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A Royal Navy warship conducts a depth charge attack similar to the one endured by U-30 after attacking the British freighter Fanad Head. Photo credit: www.sfgate.com

Meet the Character Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 5

The last thing a submarine commander wants to see in his periscope is the sight of two enemy destroyers bearing down on his position, but that is exactly what Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp saw immediately after sinking the British freighter Fanad Head, Sept. 14, 1939. (See blog post “Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 4,” July 1, 2016.)

Lemp ordered a crash dive to 80 meters, but the first salvo of depth charges rocked U-30, causing leaks and damaging many of the boat’s instruments. Seeking to escape the deadly explosions, he eventually took his boat down to 144 meters (470 feet), close to its operating limit. U-30’s hull creaked ominously under the pressure and was constantly buffeted by the falling depth charges, but the boat held together. During this extended ordeal Lemp’s quiet self-control calmed his crew and further burnished his reputation for coolness under pressure.

Following the nine-and-a-half hour pounding and with U-30’s batteries running low, Lemp slowly brought his boat to the surface at 11 p.m. The submarine was battered and leaking water, but he managed to slip away under cover of darkness.

He had hoped to set a course for his base in Wilhelmshaven, Germany, but soon discovered the boat’s guidance controls had been damaged. He also realized his badly wounded crewman needed serious medical attention, so Lemp navigated by radio beacon to Reykjavik, Iceland. The neutral port allowed him a limited stay, but it was enough time to stop most of the leaks and make running repairs to assure the boat could submerge in an emergency.

Lemp also arranged for Machinist Mate Adolf Schmidt to enter a local hospital. Before doing so, however, he had Schmidt sign a statement under oath that he would not reveal to anyone the events of Sept. 3, 1939, the day U-30 fatally torpedoed the British passenger ship Athenia.

The next day, Sept. 20, U-30 left Reykjavik to begin a week-long journey home, navigating by the stars. Along the way, the U-boat dived several times to avoid detection whenever a plane or ship was spotted on the horizon. A few days into the journey one of the boat’s two diesel engines quit working. On his final approach, Lemp refused the offer of a tow from a German minesweeper and his boat limped into Wilhelmshaven under its own power the morning of Sept. 27. Waiting for him at dockside was U-boat fleet commander Kommodore Karl Dӧnitz. 

Lemp immediately told Dӧnitz he thought he sank Athenia. Accounts of the meeting ascribe various scathing remarks to the senior officer, but he likely suspected U-30’s involvement all along. Lemp explained the circumstances regarding the action and accepted that he had mistakenly identified the ship as an armed merchant cruiser. He also learned that for the past three weeks Germany had been denying responsibility for the attack because none of its ships reported any activity in the area where Athenia went down.

Dӧnitz ordered his young captain to go to Berlin and tell his story to the Naval High Command. As he boarded the plane the next day for the flight to Berlin, Lemp undoubtedly knew he faced a possible military trial for his actions. We will see the outcome in our next blog.

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View from the bridge of U-30 after the submarine stopped the British freighter Fanad Head, and before being attacked by Royal Navy aircraft. The figure in the white hat (center, back to camera) in most likely Fritz-Julius Lemp. Photo credit: dinger.byethost.com/fanad.htm.

Meet the Character Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 4

Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp caused an international uproar when he torpedoed and sank the British passenger ship Athenia, Sept. 3, 1939. (See blog post “Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 3,” June 16, 2016.) Lemp’s action was forbidden by international treaty, and he did not report it to headquarters because he thought his radio transmission might give away his position to the enemy.

As a result, the German high command was caught by surprise the next day when word of the attack appeared the news. Absent any report of such action from its submarines in the North Atlantic, the German government immediately denied responsibility for the attack and blamed the sinking on the British, saying it was a ploy to rally world sentiment against Germany. The British, meanwhile, produced witnesses who had seen the submarine and accused Germany of ignoring the treaty and waging unrestricted submarine warfare.

The young German U-boat commander was unaware of this raging propaganda battle. There is no way to know what Lemp was thinking about his colossal mistake, but he dutifully observed the rules of submarine warfare for the remainder of U-30’s combat patrol.

A week after sinking Athenia, Lemp torpedoed and sank the British freighter Blairlogie while observing all the appropriate protocols, even staying with Blairlogie’s lifeboats until dawn, Sept. 11, when the crew was rescued by an American ship. 

