Today, I saw a document that changed the course of my family history.
I located the passenger list for the Canadian Pacific Duchess of York, which sailed out of Liverpool, England, on Sept. 29, 1938 with 613 passengers bound for Montreal. My father, barely a year old, would have boarded this ship in my grandmother’s arms. My Aunt Mary, herself a toddler, likely clung to her 15-year-old cousin Toni. Grandpa Macko would have been charged with what meager belongings these third-class passengers would have been permitted to bring.
The day that my family set sail for a new life is fateful for another reason: That same day, France and England, via the Munich Agreement, allowed Adolf Hitler to “reclaim” a piece of Czechoslovakia for ethnic Germans in an effort to avoid war. But Hitler would seize the rest of the Czech lands within six months, and soon, what remained of the country was decimated as Hitler’s troops marched to invade Poland, starting the Second World War.
I trembled as I clicked to open the document that saved half of my family from the ravages of World War Two: I am surprised by how emotional I became at seeing their names, neatly typed and checked off. Remembrance Day has always given me a sense of disquiet, for lack of a better word, and I’ve recently been researching why. I know that both sides of my family were safely in Canada when war broke out in 1939, but I also know that our heritage means our story isn’t simple. I think I’ve pieced it together, and finding documents like the aforementioned passenger list have made my family history literally come alive before my eyes.
With a surname like Macko, people often think I’m Scottish. I’m actually Slovak – not “Czechoslovakian” or Czech — but a descendant of a people, not a nation. Both sides of my family actually come from a small village in Slovakia, which today is a prosperous nation of about 5 million people. Slovaks are forever linked to Czech people, another small population in culturally diverse – yet ethnically divided and therefore volatile — central Europe.
Both sets of grandparents ended up in Canada in very different ways. My maternal grandfather, Justin Gadosy, first travelled to Canada in 1924 at the tender age of 20 to work on the railway in British Columbia. He stayed in Canada for eight years, returning to Czechoslovakia only to squire his new bride to Montreal in 1933. The Gadosy clan escaped any direct involvement with world war.
But Michael Macko, born a few years earlier than Justin Gadosy, did not. My Dad never gave much information about Grandpa Macko’s involvement in World War I, or how the family came to Canada, other than the unusual tidbit that my grandfather had fought in Siberia. I regrettably never asked for more detail. I’d much rather have heard my family history from my family, rather than piece together what I can through reliable Internet pages as I now must.
The horror and relative recentness of World War II can push World War I into the background. But in the 1910s, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was hungry to extend its nationalistic reach, and was starting to culturally strangle its ethnic minorities, including Slovaks; Germany was doing the same to Czechs.
As early as 1915, the idea of a united Czechoslovakia was gaining ground. With Tsarist Russia fighting against the Triple Alliance, Czechs and Slovaks alike looked to them in the hopes of independence. Ethnic Czechs living in Russia petitioned Emperor Nicholas II to form its own force to fight against Austro-Hungary. Permission was granted, and soon the “Czech Company” was provided with deserters and prisoners from Russia’s enemy nations.
Was Grandpa Macko a deserter or a prisoner-of-war? I’ll never know; but I know that he was in Siberia. Now I know why. What was eventually called the “Czechoslovak Company” — an army some 60,000 strong — was promised safe evacuation from Russia when it exited the war in 1917 after the Bolshevik Revolution. The safest route was by land, through Siberia. But Communist Russia capitulated to German pressure and the Company was soon under siege. Some were arrested; others helped seize Siberia with Allied Forces. The end of the war, coupled with the ongoing Russian Revolution, brought further confusion. The Company’s remnants wearily returned to a newly-formed Czechoslovakia by 1920.
I don’t know how Grandpa Macko made it back to Czechoslovakia. But I’m not surprised that he decided that bringing his young family to Canada was a safer option than staying in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, watching Nazi Germany jockey for power as the Austro-Hungarians did two decades prior. Already in his 40s, he likely felt he had survived enough history to last a lifetime; a fresh start would be best for him and his young family.
As a Canadian, I will stand firm at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day and honour the sacrifices made by my fellow Canadians in wars long ago and recently in the name of freedom. But as a Slovak, I’ll also think of the sacrifices my ancestors made, merely by being caught in the crossbows of history. Lest we forget either.