MELBOURNE … At least we had arrived at the city of our destination. As we arrived at night, our ship was given a berth only the next morning. Disembarkment started. A lot of noise, hustle, rush, screaming children, everyone was yelling and talking. Some Australian people came to welcome the transport. They brought flowers, books, and sweets for the children. I thought that it was very nice of them to come as they were not officials – just ordinary people who came to welcome the newcomers. I even felt touched although I did not like either of the books which I was unable to read, nor did I like their chocolates as they tasted quite different from the ones in Switzerland or Poland.
We were told to board a train which was waiting for us near the landing docks. In most carriages there were some Australians, just ordinary people, not officials. They told us that they belonged to a club called the “Good Neighbours Club”. It sounded very nice and they seemed friendly people but we had great trouble understanding them as they spoke different English from that which we were taught in Switzerland. My first impression of the Australians was that they were friendly and smiling. They gave children sweets which they called “lollies”. Some of them had flowers in their baskets, flowers which we had never seen before which smelled beautiful but which were not pretty.
As the train went through Melbourne they pointed out buildings and told us that it was such and such, but I was unable to memorise the names. I heard the following conversation between an Australian and one of our immigrants:
Zygmunt and I looked at each other and, holding hands, we whispered: “In all that sea of houses there surely must be one where we would be able to live, just us, just our family.” These houses looked like doll’s houses but people lived there and Zygmunt and I thought that there must be some place for us too. We would manage, we would be able to live in our own house – just us, just our family. All of a sudden, just as if cut off, the houses disappeared and there were only fields which looked sandy yellow and tired, but by now we knew that it was not sand but grass or something else. Here and there were some green trees and also some dead trees which looked rather frightening and unreal. They were oddly shaped stumps and looked the way one could imagine Goya would paint them in one of his bad moods. These trees reminded one of nightmares. I became frightened but then again came a sea of houses just like before but for a shorter distance. One moment there was nothing, just a vast space and then there was a town. It seemed very strange to us. In Europe the towns petered out gradually. There were some meadows and hillocks in between town, sometimes some villages and then a new town began to emerge.
In Switzerland, one could hardly distinguish the end of one town and the beginning of another. In Poland there were more empty spaces between towns than in Switzerland but they were interspersed with villages and cultivated fields and there were never empty spaces for miles and miles on end. We did not see many sheep either. Only some here and there, but no masses of them as we had expected. I thought that the land was probably too poor to support them. I became frightened of this land that we had come to. The children and Bama were also uneasy but Zygmunt was just all eyes and full of curiosity. When he saw our faces he just laughed as usual and said: “You should have known it. We are in the Antipodes. Just imagine how many new things we will see – it will be fantastic. Just look at those dead trees – one could paint them – they are fantastic! Look at all the empty spaces, just look and think – many people will be able to have their homes somewhere there. All of you, just stop looking like wet blankets. Come on kids, look – this is your country, your new beautiful country, and we will all help to explore it and to develop it. You just watch and listen – we all will put in our twopenny worth and help build it up!” The children stopped being frightened and listened to Zygmunt’s fairy tales about what we would all do.
At last we arrived at our destination – the migrant’s camp at Bonegilla Holding Centre. There were many, many barracks but there was no chaos, not even with all of us new arrivals. We were allocated to barracks, Zygmunt to a separate one than Bama, myself and the children. In our barrack there were approximately 20 beds, everything looked clean, there were mattresses on every bed and even blankets although it was very hot. It was 9th December, 1949. We, the Kruszewski family, had arrived in Australia. We came to the land of our choice. Two adults, an old woman and two children. We brought with us a wooden crate, two suitcases and five pounds. From now on it would be up to us to learn their way, their language. It was up to Zygmunt and me to start building up a future for the children. We had managed before; we would manage now.
As we had arrived in the dark and had been unable to see much, we therefore all got up early to look at our now countryside. The first impressions - one did not see a green colour anywhere, even the trees, even the young trees were not green but were greyish and further away it seemed if they had a bluish tinge. No green colour at all, but plenty of yellow; also a lot of dust and sand and plenty of flies and it was so hot. One could feel the sun’s rays on one’s skin, like burning.
