Frankenheim, Rhön, Thüringa, Germany
Bremerhaven, Germany in late October 1950
Newcastle on 18 December 1950
Greta for 22 months
Cardiff, Lake Macquarie, Hunter region, NSW
Cook at Greta migrant accommodation
Cook at Mater Hospital, Newcastle
I was born in 1924 in Frankenheim in the mountain area of Rhön in Thüringa. I had two brothers and three sisters. My maiden name was Almalina Hohmann. My husband’s name was Zygmunt Paczynski.
After the war broke out, I was enlisted in the land army. The date was 2 September 1939 and I worked there for 12 months. I was 15 years old. We started working in the fields at about six o’clock in the morning and we came home to the farm camp at about seven o’clock [at night]. We would eat with the farmers. There were about 20 [of us] including my cousin and my girlfriend.
After leaving the farm, I had to look for work and I worked in a fruit shop in Frankfurt am Main. I couldn’t sleep at night with all the bombing so I went home to my parents’ place where we didn’t get bombed at all. Later, though, the employment officer came to my home and I had to leave as they found a job for me in a butcher shop in Meiningen.
After 1941 the German Government made [POWs] sign papers so they could work in the city [and] in 1943, Zygmunt Paczynski, a Polish prisoner-of-war (POW), came to the butcher shop to work. He was assigned as a slave labourer and he lived in a room in the shop. I didn’t take any notice of him as we were not allowed to speak to prisoners-of-war or go out with them. That was a law Hitler made.
He was first a prisoner in Stalag 9 POW camp and I have the card that shows he’s POW number 11673. Then he was transferred to a POW camp of 180 Polish men in Römhild in Thüringa on 2 February 1944. It was near there he worked in a stone quarry with 180 POWs. At the new camp, he worked on a mountain in the quarry.
Zygmunt kept a diary of his time as a POW during the war. He showed it to me when I met him. Whilst at the camp, POWs received a Red Cross parcel in 1940 and Zygmunt kept the crumbs from the communion bread that was in the parcel. He wrapped them in tissue and kept them in his diary. Also in the parcel was a Red Cross Christmas card that was signed by other POWs, and Zygmunt received letters from his parents and brothers while he was in the camps.
Anyway, the lady of the house (butcher shop) gave me tickets to take Zygmunt to the pictures! And that’s when it started. We would only go to the park but somebody must have seen us. One day when I was in the butcher shop a detective came in. I didn’t know he was a detective until he showed me his badge; he wore it under his lapel. It was all pretty scary and what saved me from going to the concentration camp was the fact that the US Army was only 20 kilometres from our city of Meiningen! After that, Zygmunt said, “Pack your bag, we are going in another day or two”.
On 31 May 1945, we were married in the registry office in Meiningen. Zygmunt and I borrowed two bikes and we rode them up the hill to my parents’ place to get permission to marry from my father because I was not yet 21. There was no wedding. We married in the registry office because he was Catholic and I was Lutheran. We had two policemen as witnesses. My mother and father couldn’t come. After the service, my landlady cooked dinner and we had a bottle of wine. We lived there for three months. Later we married in the Catholic Church.
After our marriage, I became a Polish citizen because in Germany when you marry another nationality, you lose your German citizenship and you automatically take the citizenship of your husband. Because of this, the German Government said we had to go into a big Displaced Persons’ (DP) camp called Eisenach. We only stayed there three nights though, because my husband met a US soldier and he told him the better camps were the smaller [ones].
So, my husband went into town and bought a hand wagon and we put our suitcases on and bottles of water. The cook from the Eisenach kitchen got us a tin of Sao biscuits and we walked for three days pulling the cart. It was 77 kilometres from Eisenach to the smaller camp of Fulda [in] Bavaria. We went into the Fulda camp, got a room and organised schools for the kids [there]. Zygmunt [was a school teacher and] taught them Polish and history.
I got pregnant in 1945 and Halina [my daughter] was born in Fulda in 1946 and soon after [the camp] closed. We had to go to Wildflecken camp where Zygmunt worked as a police inspector. There were thousands and thousands [of people] there. Later, though, a lot of people went home to Poland, Russia and to France. We got a room, sharing with another couple and a single man. Later we had our own room. There was a single man who lived in the next barrack and when I had leftover food, I asked him if he wanted them. Once when it was my birthday, he came with this beautiful painting of red poppies. He painted it himself. I still have it. We stayed for five years in the [DP] camps.
