The manager had told me the truth; we had a brick house. Small, but it had two rooms and a ceiling and two doors. The windows were in the roof and the floors looked odd – they were neither tar nor cement. The toilets were not far, not more than two minutes’ walk, but the showers were rather far away – at least 7-8 minutes’ normal walk. The wash-house was near the toilets and had a few troughs although no plugs but Zygmunt promised to make some and we could have a quick wash there. The dining room also was not very far away. Each room in the house had two beds, a table, two chairs and a tiny wardrobe. We put one of the single beds into Bama’s room for the boys as she insisted that both boys should sleep with her, and our room we made into something like a sitting room. It was not bad, just strange, but in such conditions one could live and wait until something suitable could be found, somewhere, anywhere.
This house which was allocated to us had been a laboratory house for the explosives factory during the war. The manager called me to his office and explained what my job would be. I would have to supervise the cleaning staff of all the toilets, showers, etc., to distribute the mail and to interpret when required. I would have fifteen people under me (of different nationalities) – men and women. I would be responsible for any complaints if the facilities were not properly cleaned, if the dining room and kitchen were not just perfect; he would deal only with me. In addition, I should give a hand (as often as possible) with the linen stores. Should I want to sack anyone, I would only have to tell him and he would do it. I would be paid so much … and, being on the staff, our accommodation would cost us less. It sounded exceptionally good to me, except that I would have men working under me.
I came to Zygmunt for advice: How could I give orders to men, how could I, a woman, tell men to work better? I could not do it, I simply could not accept this work. After a long talk, Zygmunt convinced me that I should give it a try. He told me that men also had to do their work properly, that it was my responsibility. I would be paid for it; I should give the men the harder work as they were stronger; I should give them the work of cleaning toilets as that was not work for women and anyway, it would be quite fair as men were being paid more than women for the same hours worked. I gave it a try and it did work out well. Children from our camp, including our two, were enrolled at the Footscray school but none of them could speak a word of English. I was working with the manager in the storeroom when the children came back home after their first day at school. The manager stopped Jurek and Roman and asked them in Swiss how it went during their first day at school. Both kept quiet and did not look happy.
The manager started to laugh but I did not as I did not know what “bloody” meant. I asked Jurek and he explained that it was the way to address the Lehrer (teacher). In Switzerland they had to say: “Herr Lehrer” (Mister Teacher) and here they say “Bloody Teacher.”
One day I received a letter which was forwarded to me from Bonegilla. It was addressed to Mrs M Kruszewski and came from Canberra – the sender was a Mrs M Volkas. Instead of opening the letter, I looked at it as I did not know anyone in Canberra and certainly no M Volkas. Zygmunt, looking at me, grinned and said: “I can see that your ESP does not work. Wouldn’t it be better if you opened the letter?” The letter read like this: “I, Maria Volkas, nee Marusia Kruck, am working in Canberra as a stenographer and sometimes as an interpreter. During my work I meet newcomers to Australia. I heard about a Zygmunt Kruszewski from many people. As I knew a Zygmunt Kruszewski and, as his wife was my friend, I wonder if you are the one I would like to get in touch with. I had heard the following: A ZK was in Germany in 1945/46 touring with a group in Wuertenburg; he was then a director, author, conductor. I heard from other sources that there was a ZK in Switzerland but he was neither an artist nor an author – he was a diplomat. Once again ZK was mentioned by people of different nationalities, this time from Italy, from the camp at St Antonio.
They did not know who he was before but they said that he had a family, that he would be sailing on the SS “Hersey” and that this shipment was allocated to Bonegilla. Should you be the wife of one of the abovementioned Zygumnt’s, should you be Maruszka from Kaunas, and Jurek my godson, cable me immediately, otherwise please disregard this letter.” I was overjoyed; my friend from early school years was alive and in Australia. We had thought her dead as she was married to a German boy, also our schoolmate, and went to live in Germany in 1941. During the last two years of war we had no letters from her. Now she must be married to another husband, a Mr Volkas. She must have come much earlier than we did as she heard about Zygmunt when he was in Switzerland.
I was so very happy – I was dancing with the letter in my hand and singing, stupid, funny school songs. She came the same week. We both got three days off work and spent days and nights talking. Her first husband died during the war – he was shot down. A few days later her baby was born in a bunker during an air raid and died too. Her new husband was also from Kaunas, he even lived in the same street but she never met him as he left before the war and went to South America. When they met in Australia, it was love at first sight. They were happy and were saving for their own house, both were working and were on the Federal payroll. She thought my children were beautiful, especially Roman, but she thought that I looked old and we both laughed as she seemed old to me too. Her visit was like a boost of optimism. She also liked Australia and its people. She had gotten used to their odd ways and she was happy here and very soon they would even have their own house.
