Remembering Polish soldiers who trained in Niagara-on-the-Lake 90 years ago
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — The small plot of graves is immediately distinguishable from the others in St. Vincent de Paul cemetery.
Surrounded by a small iron fence, the 25 graves bear the emblem of a white eagle, the symbol of a free Poland. The names — Michael Byszewski, Jozef Dolwa, Jan Siatkowski — also set them apart.
In these graves, Henry Radecki said, are some of the bravest men in Poland’s history.
The soldiers were newly emigrated Polish-Americans when they travelled from the U.S. to Niagara-on-the-Lake to train for an independent Polish army during the First World War. Poland didn’t even exist at the time, having been occupied for 123 years by other countries.
About 20,000 trainees filed through Niagara-on-the-Lake from 1917 to 1919, sleeping in barns and crude barracks, outnumbering the town’s residents. The men in the 25 graves died in the Spanish influenza pandemic.
Each year, local Poles march from downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake to the cemetery plots, commemorating not only the spirit of the volunteers but the liberation of their motherland. This year is the 90th anniversary.
“The cemetery is a symbol only,” said Radecki, a retired sociology professor, war veteran and Polish immigrant who helps maintain the plots.
“The cemetery is a symbol of all the others who died outside of the United States and North America, who fought for that ideal of an independent Poland,” Radecki said.
Poland’s history is complicated and riddled with conflict. In the late 1700s, the country was conquered by Austria, Prussia and Russia, which divided the territory among them, wiping Poland as a country off the map, Radecki said. For the next 123 years, the Polish people revolted, but even the longest and most intense efforts were unsuccessful. The First World War was an opportunity to gain freedom, and the best way to obtain it was siding with the Allies.
To form a Polish army, organizers combed American towns with the largest number of Polish immigrants, ideal because the U.S. was still neutral in the war. But when the U.S. became involved and started drafting soldiers, organizers of the Polish army moved their volunteers to Canada, where they wouldn’t be drafted.
The effort in Niagara-on-the-Lake represented the new strength of the Polish people, who still longed to take back their homeland, Radecki said. This makes the small town where initial training was provided very important to Poland’s existence as a nation.
The soldiers had occasionally miserable conditions, Radecki said. Four barrack buildings were built, but they housed only about 300 soldiers each, and at any given time, as many as 3,000 men were training. Some slept in tents with their ration of two blankets per man.
Others slept in abandoned canneries, vacant barns or, if they were lucky, public buildings such as town hall. Some local residents housed them for free. The men were paid five cents a day.
While Radecki’s research shows some residents were skeptical of this new group, Niagara-on-the-Lake residents were used to soldiers, said Clark Bernat, curator of the Niagara Historical Museum.
“Through the whole World War I era, at any given time, there were as many soldiers in town as there were residents,” he said.
The Spanish influenza hit hard, striking many soldiers ill and killing one of the two doctors who cared for the Polish men, Radecki said.
Elizabeth Ascher, a local woman and St. Catharines Standard columnist, cared for many of them, promoting their presence in the community so much that in death she was granted the Cross of the Order of Polonia Restitute.
But the soldiers were a robust group. Of the 22,000 who trained in Niagara-on-the-Lake, only 150 were killed overseas and fewer than 1,000 were wounded.
“It’s been said they were the best army at that time in Europe,” Radecki said. “They were well-equipped. They could take on any enemy.”
The annual ceremony remains important to the Polish community, who see it as a valiant symbol, said Jacek Kaminski, president of the Niagara branch of the Canadian Polish Congress.
“Going over the ocean wasn’t as simple as it is today,” Kaminski said. “They made one big trip from Europe to America to come here. And when they saw the need, they went back.”
About 800 people are expected at this year’s parade, which will be Sunday at noon at the cemetery. Festivities, including a fashion show and dancing, will follow in Polonia Park.
Each year, the group that gathers gets a little older, as do the memberships of local Polish organizations, Radecki said.
“But as long as there’s one person left to march, there will be a parade.”
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