Wybitni Polacy w Albercie – Henryk Wójcicki
Andrzej M. Kobos: Professor Wójcicki, you respected and honoured man, have been one of the towering figures in the polish community in Alberta and the rest of Canada. You have had an outstanding career, first as a physician in the Polish Forces, then as neuropsychiatrist and university professor. Whenever you were, you have always been one of the Polish community leader. May we start with wartime military service?
Henryk M. Wójcicki: I was born in St. Petersburg in 1916, but spent my formative years in Równe in Volhynia [Wołyn] in eastern Poland. In 1939, I was a student in the Faculty of Medicine, University of Warsaw, where I completed the fourth year of my studies. Four trimester, that is somewhat longer than one year, remained until my graduation. I was also at the Academy for military medical officers. In late August 1939 I was mobilized as 2nd Lieutenant and in September I was with unit fighting in southern Poland. After the defeat of Poland by the Germans and the Soviets, I cross the border into Hungary and later Yugoslavia on my way to France. I still remember crossing the Drava River on the boat and an isle in this river where I lost my excellent boots in the mud. Finally, I got to France where I was a medical officer in a Polish armoured unit commanded by Col. Stanisław Maczek, later the famous commander of the Polish 1st Armoured Division. Upon the defeat of France, along with the unit, I was evacuated to Scotland and remained there in the Polish Corps.
AMK: Was it is Scotland where your medical career began?
HMW: Yes. In 1941 I was given a leave of absence to finish my medical studies at the University of Edinburgh. I graduated with a MB, ChB in 1942 and returned to General Maczek’s Brigade. Soon I was transferred to the 1st Polish Military Hospital at Taymouth Castle, Perthshire. There, I headed the Neuropsychiatry word until 1947. In 1946, I received a specialist-psychiatrist diploma, from the University of Edinburgh. My doctoral thesis concerned war neuroses. (Incidentally, Taymouth Castle belonged to the McTaggart family, from which came Sandy McTaggart, later the Chancellor of the University of Alberta. I met him later in the Senate of the University of Alberta.)
AMK: We know rather little about Polish military hospitals during the war.
HMW: The 1st Polish Military Hospital at Taymouth Castle where I served was the largest of seven Polish military hospitals in Great Britain. It housed several hundred beds. For three years I was a neuropsychiatrist in this hospital. They were bringing wounded or sick Polish soldiers there. Later, after the invasion, they came from all over the continent. Many of them survived, but many died, mainly as a result of wounds and infection. The art of surgery was very good, but many patients were dying later of infections. These were very tragic moments. Initially we had only sulphani
lamides. I witnessed the introduction of penicillin, which was first distributed to the Army on the Italian front in early 1944. There were also numerous nervous breakdowns among the soldiers. I married in Scotland. My wife Zofia Szablewska, was a volunteer nurse with the Polish Forces in France after the Allied invasion, and later was transferred to the Taymouth Castle hospital where we met. We stayed in Scotland until 1947, when I was transferred to be in charge of the Neuropsychiatry ward in a Polish Veterans Hospital in Penley, Wales. I remember working there with Dr. Stanisław Ostrowski, a charming man who later was the Polish President-in-Exile.
AMK: Why and when did you came to Canada?
HMW: After the war we decided not to return to Poland. Everybody knew the situation there. Nor did we want to move to France, although my wife had lived there previously. We could have stayed in the United Kingdom, where I could have kept working as a doctor, however we wanted to find a better place to raise our children. In 1952 a friend of mine, a former Polish air Force medical officer who was already in Canada, informed me of a suitable opening in Saskatchewan. We decided to go. A new country and new future attracted us. In January 1953 we immigrated to Canada where I obtained the position of Clinical Director at large psychiatric hospital in Northern Battleford, Saskatchewan. I also worked with mentally handicapped children and adolescents in the area. In 1954 I became a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. I participated in research on new psychopharmacological drugs and schizophrenia. We remained in North Battleford until 1960.
AMK: Was it there where your activity among Polish communities began?
HMW: Yes, indeed. In 1954 I founded the Polish-Canadian Alliance, “Ognisko” [Hearth]. A number of Polish families lived in this town and on the neighbouring farms, and they were usually mixed marriages, so both spouses belonged to our organization in which we used both Polish and English. We organized an amateur theatre group. We remained in touch with Polish newspapers: Czas in Winnipeg and Związkowiec in Toronto. On the lighter side, our local contestant won a beauty contest in Toronto for “Miss Canadian Polonia.” It is interesting how we managed to obtain the bishop’s permission to have religious services carried out in Polish in the local church. Although Polish priests resided in a mission across the river, the local parish priest refused to give us permission, claiming that he would be flooded with similar requests from other ethnic groups. The francophone bishop whom we petitioned, refused at first, but got agitated and silently began his Rosary prayer. At this point I asked him: “In what language does His Grace pray?” He answered, “Naturellement, François!” I said: “Your Grace, we Poles believe that God can listen to our prayers, and understand our sins and our love exclusively in Polish.” Instantly, the bishop became so moved that he gave us his permission for one Polish service every month, more than we had asked for.
