People often ask me if I was born in Canada. I was born in Toronto on July 28, 1952. I suppose I am often asked this question because of my last name. I was taunted mercilessly as a child because of my last name.
My father, Wincenty Czernis, was born in Poland. He studied theatre at Jagellonian University in Krakow. He was also on the university boxing team. He told me one day soldiers came into the gym where he was training and loaded all the young men onto waiting buses. They were being conscripted into the Polish Armed Forces.
My father completed his required number of tours with the Polish Air Force and then travelled to Scotland with some other fly-boys, where he flew many more missions. When I asked him why he travelled to Scotland and continued to fight, he told me the following story.
His parents had some land near Zakopane. They had been secretly contacted by an underground organization that was helping Jews escape from Nazi-occupied Poland. My grandparents agreed to help, arranging shelter as the need arose in several large barns on their property. In most cases those fleeing for their lives would be in transit, and would only need food and a safe haven for one night.
But some of the neighbours became afraid. One day during a surprise raid, German soldiers marched into my grandparents' kitchen. My great-grandmother Eugenia was slicing loaves of bread, helping her son who was preparing meat and cheese for sandwiches. The soldiers immediately realized the family was preparing a meal for many people. They searched the house and found no one other than my grandparents and great-grandmother.
They then searched the barns. Minutes later, the soldiers returned to the kitchen, and without asking any questions, shot and killed my grandparents. They then turned to Eugenia and said: "Tell others what you have seen." Eugenia lived another 20 years. She did tell the story, saying how proud she was that her son and daughter-in-law had made a difference during the war. My father was also motivated to try to make a difference, so he joined the Polish Squadrons that flew with the RAF.
Wincenty taught me about courage. I will share with you one of his life lessons. "Always speak out when you see corruption, regardless of possible consequences," he would say. "Those in power hope they will be so greatly feared that we will keep silent. The only thing to fear is silence."
He would also say that if I behaved in a cowardly manner, I would have to face Eugenia in the morning. Apparently I resemble her. "How can you not take a stand?" he would ask. "There is no danger here compared with what your ancestors endured."
Eugenia has inspired me to try to be a courageous academic. I think of her whenever I speak out in defense of academic freedom, of faculty governance, or when I am seeking justice for oppressed colleagues and students.
Defending those who have been exploited and protecting negotiated rights can be very lonely work. It helps to remember dynamic people who have helped to shape us. Those who stand up to tyranny are always alone. Yet throughout history there have been many strong-willed individuals. When we stand alone for what is right we join a group of defiant optimists who are not afraid to say "no" to destructive forces. It is my hope that all of us may become members of this prestigious cadre.