Three days later, he chased down another British freighter, Fanad Head, and sent a boarding party to the ship as her crew got off in lifeboats. While the party was aboard the freighter, Lemp was surprised by two Royal Navy planes from the aircraft carrier Ark Royal. Fanad Head had radioed its situation, giving the Royal Navy time to scramble the planes and send three destroyers racing to her location.

Temporarily abandoning his boarding party, Lemp quickly submerged to save his boat from the air attack. In their haste, the planes flew so close to the water when dropping their bombs debris from the explosions caused them to crash. The pilots survived and swam to the freighter, where the German boarding party pulled them from the water.

Concerned about further attacks from the sky but wanting to rescue his boarding party, Lemp surfaced U-30 next to Fanad Head and accidentally ran his bow into the freighter’s hull. In quick succession he learned that three Royal Navy destroyers were bearing down on them from the opposite side of the freighter, a member of his boarding party had been seriously wounded and his men had rescued two British pilots.

Lemp brought his crewmen and the British pilots aboard U-30 and submerged. Because of the damage to his bow, he launched a torpedo from his boat’s stern tube and sank Fanad Head with this single blow.

As the freighter disappeared, however, he saw the British destroyers closing in quickly and ordered U-30 down to a depth of 80 meters (260 feet). Waiting silently in the deep, Lemp and his crew had no idea what to expect from their first sustained depth charge attack.

More in our next blog.

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British liner Athenia rides low in the water 14 hours after being torpedoed by U-30. She sank shortly after this photo was taken. Photo credit: ww2today.com

Meet the Character Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 3

Having torpedoed the first British ship of World War 2, Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp brought his submarine, U-30, to the surface after nightfall, Sunday, Sept. 3, 1939, to take a closer look at his victim. (See blog post “Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 2,” June 1, 2016.) He saw the ship in distress, dead in the water, its stern riding low and listing six degrees to port. On deck, its crew busily lowered lifeboats into the water.

At some point during his observations, Lemp decided the ship was not sinking fast enough and ordered another torpedo to finish the job. At the same time, he received a note from U-30’s radio operator that a ship identified as Athenia had begun sending a distress signal that she had been torpedoed and was sinking fast.

The third torpedo proved to be a misfire and it is possible Lemp called out the gun crew to sink the ship with the U-boat’s 88mm. deck gun. (Details of Lemp’s attack were lost when his war log was altered.) Assuming Athenia was the name of his victim, he left the bridge to consult his copy of the Lloyds Register of Ships and determine her tonnage. At that moment, Lemp supposedly discovered he had torpedoed a passenger ship, an act forbidden by the international treaty Germany had signed in 1936.

Today, the question remains whether Lemp knew he was attacking a passenger ship when he fired that first torpedo. By all accounts, he was a capable commander, courageous and cool under pressure, but he also had a reputation for pushing the envelope. With such scant details of his personality, it’s possible to attribute his behavior to a variety of motivations.

Perhaps Lemp thought he was doing the unspoken bidding of his U-boat fleet commander, Kommodore Karl Dӧnitz, who considered the international treaty governing submarine warfare to be unworkable because it required submarines to warn merchant ships before they attacked.

Striking ships without warning maximized the U-boat’s effectiveness and could help neutralize the Royal Navy’s significant superiority over Germany on the high seas. Sinking a passenger ship would show just how implacable an enemy Nazi Germany intended to be.

On the other hand, Lemp, who was one of the younger U-boat captains, may have been eager to prove himself in the eyes of the fleet’s more experienced commanders and, thus, took the ill-advised shot. U-30 crew members who survived the war claimed that Lemp was shocked when he learned he had struck a passenger liner. He apparently ceased his attack with the deck gun and left the scene without reporting his actions to U-boat headquarters or revealing his presence by offering to aid survivors.

While the evidence is circumstantial it seems to point to Lemp’s having made a mistake when he attacked Athenia, most likely thinking he was firing on an armed merchant cruiser.

The war with England was only nine hours old and this young U-boat commander had committed a colossal blunder. But his war patrol would last another three weeks, time enough for Lemp to redeem himself, as we will see in our next blog.

