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first person

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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

The final conversation I had with my father lasted three years and ended the day he died, just a few weeks short of his 99th birthday. As his mobility decreased, he moved to a long-term care residence in Toronto. During my first visit, he spoke about something we had never talked about before, the Death March. This was the forced evacuation from concentration and prisoner of war camps in brutal winter conditions toward the end of the Second World War as the Allies started closing in on the Nazis. I had only read accounts about this from Jewish Holocaust survivors, and my Polish father wasn’t Jewish. We had known each other for over 60 years, and that day I realized there was probably a lot I did not know about him. And so began our long and last conversation.

Until then, I could summarize what I knew about my father in a few short sentences. The trajectory of his life altered dramatically on Sept. 1, 1939 – the day Germany invaded Poland. Until this event, he lived in Warsaw where he was born, dreaming of studying chemistry at university, pursuing a promising track career and spending time with his girlfriend. It was an ordinary life with childhood friends, favourite teachers, church on Sunday and family vacations in small cabins in the countryside to escape the summer heat.

He fought in the Warsaw Uprising, which began on Aug. 1, 1944. It was the most significant military resistance movement during the Second World War, aimed at liberating Warsaw from German occupation. After 63 days of fighting, the Polish Home Army surrendered and he was transported to Stalag 344 Lamsdorf, a large and notorious prisoner of war camp in Western Poland.

He never returned to his beloved Poland, which was now part of the Communist Eastern Bloc. He immigrated to Canada in 1951 to join his Polish sweetheart, my mother, who had arrived one year earlier, as part of a Canadian immigration program that paid for the ocean passage of displaced people, in exchange for one year’s work. My mother was placed as a housekeeper for a prominent family in Montreal.

They married – my mother wearing a wedding dress that was a parting gift from her employers – had three daughters and never looked back. Based on hard work and the kindness of many people, they built a life in their new country and paid it forward, helping others their entire lives. It is a story that has repeated itself millions of times over and over – the quintessential immigrant success story. And this was the story I knew until we began our last conversation. The rest I heard for the first time.

During my first visit to his long-term care home, I began asking my father questions about the war years. He wanted to talk about what happened after he had been in the POW camp for three months – the forced evacuation that began on the grey winter morning in December, 1944.

The POWs marched in a single column, zigzagging on country roads that ran beside icy barren fields. They walked through villages but always avoided the bigger towns so as not to draw attention. My father walked with his head down, thinking about a bit of bread or a meal or despairing about when and how the gruelling ordeal would end. Every day, one of the German guards was sent ahead on a bicycle to commandeer accommodation from a farmer in his barn and scrounge whatever food might be available, mostly potatoes. Sometimes the villagers would leave a bit of food at the side of the road, but the POWs risked being shot or badly beaten with the butt of a rifle if they stepped out of formation to grab it.

Upon liberation in April 1945 by the American army, 30 men, of the original group of 200, had survived. The men who died of the bitter cold, disease or exhaustion were abandoned at the roadside or tossed in ditches.

My father and I traced the route during that first visit, with the help of Google maps, through Sudetenland (which was the northern part of Czechoslovakia), near Dresden, north of Nuremberg to Bavaria. We estimated that he walked 800 kilometres.

At the end of the afternoon, it was time for me to catch the train back home to Montreal. I hugged my father goodbye, leaving him at the computer playing solitaire until it was time for dinner. I told him I would be back to visit in a couple of weeks, and I’d phone him every day until then. Ever the gallant gentleman, my dad took my hand and kissed it. I had time on the train to contemplate his astonishing story and wonder what else I did not know. The story he relayed that day was like opening a box I had no idea existed.

Later back at home, I learned this was the coldest winter on record to date, and I read more about the enormity of the Death March.

My father, Edward, is gone but I still think about the many conversations we had over his last three years. In one, he mentioned in passing his regret that maybe he and my mother had not thanked her employers properly, so long ago, for her wedding dress.

It has taken a while for all his stories to sink in, but I have come to consider them as a gift bestowed at the end of a long and worthy life. My father was the most resilient and optimistic person I have ever known. What is it about the human spirit that allows some to overcome traumatic events and rebuild their lives and others not? How did my father keep any hope or religious faith after such an ordeal?

After he died, we found a postcard he sent to my mother in Montreal the day before he set sail for Canada. With the address, I discovered who lived in that house 70 years ago, found the obituaries of the prominent lawyer and his wife, and tracked down their children to tell them about the wedding dress. And I thanked them appropriately.

Alice Switocz Goldbloom lives in Montreal.