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Waclaw Fieglar.Courtesy of family

Waclaw Fieglar: Patriot. Feminist. Globetrotter. Reader. Born Sept. 29, 1921, in Zalozce, Poland; died July 31, 2019, in Rome; from complications after a stroke; aged 97.

A few years ago, my husband and I told my father-in-law, Waclaw Fieglar, that we taking our children to visit his hometown. When we arrived in Zalozce, now located in Ukraine, we were amazed by the accuracy of his hand-drawn map, which included the location of his school, the town hall, his family’s home and the best spot to view the sunset. Amazing, because 74 years earlier, at 17, Waclaw and his family were exiled by Soviet officials to a labour camp in Kazakhstan. A man who rarely drank, he told us how he would choke down the monthly ration of vodka believing it would disinfect his body from the rancid food.

It must have worked, because a year and a half later, he mustered the strength to travel more than 2,500 kilometres to join the Polish 2nd Corps in Uzbekistan. Along the road he lost his brother Alojzy to typhoid. Waclaw fought up the east coast of Italy, including the bloody battle of Monte Cassino.

In 2016, he returned to Monte Cassino with his son and other Polish veterans. It was during that visit that he confessed to taking some postcards of the abbey, which had been scattered amongst its ruins. He framed and presented the still-pristine photos to the abbot asking forgiveness. The abbot accepted them with delight, saying, “My son, you did not steal them but kept them in safekeeping all these years.”

After the war, Waclaw met a spirited Greek woman named Adelaide. Six months later, in 1946, they married in Rome and the next day he was transferred to the United Kingdom. Adelaide followed, and then lived in Polish military camps where she gave birth to their daughter, Diana. Unable to return to Poland, and feeling increasingly unwelcome in the U.K., they set sail for Argentina in 1949, where Alex was born.

Life was comfortable in Argentina where Waclaw found work and Adelaide managed a ladies’ dress shop. But the political situation was deteriorating. When they arrived in Canada, Waclaw was 45 and had little English. He started all over again working on a factory floor in Toronto. While the couple missed their life in Argentina, both Alex and Diana thrived in their new homeland.

A feminist before his time, Warclaw took pride in his daughter’s career and Adelaide’s work as a counsellor helping new immigrants. He served as her middle-of-the-night chauffeur as she was called to interpret for new arrivals at the airport or sought to find them work and good schools. He would make breakfast early, and, before heading off to his factory job, gave Alex English lessons. In later years, he entertained his grandchildren with Polish jokes and silly rhymes: “You like potatoes and I like tomatoes.”

Waclaw loved tortellini en brodo and a good piece of apple pie, but otherwise food and drink were simply fuel: He would make me cringe when he poured good red wine into his favourite drink of ginger ale.

In 2017, Waclaw and Adelaide came to Italy to live with us, where he impressed everyone with his vigour. He exercised daily (my husband was jealous of his biceps). He was fluent in four languages and, at 94, read two books a week, despite his macular degeneration. Academics and journalists sought him out to hear his stories of the war, but when they called him a hero he would say, “the heroes are buried in the cemeteries.”

Waclaw was a true soldier, on the battlefield but also in life. He was a quiet man with strong values that he has passed on to his children.

Alexandra Bugailiskis is Waclaw’s daughter-in-law.

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