A Life's Story
May 14, 2022
‘Small but not fragile’
Irena Hunka, 95, endured displacement of war to build ‘beautiful life’ in Winnipeg
By: Ashley Prest
Irena Hunka began her life in Poland, fled her home amid bombing when the Nazis invaded during the Second World War, survived starvation in a Siberian labour camp, evacuation to the Middle East and disease in a refugee camp in Africa — all before she was 25.
After a perilous journey by sea to Canada, where she landed in Halifax in 1950, Hunka ended up settling in Winnipeg. She eventually married Emil, her husband of 65 years, and raised two sons, George and Ryszard. She made their River Heights home a welcome and warm sanctuary.
George has begun writing a book about his mother’s life and times; the working title is Sanctuary.
“It’s really extraordinary. I knew my mother didn’t have the same experiences as the other mothers of kids growing up on the block. I knew this was extraordinary. I would tell these stories to my friends of what my mother and my father had gone through, but my mother in particular,” George says.
“She was small but not fragile. I always had the feeling that she knew she would survive. Somehow, she had this instinct that she would make it.”
Hunka died Sept. 10, 2021, at age 95.
She was known by those around her for her “kindness and happy outlook on life,” despite experiencing the horrors of war and a tumultuous decade of displacement during her formative years.
George says his mother’s life in Winnipeg was centred around family and faith, which were values she shared with her sons and, eventually, their wives, too. “Every Sunday, she cooked for six people, and every occasion was celebrated (at his parents’ home).”
Born Dec. 20, 1925, in Poland, Hunka’s incredible journey began in 1939 after the Nazis invaded Poland.
Hunka, her parents, brother and an aunt fled eastward amid “aerial bombing (and) Messerschmitts strafing civilians,” her son says.
The family escaped the Nazis, but fell into the hands of the Russians. Polish prisoners were crowded inside cattle cars on a train bound for a Siberian labour camp.
“Everyone (in the Siberian camp) over the age of 16 was forced to work cutting down trees,” George says. “My mother was 15, so she was considered too young (to cut trees), so she was forced to find food by fishing in a stream,.”
The family was then sent by the Soviets to a labour camp in Uzbekistan, where they survived severe famine. When Germany invaded the former Soviet Union, Polish prisoners were released. Hunka’s father and brother joined the “free Polish army” and were deployed to Italy to join the battle.
Hunka, her mother and aunt fled to what is now Iran in 1942, but were moved farther east to now Karachi, Pakistan, by the British army. The Polish refugees were then sent by the British on a ship to eastern Africa, where they were placed at military camp in Uganda.
“My mom, her mother, aunt, a cousin and a friend all lived there for eight years. There was a school set up, and she learned English and some nursing skills,” George says.
Amid the oppressive heat, lack of clean water and the prevalence of disease, Hunka became gravely ill with malaria but recovered.
After the Second World War ended, Hunka learned her brother had survived the war but died in 1946 in Scotland of stomach cancer; her father had returned to Poland. Her aunt also went back to Poland, but Hunka and her mother refused.
By 1950, mother and daughter were on a ship bound for Halifax.
“I guess they ended up in Winnipeg because (they were told) ‘This is a place where you can go’ and there was a Polish community,” George says.
By then, Hunka was an adventurer at heart. After a few years in Winnipeg, at around 29, she headed west for a few months.
“She went to Lake Louise (Alta.) to work in the Chateau hotel… That started her long love of the mountains and the outdoors,” George says.
When she came back to Winnipeg, she met Emil and the couple married in 1956. By the early 1960s, the family included sons George and Ryszard.
George says his family spent a lot of time outdoors in activities such as hiking, cross-country skiing and camping. His parents regularly travelled to the mountains. In 1994, they bought a cottage at Twin Beaches, where they loved to spend time.
In the early 1960s, Hunka began her career as health-care aide at Tache Hospital. After her mother suffered a debilitating stroke that caused paralysis and confined her to a bed, Hunka became one of her mother’s permanent caregivers.
“She worked there as an employee. So my mom saw her mom every day for 13 years,” George says, noting Hunka stayed on and worked at the facility for about 30 years.
George says he caught his mother’s love of the mountains and travelling, including to Africa, near where his mother had once lived.
“Mom had a friend in Africa, and they discovered the world through classic literature. That friend returned to Poland after Africa, got a PhD in philosophy and became a nun,” George said.
“My mother and her never saw each other again, but they corresponded constantly for about 60 years… I have a stack of letters,” George says.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, George and Ryszard converted the dining room of their parents’ house into a hospital-style bedroom to accommodate home-care medical visits.
The couple was able to stay together until Emil died May 26, 2021, one day before his 94th birthday. Three months later, Hunka needed to be moved to Grace Hospital for hospice care.
George says his mother’s story, which he hopes to publish one day, carries a universal message of strength, perseverance and hope.
“No matter how small you are and how catastrophic your life can become, you can get through it and have a beautiful life.”