"The 63 days of the Warsaw Uprising caused unspeakable suffering. A quarter of a million people killed - men, women and children. Hundreds of thousands more were expelled, many of them to die in the camps and the convoys."
John Prescott, Britain's Deputy Prime Minister, speaking in Warsaw on the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, in Warsaw, Aug. 1, 2004.
When Jerzy Robaczewski and his family stepped off the liner Samaria at Pier 21 in Halifax on New Year's Day, 1954, to begin a new life in Canada, he had already lived several lifetimes.
Having survived six years of war, periods of detention by the Gestapo, narrow escapes and near starvation in his native Poland, his story could have formed the basis of novels of a John Le Carre or Frederick Forsyth.
But the soft-spoken jeweler quietly put aside the horrors of war, became a respected member of the community and prospered in his businesses, G. & F Roberts and Nelson's Eye Antiques, on Barrington Street.
His wife, Eve, called him the luckiest man in the world and his two sons only understood the meaning of that late in life when their father reluctantly told them his story.
It began in Warsaw where his father Aleksander was an officer in the Polish National Police Force in charge of criminal investigations. When the Germans attacked Poland in September, 1939, the family fled to eastern Poland just as the Russian army invaded. His father was arrested and disappeared.
The family returned to Warsaw just as the Germans were conducting mass arrests. Young Jerzy joined the Polish underground, but the cell was exposed and most of its members and their families killed or sent to the death camps at Dachau and Mauthausen.
Jerzy and his brother escaped and he worked for a time as a smuggler and a translator between the Germans and Polish workers. In the spring of 1943 he was caught by the Gestapo with forged papers while boarding a train in Drohiczyn, but escaped through an unlocked door in the train. He told his sons he hid in a barn for five days until starvation almost forced him to surrender. A farmer talked him out of it.
Returning to Warsaw, he joined the Polish Home Army in May, 1943, and fought alongside thousands of Poles during the 63 day uprising during which vast sections of the capital were reduced to rubble and almost a quarter of a million people died. The Poles were hoping that the Red Army which was nearby would assist, but Soviet leader Stalin refused to send his troops to help what he described as a band of criminals.
Jerzy was captured and sent to a prison camp in the German port city of Bremen. In April, 1945 the camp was liberated by the Irish Guards and Jerzy rejoined the Polish Army under British command as the 2nd Polish Corps. His fellow Polish soldiers called him rabbit's foot for his near-death experiences. The unit fought in Italy and at war's end was sent to Britain. There he attended art school, completed a two-year goldsmith's course and married in 1947.
After working for a jeweler in Ipswich, he opened his own business under his Anglicized name, George Roberts , there in 1950. But Canada offered opportunity and in 1954 the family emigrated and immediately moved to Toronto. With few prospects in the large city, they returned to Halifax that fall and George went to work for a jeweler on Gottingen Street. He opened his own business before the end of the year.
In 1961 he managed to get his brother Weston out of Poland. He also settled in Halifax and became a successful civil engineer. George's son Alex says his father's business thrived in Halifax and in the early 1970s he opened Nelson's Eye Antiques just as the demand for antiques soared. In Canada he made up for years of near starvation in Europe by becoming an epicure, developing into a good cook whose Sunday breakfasts became a family tradition.
The food is magnificent, he would often declare in a restaurant after a satisfying meal. Often he would return to Pier 21 and recall when the best chapter of his life began. Son Alex says the family will place a plaque there as a testament to new beginnings.
* By John Soosaar (Halifax Herald, June 19, 2005)