The following article first appeared in The Echo of Cantley Volume 24 no 5, November 2012. This article is made available for the enjoyment of others with the express permission of the Echo of Cantley.
In commemoration of Remembrance Day, we bring you the story of one of the veterans we mentioned in our "For King and Country: 1939-1945" article last year: Jan Turko, a World War II veteran of the Polish Army. As he jokes, he is likely Cantley's one and only. Jan has now lived most of his life in Cantley. He was born in July 1917, in the village of Cerebostyn, the second oldest of the six children of Timotheo and Irena Turko. At the time of his birth, Cerebostyn was part of Poland, but is now part of the Republic of Belarus.
His War Memories
With the expected German invasion of Poland (September 1, 1939), the 22-year-old Jan was called up for training; his war had begun. The Russians invaded Poland two weeks later. Jan was captured by the Russians and imprisoned in Poland. As time went on, he realized that his imprisonment would last more than a few months, so he wrote a letter home to let them know of his situation. His older brother, Pawel, was finally allowed to visit with him for two hours in the fall of 1939, bringing food which was duly inspected by the authorities. One morning in May 1940, his father came to the camp gate. When Jan went to the gate, he found his father standing there crying. They were allowed to visit for six hours. Jan worried, because that night, the Germans attacked the Russians in Poland but his father did make it safely home.
The next morning the Russians decided to move the prisoners to Russia so as not to leave these thousands of young men for the Germans to use as soldiers. For the next 32 days, Jan walked about 30 km per day. He stayed outside overnight and was given soup to eat at the end of the day. The conditions in the prison camp were desperate. The bunk that he slept on had a little bit of straw on it but that did not last long and he ended up sleeping on the bare boards. There was little food, only a small piece of bread and salted fish once a day, but never any meat. He was hungry all the time. The prisoners would sometimes beg the guards to shoot them if they were not going to feed them.
In 1941 General Wladyslaw Sikorski (who was the Polish commander-in-chief and prime minister in exile in Britain) negotiated an agreement with Josef Stalin to free these thousands of prisoners. The plan was to use them to form an army under General Wladyslaw Anders to fight the Germans. But Anders refused to allow this to happen since they did not have any support from the Russians to equip or maintain this army, and besides they were in very weak physical condition. Instead Anders made a recommendation to Sikorski, which was accepted and eventually acted upon by the Russians, to allow these soldiers to leave and cross the Caspian Sea to Iran. Jan credits Anders with saving them all from certain slaughter.
So in 1942, Jan, along with thousands of his countrymen, were transferred by ship to Iran. After a few months of rest to get their health back, they started training under the British 8th Army. This training took Jan through Iran to Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and finally into Egypt, where the last of their training took place outside of Cairo. Following this training, "Anders Army", the II Polish Corps, was shipped off to Italy in December 1943 and January 1944. They were then incorporated into the British 8th Army.
Jan was at the Battle of Monte Cassino (100 miles south of Rome). The Battle was actually a series of four battles from January to May 1944, with some of the bitterest fighting of WW II. The Allies needed to take the mountain on which the monastery of Monte Cassino sat from the Germans, in order to take Highway 6, which was the main road from Naples to Rome. General Anders and the Polish Army took on this task. They had to fight from the bottom of the hills and mountains to the top, through valleys around Cassino. Jan remembers that they prepared for three months for the fourth battle. He was assigned to an artillery unit, part of a five or six man crew, responsible for sighting the targets, working without ear plugs. The Polish Army finally made it to the monastery and planted their flag, a proud moment for Jan and the other survivors who had seen almost four thousand of their numbers killed or wounded in that final seven day battle for the monastery.
While he was in Italy, he met a young woman who wanted him to stay there after the War. Her parents even offered to help him with the paperwork. But Jan felt that there were too many communists in Italy, so could not stay to make a life there.
Before he left Italy, he was able to visit the Polish Cemetery in Monte Cassino, where he found the grave of one of his neighbours from his home village. (General Anders, who died in 1970, is buried in this cemetery.)
