ON OUR WAY TO AUSTRALIA
The camp in St Antonio was a great disappointment. It was very over-crowded; there were not enough beds and hardly any mattresses; the kitchen was too small and there was not enough staff to cope with all the DP’s coming from all parts of Europe, speaking different languages. The Italian Government received most of the monies from Caritas and UNRRA. According to calculations, it should have been enough but not enough reached the camp. Some money got lost on its way although we were looked after by the International Refugee Organization which I knew to be a good organization but, probably and as usual, under-staffed and allocating duties to local inhabitants who themselves were poor and short of everything. There were many thousands of DP’s but I did not know how many.
When a transport of 1,300 people left, none of us noticed any difference in the cramped conditions, and others were still arriving. Although Zygmunt could not speak either English or Italian – only some Latin – he decided to do something to improve the conditions. In a short time he achieved the following: All mothers with small children received mattresses and blankets, everyone received an empty tin to carry the food from the kitchen to one’s bed where one could sit and eat. He organized the kitchen staff, preparing the meals in a staggered order which made it not only easier for us (as now we did not have to stand for hours) but also for the kitchen staff. He did the same with the washing facilities, allocating times to each block. He was unable to do anything about the toilets where one had to wait one’s turn (and hope for the best) but he encouraged the digging of trenches near the toilets so that mothers with small children could empty the dirty potties instead of just doing it near the doors. People used to come to our beds asking Zygmunt to give them help and advice. They were not only from Switzerland but from all over Europe, speaking different languages. Somehow he managed to help many, especially the older and the sick ones, and mothers with many children. In the long queues (which lasted for hours) he put those in the front whom he considered unable to wait too long.
He organized hours of singing, dancing and sports to keep the young ones out of mischief and stealing. I did not know how he did it but his energy and goodwill was unlimited. I did not do anything helpful, only calming down the frayed tempers of mothers with children. It was easier for me as I spoke more languages and already had some standing (being the wife of Mr Kruszewski who was very popular). Sick people were not taken aboard ship, nor were families with sick children such as those with measles (and there were many cases of measles). If a child contacted measles, all the family had to wait for many more weeks. We were all anxious to go as soon as possible as the conditions were really not good. Either Zygmunt did not forget us or the administration wanted to get rid of such a demanding and interfering person who threatened to write to the head offices of UNRRA, IRO, etc., because we were allocated to a ship which was to berth soon.
On 28th October, 1949, we received the valued piece of paper issued by the Commonwealth of Australia, Australian Migration Officer – Naples, Italy. It read:
The next day Bama and I received ours also. We were advised that we would be sailing on the SS “ML HERSEY” – her master was William Jarvis. To us (the DP’s), the ship, its conditions and capacities, were very important; most of us had never sailed at all – or only for short distances. We were told that the sailing would last between 23-30 days. We all wanted to know what the ship was like and how safe she would be. We were 1,319 people of whom 618 were male, 391 female and the rest children from the ages of one to twelve. There were many nationalities but only nine were listed, the rest were “Others”. The biggest group was the Poles – 539 including children; only 88 Lithuanians and the smallest group was the Russians of whom there were only 34. The remaining 70 people were the “Others”.
The ship was 120 metres in length, the speed was 16 knots which meant 16 miles per hour in normal conditions, etc. etc. All this information, and much more, we learned from the ship’s newsletter where Zygmunt was once again listed – this time under the heading: “Editorial, print and drawings”. We were told that she was built in the USA before the invasion to carry troops to Europe and she was sailing under the American flag. Our thoughts were: “If she was good enough for the American troops, she would be good enough for us”. She was equipped to carry 2,000 men and we thought that was very good as we were only 1,319 but we forgot to take into account the crew, nor did we take into consideration that she was built to carry army men and not families with children and also that she was now many years older. We thought only that at last we were sailing to a country willing to accept us, that very soon we might start a normal life away from all the camps, away from the political tensions, etc.
My first impression was – just a grey, drab ship. The room, to which I was allocated, together with Bama, Jurek and Roman, had space for 60 people, not counting the children under ten (or was it under eight?) It was cramped but bearable and had only two-storey bunks. Zygmunt’s quarters were worse as in his room there were over 200 men (but no children) and three-storey bunks. It was a lot better than travelling in cattle trucks as here we had beds, for most of us at least; food was provided, there were showers, there were toilets, and space to walk on deck. It seemed all right and anyway, we would be there in a short time only, not even a month. I took the lower berth because Roman shared my bed and thought that I was lucky in my choice but did not take into account that others above me might be seasick and vomit on the floor near my head and that we had to clean the floors ourselves and those who were sick could not do it. There were not enough toilets; they became blocked and overflowed after a week or so; the air-conditioning and the exhaust fans broke down and the stench became unbearable.
There were many children sick with measles and whooping cough. It became most unpleasant during a two-day storm when the majority was sick. Jurek and Bama looked a bit green and would not eat, but Zygmunt and I felt fine and enjoyed walking on deck, holding onto ropes provided. All those unpleasant things were just small details, we realized, but just imagine what it was like to travel in such conditions for 26 days with no privacy whatsoever, not even in the toilets and showers. The food was good. We even had fresh fruit sometimes. We had lessons in English and lessons on how to write the numbers 7 and 1, also the letters Q, J and T which were written differently from those we were used to writing. I felt as though I was back in primary school but we had to learn. We were also told about poisonous snakes, spiders, sharks, etc., and much other animal life that we did not have in Europe.
We were also given advice about alcohol, especially wines as only some were good. I forget which ones were good – Penfolds? Orlando? – but all of the others were straight poison. It all seemed important. All men and single women had to work but as Zygmunt was working on the new issues of the newspaper and something else, he was seldom called to scrape the paint. As I could understand some English words and knew other languages, I was made an interpreter and a “block elder” of our room and was responsible for hygiene and cleanliness. I was supposed to supervise only, but after a few days there were hardly any women left who were not sick or who had no sick children, so the remaining few had to do the cleaning ourselves. I was really glad when the storm broke whilst crossing the equator as the few of us who were not sick were told to stop trying to clean the room because we were unable to keep up, there were not enough of us healthy ones left.
At last we had some privacy in the showers, in the dining room and on decks between the ropes. It was breathtaking to watch the seas, the vastness of the ocean. Zyg and I stayed for hours on deck “A”, hanging onto the ropes. We enjoyed the sea spray, the storm and the huge waves. I loved the sea. Bama and Jurek were not really sick but looked pale and would not eat, staying in the empty dining room. Roman was not allowed on deck and had to stay with them. The weather changed and the sea was calm again and, although no-one was allowed on deck during the night, Zygmunt and I were able to hide under the stairs for a few nights and see the beautiful sunrise. There were some interesting moments such as the one in Port Said. We were not allowed to go ashore but the natives came by in small boats, swarming around the ship, offering their goods which they hoisted up in baskets for us to look at. Everyone tried to buy something as a memento. Zygmunt bought me a handbag with camels and pyramids on it. It was great fun. The same occurred in Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka). Here we bought only fresh fruit. I was not impressed by the Suez Canal. In theory, I was impressed by the obstacles that the engineers had to overcome when building it, but I read about it before and only admired the achievement of engineering. Both sides looked so very empty, very sandy and just desert.
At last we arrived in Australia in a town called Fremantle (which some called Perth) it being the port of entry to the capital city of Western Australia. We were not permitted to leave the ship and we looked and looked at our future country but there was not much to see. From then on we always saw Australia. At one stage we thought that we were looking at a desert but were told that the yellow landscape was not sand but grass. How very odd. Yellow grass? None of us had heard of yellow grass.
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