Bohdan Czarnocki's story, shared by Susan Czarnocki
Bohdan Czarnocki was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1930. He spent the first nine years of his life in Krzemieniec, about 60 kilometers from the newly established border between Poland and the Soviet Union, in what is now the Ukraine. His father was the Kurator for a large, self-financing pedagogical institution, Liceum Krzemienieckie. His mother worked in the district helping to establish cooperatives and organizations for women. His parents were living the dream of their life-time: to re-build the Polish nation from the ruins of World War I.
Bohdan was two months shy of his 9th birthday when Nazi forces stormed into Poland, on September 1, 1939. On September 17th, came the notification that Russian troops had entered Polish territory. The District Administrator called Bohdan’s father to advise him of the situation. He then asked: “Panie kuratorze, co pan zamierza robic?” [Sir Kurator, what do you, sir, intend to do?”]
Bohdan’s father replied: “Jaw kazdym razie zostaje.” [“Whatever happens, I will stay here.”] On September 25th he was arrested and jailed. Bohdan’s mother was told by the newly established Russian authorities that “He worked for the Polish state [wlasti]. That for us is an obvious crime. He is a counter-revolutionary.” He was eventually sent to a labour camp in Kazakhstan.
In the course of the winter, Bohdan’s mother (Halina) received a gryps (a message smuggled out of prison) from his father. It read “I would like you to cross over to the west [i.e. German-controlled Warsaw]. Please try.”
In February, 1940, Halina is told by the teachers that some students had already been taken from the school, by Russian officials and she should flee with her children. Within a few hours Bohdan, his mother and sister were struggling through woods and deep snow to keep from being seen. After several weeks of bone-chilling adventures, they traverse the Russian sector, cross into to the German sector, and reach Warsaw.
In September of 1941, Halina received a message that the Polish Home Army [Armia Krajowa – AK] was requesting that she be in charge of their communications network, working under the Chief of Staff. Duty called and she went to work without hesitation, running the ‘nerve-center’ for the underground. On the 23rd of April 1943 she was arrested, and on the 12th of May she was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Auschwitz was built initially as a forced-labour camp for warehousing the thousands of Poles, particularly educated professionals, who the Nazi’s saw as potentially dangerous. Only later was the Birkenau section added, with gas chambers for the elimination of Jews.
Remarkably, at the end of the war, Bohdan, his mother and his sister had all managed to survive. Bohdan’s mother and sister, both having been released from POW camps were allowed resettlement in England. They gathered funds to arrange for Bohdan to be smuggled out of Poland with false papers.
Bohdan eventually married his childhood friend, Jadwiga Basinska, the daughter of his father’s Chief Assistant. One of her brothers had been awarded a research position at the National Research Council in Canada. He convinced Bohdan and Jaga that they would find better opportunities in Canada, than in England. They moved to Canada in 1958. They both found full-time employment, and quickly realized that they could stash away one salary in the bank and still live more comfortably than spending two salaries in London.
Skiing, kayaking, camping – Bohdan fell in love with the Canadian wilderness. But he realized that without higher educational credentials, his further opportunities were limited. In 1961, at the age of 31, he enrolled as a freshman at McMaster University. In 1975, he received a PhD in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He taught Sociology at universities in Canada and in Poland.
He had a strong interest in improving ethnic-group relations. His master’s thesis was on perceived discrimination by minorities in Hamilton. Later on, he collaborated with Victor Goldbloom in Montreal to form a Jewish-Polish Relations Council in an effort to reduce tensions between the two communities.
In 1979-1980, he was a visiting Professor at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland, contemporaneously with the rise of the Solidarity Trade Union Movement. This was a life-changing experience for him and he came back devoted to the support of Solidarity’s challenge to the Polish Communist regime. He became the Secretary General of the Polish Canadian Congress and helped to collect a ‘tax in support of Poland’ within the Montreal Polish community. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, he was able to go to Poland for 6 months every year for 10 years, to teach Polish students about Canadian society.
Bohdan’s journey which began in Poland saw him come a full circle as he returned there year after year, to teach about his new country of peace and harmony, this land called Canada. A safe home to so many at the end of their difficult journeys.