Prof Witnessed Century’s Global Conflicts

As a boy, Jan Solecki lived among the 10,000 Poles the Russians had sent to Manchuria to construct a railway - photo by Martin Dee
As a boy, Jan Solecki lived among the 10,000 Poles the Russians had sent to Manchuria to construct a railway – photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 12 | Dec. 6, 2007

By Lorraine Chan

In 1958, 50 years after B.C. legislation brought UBC into being, Jan Solecki landed in Vancouver, having already seen firsthand many of the critical political events of the 20th century. Today at 88, the associate professor emeritus is celebrating a 50-year association with UBC and is hard at work on his memoirs.

“I arrived at UBC when there were lots of changes happening in the Soviet Union and in China,” says Solecki.

Because of his Slavic background, roots in China, and survival of a brutal Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, Solecki — also a UBC alumnus — was able to give students and colleagues a more penetrating look at the Eastern Bloc and East Asia during a time when Cold War tensions were at their height.

Solecki is fluent in Russian, Polish and English, and can speak some Mandarin. “As a boy, I learned to read about 1,500 Chinese characters.”

Between 1964 and 1984, Solecki taught Russian language and Chinese history at UBC.  He specialized in the economics of the forest industry, fisheries and fuel and power in the USSR and China. His particular combination of language skills and sleuthing abilities  earned him acclaim. During the mid-1960s, the Faculty of Forestry asked Solecki to produce a study on Soviet forestry practices, a pivotal paper that further boosted his academic career.

“Canada was especially worried that Russia would flood the world market with wood products,” explains Solecki. “My figures indicated they wouldn’t, that their forestry sector and economy were in trouble.”

Solecki’s findings proved correct and he became somewhat of a guru. “I was invited all over North America and Europe to present my views.”

Solecki says he had no secret weapon except to mine publicly available data found in Soviet newspapers and Soviet and Polish international trade publications.

“I could generate any sort of information I needed from journals like The Communist and the Planning Economist,” explains Solecki. “These would list in great detail the type of commodity, quantity and trade value with all partner countries.”

Solecki was born in Inner Mongolia to a Russian mother and a Polish father. Their famly lived among 10,000 Poles the Russians had sent to Manchuria to construct a railway.
Growing up, Solecki and his two brothers boarded at a Polish high school in the nearby province of Heilongjiang. In 1939, Solecki won a Polish scholarship to study in Hong Kong where he soon mastered English. “I was to become an East Asia expert.” However, the scholarship evaporated when Germany invaded Poland in 1939.

More tragic news followed in 1941 when Japan attacked Hong Kong the same day it bombed Pearl Harbour on December 7. Solecki joined the Hong Kong Volunteers as part of the British Royal Artillery and fought on the frontlines as a gunner. After 17 days, Hong Kong fell and Solecki was captured. He was a Japanese prisoner of war between the ages of 22 and 26, first at Hong Kong’s Shamshuipo camp for two years and then another two years doing forced labour near Nagoya in Japan.

Solecki was starved and beaten. Standing 5’10,” he saw his weight plummet from 170 to 120 lbs. The day of liberation stands out in his mind. Solecki and his fellow prisoners had been herded back from the factory and were locked in their barracks. Japanese soldiers stationed themselves outside with machine guns trained on the POW barracks and listened closely to a radio broadcast of Japan’s surrender.

“We learned later that if the Emperor of Japan hadn’t surrendered, the guards would have then opened fire on us.”

The loving regard with which Canadian POWs held their country intrigued him, excplains Solecki. “Canada attracted me — the idea of wide-open spaces, forests and plains, which are very much like Manchuria where I grew up.”

After the war, Solecki completed a BComm from the London School of Economics. He found a position with the British Foreign Office in London “reading and translating all kinds of documents and articles” Solecki stayed in that job for 10 years, with postings that included Switzerland and Germany. Then one day after visiting in Canada House in London, Solecki made up his mind: it was time to make a new life in a new country. He traveled to Vancouver ahead of his wife and children to scout opportunities.

At UBC, Solecki found a teaching assistant job. Prof. James St.-Clair Sobell offered him a position helping out with Russian language classes at the Dept. of Slavonic Studies. At the same time, Solecki started his MA in economics at UBC, which he completed in 1962.

Soon after, he moved to the University of Washington (UW) where he taught Polish literature. There, he embarked on his PhD studies in economics. But lack of money scuppered his plans.

“I couldn’t afford to write my doctoral thesis. I needed to earn an income since I was supporting a family with three children.”

St. Clair-Sobell came to the rescue and told Solecki he could have a tenured position teaching Russian language if he came back to UBC. “So I did. I returned from Seattle with another masters degree in economics, not a PhD.”

As a professor, Solecki was appreciated for his dry wit, dramatic stories and playing Russian songs in his classes. However, no one mistook him for a pushover. “Because of the life I’ve had, I had no trouble being firm with students. I told them, ‘You can’t feed the wolf with fairytales.’ Stories are fine, but one must work.”

Solecki is currently writing his memoirs. His earlier publications include Escape to Life (1998), a novel set in the 1930s about guerillas that liberate 1,000 Chinese prisoners from a Japanese experimental medical camp and Bitter Cherries (2002), a collection of short stories based on his wartime experiences.