AMK: There is a saying that praying in one’s native language remains with one the longest.
HMW: That is absolutely true. I remember people of Polish extraction in Volhynia who normally spoke
Ukrainian but always prayed and song Christmas carols in Polish. AMK: When did you come to Edmonton?
HMW: In 1960 I obtained positions in psychiatry simultaneously in the hospitals: the University, General, and Misericordia. At the latter two I actually organized departments of psychiatry and I remained their chairman until 1984. At the University of Alberta I was first Assistant Professor, then Associate Professor, and later Clinical Professor. I participated in further studies of psychopharmacological drugs. I lectures to students and conducted seminars, and I am still active as a Professor Emeritus. I was a member of the University of Alberta Senate for six years. The University of Alberta has established a Memorial Prize in Psychiatry in my name. I have been a member of number of Albertan, Canadian, British and US professional Medical and Psychiatric Associations. I also worked with displaced and financially handicapped Canadians in several welfare and charity organizations. In 1961, under the leadership of Rev. William Irwin, I assisted in establishing the Catholic Social Services in the Archdiocese of Edmonton. Now some 600 people work for the Services and I still remain a consultant there. Among other positions, I have been a commissioner of the Alberta Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Commission, a
chairman of the Review Panel under the Mental Health Act, a member of the Board of Review in the Attorney General’s Department where I advise on psychiatric matters, vice-chairman of the Edmonton Citizenship Council, and a member of the Canadian Consultative Council on Multiculturalism.
AMK: Did your involvement with Canadian Polish Congress also begin in Edmonton?
HMW: Yes, it did. Our “Hearth” in Saskatchewan did not belong to the Canadian Polish Congress. Soon after I came to Edmonton, I was involved by Lechosław Gruszczyński to deliver the keynote speech on Polish Independent Day on November 11 to the Polish-Canadian Society. In 1965 we established the Canadian Polish Academic Club. Marian Strzelecki, Irena and Mieczysław Domecki, Wacław Szlichciński, Konstanty Kowalewski, Józef Bereźnicki, Allan Wachowich, Edward Wachowich, and I, were its co- founders. In 1972 the Academic Club gave rise to the Polish Cultural Society. For three, two-year terms – 1965-67, and 1988-1981 I was a President of the Canadian Polish Congress, Alberta Branch. In 1966, 1982 and 1988 I was chairman of the National Convention of the Congress. In 1966 we had very important and successful celebration of the Millennium of Christianity in Poland. An appropriate monument, which also mentions Polish pioneers in Alberta was erected in front of the, Holy Rosary Church in Edmonton. In 1987 I organized the Alberta Interfaith Committee to give moral and financial support to the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland. Also that year, at the Roman Catholic Cathedral, a special religious interfaith service was held with clergy of different denominations and a local Jewish Rabbi praying jointly for Poland and the Catholic University of Lublin.
AMK: For a number of years you were the delegate of the Polish Government-in-Exile in Alberta. This is a very interesting fragment of post-war Polish history. Would you, please elaborate on this subject?
HMW: After the defeat of Poland in September 1939, the Polish Government-in-Exile was formed in France and Władysław Raczkiewicz assumed the Presidency of Poland. In June 1940, the President and the Government-in-Exile were evacuated to London where they acted throughout the war. In July 1945, the Allies withdrew recognition of this government and recognized the communist-dominated government in Warsaw. However, upon Poland’s subjugation by the Soviet communist system, successive Presidents of Poland and the Polish Government-in-Exile remained in office in London until December 1990, when Poland’s last President-in-Exile, Ryszard Kaczorowski, in a symbolic transfer of legality, transferred the Polish state insignia to the freely elected President of Poland – Lech Wałęsa. Throughout its existence, the Polish Government-in-Exile in London had its representative in Canada as well as delegates in several provinces. In Alberta, for many years the delegate was Col. Tadeusz Walkowski; in 1982-1984 it was Mieczysław Domecki; and from 1984 to 1990 I was the last delegate. There also existed a representative of the émigré Polish National Treasury Board [Skard Narodowy], and a Canadian branch of the symbolic Polish Parliament, the “National Council.”
AMK: What was the rationale for the Government-in-Exile?
HMW: After the war, the Polish Government-in-Exile was continued mainly to ensure legal continuity of the Polish government. As Edward Raczyński, the former President of Poland in-Exile once put it, the Polish Government-in-Exile represented the national will, the national feelings, the aspirations of Poles, and out attachment to the democratic world. These representations had a certain moral force, we believed that the communist regime was not a true representative of the Polish people. We wanted to uphold the issues of Poland’s subjugation to the communist system and the Soviet empire and of the lack of human rights in Poland.
AMK: What are you doing as the Alberta representative of the Polish Government-in-Exile?
