HOW THE STORY CAME TO BE

Metal handcuffs hang on the wall in my study, a journal sits on the bookshelf, war medals rest in a box. They tell a story of a time before I was born, when my father fought for my freedom. They are a testament to his courage and determination.

As a small child I knew he was a bomber pilot in the Second World War and that he had ditched his aircraft in the ocean. I also knew he was a prisoner of war. But that is all I knew. Even though he wouldn’t speak of his past, his experiences formed an integral part of my upbringing. His emotional scars penetrated my day-to-day existence. Shaped my very being. Framed my psyche.

Every year, on November 11th, I stood beside my father at the cenotaph in the bitter, prairie cold. He was stoic as wreaths were laid to honor fallen soldiers. Only his crystal blue eyes spoke to me. Those eyes told me of the terror, the regret, the suffering, and the nightmare. It was truly Remembrance Day.

We never used words to discuss it, my father and I. We didn’t need to. I knew that the memories were still too raw, even after so many years. Instinctively, I faced his ghosts.

Father

I hoped that one day he would tell me. I imagined us sitting on the large, comfortable sofa in our living room. His precious journal resting in my lap. We would leaf through the pages, pausing at each tattered black and white photograph and intricate drawing, as he finally shared his memories with me.

But it never happened.

My father died of lung cancer in 1985. Those same lungs carried pieces of shrapnel back to Canada for him. Lest he forget. Cancer and shrapnel. No one will ever convince me that those two horrors were not related.

The day he died, I watched him drift in and out of consciousness. As he tossed and turned, he struggled with memories that had returned. Death escaped many times before was back and would not leave without him.

My daughter Andrea, his only grandchild, was less than a year old. She is now in her thirties. When I thought about passing my father’s precious piece of family history onto her, I realized that I didn’t know what to say. His journal, handcuffs and medals spoke of the father I never knew. The part of him that the war took from both of us.

Ever since I could remember, I had struggled to understand my father. His compassion, strength and integrity were awe-inspiring to me. At the same time, however, he was prone to severe emotional outbursts. He was never physically abusive but suddenly and without warning his wounds would surface and penetrate my world. Turn it upside down with fear and confusion, razor sharp like barbed wire and flying shrapnel.

I learnt to walk on eggshells, unsure of my footing, never knowing when the next explosion would occur. Soon I became aware of the triggers, learning to navigate my way around them but never cognizant of the logical connection between the past and the present. Certain things just were. Our house did not have locks on the doors. Turnips were never served. The bread was always white. The coffee black.

Was I going to pass this heavy silence and the scars that it inflicts onto my daughter? Would it be her unspoken legacy? Or could I break the silence and exorcise the ghosts?

I chose to pass a proud heritage onto my daughter by embarking on a journey of exploration and understanding. Two Knots Right is the culmination of that journey.

By adding narrative elements, I transformed the stories I uncovered from my research into historical fiction. I pieced together the facts to the best of my ability. Yet there is much left unsaid, forever lost in the obscurity of time. Over the years memories fade. Details blur. Reports vary. Much evidence has been destroyed. Out of necessity, I consolidated camps, characters and events and filled in the holes with my imagination. In every instance, I tried my best to maintain the authenticity of camp conditions, the ingenuity of the prisoners and their resiliency of spirit.

This book is a tribute to their strength, courage and humanity.

* * *

I began my research by contacting members of the local POW Association. From there, my network expanded to Britain. Soon, I found myself in Germany with a group of survivors from Stalag IVB. Each day brought memorial services in cemeteries far from home. I stood amongst rows and rows and rows of white crosses, with tears welling in my eyes, and listened to the tributes to lost lives and the recounting of horrors that I could not comprehend.

At one of the camps, a black box filled with muddy dog tags sat open on a simple white chair. Each tag represented a life. The box a testament to the thousands of lives that lay buried in the mass grave outside. Men strewn on top of each other, to lie together for eternity.

When I returned to Canada, I was unable to continue my research or write a word pertaining to this project for over a year. Once I began investigating my Polish Catholic roots, I became fascinated with the Polish Underground, the Home Army and the little known organization of Zegota, the Polish Council to Aid Jews. And most of all, Polish Catholic heroes like Irena Sendler who risked their lives to smuggle Jewish children out of the ghetto and usher them to Roman Catholic convents and orphanages. But my fascination turned to horror when I learnt of the estimated 200,000 Polish Catholic children kidnapped under the auspices of the Lebensborn program and transported to Germany, to be masqueraded as German offspring whose physical attributes, such as blonde hair and blue eyes, were thought to demonstrate the racial superiority of the Aryan bloodline.

Enthralled by the history of Warsaw, I travelled back to Europe to explore the Uprising Museum that was built as a tribute to those who died fighting for the independence of their country. More than six million Polish citizens, or approximately twenty per cent of the population, were killed by the Germans during the Second World War—half were Polish Jews and the other half Polish Christians, predominantly Catholic. Another one million perished at the hands of the Soviets.

I returned to Germany to take a heart breaking tour of Ravensbruck Concentration Camp for women where eighty per cent of the inmates were political prisoners, with the largest national group being Polish. Virtually all of the women subjected to medical experiments were members of the Polish Resistance. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 132,000 women from forty different nationalities were registered at the camp. Tens of thousands perished.

Throughout my journey, one nagging question persisted in my mind—why do I know so little about this aspect of history?

In many ways, I believe that my generation, although emotionally stained by the effects of war, are at the same time still fundamentally unaware of the cruel reality that our parents and grandparents actually experienced. Perhaps it was too difficult for our families to talk about. Perhaps they wanted to protect us from the horrors. Perhaps they just wanted to forget.

The journey has been life changing for me. This novel is my expression of appreciation, recognition and understanding.

I think of my father and how much I miss him.

May he rest in peace.

—Joanne Kormylo

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