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Pre-war photo of U-30, commanded by Fritz-Julius Lemp. Photo credit: u-historia.com

Meet the Character Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 2

On Sunday afternoon, Sept. 3, 1939, the German submarine U-30 sailed into its combat patrol area in the northernmost reaches of the sea lanes leading into and out of the British Isles. U-30 was commanded by Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, a young but well-respected U-boat captain (see blog post “Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 1,” May 14, 2016).

Two hours earlier Lemp had learned of the declaration of war between Germany and England. He understood from his commanders he was not to attack Royal Navy ships in order to avoid embarrassing the British at the outset of hostilities when there still might be a chance to reach a peace agreement. Lemp’s principal targets were to be cargo ships.

Attacks on merchant shipping were governed by complicated “prize rules” established by international treaties. If Lemp discovered a British merchantman sailing without naval escort, he had to surface to give warning before attacking. Once the ship stopped he was required to board the vessel to determine if she carried any war material. If contraband was found, the rules allowed him to sink the ship, but only after its crewmen were safely away in lifeboats. Passenger ships could not be attacked under any circumstance.

The rules were further complicated by the British practice of outfitting some merchant ships with naval guns. These “armed merchant cruisers” would assist Royal Navy warships in patrolling Britain’s shipping lanes. A few cargo ships were turned into so-called “Q-ships,” merchantmen with their guns hidden from view. Any unsuspecting U-boat that came to the surface to give warning with intent to board such a ship would quickly become the prey instead of the hunter.

Shortly after entering his combat zone that Sunday afternoon Lemp spotted a large freighter and gave chase. He broke off the chase, however, when he discovered the ship was from Norway, a neutral country, and thus immune from attack. After several hours of fruitless searching U-30’s lookouts spotted a large ship on the northeastern horizon, sailing alone and heading west. Lemp put his boat on a course to intersect the mystery ship and the two slowly converged over the next three hours.

To avoid detection, U-30 submerged shortly before sunset at 7 p.m. Although Lemp hadn’t been able to determine the ship’s nationality, he may have suspected she was a merchant cruiser. The ship was sailing well north of the merchant shipping lanes, proceeding in an evasive zigzag pattern and was blacked out to avoid detection at night.

With darkness falling and the big ship now only about 1,500 yards away, Lemp decided to attack and likely fired at least two torpedoes. His first shot was the only one to hit home, but it proved to be fatal. Though he didn’t know it at the time, Lemp had become a footnote of history – the man who commanded the first successful U-boat attack on a British ship in World War 2.

Unfortunately the ship he had struck was the passenger liner TSS Athenia, exactly the type of ship he was forbidden to attack under international law.

Lemp’s story continues in our next blog.

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Fritz-Julius Lemp, commander of U-30. Photo credit: alchetron.com

Meet the Character Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 1

Of all the characters I researched for my forthcoming historical novel, Without Warning, Fritz-Julius Lemp was the most enigmatic. Lemp commanded the German submarine that sank the first ship in the Battle of the Atlantic during World War 2. His attack on the British passenger liner Athenia is the central event of the novel, which is told through the experiences of eight characters, including Lemp.

Who was he, and why did he loose the fatal torpedo when he had strict orders not to attack unescorted passenger ships?

Trying to answer these questions proved largely futile, although I gained tantalizing glimpses through the accounts of a few sailors who served with him and from histories of the German U-boat war.

Lemp was born Feb. 19, 1913, in Tsingtau, China. The port city was the administrative center of a 200-square-mile concession Germany leased from China in 1898. His father was a junior ranking Army officer, who returned to Germany with his wife and young son before Tsingtau fell to the Japanese at the start of World War 1 in 1914.

There is little record of Lemp during his formative years in Germany, although he would have grown up during a time of great social unrest and economic hyper-inflation. At age 18 he carried on what may have been a family military tradition by joining the German Navy as an officer trainee.

In 1935 he became a full-fledged naval officer (Leutnant zur See), and a year later volunteered for U-boat service. At the time, the Unterseeboot Fleet was made up entirely of volunteers, a condition established by the fleet commander, Kommodore Karl Dӧnitz, in an effort to create an elite force. Lemp attended submarine school and served a tour of duty as a watch officer aboard U-28, before undergoing further schooling to qualify for command of a U-boat.

At the relatively young age of 25, Lemp, now holding the rank of Oberleutnant, was given command of U-30 in November, 1938. Some months later, he experienced a defining moment in his young career when U-30 collided with another submarine during submerged maneuvers. His quick thinking and cool execution of emergency procedures were credited with saving his boat and the 42 men aboard. It is not clear exactly what happened or who, if anyone, might have been a fault. But from that day forward, Lemp enjoyed the complete confidence of the officers and men sailing with him.

