By Jonathan Martin
In the early morning of April 9, 1917, 150,000 Canadian soldiers poured out of their trenches and shell holes into the snow-swept wasteland surrounding Vimy Ridge.
It was the first wave of what would become Canada’s most celebrated military achievement. It was also the day Herman Glonek was born in Poland, which, at the time, was split between German and Russian control.
The assault lasted four days. By the late afternoon of April 12, the four Canadian divisions making the advance had captured their objectives and pushed German forces back five kilometers. As if in celebration, Jean Farr entered the world in St. Thomas, Ontario that same day.
Ninety-nine years, 364 days later, on April 11, 2017, Glonek and Farr sat at a table together in Amherstburg. Both are living at Seasons Retirement Community. Though their home countries were at war when they were born, today they are friends, and hugged each other in mutual celebration. After all, a century of life is no small feat.
“My life was hard,” Glonek said in his sharply-accented English. “I struggled so.”
At 21, he joined the Polish army and soon found himself fighting against two of the era’s most influential military forces: Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. The invaders swept across Glonek’s home and swallowed the country whole in just over a month.
Along with millions of other Poles, Glonek was captured and taken to a forced-labour camp. He spent the rest of World War Two starved and struggling on a German farm.
“I have such stories from that time,” he said. “I often tell myself I will write a book.”
Following Poland’s liberation in 1945, Glanek bought his way into Canada.
“I hated the (second world) war,” said Farr. She was living in St. Thomas while Glonek was making his way to Canada. She remembers welcoming some veterans home and noting the stinging absence of others.
“I hope there’s never another one,” she added. “But who’s to know?”
Farr moved around a little during her century of life, but always stayed in Ontario. She finally found her way into Essex County following the death of her husband, when she moved into Harrow with her niece. From Harrow, she made the jump into retirement living at Seasons.
“I have no words for these people who take care of me,” said Glonek, referring to the Seasons staff. “I give thanks to God that I am here.”
For Glonek, getting to where he is took some doing. The Polish native said he entered Canada with a contract. He would work on a farm near Montréal for one year. After that, he would be on his own. When the contract ended, he moved to Windsor.
Decades later, the two centenarians found themselves being handed a piece of cake with a large, blue “100” printed on its top after being addressed by Amherstburg deputy mayor Bart DiPasquale and Amherstburg chief of police Tim Berthiaume.
DiPasquale spoke to both Farr and Glonek individually before presenting each with a certificate declaring that the “Council of the Corporation of the Town of Amherstburg votes to extend Birthday Wishes” to them.
Berthiaume presented each with a commemorative coin, on which the town’s police logo is emblazoned.
“You get one every hundred years,” Berthiaume told them. “I guess you better start clearing space.”
Farr and Glonek laughed, then exchanged a look.
For more photos from that day, visit our Facebook album.