This is the first in a two-part series about Michael Jarmoluk, a longtime Rimbey resident, who was born in Poland, spent almost two years in a Siberian work camp and later served in the Second World War.
By the time Michael Jarmoluk moved to Rimbey on Nov. 5, 1949, he was ready to put the tragedy and horrors of war, and the ensuing pain of separation and loss of loved ones behind him and move on.
But even though his life in Rimbey has been a good one filled with the blessing of a loving wife and family, a successful career and many lifelong friends, he still remembers the past as if it were a movie replayed over and over in his mind.
“I remember everything,” he said, his eyes sometimes clouded with tears. “Everything.”
Jarmoluk was born Oct. 23, 1923, the second oldest son of Antoni and Valeria Jarmoluk. He lived with his parents, his older brother Leon and his sisters Halina and Lodzia in the eastern part of Poland.
The family enjoyed a comfortable, idyllic lifestyle with the children skating on a nearby frozen pond in the winter and picking blueberries and strawberries in the summer.
As a teenager, Jarmoluk was a good student who enjoyed school and was active in sports. In Grade 9 he won a scholarship which included a free trip to Warsaw, and in August of that year he had an interview at the Nisko Military School.
“They told me I would hear from them in early September. I never heard from them, of course, because the war started.”
In fact, life as they knew it, ceased to exist for the Jarmoluk family on that first day of September in 1939 when Poland was invaded by Germany. Within two weeks of the invasion Germany occupied the capital of Warsaw.
Another disruption occurred on Sept. 17 when Russia entered Polland from the east to occupy the eastern half of the country.
After the invasion the family lived in constant fear of what was to come. In February of 1940, that fear was realized.
The Jarmoluks were among about two million Poles who were taken by the Russians on a nightmare journey which ended at a work camp in Siberia. It was a journey which seemed to go on for weeks. Finally the train, its box cars packed with Polish people taken from their homes, stopped and the passengers were put on barges and sent on rivers and canals. The Jarmoluks found themselves then put into a truck and taken close to a camp where they were then forced to walk the final distance to their new home, a tiny room in a huge barracks with no heat and beds full of bedbugs.
Michael and his brother and father were put to work cutting down trees, his mother worked in the kitchen and his sisters were sent to a larger camp.
The daily food ration was 300 grams of bread and boiling water to drink. Sometimes they were given fish soup with some barley in it.
The cold was relentless, the living conditions deplorable and hunger was a constant gnawing in their bellies.
“We wrapped our feet in rags. It was so cold,” said Jarmoluk. “And we were always hungry. A lot perished.”
But the Jarmoluk family, despite the grueling conditions, survived at the camp for more than a year and a half until finally, surprisingly they were granted amnesty.
In 1941 the German-Russian war began and by the end of the year Poles in labor camps throughout Russia were released to help fight the Germans.
“It was a lucky day because we received the word of amnesty for us,” Jarmoluk recalled.
After travelling by train, and suffering several misfortunes including having a precious loaf of bread stolen and being left behind one train and forced to take another, Jarmoluk and his family were reunited. They were placed in a factory where they processed cotton and later transferred to a collective farm where they picked cotton.
Finally news came that the Polish army was forming in the desert west of Samarqand in a place named Karmana.
The Jarmoluk brothers decided to join up.
“We traveled to this camp. It was a dreadful place. The Poles streamed in, skeletons in rags. Many died from typhoid and dysentery and every morning we dug graves,” Jarmoluk said.
On Jan. 29, 1942 the two men officially signed up, each assigned to a different company.
It proved to be the beginning of a long separation and the brothers would not see each other again for seven years.
The Polish men were still dressed in rags, even though they were expected to be soldiers. Disease continued to flourish as rations were limited, and there was no place for washing or showers.
Finally, another change for the better came when Jarmoluk found himself among 200,000 young men who were released to go to the Middle East under British command, so the British could open a second front in Germany.
The soldiers crossed the Caspian Sea to Persia, which is now Iran.
“Finally we could start living again,” said Jarmoluk. “We were so hungry, but we were told not to eat too much.”
The men were issued British uniforms and were able to enjoy the luxury of a hot shower.
“In those camps, sand and hills like a desert, we tried to get our strength, including spiritual strength. I remember us Catholics going to reconciliation to the priest in a sandy outside place. I confessed all my sins. I guess I had acquired many of them.”
The troops traveled to Palestine where all the forces gathered to train.
Jarmoluk, like so many of the soldiers there, wrote his name on the wall of a long building equipped with showers, hoping someone would recognize the name.
It turned out someone did.
After seeing his son’s name, he traced him to the regiment where he was stationed and came to see him.
Through his dad, he learned his mom and his sisters were allowed to leave Russia as all the men in the family had enlisted.
After two months of training, the troops arrived in Suez, Egypt, embarking on a ship called the Frankonia. The ship traveled through the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, and further south, always zigazzing to avoid German submarines. It finally arrived in Durban, South Africa.
They stayed at a transitional camp for about six weeks before boarding a different ship, traveling around South Africa, zigzagging all the while into the Atlantic Ocean to avoid the submarines.
They arrived in England in August, 1942.
Jarmoluk was assigned the First Polish Armored Division under Commanding General Maczek.
Some quotes from Michael Jarmoluk and pictures in this story are taken from his book ‘Home at Last, The story of Michael Jarmoluk as told to Dijie Ratzlaff
Part two sees Michael Jarmoluk training in England and Scotland, engaging in active service in Normandy and fighting through Belgium and Holland, eventually ending up in Germany and finally in England before coming to Canada and settling in Rimbey.