Profile: Maj. Zbigniew Pierscianowski
Veteran Shares War Story, Hopes to Educate New Generation
By Tanya Baleta
On September 1st, 1939 German forces invaded Poland from the west, overwhelming the Polish army. The Second World War had begun. Maj. Zbigniew Pierscianowski, then 18, was not surprised by the news of the attack. After all, from the age of 12 he had attended a military school that prepared young people for careers as professional soldiers. He was in uniform from day one.
Now, 87-year-old Maj. Pierscianowski resides in Ottawa. “Thirty years ago I would not have been able to speak to you,” said Maj. Pierscianowski Saturday in a phone interview. “It’s not easy, it is not easy to relive the experiences. Now I treat this as my duty. It is necessary to inform young people so they realize that what they have now is in fact the work of my generation. Some people even gave their lives for it.” His voice trailed off.
On Sept. 17th, 1939 the Soviet army invaded Poland from the east, squeezing the Polish troops south toward Romania and Hungary. At this time, Maj. Pierscianowski left his parents home in the west, intending to escape from Poland.
“I left my mother there, and my sister and my younger brother, in the Soviet part which was already occupied by Soviet troops. This was not a happy occasion, in fact it was the last time I saw my mother and my brother.” Maj. Pierscianowski’s father, also a professional soldier, was at this time with his unit in Romania and then Yugoslavia, all the while with no news of his family’s whereabouts or safety.
While escaping from Poland Maj. Pierscianowski was captured and taken prisoner of war for the first of what would be 11 times. This in turn led to the first of many escapes, after which he briefly returned to Poland. “It was an unbelievable feeling,” Maj. Pierscianowski said of regaining his freedom. “It’s impossible to explain, impossible to relate.”
How did he manage this escape? “Well, I just escaped,” said Maj. Pierscianowski. “I have quite a number of escapes behind me- it would be a very long talk,” he added.
Once again fleeing Poland, Maj. Pierscianowski made his way to Hungary, where he decided to travel to France. “I wanted to go to France because the Polish army was being formed in Bretagne. I had to escape from Hungary to Yugoslavia and through Yugoslavia to Italy. I reached France on Dec. 31, 1939.” There he joined the First Polish Grenadiers Division.
After division disbanded in 1940, Maj. Pierscianowski joined the first underground army in France. Soon he escaped to Spain, where he was captured by Spanish police and placed in a concentration camp known as Miranda de Ebro.
“Miranda was much worse than German prisoner of war camps,” explained Maj. Pierscianowski. “It was overcrowded; sanitary conditions were almost non existent, only one tap of slow running water for nearly 4,000 prisoners, and louse, vermin- very rough treatment and very poor food. I have been in a number of prisons- I was in prison for almost every country I was in, but these were the worst conditions.”
After the Polish prisoners at Miranda de Ebro were liberated, Maj. Pierscianowski escaped to Portugal, and then to Gibraltar, from where he took a fishing boat to England. “But this was 1943, the war of the Atlantic was during that time,” said Maj. Pierscianowski. “So we were chased by German U-boats and submarines south of Azory islands, towards South America and then back again. Instead of five days it took three weeks.”
While on the boat Maj. Pierscianowski’s dearest friend suggested that they join the navy once in England. “He said, ‘you know, once we reach England we can have a choice of the army. We’ve had enough of walking’- because we’d walked more or less across Europe- ‘so what about joining the Navy?’”
Maj. Pierscianowski was deterred from joining the Navy when he witnessed the attacks of the German submarines. “You could see, in fact, the ship not far from us was torpedoed and in minutes it went down,” he said. “You could see the people but no one could help them, because those were the orders. So that changed my mind.”
Maj. Pierscianowski said that there is an unbelievable friendship between soldiers. “My personal friend, my partner, was my friend from when I was in school. We had known each other since the age of 12. We met up in France, and then we escaped from prison together. We were in Miranda together. Then we were in the special forces. He was a dependable friend, almost a brother.”
Once in England, Maj. Pierscianowski was to become the last commanding officer of a small company of paratroopers, trained to be dropped for action behind enemy lines. Towards the end of the war Maj. Pierscianowski was posted to Norway as a senior liaison officer.
There he met his future wife, a Polish law student who was unable to return home. “The war started and she was in Norway. She was a young student and she was stuck there. We made a decision to stay together and get married.”
Maj. Pierscianowski and his wife decided to make a life together in England, since returning to Poland would have put them in danger. “The decision to stay outside my country was difficult, but we had to learn, and live with it and combat the feelings of longing and loneliness. After the war our aim was to have two children, and to provide for them so that they would be able to stand on their own feet, and that’s what we did.”
Tadeusz Pierscianowski, the younger of Maj. Pierscianowski’s two sons, said that his memories of his childhood are largely positive. “I remember it clearly as frugal but warm. We always had enough to eat, but we had to be respectful of our clothing,” he said Thursday in a phone interview. “They sent me off to boarding school so I would get a good education. They worked long hours, my dad worked two jobs for a while- that’s how they managed to pay for school.”
The younger Pierscianowski said that his father began telling him and his brother about the war fairly early. “We started to hear about it when we were seven, eight- nearly all the time until I left home. He would tell us some of the stories about being on the front line, when he was fighting there and how he ended up in prisoner of war camps. It’s been an ongoing, lifelong dialogue.”
In 1989, Maj. Pierscianowski moved to Canada at the encouragement of his son, who was already starting a family in Ottawa. “The Polish community embraced him,” said the younger Pierscianowski. “He’s a god father figure in the Polish community.”
“He’s given me, I think, some of my principles- hard work, honesty, recognition of my past, I’m really proud of my Polish heritage,” said the younger Pierscianowski. “He’s a fine man. An honorable guy, one who was very caring and a loving husband. But a survivor- he was a survivor during the war, and he’s been a survivor since my mom died 10 years ago. He’s sort of a hero figure for me.”
Once he arrived in Canada, Maj. Pierscianowski became involved with the Polish Combatants Association, a veterans organization, of which he eventually became president. Through the association Maj. Pierscianowski would later meet Jerzy Kulczycki.
Kulczycki had been involved with the movement that fought for solidarity in Poland, though he was forced to leave about 20 years ago when martial law was declared.
“His life, his experiences, are good for one big book,” said Kulczycki Saturday in a phone interview. “He is a very good man, he was a hero. After the war he had no chance to go back to Poland because he would have been arrested, probably sentenced to death, as many high-ranking officers were.”
“He does a good job for the Polish community. He is patriotic, you know, and his life history is an example of how good patriots work, how people should work for their communities. It is important that young generations know how everything happened. I am very proud that he is a friend of mine.”
Although Maj. Pierscianowski’s friends and family regard him as a hero, he said that he is undeserving of this praise. “I’m not a hero; I am just an ordinary soldier. I did what was my duty to do, and that does not make me a hero. The circumstances were such that with determination I had to do what was my duty. Do not treat me as a hero. All veterans have their own history- you can write a book about each one of us. Different routes, different experiences, different life. It does not mean that everybody is a hero. We did our duty.”
Maj. Pierscianowski said that he has no regrets about his life. “To me, it’s natural to do what I did. I went into an unknown future and I was lucky to survive. I had a wonderful partner, my wife, the mother of my two sons. Together we had to work through the happy times and the difficult times as well and with determination and perseverance, we went through the life, which we had chosen for ourselves. I’m quite satisfied with my life, and I’m grateful to God because I’m still here with my family.”