A Life's Story

April 06, 2019

'All for the family'

Antoni Robak fled communist Poland for love

By: Ryan Thorpe

Antoni Robak was a husband, father, and a man of great faith, whose life took him from the confines of Poland under communist rule to a stint in an Italian refugee camp to Winnipeg, before his untimely death this year at the age of 58.

He was an easy-going soul with simple tastes and interests who considered spending time with the people he loved, the most important thing in life.

 

Robak was born on Dec. 22, 1960, in Leki Gorne, a village in the Polish People’s Republic, which at the time was under the control of the Soviet Union. He was the second of five children.

In Grade 8, he met the love of his life, and future wife, Janina. While he didn’t make the best first impression on her, he eventually won her over and the two became childhood sweethearts.

"You know, at the beginning, I didn’t like him," Janina said with a laugh.

"But then slowly I realized he was a very good person with a very good heart and a good head on his shoulders. He was very caring and he was a people person. He would do anything for you that you would ask for."

In 1984, when Janina was 24, she got the opportunity to immigrate to Canada, where one of her sisters had relocated. At that time, due to the restrictions placed on citizens by the communist regime, it was difficult to leave Poland.

When Robak realized the love of his life was moving across the world, he took action: he signed up for a religious pilgrimage to Italy to meet the Pope, broke away from the group and escaped to an Italian refugee camp, then followed her to Canada.

Robak spent six months living at the refugee camp before the Canadian government agreed to sponsor him to relocate to Winnipeg, where Janina had settled.

The two were married in 1986, and had three children, Chris, Matt and Nicole.

"When I was growing up, I remember asking: how did you guys meet and how did you get to Canada? I remember being shocked because it was a pretty drastic action," Chris said.

"He was a great dad. He was the kind of guy who taught us never to shy away from a problem. He was an easy-going guy. You can also tell he had a sense of mischief. I think the story about him following my mom to Canada attests to that."

Robak got an education in Winnipeg and became a certified and accomplished millwright technician. In his spare time, he liked to keep busy by tinkering with salvaged items and listening to old-school country music or classic rock.

Two things Robak felt were important in life were his connection to family and his faith as a devout Roman Catholic, both of which he tried to pass on to his children.

"Faith was very important to us, and still is. We made sure the kids were brought up in the Roman Catholic faith. (Robak) also wanted to make sure that the kids knew who their grandparents were, so every few years, we planned a trip to Poland," Janina said.

"So most of our trips were to Poland to visit family, because he said as long as our parents were alive, we should be going to spend time with them. That’s how family-oriented he was."

Roughly two years ago, Robak got word from his doctor that he needed to go in for testing. That led to a long odyssey, with many twists and turns, which eventually led to a diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer. He was given roughly 18 months to live.

His family asked him if there were any bucket list things he wanted to do, such as travelling, while he still could, but Robak wanted nothing more than to spend time with his family.

"It didn’t matter how you spent that time, he was just into the simple things, even when he was going through cancer. We would go fishing, or go shoot an old shotgun down in a quarry, then stop by a casino and drop $20 in a slot machine," Chris said.

"He’d just sit down and crank the volume on the machine so it was the noisiest thing in the area. He said he liked the dinging bells and whistles. It was never about making money and it was never more than $20.

"He just wanted to enjoy the simple things with family for as long as he could. Maybe that’s because he took such a crazy adventure when he was younger. Maybe he got that all out of his system."

He died holding the hands of his family during the evening of Jan. 13, 2019, at the Health Sciences Centre. He was 58 years old.

During his final months and days, Robak leaned on his faith and asked his family to make sure they take care of his mother, who survived him.

"He relied very much on his faith. He never lost faith. He was hoping that he’ll get cured even when it was not good. Towards the end, we would pray together holding hands, hoping for him to get better, but it wasn’t meant to be," Janina said.

"He was the guy that was all for the family... He was a very loving person, very caring. He would do anything he could to make everyone happy."

ryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @rk_thorpe

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