‘Poland was Like a Burning House’: Polish Canadians Remember Nazi-Soviet Invasion of 1939

August 31, 2020 Updated: September 1, 2020

The daughter of a Polish count and diplomat, Eva Konopacki was born to wealth and privilege, but in the early hours of Sept. 1, 1939, her world went up in smoke.

Now 94 and living in Ottawa, Konopacki remembers the invasion of her country as clearly as if it happened yesterday.

She was barely 13 when Nazi warplanes suddenly attacked Poland, launching a blitzkrieg (surprise offensive) against an unprepared country. Little did she know then that this act ignited the flame that would rapidly blow up into the conflagration of the Second World War.

Her school became an instant hospital for wounded soldiers, and classes were suspended

“At first we thought it was a prolonged vacation and an exciting adventure for us,” she recalls.

Still unaware of the grave danger lurking on the horizon, Konopacki and her mother proceeded by train to another city close to the Soviet border, hoping to find another school. An air of relative calm prevailed, but in fact, the Polish people were soon to become victims of a heinous act of political skulduggery.

Unbeknown to them, two totalitarian regimes—Nazi Germany and communist Russia—had signed the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact earlier that year, agreeing to carve up Poland and share it between them. Sixteen days after the Nazis burst onto the Western Front, the Red Army of the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland.

This time there was no question that the country was under occupation. “Poland was like a burning house, with both Hitler and Stalin trying to burn it at the same time,” Konopacki told The Epoch Times.

Soon, mother and daughter experienced the full brunt of communist brutality when they made a daring midnight attempt to cross the border and join Konopacki’s father, diplomat Alfred Poninski, in Romania. Heavily armed Russian guards arrested them and threw them in prison

“Conditions in the prison were appalling,” Konopacki said.

“None of us could guess that Stalin had ordered the total destruction of the Polish upper class—not just officers and their wives and families, but thousands of policemen, judges, intellectuals, businessmen, or anyone with an education who held a civil or religious position. Although these people had never fought against the Soviets, they were all accused of espionage. A year later 25,000 would be shot and buried in mass graves.”

Konopacki’s mother was accused of espionage, and Konopacki was forcibly separated from her and sent first to live with friends in Lvov, then with an aunt in Warsaw.

“Parting was heartbreaking for both of us, but especially for my mother, who had to stay in prison and send away her only child to an uncertain future,” she said.” We didn’t know if we would ever see each other again.”

Epoch Times Photo
Eva Konopacki with her father in Krakow in June 1939, two months before the war started. (Courtesy of Eva Konopacki)

Five years later, as an 18-year-old soldier in the Warsaw Uprising—an operation by the Polish underground resistance to liberate the city from German occupation—Konopacki built and repaired army telephone lines and operated switchboards. Bombings and shrapnel continually tore the lines, and repair workers were easy targets. So she eventually became a courier, delivering messages to army officers.

Just before the underground army surrendered, she was awarded the highest military honour in Poland, the Order of Virtuti Militari, for an act of extraordinary personal bravery.

Irena Szpak is another Polish Canadian who played a heroic role in the Polish resistance movement against the Nazis. Now 93 and living in Ottawa, her memories of the war are indelible. At age 79, she published a book called “Trains: A Journey of Remembrances.”

Szpak was a 12-year-old girl guide when she was recruited by the Polish resistance movement to work as a courier.

“Children were part of the resistance movement,” she said in an interview. “It was dangerous work, delivering messages by hand. If we got caught we could be imprisoned and tortured.”

Her memories of Sept. 1, 1939, are recorded in her book. She and her family were at a cottage in the country outside Warsaw when a German plane trailing clouds of smoke crashed into a nearby field.

“To me it was the beginning of World War II,” she said.

Epoch Times Photo
Irena Szpak with her father and brother in Warsaw before Poland was invaded. (Courtesy of Irena Szpak)

Determined to destroy Poland, the Nazis prohibited secondary school education in the country, and Szpak’s school in Warsaw was turned into a hat factory.

“But our teachers continued to teach us in a clandestine way,” she said. “They risked their lives, because they would have been shot if caught. There are many monuments in Warsaw today honouring these brave teachers.”

Szpak was taken prisoner on Oct. 4, 1944, and landed in a POW camp near the Dutch border

Safe Haven in Canada

Szpak and Konopacki eventually found a safe haven in Canada and rebuilt their lives here.

“In Montreal there was a large group of Polish immigrants, ex-members of the Polish Home Army, many of them with higher education, who couldn’t go back to their country,” Konopacki says of her decision to move to that city when she first came to Canada.

“Canada was offering us freedom,” adds Konopacki, who worked as a schoolteacher. “If you worked you could see the fruits of your work, instead of a prison term like in the Soviet Russia, or Poland occupied by the Soviets.”

“My husband and I moved to Canada in 1955,” says Szpak. “He got a job almost immediately as a chemical engineer. After all our experiences, Canada was like paradise for us and our three children.”

She completed her degree in linguistics and eventually found work as a translator for a company in Kingston, Ontario.

In 2015, the Polish Embassy in Ottawa presented Szpak with a medal of honour for her part in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.