SZYRYNSKI email@example.com_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2007-11-23 published
head psychiatrist at Ottawa hospital survived notorious Lubyanka Prison
Arrested after the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939, he was sent to Moscow for interrogation. After the war, he settled in Canada and became an early advocate of community mental health
By Buzz BOURDON, Special to the Globe and Mail, Page S9
Ottawa -- At the beginning of the Second World War, Victor SZYRYNSKI spent almost a year incarcerated in Moscow's infamous Lubyanka Prison, yet he refused to yield.
Along with many other Polish patriots, he was arrested after the Soviet Union invaded Poland. The country was in crisis - Nazi Germany had invaded Poland from the west 16 days earlier on September 1, 1939, triggering the war.
He had been rounded up a year later on a charge of practising anti-Soviet activities and transported to Lubyanka, the very mention of which was enough to send shivers of terror down the spine of most Soviets. Built in 1898 during the Czarist era as the headquarters of the All-Russia Insurance Company, the building had been appropriated by the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, after the 1917 revolution and used as a centre of torture, interrogation and sometimes execution.
Dr. SZYRYNSKI felt his heart sink as he was led to his cell deep inside the yellow-brick prison. Over the months that followed, he was subjected to sleep deprivation, scanty rations, and aggressive and lengthy questioning that went on at all hours of the day and night. An intellectual who had published poetry before the war, he suffered through months of intense questioning that might have broken a lesser man.
Although he always maintained that his interrogators never physically tortured him, he said they did their best to get the information they wanted about his activities in the Polish underground. His spirits never flagged, however. His fierce love of Poland and his deep Catholic faith got him through the ordeal.
Dr. SZYRYNSKI, who was an assistant professor of neurology at the Stefan Batory University in Vilnius, then part of Poland, when the war broke out, had another ace up his sleeve. "They couldn't get anything out of him because he knew how to confuse his interrogators by using psychological techniques," said his daughter, Theresa AUBANEL. "He also had the mental attitude to overcome his fears."
Victor SZYRYNSKI was born in prerevolutionary St. Petersburg, the scion of an aristocratic Tatar family that traced its history back to Genghis Khan. After the First World War broke out in 1914, the boy was sent to his grandmother's estate in Finland and spent an idyllic childhood in the countryside.
At 12, he joined the Polish scouting movement and quickly grew to love it, said his granddaughter, Anna STACHULAK. He remained devoted to scouting for the rest of his life. "He used to tell us that life is with people, you have to reach out and be part of a community, not to isolate yourself. He probably developed all this from his love of scouting."
As Poland consolidated its independence from the Soviets after the war, Doctor SZYRYNSKI attended high school in Bialystok, then graduated from the University of Warsaw in 1938 with a degree in medicine.
Two years later, after his arrest, he was on a train with hundreds of others on their way to an unknown fate. Before crossing the frontier into the Soviet Union, the train stopped in Glebokie to take on food and water.
One of the prisoners, a priest, asked a crowd of Poles gathered near the train if someone could go to the local church and get some communion wafers so he could celebrate mass. A young Girl Guide offered to help and ran to the church. Returning, she crawled under one of the carriages to pass the wafers through a gap in the floorboards. It was Doctor SZYRYNSKI who took them from her fingers and, for an instant, they connected.
The priest said mass and the moment passed. Soon, the train was on its way again and eventually the prisoners were delivered to camps and interrogation centres deep within the Soviet Union, including Doctor SZYRYNSKI to Lubyanka Prison.
The fear must have been overwhelming to Doctor SZYRYNSKI and his Polish compatriots. Poland had been split by two brutal occupiers and their families had no idea what would become of them. Would they be sent to Siberia as slave labour for the camps, or would they be taken from their cells in the middle of the night and executed with a bullet in the back of the neck?
Decades after the war, Doctor SZYRYNSKI confided that he had triumphed over his captors because God had come to him in a dream. After that, he said, "it was easy to look into my interrogator's eyes with no fear. It made the cold nights in the prison warmer."
To keep their spirits up, Doctor SZYRYNSKI and his Friends recited as much Polish literature as they could remember. They also managed to read all of the many volumes of Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdue. They shared their meagre food and dreamed of the day when they would be released and reunited with their families.
In June, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and finally the Kremlin decided to release tens of thousands of Poles, including Dr. SZYRYNSKI. He joined Polish forces under British command in Iraq as a medical officer and spent the next five years in Africa and the Middle East, treating Polish orphans living in refugee camps. When the war ended he was awarded Poland's Silver Cross of Merit, with swords.
By that time, he was back in Iraq working at a military hospital near Baghdad. On the staff were a number of Polish nurses, one of whom caught his fancy. She was about 10 years younger than him and, to his eye, there was something very appealing about her.
Her name was Jadwiga SZCZEBIOT and he set to thinking about how they could be properly introduced. It was not long before he had enlisted the help of a priest, who invited the nurse to come by for tea. When she arrived, she discovered the priest already had another guest - Doctor SZYRYNSKI.
It wasn't long before romance flourished between the two compatriots, far from home and facing an uncertain future. They traded stories and Jadwiga shared how, she, too, had been rounded up by the Soviets and shipped to Siberia. He told her of his experiences in Lubyanka Prison, and of being sent to Moscow on a train full of political prisoners. To their astonishment, they realized they had met before. Jadwiga was the Girl Guide who had fetched the wafers.
Two years later - seven years after they had unknowingly met amid the human flotsam and jetsam of a world war - the couple were married in Jerusalem on April 12, 1947.
"We just liked each other," Ms. SZYRYNSKI said this week of their meeting outside Baghdad. "He was nice, very pleasant. We went swimming, walked by the river together."
After Jerusalem, they emigrated to Britain, where Doctor SZYRYNSKI completed postgraduate studies. They arrived in Canada in 1948. After completing his doctorate in psychology at the University of Ottawa, he taught psychiatry. He also specialized in neurology and psychotherapy. In 1964, he was named head of the psychiatry department at Ottawa General Hospital.
For four decades, Doctor SZYRYNSKI's research and clinical work focused on the community and he became an early proponent of preventative psychiatry and the team mental health approach. "He advocated tirelessly for prompt recognition and assistance of mental health problems by co-operation among family, community, professional and religious services," said his granddaughter, Christina STACHULAK.
The author of more than 70 articles, he was a fastidious man who expected high standards among his peers. Over the course of his career, he was awarded many honours, including fellowships in the Royal College of Physicians, Canada, and the American Psychiatric Association.
A central figure in Canadian-Polish community relations, Doctor SZYRYNSKI spent a lifetime contributing to his church. In 1969, at his Ottawa home, he entertained an obscure Polish cardinal called Karol Wojtyla, who later became Pope John Paul II. The two hit it off and corresponded over the years, meeting five times in all. "His religion was deep inside, he never talked about it," said his wife. "It was deeds that counted."
Victor SZYRYNSKI was born October 10, 1913, in St. Petersburg, Russia. He died of natural causes in Ottawa on September 21, 2007. He was 93. He leaves his wife, Jadwiga, daughters Barbara and Theresa, grandchildren Anna, Christina, Sebastien, Vincent and Alexandre, and great-granddaughter Rose.
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