Marika Panchuk has spent much of her life listening to wartime stories about her father, Bohdan Panchuk, and meeting people across Canada who owe their lives to him.
“Through the years people have certainly come up to me and said, ‘I wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for your father,’ ” Ms. Panchuk, 69, recalled from her home in Winnipeg. “There certainly was a bond between everyone who was there. But there wasn’t a lot of talk about details.”
Indeed, the story of Mr. Panchuk and the Ukrainian Canadian Servicemen’s Association – the group he co-founded during the Second World War – has been largely forgotten. And yet the former schoolteacher from Saskatchewan, who enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1939 and landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day in 1944, became a key figure in helping more than 30,000 Ukrainian refugees come to Canada after the war.
The exploits of Mr. Panchuk and the UCSA were set to be recognized on Friday as part of Britain’s 75th-anniversary celebration of the victory in Europe, or VE Day. A service was planned at St. James’s Church in London to unveil a stained glass window in honour of the association, which operated out of the church’s vicarage.
The ceremony is now postponed until November because of the COVID-19 pandemic but St. James’s still plans to livestream a series of prayers on Friday to remember the sacrifices of Ukrainian Canadian soldiers. Around 3,500 veterans and their families will also receive postcards depicting the window this week to mark the occasion.
“We were disappointed we couldn’t hold the service,” said Lubomyr Luciuk, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada who has been spearheading the window campaign along with the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Foundation and the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain. Dr. Luciuk and the foundation have raised around $100,000 for the commemoration, called Heroes of Their Day, which will include a notice in The Globe and Mail on May 8 to recognize the 75th anniversary and the UCSA.
Dr. Luciuk, 67, has a special connection to Mr. Panchuk. His parents were among the Ukrainian refugees who came to Kingston after the war thanks to the UCSA (later renamed the Central Ukrainian Relief Bureau). Dr. Luciuk spent years researching the association and the work of Mr. Panchuk as well as many others involved in the refugee project.
“I still go, wow, what a wonderful thing those Canadian Ukrainian soldiers did,” he said. “They could have just come home. And who could blame them. Instead they decided that it was important to help other people, to help those other strangers, brothers and sisters.”
Mr. Panchuk came from humble roots. He grew up on a farm east of Saskatoon, the son of Ukrainian immigrants who arrived in Canada at the turn of the 20th century. He got a job as a teacher in 1935 in Yellow Creek, Sask., but quit four years later to join the RCAF when the war broke out.
After training as a radio operator, he was posted to bases in Ireland and England before joining an advance team for the Normandy invasion. During his time in England, Mr. Panchuk co-founded the UCSA in 1943 in the St. James’s vicarage. It became a home away from home for Ukrainian Canadian soldiers and provided a place to socialize, learn about Ukrainian culture and attend church services. The club also kept track of where soldiers were stationed and recorded the names of those who died or were injured.
“One of the reasons they liked to come to the club was because they felt a kinship, a kindred spirit with others of Canadian-Ukrainian background,“ Mr. Panchuk told Dr. Luciuk in a series of recorded interviews. “I think people appreciated our service. We had a number of softball teams, tournaments in Hyde Park, we had a dance orchestra, a choir, and all of this was voluntary. It was a cheerful place to be.”
After D-Day, Mr. Panchuk was stationed across Europe as allied forces moved eastward. Almost everywhere he went, he ran into camps full of Ukrainian refugees. He started organizing relief committees and handing out Canadian Red Cross cards to ensure the refugees received basic necessities. “We told them, ‘Come on, we’ll help you but you’ve got to stand on your own two feet,’ “ Mr. Panchuk said.
Around two million Ukrainians had been displaced by the war. When the fighting ended, their fate grew uncertain. The Soviets demanded they return to Ukraine, which had been absorbed into the Soviet Union, and thousands were deported from Poland to the USSR. Mr. Panchuck wanted as many as possible to come to Canada.
He stayed in Britain after the war and launched an intense lobbying campaign together with his wife, Anne Cherniawsky, a Canadian servicewoman he’d met at the UCSA. Over the next seven years, the Panchuks and other UCSA members cajoled ambassadors, civil servants, military leaders and anyone else that came to mind.
As a result of their efforts between 30,000 and 40,000 Ukrainian refugees came to Canada; thousands more went to Britain, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. “I believed it was our moral duty and obligation to try to help these Ukrainian victims of war to the maximum of our abilities,” Mr. Panchuk told Dr. Luciuk.
“It was the sort of a time when, if you had the guts, you ended up sometimes cutting corners and doing things maybe not quite the way they were supposed to be done, but you got people out,” recalled Mr. Panchuk’s daughter Jaroslawa Panchuk, 72, who lives in Toronto.
Ms. Panchuck and her sister, Marika, were both born in London. They remembered the house brimming with activity as refugees came and went. Mr. Panchuk “used to fill out the paper and get them out of the camps and then [Mrs. Panchuk] would pick them up in England, feed them and put them on the boat,” Marika said.
When the family finally returned to Canada in 1952, Mr. Panchuk took a job with the CBC before resuming his teaching career.
Lieutenant-General Paul Wynnyk, the former vice-chief of Canada’s defence staff, is among the many Ukrainian Canadians who have been touched by the UCSA. His grandfather emigrated from Ukraine to Alberta in 1903 and had two boys – Walter and William – who joined the Canadian military in 1942. The brothers spent countless hours at the UCSA in London and the club proved to be the last place they saw each other in August, 1944.
William died a few months later in a plane crash on an airfield in England while returning from an RCAF bombing mission. “My dad [Walter] was in the army and he ended up going through the Italian campaign,” said Lt.-Gen. Wynnyk, who is patron of the commemoration project.
His father died 10 years ago and often spoke about the role the UCSA played for so many soldiers. “At that time, Ukrainian Canadians weren’t highly regarded in the WASPish society that was Canada,” said Lt.-Gen. Wynnyk. “To have that opportunity of fellowship and to get together, I think, meant a lot to them.”
Mr. and Ms. Panchuk rarely spoke publicly about their wartime efforts and many of the details emerged only posthumously; Mr. Panchuk died in 1987 and Ms. Panchuk in 2010.
During his interview with Dr. Luciuk, Mr. Panchuk had a hard time expressing why he and his wife had made such an effort. “For me it is a matter of calling, of feeling. It is not tangible. You can’t even pin it down,” he said. “I felt that here were people in need and I should do something for them.”
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