Straddling the two cultures
My parents' Polish background and war experiences have greatly influenced my life. My mother was one of the refugee children at the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua. My father, Tadeusz Krystman, was also deported to Russia where, after the amnesty was declared, he joined the II Polish Corps, fought in Monte Cassino and eventually arrived in New Zealand from the UK as an ex-serviceman.
As their first born (they married in 1950 and settled in Hamilton), I am a first-generation New Zealander who grew up feeling that I was neither a New Zealander nor Polish. Every day I straddled the two cultures. My first language was Polish and at school I was immediately different with my thick stockings instead of long socks. My lunches consisted of foods foreign to the other children. They did not like the smell of salami. Friends, there were none, because I did not go, nor was I invited, to play at their homes after school. Neither did my mother go over to their mothers' places for a cup of tea.
My father's arrival at the school gate and his speaking with a strong accent only emphasised my difference. I remember quite clearly that while I never felt embarrassed by this difference, I definitely felt alone in an environment which did not include something Polish.
In the 1950s, Polish families tended to socialise together over the weekends. Following Sunday Mass, they tended to stay back for hours, talking and catching up within their own ethnic group because New Zealanders left for home immediately after the service. Occasions such as christenings tended to be big affairs because invitations to all in the Polish community were the done thing. How could you leave anyone out? The community was small.
Since such gatherings were very Polish regarding food, music and language, it was not comfortable or even considered logical that New Zealanders would be invited. In those "safe" environs, Poles were free to remember their homeland (with or without tears) and know that the Polish person listening to their story would empathise with them because they had also experienced something similar.
It was not unusual for people to sing popular folk songs, which inevitably would lead to emotionally charged patriotic tunes. Emotions were raw. Grown men who normally acted tough would cry unashamedly as they remembered comrades lost on battlefields and/or recalled their mothers last seen at some page 235crowded railway station in Russia, or a family member left to die because there was no medicine or help.
Whenever Poles gathered, political discussions were never far away. Discussions tended to be emotional rather than rational, covering topics such as Winston Churchill, the Yalta Agreement, Siberia, General Sikorski, Monte Cassino, Stalin, and parents and families lost. Heaven help anyone who would express an opinion which suggested anything positive about the communists! Memories were still too fresh in the 1950s. And yet it was not unusual for these same people to sing Russian songs with much enthusiasm. The explanation for this was: "The ordinary Russian people are OK – it's just the political system."
I remember the Berlin Wall topic discussed as if it were a wall about to be built through Hamilton's main street. The Cuban Missile Crisis resurrected deep fears of everything associated with the Soviets and some in the Polish community actually began stocking their homes with tinned food.
While New Zealanders were generally sympathetic, polite and hospitable to the refugees who settled in small groups throughout their country, it would have been difficult for them to fully appreciate their fears, unyielding political views and insecurities when the war was legally well and truly over. How could New Zealanders understand what it is like to wait for a parent who never came? But this is not to say that these new Polish refugee settlers did not appreciate their new country and feel a gratitude for the physical security in which they could begin their lives afresh.
I said that my parents' Polish background and war experiences affected me deeply and personally. The effect has been emotional as well as academic. I undertook sociopolitical studies at university, directing particular attention to that period of modern history which had so affected my parents – World War II. I found much of my reading material on the war familiar territory, thanks to the numerous political discussions I had listened to over the years. I felt that my father must have known Stalin personally because he would even change his voice to a lower timbre whenever he "quoted" something the dictator had said.
The Polish language was not only a skill I would ultimately need for my research work, but speaking it also gave me interactive entry into a culture rich in ethnic humour, political satire and historical awareness with a heavy peppering of religious symbolism. Many an essay benefited from the general knowledge I had gained from home.
While a New Zealand student had to read books to learn about such things as sweet tea drinking in Russia, gold coins worn like ornaments by girls in Iran, meat hidden along river banks, personalities/actions of Russian guards, page 236teachers and supervisors in the forced-labour camps, jewellery being exchanged for milk needed for a dying sister or brother, and seeing siblings suffering due to coal embedded under the skin, I just knew these stories to be a part of my parents' and their friends' real-life experiences.
I just know from my experience as a first-generation New Zealander of a Polish post-war displaced person and refugee, that a refugee's past never goes away and becomes irrelevant. It may fade a little with the years but that past continually appears in their conversations, manners and a momentary look which is far away, thoughtful and often sad.
The refugee children have learnt to survive the reality and memory of those violent and unpredictable times, and even laugh about some of them. But it is those very experiences which, 60 years later, still mark them as a unique group of people in New Zealand.