Myslowice, Silesia, Poland
Trieste, Italy on 21 January 1959
Sydney on 3 March 1959
Mother’s home in Mt Pritchard, SW Sydney.
Carer and domestic worker at Chipping Norton, SW Sydney.
Factory and laboratory worker at Cablemakers in Liverpool and laboratory worker at Comalco in Yennora – both in SW Sydney; Manager at Polish Club, Ashfield in Sydney’s inner west.
I was born on 13 June 1937 in the Polish town of Myslowice. I grew up in Chelm Wielkie, which is about seven kilometres from the notorious Auschwitz prison. The area was in Silesia, which had a wealth of coal mines that made it attractive to the Germans and, later, the Russians.
When I was born, Poland was just two years off being invaded by the Germans, which was the catalyst for the commencement of World War Two. For the next six years we were under German control. Towards the end of the war the Russians invaded Poland and we lived under their rule.
I had virtually no childhood that I care to remember. My schooling was disrupted and my family absolutely fell apart. I had a brother, Fred, and my mother and father who were both Polish. When the Germans invaded they took my father into the German Army and later he lost his leg as a result of serving in the war. He did not choose to join the Germans but the alternative would have been to be sent to a concentration camp or worse. When the Russians invaded Poland they did not want the burden of having a Pole who was an amputee, so they sent him back to the Germans in East Germany where he was hospitalised.
It was at this time that my mother and Fred disappeared and moved to Germany. I was just eight years of age. My mother left me with a girlfriend for the weekend saying, “I’ll see you on Monday.” It was not to be for another 15 years as she had other plans and I was not included in them. The Red Cross took me in and my paternal grandmother was found. She was already in her late seventies and did not want a young girl to look after. Later my father’s cousin and her husband took me in and I lived with them until I was 18 years old.
I studied hard and worked in a chemical laboratory in Auschwitz that Hitler had built. One of the by-products of the factory was phenyl, which the Nazis used to inject into the female prisoners so they could not become pregnant.
My mother and Fred migrated to Australia in 1948, but it would be another ten years, [when] I was 18, before she contacted me. I believe she located me through relatives. When we were finally reunited she never at any time mentioned the fact she had deserted me, nor any reason for doing so. She never apologised.
Australia had a shortage of young females and my mother [initially] had a gentleman lined up for me who was a butcher. She told me that he was very rich [and] that there was a house there for us and it had many rooms. I did not tell her that I was getting married. I met George when I was 18 and we were married when I was only 19. Barbara, our first baby, was born 18 months later.
There was no quality of life in Poland at the end of the war. No food. No work. The Russians were not kindly disposed towards my family [because] my father fought with the Germans. George thought that it would be a good idea for the three of us to move to Australia. Nothing was further from my thoughts and I had no intention of leaving Poland. I knew nothing of Australia and had no wish to go anywhere. George said that if we didn’t like it in Australia we could return to Poland. I was most distressed and cried and cried, but he won and plans were made. By then I was once again pregnant.
We were led to believe that my mother would pay all our fares, but when George went to the Immigration Department he found that she had only paid ten pounds. We had to slowly pay back the rest.
We left Poland on 18 January 1959 and travelled by train via Austria to Trieste in Italy. We sailed on 21 January 1959 on an Italian ship named Lloyd Triestino Toscana.
The voyage was a nightmare for me. Firstly, my husband and I were separated, as the women did not share accommodation with the men. Barbara and I shared a cabin with an elderly Polish lady. I was four months pregnant but did not tell anyone for fear of being offloaded. I was ill for the whole voyage, which took longer than anticipated as the Suez Canal had been closed a few years earlier and we had to travel via the Cape of Good Hope [in South Africa].
The passage was 43 days in all and during that time Barbara became very ill. She had not been paid for by my mother, so she did not receive food at first. One day she lost consciousness. I was pregnant and breastfeeding her and it was all too much for her and for me. One of the passengers grabbed her and ran to the captain saying that the child was dying. They started to feed her polenta and other food and she recovered.
I did not like the food at all. We had lots of pasta which I was not used to. I was placed in the ship’s hospital where they fed me large chunks of salt as my fingers and toes were numb. The whole trip was a nightmare and I wished that the ship would turn around and we could go back to Poland.
We arrived in Sydney on 3 March 1959. We must have berthed in Circular Quay because, although it was night time, I could see the Harbour Bridge. I thought that I would have to dress for the occasion so I wore a dark blue taffeta dress. My mother was calling for me and all I could say to her when we finally met was, “Gee, your hands look ugly.” She had always been so elegant and here was this woman with no make-up, no hairdo, just those hard worked hands clutching the fence. I was shocked and perhaps it was my way of hitting back at her for what she had put me through.
My mother and her man friend packed us into a small Volkswagen Beetle. All that we had brought with us was one suitcase. I had some winter clothes as it was snowing in Poland when we left. We had one pillow and Barbara all done up in her little, warm, plush imitation fur coat which we bought in Poland. It cost a lot of money and was bought from an exclusive shop, but we knew that we were going to a new country. We felt that Barbara should have something that no-one else had and that we could manage to buy it.
