Benefiting from the large Polish-Canadian population in Toronto, Branch 20 grew quite large and active, peaking at 660 members in 1961.
Membership has naturally declined and new members have been hard to find as the center of Polish-Canadian cultural life shifted to the suburb of Mississauga following the huge influx of Polish immigrants from the Solidarity era. Despite this, Branch 20 is undergoing a revival. Set in the heart of one of Canada's premier cities, the branch is now learning to take advantage of its location to re-energize the Polish presence in Toronto.
The branch has its roots in the Information and Aid Office opened by the Head Executive Board in Toronto in the second half of 1948. It provided information about employment and helped the arriving combatants to find apartments, etc. The branch was formed on October 3, 1948, at a founding meeting on the premises of Branch #1 of the Polish National Union, which was where the first monthly meetings of the branch were to take place.
Right from the start, the branch hosted meetings with famous Polish politicians, military leaders, and artists. Just a few weeks after it was formed, the branch, together with SWAP and the Royal Canadian Legion, played host to General Wladyslaw Anders. It was also a member of the organizing committee responsible for planning events on Soldier's Day and it immediately began to take part in annual ceremonies at the military cemetery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, which contains graves of Polish soldiers who were members of General . Haller's "Blue Army" during World War One. An assembly and a picnic were attended by the former commander-in-chief of the Polish Armed Forces in the West, General Kazimierz Sosnkowski.
Seeking a better fit for its needs, the branch changed the location of its meetings to the parish hall at St. Stanislaw Church and again, in early 1950, to Branch #114 of SWAP, at 783 College Street. The branch continued to stay busy. A large shipment of books from England gave the library a boost. Aid to the Polish War Invalids was of great importance and the proceeds from the Soldier's Day picnics were donated to this cause. The branch eventually established the Invalids Aid Committee which co-operated with the General Emil Przedrzymirski Fund. Branch finances were secured with the establishment of the Combatants Credit Union in February, 1953.
In addition to commemorating national holidays, the branch also organized social and cultural events. In co-operation with the Home Army branch, the first events organized were the Fall Ball and the New Year's Eve Ball. Melchior Wankowicz, the famous Polish writer and war correspondent, appeared at ceremonies commemorating the Battle of Monte Cassino. On September 11, 1954, General Stanislaw Maczek was the guest of honour at ceremonies commemorating battles fought by the Polish Armed Forces in the West.
Other guests included Generals "Harry" Crerar and Guy Simonds, who commanded Canadian troops in World War Two (which included the 1st Polish Armoured Division, a unit within the 1st Canadian Army in northern Europe).
On September 15, 1956 the branch purchased, and assumed ownership of, an old home at 206 Beverley Street. Quite a bit of funds were then required to clean up and renovate the run-down building and most of the work was done by the combatants themselves. Thanks to their hard work the building was ready for use by the end of the year and the first New Year's Eve Ball held there netted $800.00 for the branch. Over 320 guests danced to three different bands in three dance halls.
With a large new building, fourteen Polish organizations eventually became tenants at 206 Beverley Street, all paying very low, or no, rent. Social and cultural activities increased and now included a Spring Ball, Paratroopers Ball, Noc Swietojanska, Wieczor Lwowski, Barborka, as well as children's' events and lectures open to the community. Thursday nights became social nights for members. By 1957 the branch had over 500 members and its own Women's Auxiliary. Membership increased to 660 members by 1961. Included in this total were 492 members of former infantry units, 51 air force pilots, 43 Home Army soldiers, 29 paratroopers, 9 sailors, 23 family members and 13 supporting members.
In 1964, General Bor-Komorowski visited the branch, participating in the celebrations commemorating the "Anniversary of Great Battles." This was a major event. The General inspected the honour guard of Polish combatants in front of City Hall and then attended the banquet at the Royal York Hotel. The banquet was also attended by Archbishop F. Pocock, the mayor of Toronto and representatives of the provincial and federal governments.
The Branch received its colours in 1965. Designed by the oldest member combatant, Mr. Alfred Birkenmajer, a former soldier of the 1st Brigade in the Polish Legions during World War One, the colours were blessed in a special ceremony held on November 27, 1965.
The most spectacular event of 1966, celebrating the millennium of Poland's Christianity, was the commemoration of "Polish Armed Forces Day" on August 13. A parade marched from City Hall to Queen's Park in which 30 colours and an honour guard, accompanied by two marching bands - one Polish and one Canadian - took part. In front of City Hall the roll call of the dead was read. The following day a picnic was held, attended by 1,300 people.
An exhibit dedicated to the Polish Armed Forces was held at City Hall from October 8 to October 24, 1967. The opening of the exhibit was attended by General Guy Simonds, General Klemens Rudnicki and Toronto mayor Dennison.
After much work, a monument was erected to Sir Casimir Gzowski on the Lake Ontario shore. The unveiling took place at an official ceremony in 1968 with the honour falling to Canada's Prime Minister, The Right Honourable Pierre Elliot Trudeau.
The Millennium Fund (established in 1962) became an important organization to the Polish community. Many members devoted much of their time to its success. Bingo nights, held regularly for 20 years, raised $1,114,000 for the fund.
Once again, by the late 1960s, Branch 20 had outgrown its location. After much deliberation, it was decided to demolish the current home and build anew. This was completed by late 1973 and the official opening took place on December 8, on the 25th anniversary of the branch. The building served the entire Polish-Canadian community in Toronto and soon became known as the Polish Cultural Centre. Many events and commemorations took place during the 70s, 80s and 90s. The mortgage on the new construction, which had placed a strain on the operations, was finally discharged in 1987. Only after the turn of the century did the membership and activity begin to decline precipitously. Plans for the future will necessarily include a change from a veteran's organization into mainly a civilian one. However, the younger generation will never forget who built the organization.