Valley Lives - Alexander Topolski

The following article first appeared in "The Low Down to Hull and Back News" in the August 27, 2014 issue. Reprinted with permission.

Author found fascination in WWII prison experience

by Joel Balsam

As a Polish prisoner of war in the Soviet Union during World War II, Alexander Topolski faced treatment that not many people can say they have had to endure. In 1939, at the age of just 16, Topolski was captured by Red Army forces in Romania and was thrown into one prison camp after another, where he faced extreme starvation for two years. Somehow, despite his age, Topolski was resilient. During the ordeal, he stayed "upbeat and hopeful", according to his wife, Joan. Actually, he told his wife of nearly 50 years that, later in life, "he found the whole thing fascinating."

Valley Lives
Alexander Topolski, born Boguslaw Aleksander Topolski, died on Aug. 14 in the Wakefield Hospital. Photo courtesy Alexa Topolski.

"He said if it wasn't for the terrible hunger, he'd do it all over again," added Joan.

It was this genuine fascination and intrigue about what happened during the era that prompted Topolski to tell his story.

At first, Topolski didn't want to write a book about his experience in Soviet prison bebecause he didn't know if other people would be as fascinated as he was about the details. But those details are what attracted stellar reviews and pushed his book, 'Without Vodka', from being an independently published work (his wife was pretty much responsible) to getting attention from a mid-sized Canadian publisher, then an American publisher, and finally landing in Poland, where it was translated into his native language to much acclaim.

Many reviews of the book highlight Topolski's descriptions of the intriguing people he met in prison, which included postal workers and farmers along with pickpockets and thieves. The prisoners would do what they could to survive and try to fight off boredom. Joan recounted a story that Topolski would often tell at dinner parties about one prison where the inmates, contrary to the rules, made a deck of cards out of cigarette packages. When guards heard them playing and laughing, they opened the door to the one-room prison that contained 50 to 60 prisoners to look for the cards, but couldn't find them. This happened again and again, with guards stripping the inmates naked and searching in every nook and cranny, but they couldn't figure it out. As the punch line of the true story goes, one of the inmates - who was a skilled pickpocket - would wrap the cards in an old sock and slip them into the huge overcoat of one of the soldiers. After the search and when the soldiers were ready to leave, he would tap the soldier on one shoulder and grab the cards back with the other hand. Funny stories like these made both his book and his presence at dinner parties very popular.

"People really liked him. He was very warm," said Topolski's daughter, Alexa, on the phone with the Low Down from Chelsea. "He loved being with people and telling stories," echoed Joan.

After the war, Topolski travelled to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Iraq, learning the languages of the places he visited along the way (by the end of his life, he knew eight to ten languages). After completing high school at the Polish Army's Camp Barbara in then-Palestine, he went to school in Manchester, England to avoid returning to communist Poland. He did a number of odd jobs, including painting houses and washing dishes, but eventually found a career in architecture.

In 1957, on a trip through Canada on the way to Australia, he visited an old Polish friend in Chelsea and decided to stay. "He liked the idea of being out where there were trees and the forests... and the river," said Joan.

She and her husband met at a party in Chelsea, but she was married at the time to someone else. When Joan got divorced, Topolski showed up at her house and swooped in. "I guess he liked the look of me and then he heard my husband took off and left me, and I was a divorcee on my own, [and] he came around to see me," she said.

The two married and remained in Chelsea, where they raised Joan's son, Rory, from her first marriage, and then had Alexa.

Topolski was an architect for Public Works Canada and was responsible for designing the Wakefield post office. According to Joan, he proposed two designs, but Public Works didn't like them and wanted a third. "He quickly did the third off the cuff and they chose [it] and he said 'I hope it works out okay'."

In retirement, Topolski liked to draw, read books, follow the news (including the Low Down), listen to classical music, and travel, especially in Italy and Greece. As a religious Catholic, he would attend mass at churches all over the world in whatever language and liked the fact that the ceremonies were more or less the same wherever he was.

Topolski died on Aug. 14 at the Wakefield Hospital at the age of 91.

Besides his wife, daughter, and stepson, Topolski leaves behind two grandchildren, a niece and nephew, and a sister in Poland. His son, Greg, died of cancer six years ago.

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