Arriving in Canada as a war refugee in 1940, Wanda Stachiewicz would spend the rest of her life learning to be a grateful and loyal Canadian while remaining fiercely proud and attached to her Polish roots. She devoted her life to raising her three children, Bob, Jul and Eva and supporting her husband, General Waclaw Stachiewicz, Chief of Staff of the Polish Army, who would remain overseas until 1948. A Westmount resident of more than 50 years, she made many valuable and influential friends inside the community.
Wanda Stachiewicz was born in Poland in 1896 into an upper middle-class family. She referred to her childhood as golden, happy years surrounded by loving parents, grandparents, aunts, and cousins. From her mother, she learned the importance of family and volunteerism. From her father, an acclaimed Polish historian and scholar, she inherited a dedication to learning and developed a passion for literature and the arts. These values would shape and encompass Wanda her whole life.
Wanda knew joy and hardship. She endured two world wars, and was forced to leave everything behind in Poland to flee with her three young children. They travelled first to Romania, then though Yugoslavia, Italy, Switzerland and finally Paris. Yet once again, the bombs fell and Wanda would need to engineer another harrowing escape. With perseverance, after reaching the south of France, she was able to persuade a naval captain to allow her and her children to board a ship bound for England. Though in danger of being torpedoed, they reached England safely where she was ultimately able to obtain passage to Canada.
Whether fleeing German soldiers or facing Westmount’s City Council, Wanda’s courage never faltered. In 1941, The Polish Women’s War Refugee Association, which Wanda helped establish, was offered the use of the mansion at 9 Braeside to house refugees on the condition that Westmount would forfeit the taxes. Although extremely nervous, Wanda successfully pleaded their case in front of the mayor and twelve councillors.
Wanda met many influential and fascinating people throughout her life, attending many official diplomatic receptions as wife of the second-highest military official in Poland. At one function, she managed, with ingenuity, to avoid shaking Hitler’s hand.
Through her work on behalf of the Polish community in Montreal, she would enjoy the privilege of meeting General De Gaulle and Pope John Paul II. But it was her charm and intelligence that enabled her to befriend those who would help her get established in Montreal - the Drummonds, the Molsons, the McLennans, the Curries and others.
With hard work and perseverance, Wanda’s love of culture and the arts was the driving force behind the creation of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in Canada in 1943. The Institute would bring together Polish scholars and intellectuals to enrich the study of Polish culture through lectures, art exhibits, and literary contests. Wanda herself gave a series of lectures on the history of Polish culture and in 1973 wrote a book titled “Copernicus and the Changing World” to celebrate the 500th anniversary of his birth.
In 1946, she was directly involved in the founding of the Polish Library which she headed for over 40 years. Even in retirement, she maintained an active interest in the library. In 1984, the library was renamed “The Wanda Stachiewicz Polish Library” to honour her outstanding contribution and service.
As a young girl, Wanda had resolved to achieve “something” in life. In 1937, she received the Golden Cross of Merit from the Polish government for her work in the “White Cross” organization whose mission was to combat illiteracy. In recognition of her outstanding contributions to the Polish community in Canada, Wanda was awarded the Gold medal of the Canadian-Polish Congress. And yet for all her accomplishments, Wanda’s greatest joys and pride came from the love of her family and their successes and accomplishments.
Wanda felt it was a wife’s duty to give up her career for the well-being of her family and husband. “I have seen the old world die and a new world emerge. I never retired. The newness and the changes fascinate me. I am always ready to learn.
” It was this spirit of the love of knowledge and openness to new ideas that enabled Wanda to play so many roles in her life - author, scholar, lecturer, community activist and library director.