The camp was well organized I thought considering the difficulties the management had to face. All these thousands of people had only three things in common – all were D.P.’s (Displaced Persons), all came from Europe and all wanted to start a new life in Australia. We were of different nationalities, we had different religions, we had different likes and dislikes and we spoke different languages. The majority were from Eastern Europe end the Baltic States. The management of the camp provided us with many notice boards in many places and there were also posters. We were told where the classes would be held for English, where the kitchens were and what time the food would be issued, at what time and which block we would have to help with the cooking, cleaning etc. etc. If one could read, one should know where to go, what to do and when to do it. Those who could not read were helped by their countrymen as the announcements were in many languages.
There was plenty of food, including milk and cheese. During the first few days we gulped it all down and even took some back to our barracks because, who knew, their supplies might run out and at least we would have what we had saved. The helpings were unlimited and we were able to take a lot back to our barracks, hiding it under our beds. It may seem funny now but then it was not funny to us. We were even annoyed that in this hot weather the food would not keep and only the bread and cheese could be dried for further use. Officials inspected our barracks and threw the smelly food away, to our great annoyance.
We were provided with reasonable food, with good shelter, with clean bedding and really, life was not bad but of course we did complain. We complained about the sentries at the gates who would not let anyone out without a special permit. We complained about the fatty food as the mutton was swimming in fat, we complained about the toilets which were too far away and we complained about not having any privacy. Even going to the furthermost corner of the camp there still would be no privacy - there were simply too many of us. In the barracks there would be too many people sitting on their beds, there were no walls and all were in the one room – one could not even speak privately. The only privacy one had was in the toilets and the showers.
The men’s showers adjoined ours and one could climb over the separating partition but it was not safe as one could be spotted. It was better to climb under the corrugated partitions but it also was not very good as Zygmunt discovered when his behind was deeply cut by the corrugated iron. We complained about the laughing jackasses, about the possums which frightened us either in the morning or at night. We complained about the heat as it was very hot, even during the night. Our main complaint was about the hospital, especially the one for the children as it was very overcrowded. I complained bitterly myself as first Jurek, and later Roman, got the measles. We were not allowed to visit them but could only look through the windows, but there were many of us mothers and we had to wait our turn. The main trouble was that our European doctors were not allowed to work as doctors, only as sisters and orderlies, and our children were treated only by foreign doctors. Zygmunt tried to reassure us mothers saying that we had unreasonable doubts, that the Australian doctors might be just as good as ours. If their doctors (the Australian doctors) were allowed to practise, they must have been qualified.
Both boys recovered but it was a long wait. I tried not to miss the English lessons – they were really interesting. We were told that during the next few weeks (or maybe months) we should learn as many words as we possibly could so that we would be able to understand basic English. It was not easy. Really interesting was the hour after the English lesson when we were told about Australia, its people, its animals and Australian habits. The stress was put on things which were alien to us, and it was really fascinating. So many things were back to front, so many we could not understand at all, but I tried to memorise as best I could and to pass them on to Zygmunt who, once again, was organizing something or other and was able to attend only some of the classes.
The people, the cars and all the traffic had to keep not to the right but to the left. Although I memorized it, the first time I travelled by bus it was frightening. People did not shake hands as often as we did – only on special occasions. I forget the special occasions quoted. Children started school at the age of 5 and not 7. My thoughts were: Poor kids, that early, and mine would be considered morons. When introduced to people or meeting people, one should say “How do you do?” or “Pleased to meet you.” This was easy to remember but sounded silly as I might not care how they were and I might be indifferent and not pleased, but one could learn to say it easily. If there was a queue, one should stand and wait and not push forward. OK, but I only hoped that the queues were not too long. Australian people were very clean and took a shower every day, and we should also do this. Not on your life! Twice a week was all right; too often might damage the skin. The Australian people were all very honest … this might be propaganda talk. I hoped that they would not start speaking about the super-race and they did not.
