Yuriy Kowalczyk, also known as George to his American friends, was born in Krakow Poland on December 31, 1925 to Justin and Pelagia (Starowietska) Kowalczyk. He had a brother Tymoteusz, who was older by about a year. His early years centered on family life as a member of the vibrant Ukrainian community in Krakow. St Norbert’s Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, established in 1800, played a vital role in Yuriy’s and his family’s lives. His mother’s roots were in Lviv and father’s roots were in the Lemko village of Hladyshiv, about 60 miles southeast of Krakow. Young Yuriy spent many summers in this village with its rolling farmlands. It was also known for its nationalistic and politically active residents, prior to WWII and afterwards. In his teenage years Yuriy developed a strong love for the Ukrainian people and their heritage and culture.
In 1939 everything changed. Poland was invaded by the Nazis, schools were closed and the local economy collapsed. Yuriy recalled that his mother tasked him with obtaining the family’s bread. Bakeries opened at 8 am, but the lines for bread began at 5am, then at 4am, then at 3am. If Yuriy was not on line by 4 am, the family did not eat that day.
All around him older boys began disappearing – taken for slave labor into Germany. When Yuriy turned 18, it was his turn to be taken. He did not want to work for the Germans and intended to escape as soon as he could. He decided that the best way to do this was to learn to drive a truck so that he would be assigned to labor as a truck driver. And that is how it played out. He and two other laborers were assigned to deliver machinery and other goods all across Germany. After a few months, their assignment took them near the Italian border and they decided to make a break for it, truck, cargo and all.
At the time the government in Italy had fallen and the British were beginning to consolidate control of the area. However chaos was everywhere. The boys managed to avoid discovery for a few days, but that did not last. They were eventually picked up by Italian communists who wanted to execute them on the spot, as enemy combatants. Quick thinking on Yuriy’s part avoided this disaster. He began telling them that “My tovarishi. Hovorymo po Ruski”. That worked, but not completely. They decided to turn the boys over to the British instead.
The Allies had quite a few Polish POWs and former Polish fighting forces and were consolidating these groups into the Polish II Corp under General Anders. At around the time that Yuriy and his friends became British POWs, the Polish II Corps had been transferred to Italy under the British 8th Army. So the boys were given a choice; continue as POWs or join the new force. Yuriy and one of his friends decided to join. They trained in Corsica and fought in the famous battle of Monte Cassino against the Nazis. This army suffered heavy losses. Over the years Yuriy often said that it was a mercenary decision to establish a Polish fighting force out of slave laborers/POWs for the heaviest front line fighting.
As the war was coming to a close, The British created the Polish Resettlement Corps (PRC) to help integrate the Polish into British life. Yuriy was sent to North Africa to attend massive schools created by the British to help their Polish former fighting forces to complete up to a high school diploma.
Upon returning to England, Yuriy was assigned to work in a cotton mill in Liverpool. There he met a loving, beautiful German woman, Mina Canziani, and in 1949 they married. In 1951 they emigrated together to the U.S. and settled in Yonkers NY. They had 3 children, Marta, Irene and Andrew. They all attended St Michaels Ukrainian Catholic Church and Elementary School in Yonkers, as well a Ukrainian Heritage School on Saturdays.
For over 50 years, Yuriy worked as a printer/typographer for several news-papers, including the New York Times and the NY Daily News. Simultaneously, he also was a construction worker/independent contractor and built seven two-family homes, all in Yonkers. The first two houses were with a partner on Woodland Ave, the next four houses he built by himself on Sommerville Pl, and the last one he built with a partner on Segwick Ave.
For over 60 years, Yuriy volunteered his labors for the Ukrainian community primarily with the Ukrainian Youth Center (UYC) and with the Organization for the Defense of Lemkivshchyna (OOL). At the UYC he helped with the construction of the new UYA building and served as wedding/events manager for over 15 years. In retirement he focused his energies to return Ukrainian churches that were confiscated in the ancestral lands of Lemkivshchyna in Poland over 40 years before. His crowning achievement through OOL was the return of St. Norbert’s Cathedral to the Ukrainian community in Krakow.
In 1947, Lemko Ukrainians were forcibly resettled to northern Poland through Aktsia Visla and were not allowed to return for over 10 years. Hladyshiv and many neighboring villages were emptied and over time, most buildings were confiscated or ruined. After the fall of communism in Poland, Yuriy spearheaded many projects through OOL to return and rebuild village churches destroyed by Aktsia Visla, including Hladyshiv.
Unfortunately, the last 10 years of his life left him completely deaf, mostly blind and with mild dementia. For three years he and his wife Mina lived at Drum Hill, an independent living retirement community in Peekskill NY. For the next five years he lived with his daughter Marta and her family in Falls Church VA. In those years he became increasingly mellow. He would often say “I love you” to anyone who showed him kindness. A friend once commented that she had not heard those words spoken as often over her entire lifetime. And he would often follow up with a gentlemanly kiss of the hand.
Yuriy Kowalczyk (George), a longtime resident of Yonkers, died on Thursday, August 31, 2017 at his residence in Falls Church VA. He was 91 years old.
During all his life in US Yuriy Kowalczyk was very active in the Organization for the Defense of Lemkivshchyna (OOL) and held many positions, including the National Director for Welfare Projects, where he collected thousands of dollars for charitable projects and earned legendary status for his efforts.
OOL would like to thank all the people who donated to OOL in Yurko Kowalczyk’s memory as well as the Kowalczyk family who are taking steps to establish the OOL Yuriy Kowalczyk Charitable Fund in his honor.
We will never forget you, Yuriy.