When I posted this haunting photo for Easter Sunday, I was surprised at the quick, emphatic response it attracted from my friends on social media. A few people notified me to tell me they were “stealing” my photo and many others commented on it.
Let me take a few moments to tell you the story of the Szare Szergi Monument. It is located in Ontario, on Old Barry’s Bay Road just outside of the town of Barry’s Bay in the Madawaska Valley, home of Canada’s first Polish settlement.
If you have Polish friends or family, you are probably aware of the pride taken in the “Polish Boy Scouts” organization. Perhaps it is not as prominent now as it was just after World War II in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, but it is still active and Ontario is dotted with camps dedicated to serve the Polish Scouts; if you drive back country roads, you may have passed a weathered wooden sign at a rural driveway entrance and wondered what it was about.
“In North America in the 1930s and 40s, the Boy Scouts were something for city kids to learn about the country,” a Polish friend once explained to me. “In Poland, the ‘Scouts’ were a para-military organization; they were an unofficial part of the Polish military during the war. Kids running messages got around more easily than adults did, and so children were used to do these jobs precisely because they didn’t arouse the suspicion of German soldiers.”
Thousands of children, girls as well as boys, died fighting in the Polish war effort. I spoke to one woman in her 80s who proudly showed me an aged photo and said, “I was a pretty girl, a very pretty girl. People let me pass.
“Once, shooting erupted and while I was running through it, a bullet took my pony tail right off of my head!” she exclaimed, waving her hand in the air behind her now-grey head. “It missed my head by an inch, but I lost my pony tail. I did not notice it until I arrived safely and friends said ‘Your hair is gone!! Where is your pony tail?’”
When thousands of Poles left Poland for Canada after the war, they brought their history, their gratitude, and their pride in these children with them. The Szare Szergi Monument was built in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising.
Here is the text engraved in Polish, English and French at the monument:
“This monument was erected by the Polish-Canadian community to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising and to enshrine the memory of the young scouts and guides, known as the Szare Szergi (Gray Ranks) who fell during the uprising or lost their lives in Nazi concentration camps during the occupation of Poland (1935-1945).
Szare Szergi, consisting of 10,000 scouts and 8,000 guides, who without regard for their own safety, took an active part in all aspects of the resistance. Two battalions, Zoska and Parasol, distinguished themselves through their outstanding bravery and valour. One of the youngest armies in the world, the flower of the Polish nation, has written itself into the annals of history in gold letters. Over half of them fell fighting to free Poland. Through their deeds they have proclaimed to the world that the Poles value a free homeland above all.
With the words of the great visionary poet Julius Slowacki (1809-1849) from his poem My Testament, we dedicate this monument to the patriotic and unselfish youth known as SZARE SZERGI.
And so I cast the spell – let the living keep hope
And carry the torch of wisdom before the nation
And when necessary, go to death one by one,
Like stones, cast by God onto barricades!
Marek M. Jagla, scoutmaster
For the monument building committee
July 9th, 1995″