Fall 2012, Issue #30
>> By Sarah Newton
What gives a person resilience and a positive attitude?
John Augustyn, 93, is known for his beautiful and bountiful garden on Third Street and Mackenzie Avenue. But John’s story of how he came to this neck of the woods, begins from when he was taken prisoner by Russian troops as they overtook his Polish border post in 1939.
For over two years, from 1939 to 1941, he was worked almost to death in slave labour camps and finally endured a death march of almost 1,000 kilometres.
His time labouring in Russian iron mines, work farms and breaking rocks for an army airstrip revealed a side of him vastly different from many others. He didn’t die, commit suicide or give up like so many did.
John’s attitude during his time as a prisoner showed his resilience and life-saving attitude. He recalls many prisoners who hung themselves or others who simply went insane and were eventually shot by their captors. John would repeatedly tell his fellow prisoners they needed to be strong because something had to eventually change.
Things did get better when, in 1942, Polish soldiers were granted amnesty by Russia if they joined the Allies against Nazi Germany. At that point John was sent via another long march in an overcrowded and unsanitary cattle car to a British outpost in Uzbekistan.
He arrived close to death; starvation, malaria and overwork had taken their toll. But, after months of hospitalization he was able to join a Polish corps of the British Army.
John obviously had more than just a positive attitude on his side; he also had hardy genes, good luck, excellent skills and smarts. An outlook of survival and hope are something some of us have intrinsically. But where did it come from in John? I kept digging for the key to this question during our interview.
One of his worst memories is from August 1942 when he was transported across the Caspian Sea as a Russian prisoner. He was lying near death on the ship deck when several dead and near-dead prisoners unconscious beside him were thrown overboard. John was overtaken with fear that he would be next.
Once in the service of the British Army, John had more near misses as a driver supplying the front lines. He drove over a mine that took the life of his partner and almost killed him, too. All in all, he walked away from three attacks that destroyed his truck. Each time he marveled at the miracle of his survival.
John kept fighting for his life even with serious personal injury and the death of hundreds of people who worked and lived alongside. John withstood seven years of deprivation and horror. To this day, he continues to have trouble falling asleep because of memories of the battle of Monte Cassino and the offensive against German forces in North Africa in November 1942. Visions of being trapped in a ditch with the dead piled on top of him and the smell of burning flesh still haunt him.
Another horrific experience that haunts John to this day was when he was moving from Egypt to Italy in December of 1942. The Allied convoy consisted of 36 ships, including a cargo ship that held 20 trucks and their drivers, John included. During a storm U-boats were sighted and their torpedoes were soon decimating the Allied convoy, sinking John’s ship. The sounds of explosions, massive waves, metal shearing and the screams of the soldiers flood back to John as he tells of his incredible rescue. As his ship was sinking a nearby British destroyer came alongside and their crew threw across a rope ladder to his stricken ship. He watched in absolute horror as 12 of the drivers drowned as they failed to make it off the ship. He and seven other drivers were able to crawl to safety.
John’s memory is razor sharp when he tells with exact detail of his experiences of World War II. He described to me battles and near death experiences. A quick double-check on Google for background information show his dates and numbers are bang on.
He talked of the beauty of Tehran, the heat of Iraq, the historical sites he took in while in Palestine and his time in Egypt and other parts of North Africa. One of the worst memories that come in his nightmares is the memory of German tank attacks when he was in Russia in July 1941. He thought the shelling would never end. He was buried in mud and bodies as the attack went on for days above him. He really didn’t think he would survive. John has great guilt for surviving while so many others didn’t. But as we talk he is able to make jokes and speaks with great love about his wife, Emily, and their two daughters.
When I pressed John about what might have helped him develop this attitude of survival I thought he might mention the old standbys of religion or family. I got an entirely different answer. Growing up poor helped him survive such deprivation. He laughed when he recalled what some of the upper class Poles said to him during their imprisonment.
They wished they could have been poor like him so they could deal better with the lack of food, not knowing what tomorrow would bring, endless physical labour, bitter cold, death, wet and unsanitary conditions and worst of all, the grinding brutality inflicted each day.
The strong work ethic and ingenuity instilled in him by his farmer parents gave him the skills and outlook to survive. He has a chuckle when he thinks of the lack of these skills in today’s population.
You may have seen John tinkering around his home doing anything from repairs to gardening. John Augustyn is a wonder to behold. Each day I interviewed him I was stunned at what he was up to. The highlight was the day he had a grinder with sparks flying, taking a stripped screw out of his snow blower engine. John’s reflections on what makes him resilient are beautiful in their simplicity.
He told me of his love of humour, how being useful gives value to life, the importance of having a partner, the meaning of friends in times of strife and having a positive outlook. These are all things money can’t buy. John awakens with the beauty of each day. Saying how thrilling it is for him to know he is now truly free in Canada and that each day is one more day to live. He says he doesn’t make plans for the future. We both laugh when I point out his compost, seeds he is saving for next year and the rows that are fallow in his garden.
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