s toy stroller blown to bits by Soviet gunfire.

“I am very thankful for this country and the freedom that we have,” says Wohlgemut, who arrived in Canada with his family as refugees in 1949. It wasn’t until 1991 that he learned his father had died in 1945 in a Soviet prison camp.

Wohlgemut says he’s devastated by reports of Ukrainians being deported to Russia and suffering at the hands of Russian soldiers whose country’s legacy plagued Poland for two generations.

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“There was no honouring of human life in the eyes of Soviet Russia,” says Aldona Jaworska, author of the 2019 book “Polish Veterans in Alberta.” The Soviet Union banished hundreds of thousands to Siberia and Kazakhstan from 1939 to 1941, not unlike the alleged deportations from Ukraine today.

Jaworska sees the heartlessness and violence aimed at Ukrainian civilians, particularly children and the elderly, as another troubling parallel. The United Nations has reported more than 1,600 civilians in Ukraine have been killed and more than 2,200 injured since the invasion on Feb. 24.

Zbigniew Rogowski, from southeastern Poland, was 11 at the time of the 1939 Soviet invasion. Together with his mother and his sisters, Rogowski was deported to Kazakhstan, he told Jaworska for her book. They lived in a cramped dugout, covered with planks and tree branches, with 10 other families; one of his younger sisters died that winter.

Remembering Russian tanks invading his Polish hometown in 1939, Eugene Antonyszyn of Montreal has terrible memories of the Second World War. His mother had already died, and he never found out what happened to his father. He worries that Russians have not learned from their past mistakes.

“I am 95 years old and I would like to die with a smile on my face,” he says, “with Moscow burning to the ground.”

Antonyszyn says he remembers Polish men disappearing from his town when the Russians arrived and is sad hearing of people disappearing in Ukraine. He hopes that Russia will never attack Poland, but worries “the Russians will never learn.”

Even after the Second World War, the Soviet presence loomed large in Poland. A Soviet-aligned Communist government remained until 1989.

Violetta Turska of Victoria grew up in western Poland during this period. It is devastating to see Ukrainians subjected to violence by Russian forces, she says. She remembers her grandmother saying that during war the Soviets were sometimes more brutal than the Germans.

As a teen, Turska lived through the 1981-83 period of martial law in Poland that academics say was an attempt to counter opposition and prevent another Soviet invasion. Turska remembers long lines and empty shelves at grocery stores, like those Ukrainians are experiencing today.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Busch returned to Poland to try to find his childhood friend Wanda Kuhn, but she had left in 1960 to start a new life in Canada. (They met up for a meal years later.) During his visit, he saw first-hand the deterioration of his town and the suffering his Polish friends had endured.

“The trees had all been cut down for firewood,” says Busch. “Even the store shelves had been taken out to burn.”

And he wonders why humanity doesn’t seem to learn from its mistakes. “Here comes another madman and turns the world upside down again,” Busch moans. “I don’t get it.”

Katharine Lake Berz is a consultant and writer on Vancouver Island and in Toronto. Daneese Rao is a journalist based in Toronto who writes about history.

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