When the German Army invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, nearly all of Germany’s ocean-going U-boats were poised for attack in designated waiting zones beyond the shipping lanes into and out of Great Britain. Three times the previous year the U-boat fleet had been similarly deployed in anticipation of possible hostilities with England, but each time conflict was avoided and the fleet had been recalled.

In the early afternoon of Sept. 3, word was flashed to all German armed forces that England and Germany were at war once again, 21 years after the end of World War 1. It would prove to be the first day of the brief, but momentous combat career of Fritz-Julius Lemp.

His story continues in our next blog.

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Spirydon Kucharczuk’s wife and three youngest children were aboard the lifeboat accidentally sunk during rescue operations. Photo credit: Family passport photo.

Meet the Character Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 5

Like many other families, the Kucharczuks suffered an agonizing wait to discover the fate of loved ones aboard the British passenger liner Athenia after it was torpedoed by a German submarine, Sept. 3, 1939. Five different ships were involved in the rescue operations and survivors were taken to three different ports. (See blog post “Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 4;” March 1, 2016.)

Because more than 90 percent of the passenger and crew survived the attack, reports of tearful reunions filled newspapers in Britain, Canada and America for nearly two weeks as loved ones were reunited. Spirydon Kucharczuk (koo-HAR-chuck), who had saved his oldest daughter and was reunited with his oldest son in Glasgow, Scotland, waited several more days for word of the rest on his family. The news, when it came, was devastating. His wife Ewdokia, 40, sons Stefan, 15, and Jakeb, 2, and daughter Aleksandra, 8, did not survive a lifeboat accident. They were listed among the 112 people who died as a result of the U-boat attack.

After absorbing this unspeakable shock, Spirydon decided to continue with his original plan and immigrate to Canada. He obtained new travel documents and arrived in Canada in October, 1939, with his son Jan, 20, and daughter Neonela, 18. They spent the winter with Ewdokia’s sister and brother-in-law. In their newly adopted country they changed the spelling of their last name to Kucharchuk, dropping the “z,” and anglicized their first names: Spirydon to Steve, Jan to John, and Neonela to Nina.

The next year, Steve traveled west to Alberta Province to stay with his step-brother and look for suitable land for a farm. With loans from relatives and generous terms from the seller, he bought a parcel of land that had been homesteaded in 1912. Slowly over several years, they began to make the farm pay, but life wasn’t easy. Money was always tight and the Kucharchuks had to adjust to a new climate, new crops, new culture and a new language.

Nina married in 1941 and had two children over the next few years. But tragedy struck their family again in 1946 when Nina’s husband was killed in a truck accident. In January, 1948, Nina married Walter Chwedoruk and their marriage lasted until his death in 1998.

John Kucharchuk worked the family’s farm until 1946, when he purchased a sawmill that became the foundation of his successful business. When logging played out in one area, John moved the mill to another center of logging activity. In 1953, John married and moved to Edmonton, where the couple had two children.

Steve also married in 1953, sold his farm and moved to Edmonton. He loved visiting his grandchildren and often helped out on Nina and Walter’s farm. After his wife died in 1975, Steve lived alone until he became ill with cancer. Nina took him to her house, where he passed away in 1977. John died in 2008 and Nina died two years later.

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Neonela Kucharczuk was rescued by her father after their lifeboat sank. Photo credit: Family passport photo.

Meet the Character Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 4

Few experienced sailors have ever found themselves in the predicament that Spirydon Kucharczuk (koo-HAR-chuck) faced in the hours before dawn on the morning of Sept. 4, 1939. A Polish farmer immigrating to Canada with his family, Spirydon floated with his daughter on a piece of wreckage alone in the north Atlantic, 250 northwest of Ireland. (See blog post “Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 3;” Feb. 15, 2016.)

The prospects for their rescue could not have appeared encouraging in those dark hours.

Spirydon, his wife and five children had been aboard the passenger ship Athenia when it was torpedoed by a German submarine shortly after sunset the previous evening. Although the oldest son had gone missing, the remaining six family members were able to leave the ship in the same lifeboat. Six hours later, as they waited to be taken aboard the Norwegian freighter Knute Nelson during rescue operations, their lifeboat was accidentally caught in the big ship’s propellers and chopped to pieces.

