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Barbarianism of the Huns

February 11, 2011

Central Block of Parliament Building, 1915

The  Reading Room of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa was getting ready to close for the evening on February 3, 1916 when a patron noticed a smoldering cigar tossed carelessly into a wastebasket.  A clerk was called over but by the time he arrived to put out the flames, it was too late. The fire quickly spread and the House of Commons, which was in session that night, was evacuated. Some ladies hurried to get their fur coats out of the coat check, not realizing the urgency and succumbed to the fire.  At midnight, the bell in the tall Victoria Tower rang out 11 times, and then crashed to the ground. Eight people died that night.

Parliament Central Block on Fire in Ottawa, Feb 3 1916

The Toronto Globe reported on the cause of the fire the next day, but acknowledged that “unofficial Ottawa, including many Members of Parliament, declare ‘the Hun hath done this thing.'”

List of eastern Europeans - POWs in Quebec in 1915. One Slovak was imprisoned because of his woodworking skills, and forced to build the camp.

Five days later, Jakob Kondro, who had immigrated to Canada from the Ukraine nearly a decade prior, wrote a pleading letter to a General E.A. Cruikshank:

I, Jacob Kondro, received a letter from my wife that my son, John Kondro, is in a prison in the internment camp, Banff.  I do not think that Canada would take their own people and put them in prison in an internment camp. I am naturalized as a citizen of the Dominion of Canada.  Please let him go.”  February 8, 1916. Signed Jakob Kondro, Dalmuir, Alberta.

Eastern European POWs queued for food in the camp in Kingston, Ontario. They were rationed the same food as soldiers, 2500 calories a day. Unfortunately, food was often scarce, and they were often left to live on water and a thin gruel.

Nativism and anti-immigrant sentiments in Canada were already running high when the Great War erupted.  In October, 1914, the Canadian War Measures Act was passed, and over 80,000 immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, deemed “alien enemies”,  were forced to register themselves at Army offices across the country.   Over 5700 Ukranians, Slovaks, Czechs, Serbs, Croats and Romanians (mainly men) were imprisoned in 24 internment camps, often forced to work, their property confiscated; two camps took in women and children too. The POWs were subjected to corporal punishment and torture- pistol whippings and beatings with bayonets, solitary confinement in hoosegows.  Many were shot, usually trying to escape, and several committed suicide.   Their crime: being from central or eastern Europe. Most were Canadian citizens.

Interned eastern Europeans at Spirit Lake, 1916 Christmas. The last surviving prisoner, Mary Manko, died July 14 2007 in Mississauga, Ont, nearly 99 years old. She was just six when she was imprisoned in Spirit Lake, Quebec.

The Kondro letter was forwarded to the Banff Internment Camp Commanding Officer, Captain Spence, who, in his response to Cruikshank on February 18 acknowledged 17 year old John’s presence in the camp, and the fact that John was well behaved, although he had refused to work for several days, most likely convinced to do so by older prisoners. Further, Spence wrote that since his father was naturalized, and John was a minor, he should be considered a British subject too.

Map of the 24 Concentration (later renamed "Internment") Camps in Canada, by Lubomyr Luciuk in operation from 1914-1920.

The letters were copied, forwarded and filed, and remained on the desks of various officers for the next few months, lost in a bureaucratic paper shuffle, or perhaps accidentally on purpose, being that Kondro was a “Hun.” Finally in May, someone responded to Jacob that he was right, and his son should be released.  It was too late.  In April, Kondro and a few friends had decided to escape, and in the middle of a snow storm they took off into the woods, shots fired after them.  John disappeared, never to be heard from again.

Ice Castle in Banff 1916-17. Slovak POWs helped build the ice castle in Banff for the winter festival. The prisoners were paid 25 cents a day.

American followers of Thomas Masaryk and Milan Stefanik came to Canada to help free the Slovaks and Czechs, pleading with the Canadian government that these POWs were against the Austro-Hungarians as well, and that their brethren were gathering and fighting against them in Europe.  They met with some success and several were freed.

Banff Spring Hotel 1929. Visitors to the hotel would often take excursions to the Castle camp, where they would be invited in to tea with the warden's wife, and could peer through the barbed wire fence and watch the POWs at work.

