Updated: Aug 5
My birth father no longer lies in a unmarked grave. The wonderful staff at the Kirkland Lake cemetery in Northern Ontario just placed this marker on the spot where, 45 years ago, unmarked and unmourned, Stanislaw Zebrowski was buried.
Stanislaw disappeared from my life in 1952, less than a year after my mother and I arrived from a Displaced Persons camp in Germany and joined him in Timmins, where he was working as a logger. I was just four years old.
Stanislaw's place in our lives was taken by Frank Uzarowski, a former Polish freedom fighter who my mother fell in love with and who became my step-father. For the rest of her life, my mother would never talk about Stanislaw, except to say he was a violent drunk.
It was not until last year that I discovered Stanislaw had spent his last years in the Chateau Nursing Home in Kirkland lake, and that he had died penniless.
He'd lived a hard life. In 1939 he signed up for the Polish army, only to be captured that same year as the Germans rolled into Poland. He was shipped off to Dresden in Germany where he became inmate number 14624 in the Stalag 4A prisoner of war camp.
A year later he was transferred to Stalag 4B, which was fast-becoming one of the largest POW camps in World War II. It was a sprawling and desperately over-crowded community; 30,000 malnourished, diseased, mistreated souls trying to survive against the odds. About 3,000 died, mainly from tuberculosis and typhus.
When the Russians liberated the camp in 1945, Stanislaw, like most of his fellow Poles, decided he didn't want to swap one of Hitler's camps for one of Stalin's gulags. So he slipped away to the American sector, 45 km away.
That's how he met my mother. They were both in an American-run Assembly Centre in Schweinfurt, and then transferred to an UNRRA Displaced Persons camp in Weiden where they married and where, in 1947, I was born. That's where they formulated the plan to emigrate westwards, rather than returning east.
Life in Canada was hard for Stanislaw. Logging was dangerous. He was injured on the job. Then he had a stroke and lost mobility on his right side. A few years later a second stroke killed him.
Stanislaw was my father, though I barely knew him. But he had a story, and that story is part of my story and my mother's story. The headstone at Kirkland Lake is a first step in honouring his life. A fuller remembrance will come as I pull together all these stories of secrets, struggle and survival in the book I am writing, The Golden Daughter.