Amid the chaos of thrashing bodies in the water, Spirydon somehow found his oldest daughter, Neonela, but could not locate any other family members. Father and daughter struggled onto a small piece of wreckage from the lifeboat, but when other panicked survivors in the water threatened to swamp them, Spirydon managed to push himself and his daughter far beyond their reach, but also well beyond any chance of rescue.

Alone in the dark, cold ocean, worried about the fate of his wife and three youngest children, and with no means to signal for help, it’s hard to imagine what Spirydon must have been thinking.

The Kucharczuk family stories don’t include any comments from Spirydon or Neonela describing these events. As a result, there are no details of their miraculous rescue, most likely by one of the Royal Navy destroyers, Escort or Electra, which conducted a thorough search of the area after sunrise on the morning of Sept. 4.

In any case, they were returned to Glasgow, Scotland, and Neonela was hospitalized for several days while she recovered from her exposure to the elements. During this period, Spirydon was reunited with his son, Jan, who had been rescued by the Knute Nelson and taken to Galway, Ireland.

Jan later explained that he had seen a newspaper article in Galway that listed survivors taken to Glasgow, and it included the names “N. Kucharczuk” and “S. Kucharczuk.” He assumed S. Kucharczuk was his brother Stefan, who was a very good swimmer, and was surprised to learn that it was his father.

With a small Kucharczuk family nucleus thus reunited, Spirydon and his two oldest children anxiously awaited word of the rest of the family. Unfortunately, wartime communications restrictions and the fact that 236 survivors were bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia, caused agonizing delays in efforts to compile a definitive survivors list.

The story concludes in our next blog.

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Jan Kucharczuk, the family’s oldest son, went missing when the rest of the family boarded their lifeboat. Photo credit: Family passport photo

Meet the Character Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 3

In the last week of August, 1939, the seven members of the Kucharczuk (koo-HAR-chuck) family made their way from eastern Poland to Liverpool, part of a growing tide of immigrants seeking to escape Nazi Germany’s expansion and the threat of war it posed. (See blog post “Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 2;” Feb. 1, 2016.)

There is no information about how the family traveled to England or how they spent their three days in Liverpool before boarding Athenia Saturday afternoon, Sept. 2, along with 539 other passengers. Accompanying the family’s patriarch, 41-year-old Spirydon, was his wife Ewdokia, age 40; son Jan, 20; daughter Neonela, 18; son Stefan, 15; daughter Aleksandra, 8, and son Jakeb, 2.

A little more than 24 hours later, at 7:39 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 3, all of Spirydon’s careful planning to move his family to Canada came crashing down when a German submarine torpedoed Athenia. With the signal to abandon ship, Jan somehow was separated from the rest of the family and did not appear at their lifeboat muster station.

Despite the protocol that required women and children to be taken off the ship first, the Kucharczuks managed to leave Athenia together, but without Jan. They apparently boarded Lifeboat 5A, launched on the starboard side of the ship and spent five or six hours in the boat before they were able to approach the large Norwegian cargo ship, Knute Nelson, the first rescue ship to arrive on the scene.

The Nelson had been on its way to Central America to pick up a cargo and was empty except for the ballast she carried to aid the ship’s stability. As a result she was riding high in the water, a factor that would have a tragic consequence during rescue operations.

When Lifeboat 5A approached the ship, likely sometime around 3 a.m., Sept. 4, three or four boats were lined up along the cargo ship’s hull, waiting for the chance to disembark their passengers at the base of a gangway deployed up the side Nelson’s hull. The ship’s sailors at first seemed reluctant for Boat 5A to fall into place behind the others, but eventually threw down a line to be tied off at the lifeboat’s bow. Boat 5A was the last in line and closest to Nelson’s stern. With rescue now at hand, everyone in the lifeboat relaxed.

Moments later the big ship unexpectedly started forward. The line to Boat 5A snapped and the boat was drawn into the vortex of the ship’s propellers churning inches below the water’s surface. The starboard propeller ripped through the bottom of the lifeboat, shattering its wooden hull and throwing its passengers into the ocean.

