Polish veteran remembers Antwerp in 1944
In Memoriam Kazimierz “Kaz” Wiacek
Kazimierz Wiacek, a Polish veteran who participated in the Liberation of Belgium in 1944, passed away on September 9, 2010. He fell victim to the West Nile virus at the age of 95. The article below appeared in our paper a year ago and elicited many reader reactions. Our country has not forgotten the valiant Poles. Rest in Peace, Kaz. You earned it.
By Elisabeth Khan
“You really look like a Belgian lady!” Kazimierz Wiacek, “Kaz” to his American friends, greets me as I walk into his Roseville home. Kaz knows about Belgians; for several months after the Liberation of Antwerp in September of 1944, he was the “adopted son” of the Van Hole family in Deurne-Zuid. Born to a Polish family in Kiev (Ukraine) in 1915, Kaz Wiacek looks to be in great shape for a man of 94. His WWII uniform, with a row of medals, still fits him.
The Wiacek family had moved back to Poland in 1918. Kaz became a joiner-carpenter who could fashion pretty much anything out of wood, from a barrel to a wagon. In 1937, he was drafted into the Polish Army. On September 1, 1939, the Germans invaded Poland, which signaled the start of the Second World War. Early on in the conflict, after crossing the border into Hungary, Wiacek and some fellow soldiers found themselves interned in a Hungarian camp. About twenty of them, Kaz included, managed to escape. Early in March of 1940 they crossed the Yugoslavian border. From the port city of Split, they traveled to Marseilles, France, by ship, reporting for duty as the 10th Motorized Brigade with the 24th French regiment on March 20th.
Many more Poles had made their way to France to form a Polish Army there, making Poland the third most powerful Ally at the time, with about 84,000 soldiers in France alone. They called themselves “Sikorski’s tourists,” after the general who was to become the Prime Minister of the Polish government in exile. After the fall of France in June, the Polish soldiers moved on, again by boat, to Liverpool, England. From there, the Polish divisions were sent to Scotland to be organized and trained. Kaz shows me the many little black-and-white photographs in his album that date from his time in Scotland.
These Polish divisions, under the command of General Stanislaw Maczek, would play a major role in the great battle at Chambois Falaise, also known as the Falaise Pocket. It was the site of one of the bitterest struggles of the Normandy campaign. Here, the 10th dragoons of the Polish First Armored Division met up with the U.S. 90th Infantry Division in the evening of August 19, 1944. For two days, Poles and Americans defended the town against continuous assaults launched by overwhelming enemy forces (mostly remnants of the German 7th Army), taking thousands of prisoners. The way Kaz tells it, they completely surrounded 10 armored divisions (each division was 20,000 men!) of the German army. When they closed off the last road, the Germans had no choice but to surrender. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery congratulated General Maczek with the words, “You put the cork in the bottle!”
Pursuing the Germans across North Eastern France, the Poles reached the Belgian border. They liberated a city, whose name escapes Kaz after all these years. But he remembers the euphoria: “The locals were very happy and kept thanking us. However, near Gandawo (Ghent), we were met by a pocket of strong resistance by the German army, but eventually they, too, were forced to retreat. It was in the city of Ghent that the Polish First Armored Division made their base.”
The city of Antwerp had been occupied by Germany as early as May 1940 and was liberated by the British 11th Armored Division on September 4, 1944. Canadian soldiers from the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (with help from the local Resistance) thwarted German plans to destroy the Port facilities. Kaz recounts: “In September 1944, I received an order to go and find the Canadian army in Deurne-Zuid. As a dispatch rider, on my motorcycle, I crossed the entire city of Antwerp, a very nice and clean city, but I did not see anyone. Surprisingly, the war had caused little destruction there until then. I drove through Deurne, drove through every street, but did not see any armed forces, when finally one man emerged, and then an entire family, and then the entire street, to see the soldier. Not an American, Brit, or Canadian, but, unbelievably, a Pole! I was told that only yesterday the Germans were still occupying this city.”
“A Belgian man I met that day, Johan Van Hole of Deurne-Zuid, became my friend. I went back to my unit in Ghent until we moved north to the Netherlands to liberate Breda. That happened in October of 1944, and we stayed there until March 1945. For three months, December 1944 up to March 1945, I would spend every Saturday and Sunday in the company of the Van Holes. The family pretty much adopted me. To this date, I keep in touch with Mr. Van Hole’s daughter, Gusia (Augusta) De Ridder-Van Hole. In 1996, I flew to Poland with my wife and from there we traveled to Belgium for our first visit with the family of Mr. Van Hole’s daughter.”
Even after the city’s liberation, the Germans attempted to destroy the Port of Antwerp – which was used by the Allies to bring ashore new material – with thousands of V-1 and V-2 missiles. The city was hit by more V-2s than all other targets during the entire war, yet the attack did not succeed in destroying the port. Many of the missiles landed on other parts of the city, causing a lot of damage at that late stage.
Stationed in occupied Germany after the war, Kaz had several more occasions to visit Belgium. After his discharge in 1949, he obtained an immigration visa to Canada, where he was reunited with an aunt who had stayed behind in Ukraine. Four years later, he moved to Detroit, where he would marry his wife, Bronislawa. It would take until 1961 before he made his first trip back home to Poland to meet what was left of his family there. Kaz has written about 15 pages of reminiscences about the war years, says his daughter, Mrs. Mariola Thiel, who has translated part of the text into English. The Wiacek family plans to participate in the activities commemorating the beginning of WWII, now 70 years ago, to be held at Orchard Lake Schools on September 1, 4, and 5. For more information, see www.polishmission.com. (Article published in Gazette van Detroit of September 3, 2009)