My first impression of my new homeland was one of shock. I thought my mother’s friend drove badly because he drove on the wrong side of the road. I did not know that was how it was in Australia. The houses were not at all like the two or three storeyed brick and stone ones in Poland – they were just little fibro cottages. I thought that it must be a village. It could not be Sydney. I just could not believe we had come to this!
My mother lived at Mt Pritchard [in south-west Sydney]. The home was on acreage and had a fair sized house with verandas all around. I had hoped that I would hit it off with her but that was not to be. Four days after arriving I miscarried. It was not a good start.
Then Easter came and my mother said, “You have to move out because we are not used to a child”. Where could we go? By then George had obtained a job at Cablemakers in Liverpool and knew some English, but I knew none. She had sponsored us but was getting rid of us. We did not know that she had an obligation to look after us until we were on our feet.
One day George returned from work and told me that he had found a garage in Cabramatta. In the days of post-war migration many migrant families lived in garages or temporary dwellings as they were called. The government allowed them to be built as there was a housing shortage, but it was to be short term only.
We then moved into a garage in St Johns Park. The owner moved his car out of the garage and we moved in. There was a washbasin and electricity but no shower and the toilet was in the yard. My mother gave us a primus but took it back five days later as she said that her electricity was too expensive.
We were directed to a Lithuanian man who owned a shop in Cabramatta, whom we were told would allow us to purchase our essentials and pay them off. And so we bought our tiny electric stove, a jug, blankets and a small fridge. It was April by now and very cold. We had been sleeping in our coats, including Barbara in her little coat. My mother had given us a double bed which all three of us slept in, and a neighbour lent us two blankets. The owners allowed us to have one bath a week [in their home] so Barbara went in first, followed by me, and George bathed last. During the week we washed in the basin, which only ran cold water.
After a few months we found another place in John Street, Cabramatta. This garage was very nice. I thought that I was in a palace because we had our own shower, a little kitchenette, family room and bedroom. Then an elderly Polish man and his wife moved in with us. Now there were four adults and Barbara, and I was pregnant. Soon we had the need to move again.
In the meantime Rose was born. I did not book to have her in a hospital as I thought that it was like in Poland, where we had our babies at home. By the time I found out the procedures, I was seven months pregnant and it was too late for a public hospital. She was born in Wentworthville Private Hospital.
Then the world came crashing down on us. One day when George was at work, some men from Fairfield Council came and forced me to pack up immediately and move out. When George arrived home from work he found me with all our belongings and two children sitting on the footpath. We were told that it was illegal to live in garages. We later found out it was my mother who had reported us.
A family from nearby allowed us to store our furniture in their garage and sleep on their lounge room floor. Two of the boys smoked and so did the parents and we had to live in that room.
Later, a Mr Hyler, who worked with George at Cablemakers, offered us a farm at Chipping Norton, on condition that we looked after the grapes on the property. We had never seen grapes before! We lived there for two years. It was a beautiful old house and had a fuel stove and bath. It had an outside toilet but no sanitary service. We had to dig holes to bury the sewerage. I think that is why the grapes were so tasty.
I still wanted to return to Poland and had so many nervous breakdowns over it. Then we met a beautiful person named Mr Kesler who lived nearby. He was Jewish and had escaped from Vienna. He and his wife had bought a chicken farm at Chipping Norton but could no longer work it when his wife became paralysed. He employed me to go to their place and cook and wash and look after his wife. He would give me eggs and he also employed George to clean out the chook pens. He was such a nice man.
Our son Mark was born in 1962. Mr Kesler advised us to send our children to a Catholic school regardless of the hardship and also to apply for a Housing Commission home. We waited on the list for seven years but finally we had our own home which we opted to buy, not rent. The house was in a suburb of the Green Valley housing project.
We had three bedrooms and were happy, but wanted to get out of Green Valley. There had been some discrimination because we were Polish. On one side there were English people who called us ‘rock choppers.’ I did not know what they meant but discovered that it was because we were Roman Catholic, hence ‘RC.’ They also used to empty their rubbish into our pool. We worked hard and paid the house off in 13 years so that we could sell it and move elsewhere.
I also found a job at Cablemakers. That was to be my first real job and it became necessary as I was finding it difficult to manage two children and [furnish a] house on one wage.
I worked in the factory but later, because of my background, they moved me to the laboratory where I tested the foam they produced. George worked one shift and I would work the opposite one so that there was always someone to look after the children.
My next job came when Cablemakers closed and I was retrenched. It was at Comalco, [an aluminium factory] in Yennora, and once again I worked in the testing laboratory. I was there for 13 years but they sold out and I applied for a job as manager at the Polish Club in Ashfield. Sadly one of the barmen at the Polish Club was murdered and I found that I could no longer work there, so I retired from full-time work.
Now I am President of the Cabramatta Incorporated Polish Association. It is a Polish seniors group and every Wednesday we look after seniors by serving lunches and teaching them gentle exercises. They also play bingo. Some of them have never worked and speak little English, so it is good for them to be with other Polish people.
I would never leave this country. I don’t even want to be buried in Poland. I want to be cremated and stay here. I had no future in Poland but this country gave me one. I sometimes cry and think at times that Australia is going the wrong way. I belong to the Migrant Advisory Committee at Fairfield City Council and sometimes during the discussion I am posed the question, “Do you want everyone to suffer as you did?” My answer is, “No! But don’t serve it on a silver platter.”