As Alberta prepares to mark Polish-Canadian Heritage Day (June 11), a day meant, "to recognize the impact and contributions that the Polish community has had on Alberta", Airdronians in the city reflect on why their Polish heritage is near and dear to their hearts.
Dominika was a toddler when she left Warsaw, Poland in the early 1980s. Her family would make the trek from the city she was born in through to Sweden and Italy. When her family would arrive in Italy, they would live in a refugee camp for some time.
"During the time of communism, many Polish people were trying to leave and look for a better life. It was the United States, Australia, and Canada that were accepting Polish refugees and my mom did not want to go to Australia because she wasn't a fan of kangaroos and she thought the States were corrupt," she said. "She made a beeline for Canada, specifically Calgary, because of the 1988 Olympics. We came mid-1987, right in time for the winter 1988 Olympics."
Dominika was born around the time that martial law (stan wojenny) had been instituted in the country, which was enacted to subdue popular protests against the communist government. By the time martial law was imposed, Poland had already been under totalitarian communist rule for 36 years.
"[My parents] didn't really see a future or foundation for our family. They wanted to get out, they wanted a better life, they wanted to be able to have opportunities that we didn't see at the time by staying in Poland," Dominika said. "We came here with $800 to our name, not knowing the language, with many, many other Polish refugees that left at the same time."
In communist Poland, economic opportunities were bleak, with high unemployment and meagre wages. Shortages of basic foodstuffs like sugar or butter were a part of daily life. Being able to get staples like meat or bread meant lining up for hours at a time. Toilet paper was seen as a luxury. The most brutal component of the Soviet occupation of Poland was the way the communist regime would deal with its citizens, especially those who spoke out. The Milicja (a term for communist police) would often secretly surveil citizens, arrest them, and for many, their families would never see or hear from them again.
"Looking back, it is probably the best thing that could have ever happened. They gave us opportunities that I definitely would have never had in Poland had we stayed and then just the political component of it: coming to a free country, that white picket fence mentality."
Despite leaving her home country at such a young age and under such circumstances, Dominika has preserved her Polish heritage and culture, which she continues to celebrate every day.
"It's a daily factor in my life. When I came to Canada, not knowing English, but my parents were very adamant about only speaking Polish in our home, they wanted to make sure that we kept the culture and the language," she said. "There was always Polish cooking in the house, all traditional. All the holidays were very, very traditional Polish. We went to the Polish church here for probably over 20 years."
The preservation of Polish culture among many Poles who immigrated throughout the world is a testament to the history of the country, especially since throughout its existence, Poland was occupied multiple times, with each occupier trying to eradicate the Polish nation. In the 18th century, during the partition of Poland, children who spoke their mother tongue were beaten at school. During World War II, countless iconic Polish paintings were either destroyed or smuggled out of the country in an attempt to erase the intellectual footprint of the country. During communist times, the only refuge and act of rebellion against the occupier was to meet in the Church; which is why many Poles regard religion as an expression of who they are.
"[My Polish culture] taught me a lot. It taught me a lot about hard work. It taught me about not taking things for granted, knowing that we came from so very little."
Dominika was born in Warsaw, Poland's capital. While many cities in Poland were devastated by countless wars, it was Warsaw that was levelled to the ground in World War II as collective punishment. It was the people of Warsaw that rose up on August 1 1944 to take back their city from the Nazis and started the Warsaw Uprising. The Warsaw Uprising is still regarded as one of the most tragic and heroic events in the country's existence. Starving, outnumbered, and woefully outgunned, civilians fought for 63 days, while their next occupier, the Soviets observed across the Vistula river. Although estimates range, between 150,000 and 200,000 Polish civilians died during the uprising.
While Dominika was born in Poland, Airdronian Theresa Heath was born in Alberta to Polish parents and just like Dominika, her Polish heritage has shaped her.
"Family was very important. Every Sunday we had traditional chicken noodle soup with our dinner and if you tried to eat chicken noodle soup on a Wednesday, no one would eat it because it wasn't Sunday. Church was very important as well," Heath said.
Her mother was born in Szczecin, Poland and although neither she nor her mom has been back to Poland since Heath has made sure her kids know about their roots.
"I'm bringing my kids up the same way. It was just something we were instilled with," she said.
And while some of the most famous Poles may not live in Alberta, they have nonetheless made their mark on the world. Take the example of the famous quote: Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less. It was none other than Marie Curie, born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Warsaw, Poland.
There are over 170 thousand Albertans of Polish heritage living in the province today.
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