Zygmunt’s work as helper to the junior gardener did not last long. One day the manager called him, asking him if he understood German writing and if he could draw plans. Zygmunt said that he could. For the next few weeks Zygmunt worked in an office. The firm had received machinery from Germany but all the instructions were in German. He had to do some translating but mainly drawings. He must have been good as when his work was finished, the manager asked Zygmunt what he could do for him to show his appreciation. Zygmunt asked: “Please, could you sack me?” – and explained that he was under a two-year contract and working here he was earning a lot less than working as a welder in the Ferguson factory. The manager understood and said that it could be arranged.
Now Zygmunt became a welder and his pay was much better. The work was hard – heavy wheels had to be shifted and sometimes he had to be at the ovens where it was extremely hot. His work as a welder did not last long either as one day a wheel fell on his toe and broke it. However, having been released from the first job, he was now allowed to look around for himself for a new job. I liked my work in the beginning but after a few months I liked it less and when winter came I did not like it at all. It was not a 40-hour week as I was often woken at night or during the early morning hours with complaints – that the toilets became blocked during the night, that the showers had no hot water, etc. etc. I did not like the representatives from the Immigration Department. They conveyed the impression that they, the Australians, were superior to us. Maybe they were but they should not have shown it so obviously.
One day one of the representatives who I was taking around told me that we, the Europeans, were dirty people as we did not take showers as often as we should. I asked him politely to come to the house I occupied and from there, I took him to the showers, not omitting to point out how far it was. He was an elderly man and walked slowly. When we arrived at the showers I asked him to try to adjust any one shower so that the water would be pleasant. He was unable to do it; it was either very hot or plain cold, and the weather was cold and windy and there were many broken windows. He got my point and at last the showers were repaired. However, he was right. We did not take showers as often as the Australians did, especially not in winter.
I did not like the weather; it was cold and wet and we had no way of heating our rooms as there were no power points for a heater. It was even worse in the Nissan huts. For the first time in our lives we had chilblains which were itchy and unpleasant. By now the hostel had a lot more people as another camp was flooded (was it Newport or Williamstown?). I had to find accommodation, beds, blankets, chairs, etc. Our reserve stocks were not large enough and I had not enough of anything, and only pregnant women were given chairs by me, the others could sit on the floor on their mattresses. I was blamed, and rightly so, but I was too ignorant to expect flooding in Melbourne. Jurek became very sick, had an extremely high temperature, but the doctor was unable to say what was wrong with him. It took weeks before he came good again. Our food became worse but I could not blame the Australians for it. Our milk was a blue-ish colour as it was diluted with water. Our cook showed me how one could get extra money by accepting bad meat – she opened the oven which was set on low temperature and from the meat large maggots were crawling out. Later on I was unable to eat the meat although I knew that all the maggots were out, but I could not eat the meat. I did not tell anyone about it as what good would it have done?
Otherwise the food was good and there was plenty of it; the children were given fresh fruit every day and they started to like bananas very much (which would have been a luxury in Poland). I did not like our evening meals. By now we all had spare money and we had a canteen next door and some shops not far away. Men were buying plenty of vodka, especially after pay day, and drinking it during the evening meal. There were many unpleasant scenes, fights, abuse. We had in our camp so many nationalities and each one of them had some grudge against one another, like the Lithuanians against the Poles, but many – or rather, most were against the Germans. Some of the men were married to German girls and these German women had a hard time as most of the people tried to blame them for the situation we were all in now, accusing them of being responsible for the war because they were German. How silly people could get!
There were many ugly fights during the evening meals. People were restless, especially during the weekends as there was nothing to do on a Sunday. Melbourne seemed a dead city – there were no picture theatres open, no shows, the shops (and even the libraries) were closed – only the churches were open. What should the people do? They played cards, drank vodka and complained. It was not a good atmosphere in which to bring up children. The atmosphere became even worse when a Urkrainian man committed suicide because he could not stand it any longer. Zygmunt tried hard to calm down the frayed tempers but he did not succeed as he was very seldom around, working overtime whenever it was available. Singly, people came to him for advice but he could do nothing with the lot and I think that by then he had stopped trying. He told me once that now when we had arrived in our new country everyone should try to do something constructive; he did not think that he was able to influence the majority to stop drinking or to put an end to old national grudges, etc.
