The Polish Combatants Association - SPK in its Polish acronym - is an international association of Polish ex-servicemen and women, formed in Italy after the end of World War Two when Poland fell under Communist control. Since many of these Poles had already suffered under the Communist occupation of Poland, they could not return to their homeland. They began to immigrate to countries all over the world and formed their association to keep their ties alive and continue their fight to free Poland from Communist oppression. Today SPK has chapters in 21 different countries. The first Canadian chapter of SPK was formed in Italy on October 3rd, 1946 before the veterans left Falconara camp near Ancona.
Without a homeland to return to, many of the Polish soldiers wished to stay in the West and a campaign began to lobby the Canadian government to allow at least some of the Poles to immigrate to Canada. Despite anti-Polish propaganda unleashed by the Kremlin in an attempt to discredit the Poles' war effort, in 1946, the Canadian government agreed to admit approximately 5,000 Polish ex-servicemen into Canada. Countering the negative propaganda and on the side of the Poles was former British Commander of the Allied Forces in the Mediterranean and now Governor General of Canada, Lord Alexander, who held the Polish soldiers in high esteem for the bravery they displayed under his command in Italy with the British Eighth Army. The Poles could also count on the support of many Canadian wartime commanders. Canadians fought side by side with Polish soldiers on a number of fronts and a bond of respect and friendship developed between them. Thus the first contingent of soldiers, and their new association, arrived together in Halifax aboard the S/S Sea Robin on November 11, 1946, the anniversary of Poland's Independence Day. Since then, their history has been both remarkable and heroic.
Sadly, the welcome received by these heroic men upon arriving in Canada was not what they expected as His Majesty's Loyal Allies. The Canadian government required these soldiers to sign work contracts as a condition of immigration. Each Polish veteran was obligated to work as a farm labourer for two years, regardless of educational background or work experience. Ironically, many of the veterans were put to work on farms, replacing German prisoners of war who returned home after the fighting ended. To many, especially those labouring on prairie farms, the snow and cold were all too real reminders of their days as slaves in Siberia. After their contracts ended, they moved to different parts of Canada but retained their ties with their former comrades-in-arms, including strong ties with their colleagues and friends, Canadian veterans. In Canada, SPK had 22 Branches at its peak, from Victoria to Montreal. As a non-profit organization, SPK is devoted to community service and provides numerous charitable services to veterans, aid to war invalids and helps maintain Polish war cemeteries around the world. SPK helps to maintain Polish cultural traditions in Canada by supporting ZHP - the Canadian Polish scouting movement - folk dance ensembles, libraries and most significantly, keeping alive and communicating to the broader Canadian community the memory of their contribution and sacrifices for the Allied cause during the Second World War.
In the immediate post-war period, one of the most difficult, yet immensely important tasks of the Head Executive Board was to present undistorted and true information about Poles and Poland to the Canadian people. Canadians simply did not have a firsthand knowledge of the horrors of war and occupation. Wartime fascination with the Soviet Union and appreciation of its efforts against Hitler left little room for understanding the true nature of the Soviet system and its policies in Eastern Europe. Canada was infiltrated by Communists and Moscow's anti-Polish propaganda found many allies.
Ignorance, naiveté, and simple prejudice facilitated the spreading of lies, half-truths and innuendo. It was only following the defection of Igor Gouzenko and his revelations of Soviet spying in Canada, and the growing tensions which ultimately resulted in the Cold War, that a more balanced view of the Soviet Union appeared. Nonetheless, countering Communist lies, deceit and propaganda required constant effort until 1989. With experts predicting World War Three as inevitable, SPK members considered themselves to still be on active duty and combat ready until well into the 1950s.
As the years passed by, the members were able to concentrate more on blending into Canadian society, and raising families. Branches made a point of celebrating the Christian and national traditions which had been banned by the Communists in Poland. There were still constant struggles with the Communist regime in Poland. In one incident during the 5th national convention, Polish diplomats claimed that the SPK was "only a cloak for a gang of traitors conducting a vast campaign of espionage and diversion against the Polish state," to which the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs replied that it considers the combatants "as representatives of the valiant Polish Army..."
The original members were veterans of the Polish armed services. Unlike many other veterans' organizations, SPK membership was extended to families of the veterans. Many of their children and grandchildren are members and have served, and continue to serve, at all levels of SPK, on the Head Executive Board, and on the executive of Branches, including as Branch presidents. As the veterans today are in their eighties, or older, the child soldiers of the war are also increasingly involved with SPK. Those who were 16 or 17 during the war were trained as cadets, ready to step into the ranks on their 18th birthday. In Poland, many teenagers fought with the underground under the most dangerous conditions.