There was a 40-hour working week and, if the boss required you to work more than this, he would have to pay special, higher rates for these hours. Very good. I hoped that we would get plenty of extra hours’ work. Australia had unique birds and animals. We had already seen some like the possum, the kookaburra and the Rosella, but the platypus and the kangaroo we had only seen pictures of in books. Australia had many native flowers. When we were shown pictures, I recognized the ones given me on the train in Melbourne – the Boronia. Trees which were not green were different varieties of eucalyptus which I thought were not at all pretty. However, there were also beautiful trees. The wages were not paid monthly but usually weekly or fortnightly – it did not matter as long as there was enough. Australian men shaved every day and even twice a day. How awful for Zygmunt – he never shaved twice daily and during the war years, only every second day. Bad luck, he would have to start shaving more often.
The Australian people were very friendly and helpful. I hoped that they were but, then again, it might just be propaganda. The Good Neighbour Club, IMCA and IWCA were always ready to meet and to assist newcomers. I hoped that it might be true, and time proved it to be so. There were many poisonous snakes, different from the ones we knew in Europe. We should walk carefully through high grass and along rivers and lakes. Will do, and will make sure that the children and Zygmunt know about it. There were many poisonous berries on the shrubs and trees and we should not eat them if we were not certain – certainly. There were poisonous spiders which might even kill. Some of them had a red cross and were easily recognized. They usually hid in dark corners near the walls and toilets, this was awful. We would have to watch carefully. As a result of this lecture, the toilets were much longer “engaged” as others did probably the same as I; before sitting down on the wooden seat, I would examine every nook and crack, and at night I took a torch with me. I went with the children to the toilet and looked carefully to make sure that there were no spiders.
This December, when it should be snowing and cold, Australia was very hot and very dry. No wonder Australians had to have a bath or shower every day. Now we had showers also every day and sometimes a few times a day – and blast the skin! One day while standing in the queue for a meal, a neighbour from my barrack called me, asking me to go back quickly as Roman was crying and having tantrums. I grabbed the children’s milk, cheese and bread and ran back. Roman was lying on the ground, hugging a small tree and sobbing. Sobbing, he told me that the tree was very thirsty and needed a drink but there was no water. I tried calming him down but to no avail, and with each minute he became more hysterical. In desperation, I brought his milk (which he loved, very much) and asked him if I should give his milk to the tree.
I did not ask Jurek to share his milk with Roman and only after a few hours did I give Roman water, all the time waiting to see if he would ask for his milk. He never did ask for it. My darling Roman, how I loved you for your compassion for that tree. I also remember the time when you cried uncontrollably whilst in Bern because “a baby ant lost her mother” when you found a dead ant whilst playing. I was only able to calm you down by explaining that the dead ant was not the mother but a very old auntie who had died because she was very, very old. I kept hoping that you, my little darling, would keep your compassion for all and everyone. I realized that it would make your life harder but I thought that it would also make your life richer and deeper, and I hoped that you would be able to stay (at least a bit) like you were then.
Before coming to Australia, people were asked to sign an agreement specifying that they would go to work anywhere the Government would send them. Old people like Bama, and mothers with children (like myself) were exempt. People who were able to work were constantly allocated for work in different parts of Victoria. Zygmunt was allocated to Melbourne. We were happy about it although it meant a separation, but we were certain that it would be for a short time only and Zygmunt would be able to find us accommodation. After a few weeks Zygmunt arranged for me to come to Melbourne. I had to go alone as there was no accommodation for the children, and I went happily as it was only for a few days any my barrack neighbours and Bama would look after the children. Zygmunt was working in the Ordinance Factory near his hostel at Maribyrnong. He was a helper to the junior gardener. It was good to see him; good to be together. His mate (with whom he shared a room in the Nissan hut) moved out for a few days and Zygmunt and I were together, just us. It was very good, just us, after more than two months of constantly being separated, with no privacy.
