At 87, Richard Opitz still walks erect. The infirmities of age make him less spry. But he still has a full head of hair and eyes that show intensity when he recalls his role at the battle of Monte Cassino in Italy during the Second World War. While other Allied troops had failed to dislodge German troops atop this apparently insurmountable height, he and his 2nd Polish Corps comrades broke through and seized the mountain in May of 1944.
“The engineers managed to make us a pathway up the mountain,” he told me. “We attacked in the night when they didn’t expect us. It was a bloody affair, but our Polish troops won the day.”
Won the day, but not the most precious prize that all Poles then wanted – the opportunity to return to a free Poland. At the end of WWII, not only were they refused passage home (the Soviets occupied their country until 1989), in many cases they were denied access to victory celebrations across Europe in 1945.
I sat beside Richard Opitz last Sunday at the annual Polish Combatants’ Association dinner. Each summer, just ahead of the Warriors’ Day Parade at the Canadian National Exhibition (August 18), these veterans and their wives gather to hear words of tribute from the Polish Consulate, to share war stories and to enjoy a hearty meal and patriotic songs. Also at my table Sunday afternoon was Ted Sanicz.
At age 93, and now wearing hearing aids, Sanicz recalled flying Spitfires as a member of the Royal Air Force; there were four Polish squadrons in the RAF. The medals above his left blazer pocket read like the battle honours for an entire regiment. Sanicz flew in the Battle of Britain, then with 2nd Tactical Air Force in Europe and finally during the liberation of Holland. Prince Bernhard personally pinned Holland’s highest decoration on his chest when the liberation of the Netherlands was complete. Then, he returned to Britain for the VE Day parades in London.
“They told us that those Poles in the RAF could march in the parade, but not any Polish infantry,” he said. And in the next second his face turned ashen. “We refused to march unless all Polish veterans did.”
Lest one think these two veterans stood out alone as heroes or victims of the war. Not at all. Around that banquet hall sat men with equally astounding wartime service records. I met another Polish veteran who jumped into Arnhem during Operation Market-Garden (the so-called “Bridge Too Far” mission). Then there were Poles who closed the gap against the Germans at the famous battle at Falaise in France in the summer of 1944. Krystyna Witecka, a woman in her 80s with a devilish smile, told me she’d smuggled guns and information in Warsaw during the war and though the Germans imprisoned her several times, she escaped relatively unscathed.
Other vets present on Sunday told me of their beloved Romuald Nalecz-Tyminski, commander of the Polish destroyer Slazak. At the height of the hit-and-run raid on Dieppe on August 19, 1942, when his Royal Navy commanders ordered a retreat, Tyminski refused to abandon the Royal Regiment of Canada fighting on the beaches.
“The destroyer [headed] straight for the beach, firing all of its guns at the enemy,” reported the Toronto Star in Tyminski’s obituary in 2004. “He was credited with saving the lives of 85 Canadians.”
Tyminski also received military recognition, including Britain’s Distinguished Service Cross and honourary standing in the RRC. But he had to be smuggled out of Europe, and only returned to Poland in 2000 when he was finally acknowledged in his homeland and made rear admiral.
So it went last Sunday. The speeches were delivered. The empty dishes were cleared away. Only a few glasses of wine remained. The stories continued to move around the table. And when the Polish entertainers arrived out came the patriotic songs and folk tunes that everybody knew. But in spite of the upbeat tempo of the afternoon, there remained that nagging truth in these veterans’ post-war lives. And one of them came to the podium microphone to get it off his chest one last time.
“Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt,” he said in Polish. “They called on us to fight. And we helped deliver victory. But then they gave our country away.”
Though not all the members of the Polish Combatants’ Association would have put it quite that way, 65 years after the fact, these Polish-Canadians still feel the pain of neglect and betrayal.