Heroic Underground Officer and Community Leader
Józef Kaczmarek was born in 1915 in Słupca in central Poland. Although he was orphaned and raised in difficult conditions, he became a certified teacher and worked with abandoned and runaway children and juvenile offenders. Later he graduated from an infantry military school. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Józef was promoted to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. He was captured by Germans, released, seized again and sent to slave labour camp. He escaped in Warsaw and joined the underground ZWZ, within which he organized a unit in the eastern part of Warsaw. After the outbreak of the German Soviet War in 1941, he was transferred to eastern Poland with a group of Underground officers. They were supplied with false German Wehrmacht identification papers so they could carry out intelligence and sabotage work. In August 1942, as a result of a betrayal, seven officers of this group were arrested by the Germans. Subsequently, Lt. Kaczmarek was also arrested but, despite torture, the Germans were unable to link him with his arrested comrades, all but one of whom were executed. Lt. Kaczmarek was successfully spirited away from the prison by the Underground and soon became the AK’s communication officer for the entire region between the eastern Germans lines and the Vistula River. During the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, Cpt. Kaczmarek – “Rolicz” fought in the elite AK “Radosław” combat group in Wola and Stare Miasto districts, taking part in some of the fiercest fighting of the Warsaw Uprising. He was wounded at Stare Miasto. The highest Polish military decorations for valour, The Cross of the Order Virtuti Militari, was conferred on him. After the capitulation of the Uprising, he commended the group of soldiers of the “Czata 49” battalion of the “Radosław” group who became German prisoners-of-war in Bawaria. After liberation by the US forces, Cpt. Kaczmarek joined the Polish 2nd Corps in Italy.
He was among the many soldiers of the Polish Forces in the West who became disillusioned with the Yalta Agreement and the imposition of a Soviet-controlled communist government on Poland. Even before the war ended, the communists in Poland – in cooperation with the Soviet – started imprisoning and exterminating former Polish Underground soldiers. For Cpt. Kaczmarek, perhaps even more than for the regular members of the Polish forces, returning to Poland would have posed a grave risk. Consequently, he went to the transitional camp for Polish soldiers at Falconara, Italy and applied to the Canadian commission which was accepting some able-bodies soldiers for two-year contracts to work on Canadian farms. By pretending to be uneducated and barely passing an “agriculture” test, he was accepted. While he was still at Falconara, with the approval of the 2nd Corps’ Headquarters, he established a founding committee for the Canadian Chapter of Polish Combatants’ Association (SPK) for former Polish soldiers who were to depart for Canada.
On November 12, 1946, he disembarked from the “Sea Robin” in Halifax harbour and with 400 other ex-serviceman, was sent by train to Lethbridge, Alberta. Lethbridge welcome them with bitter cold and deep snow. For the last time the 400 comrades-in-arms stood together at a Holy Mass singing Polish religious hymns. Colonel Gibson, a federal government official, gave Cpt. Kaczmarek the address of his new farmer-employer beforehand, so that he could pass it on to his colleagues. Thus Kaczmarek became their contact person and representative.
Józef Kaczmarek first worked at the farm of Arthur Jesperson in Spruce Grove, Alberta. Although he worked long, hard hours on the farm, he recalled Arthur Jesperson as fair and friendly man. On May 4, 1947, the Polish Combatants’ Association, Branch no.6 in Edmonton, officially started its activity and Cpt. Kaczmarek was elected its first President. In February 1948, he became the Vice-President and official representative of the SPK (Canada Chapter, Winnipeg) for the former soldiers who worked on farms in Western Canada. In this capacity, he received many letters from ex-serviceman which mainly contained grievances about their working and living conditions. The Canadian authorities recognized Józef Kaczmarek’s mandate and he officially represented his comrades with the “Farming Inspectors”. In most cases, his intervention led to finding a new farmer-employer for the complainant. He recall good and friendly cooperation with a number of officials such a Col. Gibson, Mr. Mundy, Mr. Boon, Mr. Lynn and Mr. Ozee. To be fair, Józef Kaczmarek also recalled unjustified complaints or cases where the farmer soldier was to be blamed rather than the farmer. After some time, Józef Kaczmarek started to work for a Polish farmer, Czesław Fedożewski, close to Edmonton, and through him made contact with Poles from the earlier immigration. He continued representing hundreds of ex-Polish serviceman and worked tirelessly toward improving their welfare. His assistance was invaluable to many Polish ex-serviceman. Reportedly, it was Józef Kaczmarek who first began telling his ex-comrads-in-arms that they should abandon hopes for return to Poland and instead start to adopt to their new country.