I did not like the holding centre at Maribyrnong as there was barbed wire – also gates – but Zygmunt told me that it only looked like a concentration camp but it was all right and not to worry. He looked happy and told me that he hoped that, in a short time, he would be able to bring us all to Maribyrnong. Zygmunt took me on a sight-seeing tour of Melbourne. Melbourne was much better than I expected. I had expected Melbourne to be smaller than Albury which I saw for a few hours. Melbourne had not only one but many “main” streets. There was also a lot of traffic; there were buses, trams, many cars and many people in the streets and there were many big buildings, churches and banks. It was not just a town, it was a city and to me it seemed a beautiful city with parks. Zygmunt brought me to a garden which he told me was called “Treasury Gardens” and he went for food. He brought the food in bags, not on plates, and told me that it was called “Fish and Chips”. I thought it tasted nice although, as a rule, I do not like fish. Zygmunt explained to me that it was cheaper to eat from a paper bag, sitting for free in the gardens, than it was to eat under a roof, sitting at a table. It was a pleasure to eat sitting in the gardens, and the lawns were green and again Zygmunt explained that the lawns were green because they were watered when needed before they became too dry. We went along a wide street which started near a quaint, lovely station, and later on became a wide avenue going over a dirty-looking river. Again there was a beautiful park with many beautiful trees and shrubs, and a shrine, but Zygmunt did not know what the shrine was for. Going back we became tired and thirsty from all the walking. Zygmunt wanted to have a beer and I a cup of coffee, so we went to a hotel near the station which Zygmunt called a “pub”. It was an odd-looking place.
There were hardly any seats, only a few couches along the wall and men were standing along some high tables or along the bar. It did not look nice; it did not smell nice; and it looked dirty. As I was waiting for Zygmunt (who was amongst the crowd of men around the bar) a man started talking to me. I could not understand him and went for Zygmunt. Now something happened which neither Zygmunt nor I could not understand. Zygmunt was allowed to be there but I, his wife, was not – and only because I was a female. “No women”. All right, we would go away, but we still could not understand why a woman couldn’t have a cup of coffee with her man. No coffee … something about ladies … did they expect me to have coffee in a toilet? Something was wrong; we could not understand them and went away, just a few doors farther on where Zygmunt had seen women and where they served food and coffee but no beer. Here Zygmunt ordered what he called a “shake milk” with a taste of coffee. It tasted nice and there was a lot of it.
Once again we realized that we would have to learn and try to understand this country, its habits, and its food. We decided that we would try hard and maybe would be able to learn, although many things seemed very odd indeed. Zygmunt asked me to go the manager of the hostel and tell him that I would like to come as soon as possible, together with Bama and the boys. Zygmunt thought that the earlier we started living amongst the Australians, the sooner we would be able to understand their odd habits. I went the next morning. The manager was a nice man – I think he came from England – he finished his schooling in Switzerland and spoke some Swiss dialects. The interview seemed very informal to me. He asked casual questions about our background, later on he called a Lithuanian woman who was working in the hostel, and we started chatting away in Lithuanian. She, poor woman, lost her husband just before sailing to Australia, and now she had to take care of her daughters and her young son. Later on, the manager called in a German girl who was married to a Czech and we spoke in German, and then he called in a Russian girl but we did not have much to talk about as she was deported to Germany at the age of 14 and was liberated by the Americans, unlike us by the French. He also called some other nationalities and we talked in a sign language, interspersed with words from different languages. It was rather fun.
Afterwards, he told me that he would like to employ me in my spare time as an interpreter and would assign me other duties but it would be nothing hard, probably some supervision work. I should come as soon as I was ready, that is as soon as the Bonagilla Holding Centre would release the necessary documents; he would write to them immediately. I asked the manager if he could, please, find us a room – or rather, two rooms – which would have some kind of walls, even very thin ones would do but not paper walls. He started to laugh and said that he kept a whole house for me, a house which had two rooms and brick walls and was even near the toilets. I would even be paid as I would be working because my children would be going to school. I was so happy, unbelievably happy. Soon, very soon, we would be together again and I would even be able to help Zygmunt financially.
What else could one ask for? We were given a start without even trying. Australia was beautiful, its people were good, we would be happy here. I loved it here. A few weeks later Zygmunt met us at Spencer Street and brought us to our first home in Australia.
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