HMW: More or less the same as what honorary consuls do: working towards the best possible relations between Poland/the Polish community, and Canada, and Alberta in particular. It however, had a strong political aspect because, as I said, we wanted to be regarded as an extension of the legal Polish government. We also worked towards explaining Poland’s political situation to the Canadian people, starting with the treacherous Yalta Agreement and ending with the current situation. The ultimate goal was, of course, independent for Poland. We received monthly information from the Government-in- Exile in London on its activities as well as this government’s publications, such as the journal Rzeczpospolita Polska. Prime Minister-in-Exile (later President), Kazimierz Sabbat, and the government’s representatives in Canada, visited us several times. For many years the Polish Government-in-Exile has distinguished chief representative in Canada in rev. Franciszek Pluta – a man of great devotion to the Polish patriotic cause. We also had contacts with Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, and the Chairman of the National Treasury Board (of course all of them “in-exile”). We had no contacts with the official missions of the Polish People’s Republic.
AMK: What was the Canadian reaction to your activities?
HMW: Officially, the Government of Canada recognized the Polish People’s Republic, therefore we had no official contacts with the Canadian government. However, we had the unofficial support of many Canadians even at high government levels. They were saying: “we can do nothing officially, but we support you practically and emotionally. We are all for honesty and political truth.” They were very clear on this. For instance, I recall gratefully a moving address by Saskatchewan’s Lieutenant Governor, F.W. Johnson, to the national convention of the Polish Combatants’ Association (SPK) in Regina on May 16, 1987. He finished by saying: “Truth crushed to earth shall rise again…. The Polish soul still shines, the Polish hearts beat strong. Have no doubt, Poland will live again, Poland will be free.” Then he turned to me and said; “Here beside me, sits Dr. Wójcicki, the true representative of Poland.”
AMK: The Gvernement-in-Exile was also coordinating assistance to the Polish opposition and humanitarian aid to Poland, particularly after martial law was introduced in Poland in December 1981.
HMW: Yes, by all possible means. As far as I know, approximately 80 percent of funds raised by the émigré National Treasury Board was channelled to Poland in different forms. In 1980, in Edmonton, we established a committee to help Poland. We sent containers with food, clothing, and medications, mainly through Holland. The humanitarian aid to Poland was coordinated by committee led by Mieczysław Domecki. There were also two other committees: a committee for moral support chaired by Fr. Edward Klimuszko, and a press committee chaired by Irena Domecka. The latter committee kept Canadians informed about the situation and problems in Poland, Poland’s goals, and “Solidarity’s” struggles with communism.
AMK: Dr. Wójcicki, you have been highly honoured in Canada.
HMW: Well, in 1979 I received a Papal Knighthood that is Equestrian Commander of St. Sylvestre. There was a ceremony conducted by the Archbishop of Edmonton, Anthony Jordan, in the Polish Holy Rosary Church, which I preferred above the Edmonton Cathedral he had offered as its site. Also, I met Pope John Paul II three times, first while he was visiting Canada as Cardinal Wojtyła and next when he visited Edmonton as the Pope in September 1984. On the later occasion, during the Papal Mass at the Namao
airfield I, and my wife handed him a gift from the Polish community in Alberta – a Chalice. The Pope used this Chalice to celebrate this historic Holly Mass. I also talked to him privately when my wife and I visited Rome. Surprisingly, he had very vivid memories of our earlier encounters and conversations.
AMK: You are one of the very few holders of The Order of Canada from the Polish Canadian community and the one alive from the Polish Albertans community.
HMW: In 1989 I was honoured with the Member of the order of Canada by Governor General, Jeanne Sauvé. This recognition was bestowed on me for my professional and humanitarian work. I also received a number of other Canadian and Polish recognitions, among them the Order Polonia Restituta, IV Class, from the Polish Government-in-Exile. Earlier, I received several Polish, French, and British military medals.
AMK: No life is full without hobbies. What about yours, Dr. Wójcicki?
HMW: I have a few hobbies. I collect National Geographic magazines. I have gathered them since the year 1905. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find the earlier issues, from 1888 to 1904, but am still seeking them. In connection with my interest in geography, I also collect maps, but cotemporary rather than antique. I also collect books, particularly on historical events and novels. Also, from the age of eleven, I have been a colombophile (keeper of carrier pigeons for sport).
AMK: You left Poland as a young men, have had a very active professional career, and yet you have cultivated and retained your Polishness. What, after so many years, do you think, were the decisive factors in this?
HMW: To state it briefly: God’s grace, parental guidance, and Polish Scouting – “Harcerstwo” – which has always remained faithful to the Polish Republic. My father was a great patriot and a devout Roman Catholic. He passed his faith on to me. When I was twenty-one, he gave me the family’s gold crucifix on neck chain. I still have this cross on my neck today, but its original gold chain was exchanged for a boat crossing of the Drava River in 1939. I went through many ranks in the Scouting movement and I continue to be a Scout. I am pleased to add that basic principle of scouting is similar to that of the Rotary International organization, of which I have been a member for nearly a quarter of century, and whose motto is “ Service Above Self.” Just before the war, I was the officially designated bearer of my Military Medical Academy’s banner. At my side was Zygmunt Kujawski, who a few years later, during the Nazi occupation, became the legendary Dr. “Broom” of the elite AK Battalion “Zośka.” Both he and I, and many others, have remained forever faithful to the free Rzeczpospolita Polska.
Interview, February-March 1995
Source: Polonia in Alberta 1895 – 1995