Spirydon fought his way to the surface of the water and called for his wife and children, his cries blending with the screams of others in the water. Almost immediately he found his oldest daughter, Neonela, who seemed injured and disoriented. They clung to a small piece of wreckage from the lifeboat. He called again and again to his wife and other children but there was no response. When other survivors tried to join Spirydon and Neonela, he feared their makeshift raft would be swamped and he made the painful decision to push free of the panicked swimmers.

After several minutes of supreme effort, they escaped the others, but Spirydon and Neonela had drifted a long way from the lights of the rescue operations and were alone in the wide, dark ocean with little prospect of being rescued. More about that in our next blog.

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Passport photo of Spirydon Kucharczuk survived Athenia sinking with some water damage. Photo credit: Family collection

Meet the Character Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 2

During the summer of 1939, Nazi Germany’s continued expansionist efforts led many people in Eastern Europe, especially Jews, to seek refuge in Western Europe and North America. Spirydon Kucharczuk (koo-HAR-chuck), a farmer in eastern Poland, was typical of these emigres. Though the Kucharczuks were not Jewish, Spirydon was certain Germany would invade Poland and was eager to move his family beyond the reach of war. (See blog post “Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 1;” Jan. 15, 2016.)

The Kucharczuks secured visas to immigrate to Canada, where they had relatives. But according to family stories, Spirydon’s wife, Ewdokia, hesitated to go because she feared their family had been cursed. She suspected her oldest sister, Titianna, had arranged the curse, possibly over a dispute regarding the disposition of their family’s land.

In his will, Ewdokia’s father omitted his two older daughters, Titianna and Julianna, and left the land to Ewdokia. The sisters took Ewdokia to court and were awarded a piece of the property, which Ewdokia bought back from them. Julianna and her husband immigrated to Canada in 1938, but Titianna and her husband continued to live a few miles from the Kucharczuks. The relationship between the sisters seemingly continued to smolder.

To satisfy Ewdokia, Spirydon visited a fortune teller in the nearby town of Trosteniec to seek advice. Family sources say the fortune teller told Spirydon not all of his family would arrive in Canada.

As he considered this unsettling prediction, Spirydon decided it involved his oldest son, 20-year-old Jan, who lately had become involved with one of the many ethnic splinter groups in the area. He believed Jan would choose to stay behind in Poland to support his political friends, rather than travel with the family to Canada.

The explanation must have satisfied Ewdokia because the family’s travel plans moved forward. When the day to leave Poland finally came in late August, 1939, Spirydon and Ewdokia must have been overjoyed because Jan had decided to go with them, keeping the family together.

No one knows if they gave any further thought to the fortune teller’s prediction.

The Kucharczuks’ journey continues in our next blog.

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A map of Poland between WW1 and WW2 illustrates how the country was re-established following the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Map source: www.siberianexiles.org

Meet the Character Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 1

When the British passenger ship Athenia sailed from Liverpool, England, on Sept. 2, 1939, she carried 1,102 passengers, 200 more than normal. The crowded conditions on board responded to public demand to leave Great Britain before war erupted on the Continent. Most of the passengers were Canadian and American citizens returning home, or British and Irish citizens planning lengthy stays with relatives. But 150 passengers were Europeans, mostly refugees seeking to escape Nazis tyranny.

Among the latter was the family of Spirydon Kucharczuk (koo-HAR-chuck), a farmer from eastern Poland, traveling with his wife and five children and planning to start a new life in Canada. Though he lived on a small farm near the town of Trosteniec in Eastern Poland, Spirydon followed events in the local newspaper and had grown increasingly wary of Germany’s demands for Polish territory. He became convinced the Nazis would invade Poland sooner or later and he was determined to leave the country before that happened.

For centuries the Polish state had grown and shrunk according to the fortunes of war. After being integrated into Imperial Russia for most of a century, Poland had only been reconstituted 20 years earlier following the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War 1. As a result, the new Poland included large groups of ethnic Germans, Lithuanians and Russians. The country was a stew of political groups and underground militias aligned with the new state or with one of its major or minor ethnic groups. Given the circumstances, it was understandable that Spirydon (who spoke and wrote Ukrainian) might fear a German invasion, particularly having witnessed the Nazi takeovers of Austria and Czechoslovakia to reunite German-speaking peoples.

But Spirydon had a problem. Before he could arrange for his family to immigrate to Canada, his wife, Ewdokia, insisted on finding out if their family was cursed. Her fears would cause Spirydon to visit a fortuneteller and receive an unsettling prediction. More about that in our next blog.