Genoa, Italy in October 1948
Sydney on 9 November 1948
Bathurst for 1 year
Ourimbah, Central Coast, NSW
I was born in 1936 in Kharkiv in Ukraine. My maiden name was Halyna Haran. My husband’s name is Wolodymyr (Bill) Simanowsky. We have three daughters, Natalie, Anna and Tania.
I had a very happy life in Ukraine. I was the youngest child in the family; the only girl and everybody loved me. Father was a geologist and he travelled lot. Mother was a primary school teacher.
Things were wonderful until the [Second World] war started although I didn’t quite understand what the war was. Eugene, my brother, was, I think, 16. I must have been about five years old. There were rumours that boys of Eugene’s age might be taken because if the war lasted a very long time they could be sent as soldiers when they got older.
Mum was very desperate and she didn’t know what to do. That was the first time I saw my mother pray. People in USSR were not allowed to pray openly; you could be sent to Siberia or lose your job. So she took this icon and put it on a chair and took me and said, “Come and get on your knees”, and she started praying.
The icon is painted on lime timber with egg tempura. It belonged to my grandmother. In Ukraine when a girl gets married, her parents bless her with an icon. My grandmother was blessed with this icon and then she blessed my mother with it. My mother gave it to me and so I have cherished it ever since. In some places, the paint has peeled off. In others, there are these little bits of paper where one of Mum’s sisters, my Aunt Lydia, stuck on a pretty paper pattern. The icon originally had a very lovely silver frame with etching and some embossing but when there was famine in Ukraine in 1933, my grandmother sold the silver frame to buy some food.
With the German front coming, my father and brother hid under our house. At night time, my father and Eugene used to come out and go to the nearest little forest and dig for acorns. Mum used to peel them, add a little flour and then boil them. That is what we had to eat. I don’t know exactly how long they were hidden. It must have been about three or four months.
After some months the Soviet Army started advancing and taking over the place so my father said to my mother to take [me], go somewhere further back and he would join us later. My brother had already been picked up by the Germans while walking along the footpath in the city and taken away to dig ditches. One day he and another young fellow escaped and hid behind a fence. My parents had to send Eugene away because if he came to us after escaping, the whole family could get shot. Eugene followed us but stayed at a distance because of the risk of being caught. There were many thousands of Ukrainians moving west at that time, away from the battlefront, the “grapevine” allowed us to keep contact with him. My father was not with us then but joined us later.
We travelled to a place called Vinnytsia, a very beautiful, cultured place. We didn’t know that Hitler’s hideout was there and that he planned to spend some time in the bunkers.
There was a factory in Vinnytsia where they used to make tinned chicken food for German soldiers. Mum went there for a job because she needed work. They gave her some three-cornered scarves to keep her hair back from her face. She only worked there for two or three weeks because things changed again after Father joined us and we had to travel further back into Poland and Germany.
Mum made a little blouse for me out of one of those three-cornered scarves. Because my parents really loved Ukraine and the colours on Ukrainian flag are yellow and blue, she embroidered little yellow roses and blue leaves on the sleeves. Not only does that little blouse remind of my childhood, it reminds me of lovely half autumny/summer days in Vinnytsia where it was made. And, of course, it reminds me of my wonderful mother who loved embroidery on everything.
We travelled further and further away from the battlefront and came into Germany. Father found a job in Breslau, a very nice little university city. But, the Soviet Army was coming closer and closer and we started travelling back towards the English zone. We ended up in a place called Hanover in a Ukrainian Displaced Persons’ camp called Lysenko after the Ukrainian composer, Mykola Lysenko. Eugene joined us there. I can remember that he somehow got a bicycle and came to the camp. I think he was about 17 by then.
We had a wonderful ballet school there. We had a wonderful teacher who was the children’s main ballet teacher in Kiev before the war – her name was Mrs Shut. She taught us properly; very, very strict and disciplined.
On the train journey from Breslau to Hanover, we’d been bombed and all our things got lost including Mum’s basket with her precious things in. Mum was very upset about it but the main thing was that we were alive. About a week later, we were told that there was some luggage from the train and [to] come and check it out. We did and there was Mum’s basket.
My mother believed in dreams and the strange thing was that the night before she’d said, “You know I dreamt of the basket, and that something good is going to happen to us. I dreamt that I opened the basket and there was my mother’s icon and the cup was there too”. And there it was and when she opened it, nothing was broken.
