Prison camp researched

Eric Sparling
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Frank Jankac was at the armoury in Amherst recently conducting research for a project about Croatian Canadian internees during the First World War. 

AMHERST – John Cvitkovich had no idea. When Frank Jankac called the Springhill resident to tell him his great-grandfather had spent time in a prison in Amherst, it was a complete surprise.

“I really don’t have no bad emotional feelings,” said the man, of the news his ancestor was jailed.

The principle researcher for the Croatian Canadian Internment Project, Frank Jankac, was in Amherst recently visiting the regimental museum at the Col. James Layton Ralston Armoury to see records of the camp sited at Park and Hickman streets from April 1915 to September 1919.

The most famous resident of the camp was Leon Trotsky. Less famous, but of more interest to Jankac, are Croatian immigrants invited to Canada to work but then imprisoned when war broke out.

The investigator is following up hundreds of individual stories, at least one of which concerned a prisoner in Amherst. Jankac was in touch with Cvitkovich about Mile Cvitokovich. The researcher said there was a stigma attached to having been interred. Certainly, it was unknown to John or his mother that Mile had been incarcerated – family history someone decided not to pass down.

The initial output from the project will be a book, with an online presence to follow. The research is being sponsored by the Canadian Croatian Chamber of Commerce and the Croatian Canadian Library.

Jankac said there’s still much to be learned about the human experiences resulting from the internment program – the perspectives of the affected immigrants, even the experiences of the guards. He also mentioned the labour glut that struck Canada prior to the First World War, seeming to imply there may have been a connection between an excess of immigrant labourers in the country and attitudes towards those immigrants.

John Cvitkovich said he had an obituary of Mile, lost in a fire, that said he could read and write 13 languages and speak nine.

“I’m trying to help Frank…,” said the great-grandson.

The father of three said he doesn’t have time to personally conduct genealogical research but he is interested in Jankac’s project.

Jankac said about 80,000 foreigners were registered during the war, and thousands were incarcerated.

Ray Coulson, curator of the armoury’s museum, said about 250 people worked as guards at the local camp, and prisoners worked on local projects, including clearing land around the experimental farm and building the pool that was a feature for many decades in Dickey Park.

Twitter: @ADNsparling

Organizations: Canadian Croatian Chamber of Commerce, Croatian Canadian Library

Geographic location: AMHERST, Canada, Dickey Park

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