14. PARCELS FROM HOME
Without outside help it would have been difficult for the prisoners. The meals were monotonous (if one can put it that way), not everyone could make 20 cents a day and the administration did not supply tobacco. Consequently, the parcels from relatives and organizational friends were the prisoners' salvation. One should note that there was no limit to the number of parcels one could receive. The guards brought in the parcels by truck from Seebe station. They dropped them off at the military police quarters and sorted them according to the prisoners' numbers. A list of the numbers was displayed on the bulletin board near the spokesman's office. The prisoners would return from work and stop by the office wall to see if there were any parcels for them. After the evening roll call of the prisoners a policeman would yell "Parcels" through a megaphone to the whole camp. The prisoners for whom parcels had come went to the military police quarters, stood in line and waited until their number was called. They signed in a register. Then a policeman would open up the parcels and the duty officer (usually a lieutenant) checked them over: he would slice the cakes with a knife, pierce sausages with a needle and open up jars. Afterwards he would give the parcel to the prisoner. But if the officer deemed it necessary then the parcel was confiscated and set aside. In accordance with regulations, confiscated parcels were to be added to the prisoners' baggage in storage and be returned to him upon his release from the camp. Of course, only those items which would not spoil were stored.
The distribution of goods which were received depended upon the conscience of the officer. Some officers gave the prisoners shirts and sweaters, others confiscated them because one could escape in them (that is, they did not have the red disk on them). If the items were packed in newspapers, then the police would pull the papers out of the parcel and throw them into the garbage. True, some officers and policemen would give us the wrappings which were often of greater value than the enclosed item. These were of course issues of the newspaper "The Canadian Tribune", which we were not allowed to have but from which we learned a great deal about what was happening in the progressive movement on the outside, particularly about events in the war and about the national campaign for our release.
At first we received parcels only from our relatives. After a while, however, parcels from our organizational friends in various localities began to arrive. There were foodstuffs, vegetables, socks, soap, cigarettes and tobacco in them. Goods received from friends were handed over to the committee which divided them up among the antifascists, particularly if they came in large quantities. For example, from Calgary we were sent a great deal of fruit, several pieces of which the younger prisoners in camp took to each barrack where antifascists lived. In particular we would receive such parcels before the different holidays — New Years, May Day, and November 7. Then we would arrange a common holiday dinner with speeches and a concert.
I would like to say that we longed very much to receive news from our close friends since that had great value for us, often even greater than parcels. Thus we would look forward impatiently to letters from friends and relatives. Though behind barbed wire, we were well enough informed about what was happening on the outside, thanks to such letters. We knew about the activities of the underground Communist Party of Canada and the activities of the Ukrainian progressive movement (everywhere organizational committees were functioning and conducting lively enough work in the arts). We knew about the election of Bill Kardash to the Manitoba provincial legislature. I should say that we received that news from yet other sources besides the letters. Almost every week, for example, internees were delivered to camp, who informed us about what was happening in Canada. We also received "The Canadian Tribune", various brochures and speeches by Dorise Nielsen, Member of Parliament, which were secretly brought to us by some soldiers who guarded us.
Issues of the "Canadian Tribune" obtained by such means were treasured in deep secrecy and were passed from hand to hand. They were read in the barrack where only antifascists were staying, because if the Nazis were to find out about this, they would surely inform the administration.
If someone received a letter from home with news of political importance then without delay he turned it over to all the antifascists. This was our "living newspaper", so to speak. I would like to mention that we received much information from Mary Prokop's letters, which she sent to her interned husband Peter Prokop. Though the censors severely mangled her letters, blotting out or cutting out many lines from them, all the same whole paragraphs, sentences or even phrases which for us in camp had great significance would slip past from time to time. Though she did not refer to people by their surnames but only by their physical appearance or by a nickname, we understood very well who was being discussed.
If the name Ivan Kitsman was mentioned in a letter, for example, then we knew that concealed behind it was John Iwasiuk who came from the Bukovinian town of Kitsman, who carried on much underground work in Toronto and who distributed the illegal newspaper "For Freedom" in Eastern Canada. That was also how we learned that Nick Chachkowsky was putting in a lot of work so that "For Freedom" would be published regularly in Winnipeg. He would work entire nights to write his own articles for it and to edit material sent by different people across Canada.
