Yvonne Smyka: Mother. Wife. Polish patriot. Gentlewoman. Born June 21, 1925, in Warsaw; died April 28, 2021, in Gravenhurst, Ont., of medically assisted death; aged 95.
Iwona Wojnicz was born on the first day of summer. Fittingly, her birth coincided with the arrival of a new season of promise for Poland after centuries of partition and foreign occupation. As the daughter of a prominent family, she was raised in privilege and often spoke lovingly and longingly of her happy childhood.
But her idyllic life was shattered at 14 when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Iwona survived five years of Nazi occupation, serving as a courier in the Polish underground and finally as a soldier in the Warsaw uprising of the summer of 1944.
At the end of the war, Iwona became part of the Allied occupying forces in Europe where she met a similarly battle-scarred Polish paratrooper, Czeslaw Smyka. They married in Germany in 1946 and had their first child Jacek (Jack). It was the start of an incredible 71-year marriage.
Like so many other Poles, Iwona and Czeslaw could not return to a postwar Communist Poland. They initially lived in Britain, where they had their second son Marek (Mark) but then emigrated to Canada where they felt they had a better chance to shape their own destiny.
The family arrived in Montreal but settled in Toronto. Theirs was the classic immigrant story: meagre savings; a few words of English; the Anglicization of first names and more mouths to feed with the arrival of Yvonne and Chester’s third child, Monika (Monica).
Yvonne and Chester were buoyed by an unrelenting optimism and found solace in work. They relied on grit and determination, with Chester working seven days a week as an upholster. Once her children were independent, Yvonne found work to help out financially – she punched tiny springs into watch bracelets, she became a maid at a nearby motel and, finally, worked in an office in the blood lab of Toronto Western Hospital.
Ever resourceful, she used the long and dreary commute from her Scarborough bungalow to downtown Toronto to create a truly endless array of mittens and scarves and all manner of sweaters and blankets. The meticulously crocheted baby blankets she would make for her five grandchildren were more works of art than they were blankets.
Respite for the family came during two-week summer vacations with glorious camping trips. Even huddled at night under a leaky army surplus tent, Yvonne revelled in the joy she could see on her children’s faces.
Yvonne fretted endlessly over her children. They never had to wonder whether they were loved. As her children entered adulthood and left home, her thoughtfulness was a comfort and often a welcome surprise, like the goodie-filled care packages that arrived every month during Mark’s first year away at university.
Yvonne’s father had been a decorated Polish naval officer who thought of Poland as sacred and he passed along that passion to his daughter. She in turn ensured her own family felt that loyalty. Yvonne made the first of several trips back to Poland in the mid-1960s, 20 years after she had been marched out by German troops. She burst into tears when the plane touched down and the pilot announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Warsaw.”
In later life, Yvonne and Chester moved into a retirement home in Gravenhurst to live closer to Jack and his family. Chester died in 2017 in his 98th year.
In April, after enduring 15 years of never-ending intestinal complications, Yvonne said she’d had enough. She chose to leave this life the way she had lived it, on her own terms, with dignity and a personal sense of honour. She emphatically declared in her final days that she was making her exit as “a proud Polish lady” – always, forever and right up until the very end.
Mark Smyka is Yvonne’s son.
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