This beautiful big cup and saucer has been in our family for as long as I can remember. I don’t know if it was further back in the family or not. These are all these things I should have asked my mother, Taisa, while she was still alive!
I think we must have spent about four years in the camp because we left Ukraine in 1943. I have kept my medical and x-ray certificates from 1948 and also my mother’s identity certificate no 2716 from the Lysenko camp.
My father, being a geologist, knew a lot about Australia and one of his lecturers at university had been to Australia and kept telling his pupils about the place. My parents decided to go there. I was 11 at that time. My parents, Eugene and I went through every possible test just to come to Australia. We had medical and psychiatric tests! One day we were told to go to a place called Fallingpostel, which was a transition camp. From there, we were taken by train to Genoa in Italy. In Genoa we were put on a ship called Castel Bianco and came to Sydney, Australia. The date was 9 November 1948.
We’d only brought what we could carry and it wasn’t very much. Mum’s things were still in the woven basket and father had two suitcases. I would have loved to have brought my teddy bear and my parents their books. My parents have always loved books; we had a very good library but we could not carry them with us.
We did bring with us an 1897 ruble that was given to me at birth. This was a family tradition where my grandmother kept enough of these coins to be given to each of her granddaughters. The sweetest, kindest nuns gave this medallion to me when I lived with them for 18 months during the war. I was six years of age then.
The tablecloth here is very special. The Lysenko camp was under English occupation; when Princess Elizabeth of England was getting married in November 1947, the ladies in the camp decided to make her a little present. They got together and found some linen and chrome yellow cotton and a Ukrainian lady designed a traditional Ukrainian pattern for the cloth. They all, including my mother, embroidered a beautiful little tablecloth for Princess Elizabeth. My mother copied that pattern, found some linen and cotton and reproduced Elizabeth’s tablecloth.
This embroidered towel or rushnyk is over 100 years old. It is made from handwoven cloth. The towel or the rushnyk has a long tradition of ritual in Ukraine. Mothers would have their daughters embroidering these towels from the age of six. Its uses vary. For instance, when you lower a coffin into the grave you cover it with a rushnyk. When a son goes out to war or leaves home the mother embroiders a towel for him. In the house, the rushnyk is put around the icons and around the windows to ward off evil spirits. When a girl is offered marriage, she presents her future fiancé with a rushnyk if she agrees to marry him; if she doesn’t like him, she gives him a pumpkin!
The first time I saw the coloured lights of Sydney I thought it was like a fairy tale. During the war in Germany, there were no lights at all, least of all coloured lights. The ship came in to Sydney at night and we slept over. The next morning we walked down the steps from the ship and I stepped onto the soil and I thought, “May we all be very happy and may we have lots of luck”.
From Sydney we went to Bathurst migrant camp by train. I slept right through so I don’t remember seeing much of Australia on the way. We were put into these corrugated iron barracks. Father had to work out a two year contract and went straight away to work at Sydney Water Board. Mum went to work in the kitchen at the camp washing dishes and Eugene, knowing English, became an English teacher in the camp.
We spent one year at the migrant camp and as soon as Father and Eugene had enough money saved, they bought a farm in Ourimbah, on the Central Coast. It had three hills looking over a lovely waterhole. Although it was very beautiful, it was very difficult to work.
I went to Gosford High School, but I stayed there only one year because Father got a job as a geologist with the Warragamba Dam building project so I started going to Penrith High School. That’s where I did my Leaving Certificate and I got a scholarship to do art to become an art teacher. It was like a dream come true!!
I got away from Mum and Dad to live in Sydney and my life was perfect until I got a teaching job at Gosford High School and had to go back to live with my mum, my very, very strict mum.
I had met my husband Bill at a dance. We started going out together and we got married in 1961 in Gosford. He was working in Newcastle as an engineer at BHP and when I came to Newcastle with him, my first job was at Gateshead High School. It was a brand new, beautiful school and the pupils were wonderful.
We have lived in New Lambton Heights in Newcastle all our married life. We built this house and have three lovely daughters and now have four grandchildren.
Bill and I do the Ukrainian radio in Newcastle on a Monday and it takes a lot of time to prepare, as you have to make it as interesting as possible. We have travelled through the whole of Europe, America and Canada and we have been four times to Ukraine. Bill still has his relatives there, he has some cousins but I don’t have anybody. My mother did have six sisters but I can’t find them.
I am grateful to my parents for having chosen Australia. Life in Australia is absolutely wonderful.