The members of SPK are proud of the significant role they played in building Canada as it is today - prosperous, free and tolerant to all. They and their families have made remarkable contributions to their new, chosen homeland; many are noted doctors, engineers and businessmen and they became educators, members of the civil service and leaders in their communities. Their children are part of the main-stream of Canadian society and continue to uphold traditions taught to them by their families. As loyal Canadians, they have an appreciation of their Polish heritage and an acute awareness of the value of the freedom and opportunity offered by Canada to all of her citizens.
The Ottawa Branch of the Polish Combatants' Association in Canada, a non-profit organization registered in the province of Ontario, was formed in 1947. In the beginning the membership of the Association consisted of former soldiers of the Polish Armed Forces who fought alongside the Allies during World War II. During the 50 years of existence of the Branch, its members became enthusiastically involved in many facets of the Ottawa community and especially in the life of the rapidly growing Polish ethnic group. The present membership consists of about 175 men and women and includes ex-combatants as well as other members of the Polish Canadian community who support the goals of the organization. The Association is a member of the National Council of the Veterans' Associations of Canada and participates in all national and veteran ceremonies in Ottawa.
In 1952 the Branch acquired a property which became the Polish Combatants' Centre. It should be noted this acquisition took place without any government assistance. Much of the social and cultural life of the Polish community in Ottawa now takes place in the hall and meeting rooms of this facility - various Polish non-profit organizations can use the Centre free of charge for meetings, seminars, rehearsals and other non-profit activities.
The Branch or its individual members were instrumental in the formation of several other organizations within the Polish-Canadian community in Ottawa. Thus, for example, in 1954 the Branch established and supported the Polish Wiktor Podoski School, which was located on the premises of the Centre until 1965, when it became an independent body. The first principal of the school and many of the original teachers were members of the Branch.
Branch members helped to establish and supported a folk dance group (in 1956) and the Polish Paderewski Choir of Ottawa (in 1962). Both organizations made use of the club facilities for a significant part of their existence. The Branch also gave its support to the Polish Scouts and Girl Guides not only by giving them access to the facilities of the Combatants' Centre, but also by providing financial help and qualified instructors.
In 1973 members of the Branch helped to form "Ognisko", a Senior Citizens' Club. This independent organization provides a much-needed meeting place for older people and offers a very rich program of cultural and social activities. The Branch enjoys a very close relationship with the Seniors' Club and supports it wholeheartedly.
The Polish (Ottawa) Credit Union, is another independent organization the majority of whose founding members, in 1958, were members of the Branch. This organization provides its members with very attractive terms for savings and loans and thus plays a very important role in our community.
The Association maintains its own library that is staffed by volunteers with professional experience. Although the beginnings of the library were very modest, it currently contains over 3000 Polish language titles. The library also has a small collection of English translations of Polish books, as well as English language books on Polish topics. Also available are a reference collection and some Polish periodicals. The latest addition to the library is a small collection of videocassettes of Polish language films. The Association assigns annually $500 for the acquisition of new books and cassettes. Books are available to all members of the Polish-Canadian community free of charge.
In 1983 the Association instituted a series of lectures and seminars on historical topics for the Polish-Canadian community in Ottawa. These events take place approximately once every month and there have been about 130 thus far. More recently parallel series of slide shows on exotic travel and of lectures and films on religious topics have been organized. Regular screenings of Polish language films also take place. Many or these events are arranged in collaboration with other Polish-Canadian organizations in Ottawa. Attendance at these events varies between 40 and 80 people.
After martial law was declared in Poland (in 1981) and the Solidarity Trade Union was outlawed, tens of thousands of Poles left their country. The refugee camps of Western Europe were overflowing and Canada opened its doors to the refugees. In 1982 the Association established a Sponsorship Committee to assist the refugees. During its existence, this committee helped 599 men, women and children to settle in Canada. The assistance offered consisted of one or more of the following: financial aid, provision of temporary living quarters and help in locating permanent accommodation, general orientation, interpreting, help with registration for language classes and schools, assistance with various other formalities, as well as acting as guarantors to governments and private institutions.
The Association supports many Ottawa Polish-Canadian organizations with monetary donations. It also donates to relief funds for victims of natural disasters such as the floods in Manitoba, Quebec and Poland, and ice storms in Ontario and Quebec. The Branch assigns between $3,000 and $5,000 annually for such purposes.
Dr. Peter Nawrot, President