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.