Józef Kaczmarek soon began activities which utilized his teaching experience. In 1947 he began to produce amateur Polish theatrical and folk-dance performances on stage of the “old” Polish Hall and elsewhere. After initial reluctance, many Poles participated in these performances and the production proved very successful. This was the beginning of more vivid Polish cultural activity in Edmonton. Also in 1947, with the assistance of W. Fridel, F. Tomusiak, R. Hauptman, Mr. Brzuśkiewicz, J. Lang, S. Modzelewski and Cecilia Solikoski, Józef Kaczmarek and Władysław Zientarski established a Polish school in Edmonton. Three classes were held on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings for students who ranged from elementary school to university age. There was a severe shortage of textbooks so some Polish religious books imported from Chicago and some low-grade novels available in Edmonton were often used. This school ceased its activity in 1950. (in 1954 a new Polish school was established in Edmonton which is still functioning.) In 1948, with the help of Mr. Lambert and Fr. Edwin Malak, Józef Kaczmarek acted to prevent publication by the Edmonton Journal of slanderous articles directed at Polish ex-serviceman and Poles in general. The Poles then found a more friendly approach in The Edmonton Bulletin.
When their two-year contracts to work on farms expired, the Polish ex-soldiers received landed immigrant status. Some remained on farms, while others moved into the cities and began new work or business. The Polish community also expended as the result of more Polish immigrants arriving from Great Britain and Germany. There was some tension within the Polish community, mainly due to ideological differences between the post-war polish immigrants, who had gone through Soviet camps or post-war terror, and some of the earlier immigrants, who initially appeared to be more sympathetic to the communist propaganda spread by the Polish People’s Republic’s Embassy in Ottawa. Józef Kaczmarek skilfully participated in efforts to explain and smooth out the differences.
For years Józef Kaczmarek remained active in the Polish Combatants’ Association, Branch no. 6, in Edmonton. He was also instrumental in raising funds to build the new Holy Rosary Polish Church. After the relaxation of the communist regime in Poland in October 1956, he was active in the Aid to Poland Fund, which resumed the activities of the former Polish Relief Fund. Józef Kaczmarek obtained the support of the provincial government for this effort. In 1958 he helped in negotiating the agreement between several Polish organizations in Edmonton to build a new, larger Polish Hall. In 1959, Józef Kaczmarek and his wife represented the Polish community at the official ceremony to welcome Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in front of the Alberta Legislature building in Edmonton.
In 1960 the Kaczmarek family moved to Kelowna, BC, where they build and successfully ran the Quo Vadis Motel, which was ranked highly for appearance and service. Józef Kaczmarek remained involved in Polish community affairs. In the late 1940s’ and from 1981 to 1983, he was Vice President of Polish Combatants’ Association for Western Canada. He died suddenly in Toronto on March 10, 1988, where he was attending a convention of the Polish National Council. Józef Kaczmarek was buried in Edmonton with military honours paid to him by his fellow Polish Combatants.
Source: Polonia in Alberta 1895-1995
- Józef Kaczmarek in the 1970s
- A group of Polish officers, ex-POWs, during a stop in Brenner Pass in the Alps, July 1945, en route from the former POW camps in Murnau, Bawaria to Italy, to the Polish 2nd The Red Cross trucks were sent by General Anders to pick-up Polish POWs. Cpt. Józef Kaczmarek, centre right of the Red Cross sign, behind the women. First from the right is Lt. Mieczysław Janusz, an AK officer who, caught in Kalisz, was an inmate in the German concentration camp in Mauthausen from 1943. He came to Edmonton in 1948.
- Captain Józef Kaczmarek (centre, partly shadowed) with Polish ex-soldiers in Polish Hall in Calgary, 1947.
- Władysław Zientarski (left) and Józef Kaczmarek (right) on their return from hunting moose, early 1960s.