He was asked to represent the Polish group but he declined, saying that he would gladly help anyone who came to him personally, should he know how to help, but he thought now was the time that everyone should try to adjust to the new way of life. I was inadequate to help people. I could only reassure some mothers with small children or the poor German wives or the wives of men who were very often drunk. There were so many unhappy women. Suddenly I realized that I was snapping at all and everyone, especially at Zygmunt, and I realized that I was not doing any good and that I could not bear to be 24 hours a day in the hostel so, without even telling Zygmunt, I went to the manager (the new manager was also a very nice man) and told him that I would like to finish my work in the hostel as soon as possible in order to work outside. He asked a few questions and, seeing my distress, he agreed and I went the same day looking for work.
I found work in the factory of the Olympic Tyre Company as a typist and interpreter. The factory was near the hostel and the children would not be too long without me after returning from school. My English had improved and now I could make myself understood. I could also understand the Australians if they spoke slowly and in short sentences. My job was to type envelopes, all day long. I had trouble with the names but the main problem was the names of streets and suburbs as they were abbreviated and I knew hardly any of the Melbourne suburbs. I was very slow but no-one minded. It was very nice to be in normal surroundings from 9 to 5 but the evenings were still the same, the weekends were still the same.
We played cards, bridge mainly, gossiped – and complained. I had had it. I wanted to move out and find a flat of our own. Danka and Jurek and their little girl had already left but it was easier for them as their parents were able to help them financially. I missed them. Some other families were also able to move out, living now in different suburbs. We had not achieved much. We bought a radio and we put a deposit on a block of land in Sunshine. It was not a nice block – it was full of large stones, without any trees and there was no made road nearby. When we felt depressed we would dream about our own house which we might be able to build sometime. Zygmunt even drew plans, even of the furniture which we would have liked to have. However, so far it was only a dream in a far-away future. We began to look in earnest for private accommodation but were unable to find any. Some people wanted key money which we were unable to pay; some just slammed the door in my face and some were just rude, saying that they would not let their nice home to some bloody New Australians and their bastard children. I did not feel hurt, just annoyed that I was unable to find accommodation for us.
At last I found a place where we could have had two rooms over a dry-cleaning shop as long as I would work in the shop. Mrs Greenwell, a lady from the Good Neighbour Council, advised me not to take it as, according to her, the district would not be right for our boys. The people from the GNC were nice and friendly and tried to help as much as they could. Thanks to them we were invited to some Australian homes and some parties. During that time two incidents occurred. One concerned Zygmunt and happened during a dance. After dancing with a young and pretty woman, Zygmunt, when bringing her back to the table, and being a well-behaved man, kissed her hand. Her husband was ready to punch him on the nose for this hand kiss. Someone from the GNC intervened, explaining that in many European countries a hand kiss was the proper thing to do after a dance. “He’s bloody well had time to learn and to forget his bloody silly habits” and, turning to his wife: “Come, we are not going to sit at the same table as this bloody lot.”
Zygmunt learned his lesson and did not kiss hands again after a dance. The other incident occurred at Christmas, 1950. It was the first time that we had been invited to a nice home. He was an engineer, she a social worker, their house was in Toorak and very nicely furnished. It was here that, for the first time, we had a Christmas dinner. It was a very hot day and I found the meal too filling but very nice. Here we tried a Christmas cake and Christmas pudding, here we observed the custom of putting sixpences in the pudding and here we received our first Christmas presents. What a misunderstanding on our part and on the part of our hosts. We received soap, talcum powder and face-washers. Firstly, I felt embarrassed as we had not brought any presents to the hosts as in Poland we exchanged presents only amongst family and friends and secondly, we would not give anyone soap, face-washes, etc. as a present.
I thought that the hosts implied that we were dirty and needed a wash that we were below the Australians. I did not consider myself inferior to Australians; they were just people like anyone else; that they were born in Australia and we were not did not make them any better. I felt hurt as they seemed such a nice couple. However, it was through them that we heard about three rooms available in Mt Evelyn and that the landlord did not mind having New Australians. They warned us that Mt Evelyn was far from Footscray which, by now, we considered the centre of Melbourne. We measured all distances in relation to Footscray as here were many Europeans, here were the only shops which sold Continental food such a rye bread, sausages and unsalted butter. Zygmunt also had to take into account the distance from his work.
He was working as a wood carver for the Myer Emporium. He liked his work and he very much liked his foreman, old Archie, who was kind and understanding and whose work Zygmunt admired. The place where Zygmunt worked was in West Footscray. Looking at the map, we realized that Mt Evelyn was indeed far but, as our main objective was to get out of the hostel, we decided to go and have a look.
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