Ironically, nearly all of these immigrants had come to Canada as homesteaders, to build a better life and to flee the tyranny of the Hapsburgs. They were not spies, enemies or conspirators; they were proud of their new country, wanted only freedom and to work and raise their families.   Members of Parliament had stated that they didn’t want Canadians to stoop to the “barbarianism of the Huns”, but that is exactly what they did.

Articles and Books on this subject:

Survivor of the Spirit Lake Internment Camp, Mary Manko by the Montreal Gazette, July 17, 2007.

A Time for Atonement, by Lubomyr Luciuk, 1988

Enemies, Aliens, prisoners of war: internment in Canada during the Great World War, by Bohdan Kordan, 2003

In the shadow of the Rockies, diary of the Castle MountainInternment Camp, by Bohdan Kordan, 1993

Ukranian Canadian Internment

The Price of Freedom, Fran Ponomarenko interviews Yurij Luhovy, 1993

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. William C. Wormuth permalink
    February 12, 2011 12:46 am

    Pauline,

    I had never heard of this but I am not surprised. I has friends in Sarnia and other places near there who immigrated in the late 60’s. I found that they were descriminated against by the Canadians. It seems that unless you were English, Irish, Scottish, or Australian, you were last in line for a decent paying job.

    Just as in the USA in the late 1800″ through the 40’s, Slovaks were referred to as “Dumb Round-Head’s”, (the origin of which is lost) and most could only find laborious work. Italians were WOPS, WithOut Papers

    My grandfather spoke read and wrote Hungarian, High German, Low German, English and Slovak was a trained, (in Vienna), cabinet maker, an active farmer and a day laborer in a leather mill. Yet he was called a Dumb Round-Head.

    Our families did everything possible to educate their children and many became professional Businessmen, doctors and Lawyers.

    I thank you for the history lesson.

    Z Bohom,

    Vilo

    • February 12, 2011 9:46 am

      Vilo, my family immigrated to the Sarnia/Windsor area (I was born there). I had never heard the name “Dumb Round-Head”, but I understand where it comes from. Slovaks were considered of the “Alpine” race, and their heads are described as round, their nature as sedentary. They were considered working class stock only, one step above slaves. My family, too, considered education to be essential to get ahead.

      “Despite the large numbers of this alleged race, the characteristics of the Alpines were not as widely discussed and disputed as those of the Nordics and Mediterraneans. Typically they were portrayed as “sedentary”: solid peasant stock, the reliable backbone of the European population, but not outstanding for qualities of leadership or creativity. Madison Grant insisted on their “essentially peasant character.”

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alpine_race

      Thank you for your comments.
      Tonya (Pauline’s granddaughter)

  2. Daniela and Jaroslav permalink
    February 12, 2011 10:03 am

    And now ? Who will make big excuse to all that people. It is big disgrace. Bravo Tonya , bravo SINE MOJ , show them what is WESTERN CIVILIZATION made froor on.

  3. William C. Wormuth permalink
    February 12, 2011 5:06 pm

    Dear Pauline,

    My friends were Fero Chrapko and his wife Annie, whose Father (deceased), was Nick Golian and Mother Helena, now living in London Ontario.

    Nicks father owned a meat market . when he retired he moved back to Slovakia, where he died and is buried. Nick and Helen moved back but Helen returned to be with her kids. Nick died there in Slovakia.

    Ferko’s uncle was a millionaire in the Sarnia area and his Aunt, still living is Kamika but I have forgotten her last name.

    Sarnia is a beautiful City and I had a lot of fun there. The Slovak church in Sarnia has closed.

    Z Bohom,

    Vilo

    • February 12, 2011 5:16 pm

      Dear Vilo, Pauline’s brother in law, Igor, owned a butcher shop in Sarnia for many years – Shuster’s Delicatessen. I will ask Igor’s son if he remembers the Chrapko or Golian families. I took a look at your web page about your family – very interesting. I love the image of sea of white hankerchiefs in the church.

      Tonya

  4. Lily permalink
    February 14, 2011 11:27 am

    Tanya, you continue to amaze me with the information on our culture you find and share with out. It is so easy for man to be critical and fearful of those who may look, speak and behave differently.
    WE just don’t seem to learn from history!
    Keep up the good work.

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