Manitoba History: Review: Providence Watching: Journeys From Wartorn Poland to the Canadian Prairies edited by Kazimierz Patalas
by Jarett Henderson
Canada’s creation as an immigrant nation, whose foundation as a white-settler colony forged in the subjugation of Aboriginal people and racist displays toward ethnic individuals has yielded an ever expanding body of historical literature. This rich historiography on immigration has morphed from the impersonal, large scale, nation-building narratives of the early twentieth century into post-structural analyses that apply insights from race studies to critically assess, analyze, and problematize the various and unequal positions of immigrants within the Canadian nation. The immigrant experience, as Franca Iacovetta notes, “is really many diverse experiences and responses; it is a social phenomenon shot through with such a multiplicity of meaning.”
It is this social phenomenon that is the central focus of Providence Watching: Journeys from Wartorn Poland to the Canadian Prairies. The collective effort of K. Patalas (editor), Z. Izydorczyk (translator), and D. Stone who penned the introduction accompany the oral testimonies of forty men and five women. These forty-five, predominantly male testimonies of Polish War Veterans, all members of the Polish Combatants Association (PAC), Chapter #13 of Winnipeg, Manitoba evoke traumatic, stirring, and intriguing memories of Poland, the Second World War, and their postwar migration to Western Canada. These numerous and fragmented immigrant experiences equip the social historian with valuable tools with which to reconstruct the Canadian past. Providence Watching does indeed “save from oblivion” the lived histories of forty-five Polish migrants, while providing substantial information about the intersects of immigration, gender, and war that could be further incorporated into a critical analysis of this understudied aspect of Canadian immigration history.
Blessing the Easter bread and eggs, Easter, 1961.
Providence Watching provides students with valuable primary materials that, when critically applied, could be used to animate larger historical inquiries. For example, the testimony of Janina Popkiewicz illustrates how women, often marginalized within histories of war, actively participated in a variety of capacities. “My involvement with the underground came to a crisis when my handbag was stolen on a street car,” recalled Janina, “inside the bag was a powder box with important messages for various units”[334- 5]. Tadeusz Gardziejewski remembered how combat soldiers kept their minds off the pain and death of war through daily interactions with others in their community. “If you stayed in a close knit group for a while, you got to know every detail of their lives, every nook and cranny of their villages, what their moms used to cook and how it tasted” . And Stefania Kociolek recalled how death, poverty, and gender imbalance affected the familial structures on the collective farms; “we were six families, only women with children” . These three examples demonstrate that the value of Providence Watching not only lies in the information it provides, but also within its rich potential. The historian can use this collection of oral testimonies to extract information about gender, sexuality, immigration, family, death, poverty, the military, among other aspects of the social world as it was remade during the Second World War.
Recent immigrant histories have begun to consider the process of immigration and the immigrant experience within larger, transnational frameworks. Donna Gabaccia and Franca lacovetta’s edited collection, Women, Gender, and Transnational Lives: Italian Workers of the World, Gerald Tulchanisky’s Immigration in Canada: Historical Perspectives, and Marlene Epp’s Women without Men: Mennonite Refugees of the Second World War all illustrate how the lives of various immigrant groups were redefined and remade as they moved across the boundaries of time and space. Marlene Epp’s work on Mennonite women is as excellent example of how oral testimonies, similar to those provided within Providence Watching, can be used by historians. In Women Without Men Epp examines the experiences of Mennonite women during the Second World War who redefined acceptable gender roles within their communities due to the absence of Mennonite men. Furthermore, Epp utilized the oral testimonies of Mennonite female refugees in a study that preserved the experiences of one particular ethnic immigrant community while simultaneously making a substantial contribution to the history of immigration, gender, and the Second World War.
In order to embark upon a similar study that situates the oral testimonies of these Polish migrants into an analytical study, one must first problematize the process through which these testimonies were acquired. The valuable knowledge contained within these forty-five testimonies was initially acquired through video taped oral interviews in Polish, conducted at times, by as many as five different individuals. These testimonies were then transcribed into Polish and eventually into the English versions that appear in this text. According to the information provided by K. Patalas no specific structure was established for the interviews. Without a blueprint to maintain consistency these recollections and the memories the interviewee chose to share may have been affected by the place of the interview, personality, and gender of the interviewers. It is important to clarify that it is not the knowledge gleaned through these interviews that is in question, but rather, the method through which such knowledge was acquired. In the production of Providence Watching, who decided which memories made the cut and which ones were “representative of the major” tracks of Polish immigrant history. Moreover, how did the reproduction of these oral interviews shorten, alter, and reshape the original testimonies given by these individuals?
The editor and translator both acknowledge that these testimonies are “lived histories” that have been “filtered through imperfect memories, affected by personal idiosyncrasies, [and] coloured by subsequent experiences.” However, it is specifically these “imperfections,” these silences that are of the utmost value. The erasure of these imperfections to order and give “shape, coherence, and fluency to the often imperfect spoken Polish of the recorded interviews” transformed the memories themselves. Reading Providence Watching one wonders where these silences were and where did the interviewee pause, struggle with language, or repeat events and actions. Such instances are permanently removed from these histories. It was not that these memories could not be articulated properly in Polish or English, but rather that the experiences themselves, like the stuff of memory, were too difficult to remember without emotion. These absences within the oral testimonies are equally, and possibly even more valuable than the information that they overtly provide, and teasing out the meanings of these absences, illustrates the tensions that these Polish immigrants confronted, in their past and present, and as they repeatedly coped with the traumatic events of the Second World War.
Providence Watching: Journeys from Wartorn Poland to the Canadian Prairies illuminates the often over looked participants of war time histories, those caught in the midst of turmoil. The oral testimonies contained within this text contain a wealth of knowledge and potential, regardless of the inconsistent methodology through which they were acquired. Memories are tricky things; as is understanding how and why people remember certain things and choose to forget others. Flagging these difficulties, a process that Providence Watching has overlooked, would not have decreased the value of these sources but would have contextualized them, made them more humane, more real, akin to the memories they preserved.
Page revised: 9 September 2010