In 1950, we had to make up our minds whether we stayed in Germany or went back to Poland. My husband did not want to go back to Poland with the Communists and so we decided to go to America. But it just didn’t work out so we then went to Schweinfurt where there was an Australian Commission. We had to go for medicals [to come to Australia] and a few weeks later, we emigrated. I still have the vaccination certificates! I also have another certificate, which is my husband’s Polish identity card with his thumbprint.
We sailed on the ship SS Roma. It was an Italian ship but it was sailing under the flag of Panama. We never had any Italian food [and] asked, “But where is the spaghetti?” We boarded the ship in Bremerhaven at the end of October 1950. There were 949 immigrants, of these, 259 were children between the age of six months to twelve years. We arrived in Newcastle, Australia on 18 December 1950. My daughter and I had been sick on the ship. Seven weeks it took – nearly as long as Captain Cook to come out here!
My daughter Halina was four-and-a-half but there was kindergarten on the ship [to keep her occupied]. Women had one end of the ship – there were about 300 women – and men had the other end. There were two meal sessions. We sailed to the English Channel and the ship broke down and we sat there for ten hours. We sailed then to Spain to Gibraltar, the Suez Canal and Aden but we couldn’t leave the ship. We went to Colombo, then from Colombo to Fremantle.
We then came straight to Newcastle and the train was there to pick us up but a mistake [was made]; we came [to Newcastle] at six o’clock in the evening but couldn’t [land] until six o’clock the following morning, so we spent another night on the ship.
The train took us to Greta and after that there were trucks to take us to the migrant camp [there]. When we saw the camp, I thought, “Oh no, not another camp!”, because we had just left the Wildflecken camp, but we got used to it. I had only a few words of English; we spoke our language, we went to English classes and I got a job and work. Straightaway I love the weather because we had cold winters where I lived in Germany. And most of the people were friendly.
We were at the Greta camp for 22 months. It was so big and we lived in Block J. We had a tiny room that you could fit two beds and our luggage into. When we first arrived, though, we didn’t have beds, just stretchers, and my husband was a big man; five minutes later, boom, he was on the floor! The sad thing was when we got our luggage, which was one suitcase of our best things, we didn’t have much; everything was gone! All my jewellery had gone. The only thing left was a kitchen clock.
I started work in the camp in March 1951 as a cook. There were ten kitchens. I started work at five o’clock in the morning to cook the breakfast and the lunch. Then there was the afternoon shift that started at eleven and finished at seven in the night. Halina went to the Catholic school, which was across the road from the camp and run by the St Joseph sisters from the Lochinvar Convent. After school, a friend looked after her.
With my first pay, I went shopping to Newcastle on the train. I couldn’t speak English but I went to all these little shops and bought things. I didn’t know the money and when [the shopkeeper] said, “Five shillings and tuppence”, I didn’t know what the tuppence meant, so out came the pound note and I came home with a bag full of silver coins! It was a lovely sense of freedom, though, because for the past five years in Germany we couldn’t buy anything or couldn’t go much anywhere as everything was smashed up.
My husband was also a cook at the camp but he then worked in Scone [in the Upper Hunter Valley] at a big water reserve, maybe the Glenbawn Dam. He only worked there for six weeks. He then worked for the railway at the Broadmeadow station in Newcastle. He had a room there in the barracks while I was still at Greta, working and saving money.
We bought a block of land in Cardiff, in Lake Macquarie near Newcastle in 1953, and built half a house with friends of his. We had one-and-a-half bedrooms, a kitchen and a laundry and bathroom combined. We had our son in 1954. After living nine years in Cardiff, we sold the place and purchased a home in Cooks Hill, Newcastle.
In 1957, when my son Richard was only three-and-a-half years old and Halina was 11, I got a job in the kitchen at the Mater Hospital, Waratah. I didn’t want to go and my husband said, “Go to work for 12 months and save the money and we build more on”. So I did, but I worked there for 21 years! I left in 1980 because my husband had to retire, he was 65, and I retired too, otherwise, he couldn’t get the pension.
Zygmunt founded the Polish Association in Newcastle in 1952 and established Polish schools in Cardiff, Newcastle, Maitland and Greta. He taught at all the schools during his working life as well as organising cultural and fundraising events. The Polish Association had a small house in Islington, which it sold and purchased a house with tennis court in Broadmeadow and built a nice, big building as a cultural centre. My husband gave up teaching Polish school on his retirement.
I went home three times to Germany [after migrating]. I am very happy in Australia. I have never been disappointed.