A New Life in Cantley
Once the war was over, Jan was shipped to England and then Scotland, where he was discharged and trained to work in the iron mines. But Jan decided that after enduring internment and surviving the war, he did not want to end up working in a mine. As an emigrant, he had three countries to choose from: Canada, Australia or New Zealand. Canada was looking for farm workers, who, once they completed a two year contract, would be free to make their own living. He chose Canada and arrived by ship, Dasvidaniya, at Pier 21 in Halifax in 1947. The new arrivals were met by a Polish delegation from Toronto who talked to them about life in Canada and what to expect.
After being given a week's rest and working clothes, he made his way by train to Ottawa, then to Hull, where he was met by Maynard Burke. Maynard brought Jan to Cantley to the farm of his uncle, Tom Fleming (who was in his early 70s) where he also lived. Maynard's mother, Katie Fleming Burke, a widow by that time, and sister of Tom, was there on weekends (she worked at the Chateau Laurier during the week).
These contracted farm workers had the option of leaving the farm they were assigned to if they were not well treated. But Tom Fleming and his family welcomed Jan and treated him as one of the family. Since Jan could not speak any English, except "yes" and "no", Greg Burke, Maynard's brother, bought a Polish/English dictionary during his first week at the farm to help him learn English.
After his two years were up, Jan looked for permanent work by going west to the Prairies on the Harvest Train. He worked, moving from one farm to the next as the harvest at one was finished. He went to Saskatchewan where he visited relatives of Katie Burke. Eventually he met two English speaking "boys" from "the other side of Quyon". They went together from farm to farm looking for work. Once a farmer only wanted two workers, but the "boys" didn't want to leave Jan behind so they moved on until they found a farmer who wanted to hire all three. Since Jan was not able to find permanent work in the West, he returned to Cantley in the fall of the same year.
Jan needed to find work and make a living. Luckily a visitor to the Fleming farm one Saturday was the daughter of a contractor named Carpentier from Gracefield who was hiring men to go to the bush to cut pulp. So the next day, Jan went to see him and was hired on. On Monday, he left to go to Maniwaki to work in the bush. For the first two weeks, the workers were paid per day then were paid per cord of wood they cut. Jan did not have any experience in bush work so had to learn fast to earn money, and he did. He ended up spending 28 years with C.I.P. (Canadian International Paper Company). Along the way, he learned to speak French, and worked his way up to foreman, at one point looking after the pay for 60 men.
Tom Fleming was always so happy to see Jan return to the farm in the spring. When Jan got within sight of the house, Tom would rush out of the house, hatless, to greet him and help him carry his luggage. As Jan was leaving for the bush in the fall of 1952, Tom told him to be sure and come home for Christmas. Unfortunately, Tom passed away before Christmas and missed the Christmas visit. Jan became a Canadian citizen in 1953 and still has the copy of the letter he received from the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration dated April 2, 1953.
From 1990, Jan has made many trips home to see his family in Poland (Belarus): many of them have been allowed to come to Canada to visit him as well as to attend school here. When he landed in Minsk, on his first trip home, he did not recognize many of the younger members of his immediate family since it had been almost 50 years since he had seen any of them. Sadly, his parents had passed away by then. But he had fifty years worth of nieces and nephews and grandnieces and grand nephews to meet and get to know.
Jan has made many good friends among the Fleming family, their descendents, their extended family and the community of Cantley - friends he cares very much about and who care very much about him. We appreciate the time he spent with this writer one sunny Cantley afternoon as we talked about his life during the war in Europe and his life in Canada afterwards.
We also want to extend our thanks to Maurice Gauthier for suggesting this article in the first place.
Mary Holmes is a volunteer member of the board of Cantley 1889, a non-profit association to "discover, catalogue, protect and promote Cantley's heritage". For more details: www.cantley1889.ca; firstname.lastname@example.org; 819-827-1969.
***NB - Part 3 of the Wes Darou's "Haycock Mine" story will appear in a future edition of the Echo. Thank you to Wes and the big turnout of supporters who attended our highly successful evening and morning hike discovering the Haycock Mine (Oct 11 and 13)!