We learned from Mary's letters that the members of the first delegation from Western Canada regarding our release were Norman Penner (the son of interned labour leader Jacob Penner) Helen Krechmarowsky and Mary Prokop (the wives of interned Nick Krechmarowsky and Peter Prokop). The delegation from across Canada travelled to Ottawa, where they had discussions with representatives of the authorities, members of parliament and Minister of Justice Ernest Lapointe about the Order-in-Council which had dispatched us behind barbed wire.
From such letters we learned about the formation of the National Council for Democratic Rights which developed a broad campaign across Canada, mobilizing the citizenry in the struggle for our release from the concentration camps at Kananaskis and Petawawa.
Besides this information having unusual value for us, it was also proof that reaction, regardless of the internment of more than a hundred antifascist activists, had neither succeeded in smashing the labour movement nor destroying its system of organization even if it had been forced to carry on underground. Such news also gave us greater strength, tenacity and hope in our difficult life behind barbed wire or the cement walls of prison.
We also informed our friends and relatives on the outside about our life and activity. Like the letters that we received, those that we sent out were subjected to severe censorship. Occasionally all that was left of them were mere tatters.
We received encouraging letters from friends, particularly on the occasion of various holidays. This had great significance for us. We knew that there were people at liberty who sympathized with us, who were looking after our dear ones and who appreciated our activities for which we presently had to endure reactionary repression.
Barrack No. 57 served us as our cultural and political centre. All of us felt at home there. We could say and do as we wished. To spread the real news and improve political awareness, the committee published a handwritten, then later typewritten, newspaper "The Kananaskis Clarion" (edited by John Weir). A single copy would be issued which, when read by one antifascist, would be passed on to another.
A fine library of the world's classical and political literature was organized through the efforts of Bill Rigby and me. The library contained several hundred books.
Lectures and discussions were regularly organized. Bill Rigby gave a series of lectures on the peace policy of the Soviet Union. Alec Miller and Bob Kerr spoke about the struggle against fascism in Spain. Fergus McKean talked about the seamen's strike in British Columbia. Jacob Penner and John Naviziwsky shared with us their reminiscences about the Winnipeg general strike in 1919, in which they were participants. For the younger activists in the labour movement, these recollections were not just interesting talks but also valuable lessons.
John Weir wrote the lyrics "Our Black Days in Kananaskis" which Ben Swankey and Bill Repka set to the melody sung by the interned antifascists in Hitler's concentration camps. At all our gatherings and celebrations we sang this song. In the first days of their stay in the camp Ukrainian antifascists formed a choir which Nick Krechmarowsky, and in time Dmitri Nykyforiak, directed.
A group of antifascists studied German. The school was led by Jacob Penner. A course in the English language was conducted by Mike Sawiak. After he fell ill, the class was run by Bill Repka.
Bill Rigby and I worked in the guard room. Without the guards being aware of it we "borrowed" current daily newspapers from there, hiding them in our bosoms. Thus, our group had the latest news of world events and never fell victim to the false reports from the Nazi "Press Agency" which operated in the camp.
On November 7, 1940, and May 1, 1941, we held holiday gatherings. At these celebrations there were speeches read, a delicious meal (prepared by ourselves) and also a concert program which included merry joking.
On November 7, 1940, a telegram came from Winnipeg for Andrew Bileski. It read, "We wish you and your friends all the best on the occasion of November 7. Dora D."
This greeting made us feel very enthusiastic. It was not hard for us to guess that the telegram had been sent by the collective of Dora Daichakowska, an activist in the Ukrainian labour-farmer organizations.
On July 6, 1941, the first anniversary of the internment of the antifascist group from Winnipeg, a dinner was held in barrack No. 1. For this occasion our friends sent us a big pot of perogies and a pail of sour cream. A lecture was given on the theme of "War Between The USSR And Fascist Germany". By the way, this was also the celebration of my thirtieth birthday.
At the end of April, 1941, when we finally received barracks separate from the Germans, our cultural and political activities significantly increased. Every evening after lights out we conducted free discussions in the barracks. We had four barracks — Nos. 1,2,3, and 57 — at our disposal.
Of course, our activities did not please the Germans and they complained several times about us to the camp commandant.
Having separate barracks we furbished them very nicely. We made smart flower boxes and planted them with flowers. Along the sides we planted saplings. Flat squares were laid out in front of the barracks with rocks. Between the barracks we made beds for vegetables, which we planted with onions, lettuce, carrots and cabbage. John Naviziwsky was the organizer of these gardens. All this gave our barracks a fine appearance.
The soldiers called our block Stalin Boulevard; the Germans called it Stalinstrasse.
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