BARRY’S BAY – After tracking down one of the original founders of the Polish Scouting Association in Canada, Zofia Stohandel wasn’t sure if she would be newspaper material.
“I don’t know if I’ll have anything special to say,” Stohandel said with trepidation.
During the first few seconds of the conversation, though, it was clear that the 87-year-old Stohandel still has much to convey through the course of a rich and diverse life.
Her riveting story has actually run parallel to some significant historical and political events of both Poland and the world.
Getting into scouting at an early age, Stohandel’s childhood and youth were cut short due to some universal dilemmas.
“I was involved with scouting in Poland when I was very young girl, but not for very long,” she noted.
Before immigrating to Canada in 1952, her path was not a direct one.
“I was put in a labour camp in Russia in 1940, after Russia invaded Poland, I was released in 1942. Then I traveled to India, where I finished my high school education, and then came to England and then to Canada,” she noted.
Experiencing the Soviet Invasion of Poland in 1939, Stohandel and her whole family were collected by Soviet troops and taken to a concentration camp.
In early 1939, the Soviet Union, Britain and France began devising a potential political and military agreement to counter the aggression of Nazi Germany.
Poland, however, did not participate in these discussions because they feared that a major coalition would force a strong reaction from the expansionist ideals of Germany.
The Red Army of the Soviets, however, feared that France and Britain would not come to their aid and formed an ironclad military force, forged ahead into Poland and captured 230,000 Polish prisoners of war.
Stohandel was just one of those hundreds of thousands.
“We were arrested and taken down to the camp. The soldiers entered our home around 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and said ‘Get up – pack up. Take what you have’ and they gathered us outside with all of the other families. That was in February of 1940, so it was very, very cold,” she recalled.
Stohandel recalled that their only source of fuel or food was a cold stove that was placed in the centre of all of the herded families.
“That was it. There was no food. Then they put us in this camp and put us to work,” she said.
Stohandel and her older brother were immediately snared by the Soviets and ordered to cut and haul timber.
“I was working in the woods as a young girl. We were ordered to cut down trees but we had no idea how to do it. The first tree was quite a struggle but after that, it became a skill. That was very physical hard work for being a young girl. I was not quite 15-years-old,” she said.
In 1942, Stohandel found freedom from the concentration camp and immediately left for India to finish her high school education, and then left for Canada.
Story continues in the August 8 issue of The Valley Gazette.