As we commemorate ANZAC day on 25 April, our friends at Villa Maria Catholic Homes
shared this beautiful story about one of their residents, Frank Smolen, and one of their volunteers, Gary McNabb.
Frank Smolen, who turns 100 in October, survived Auschwitz. When Nazi Germany occupied his country, Frank joined the Polish Resistance. He spent about three years in this infamous concentration camp after the Gestapo discovered his allegiance to the resistance. Frank admires how Australians come together to remember the brave people who served their country in war. “Australians do it well. No other country in the world recognises their returned soldiers and diggers like that. They haven’t forgotten.”
Frank moved from Poland to Australia after World War II. He met his future wife, Hedwig, on the boat trip to Australia and they enjoyed a happy life in Footscray, before she passed away about 10 years ago. He has only recently started talking about some of his experiences.
Today, he lives at VMCH aged care residence, St Bernadette’s in Sunshine. Frank’s family describe him as a treasure. “He’s just an adorable man and we love him to bits,” his daughter-in-law, Ina, says.
While ANZAC Day was not something the family have been a part of in the past, Frank was moved when he was asked to be part of St Bernadette’s Anzac Day service last year. “St Bernadette’s asked him to lay the wreath for their Anzac Day service because he was the oldest one in the centre,” Ina, said.
“He was so emotional and so proud. I really think that is the closest he’s ever come to somebody acknowledging what he’s been through.”
Ina says Frank is in good health and the family hope to record his experiences during World War II to make sure his memories and important story is not lost. She sees parallels between his reasons for joining the Polish Resistance and what the ANZACs did. “We have asked him why did he do it? ‘Why were you part of the underground?’ He said, ‘I did it for Poland. I did it for the love of my country.’ That’s exactly how we look at our ANZACs and what they have been through at Gallipoli. They just do it because it’s for their country,” she said.
Gary McNabb, 66, is a Vietnam War veteran and he marches in the Anzac Day Parade in Melbourne each year. He says it is an important day to remember people who did not come back from war. “I can’t get over the amount of people there ... all cheering. I am proud to march. But you still remember everyone that’s been your mates that are not with you anymore.”
Gary is a volunteer at St Bernadette’s. He started volunteering after his mum moved into St Bernadette’s about eight years ago. While his mum passed away a few years ago, Gary still volunteers. He loves to chat with residents and help out during the regular bingo games.
Gary says he does not like to talk about his time during the Vietnam War. “I have locked it and thrown the key away,” he said.
He says he only started marching in the Anzac Day parade in the ‘90s at the insistence of an aunt. But, now he enjoys the day and recalls the first time he joined the parade.
“I met blokes I hadn’t seen in years and years. It felt fantastic.”
It is the stories and sacrifice of people like Frank, Gary and countless others that continue to make days like Anzac Day so important to Australians. VMCH remembers and salutes all the men and women willing to sacrifice so much for their country.
Lest we forget.