Victor Okinczyc at his West Seattle home.
An Untold Life: Victor Okinczyc
By Maggie Nicholson
Victor Okinczyc swung his leg over the top of the horse. He studied the road with quick, brown eyes. Victor and his brother Henryk often rode their horses into the town of Stolpce to run errands for the family. They lived with their parents Anthony and Sabina on a landed estate in Eastern Poland. Sabina was an entertainer. She wore jewelry and had swards of relatives and friends over.
Victor and Henryk were close as boys. “Damn my brother,” Victor grumbled later in life. “He did well in school without even trying.” Henryk came home from parties and shed his suits, leaving them strewn in patches across the hardwood floor. Victor was his shadow, stooping to bunch the fabric in his arms. He hung and swept the suits flat with his hands.
Victor attended an industry high school in Poland, a milling faculty. The town Stolpce ran along the Niemen River. The river was used to transport lumber. It is believed that the name of the town comes from the Russian word ‘stolb,’ meaning pole. In Stolpce there is a marshy spot along the river where men tethered their barges and lumber floats to sleep overnight.
Victor went to the barbershop daily to have his beard and hair refined. Jewish residents ran nearly every business in Stolpce. The barber, shoemaker, butcher, and grocer were all Jewish. Then came war.
In 1939, Victor joined General Kleeberg’s army as a commanding officer in Brzec. On October 2nd of the same year, he was taken prisoner and brought to Oflag, a camp in Murnau Germany built to house Polish officers.
He collected potato peelings from German officers to make hot soup. He watched friends go insane. Often they played music together, huddled in a group with old instruments.
When Americans liberated the camp, Soviet political police had already killed Victor’s brother and father. Henryk was a commander of the regional structure of resistance movement near Warsaw. In November of 1944, he was arrested and taken to a prison in Russia. In 1956, Henryk’s wife received information that Henryk had died in 1945, in prison in Orsza. Russian archives are still closed to his family, who continue to hunt for details.
Victor did not want to return to Poland. Before he was taken prisoner, he had been shot in the stomach and foot. His wounds were tended to, but had festered. He was driven to a hospital in London.
A nurse named Nora Smith was working at the hospital. The two fell in love. In 1950 Victor moved to Argentina, and Nora followed. They married, and in 1951 had their first and only child: a daughter named Ann, whose first language was Spanish. When she was three, Ann and her mother left for Canada.
After living for a time in Argentina and Italy, Victor came to West Seattle, where he made a permanent home. He worked overnight shifts at the Fischer Flour Mills. He enjoyed political conversation. He was conservative and read The Seattle Times. During his younger years in Washington he vacationed in Soap Lake. Soap Lake then was a bustling tourist town. Its medicinal lake, high in mineral content, served as epicenter. The name for the town comes from ‘Smokiam,’ a Native American word meaning ‘healing waters.’ Vacationers liked to sit on the banks of the lake, caking soil on their arms and legs. They coated their skin with mud, painting themselves brown. Victor never forgot about the town, and when he had saved enough, purchased a summer home there. By that time, the town had deflated; it was calm and empty.
Victor loved hot drinks. It was part of his culture growing up. When he grew too old for coffee, he switched to heated chocolate. In the lobby of his home were packets of cocoa in a basket. He stuffed them into his pockets until cocoa powder was gleefully brimming from the tops.
Victor turned 100 years old on February 10th of this year. He was present and aware at his party. Born in 1913, he died this past June.
Much of Victor’s long life remains a mystery. In the 1930’s, he had a small brown suitcase with documents and personal items; family members speculate a small gun was inside as well. When he was taken prisoner, he left it with a stranger, a woman who agreed to keep it for him. He did not want the Germans to have it. Victor returned to new, communist Poland, an older man. He had forgotten about the suitcase and the kind, unknown woman who accepted it. When he did remember and narrate the story, both the name of the woman and the place they met had been forgotten. The woman and suitcase were two more phantoms in the brown rains of history: corroded snapshots of the 100 exceptional years of Victor Okinczyc.
Special thanks to Victor’s granddaughter, Sabina Diniakos, and her family still living in Poland, for piecing together the information that made this portrait of history possible.
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