Through the eyes of one child and the memories of many orphans
On the Land - Outschoorn
Oh, what a relief it was to be on land and not to hear the continuous loud motor of the ship that dulled our hearing, having spent a month and a half on the ocean! We were all exhausted after the long journey from the Middle East. A short rest was enough to catch our breath and remind us that we were hungry. We had to line up to march to the dining building which fed five hundred kids and at least a dozen teachers and supervisors; the boys at one end of the building and the girls on the other, divided by the entrance to the kitchen. The food was always brought in by the kitchen staff, which prevented a crowd jamming up the kitchen. Prayers were administered before and after the meals, because the camp was run by an enormous man, Reverend Kubinski, whose presence demanded a solid Christian respect and order.
On day, while we were practicing some traditional Polish dances in our recreation hall, the first visitor to the camp interrupted us. He was a Polish man who had come to Africa as a youth in search of diamonds. He told us about experiences he‘d had as a diamond hunter.
Diamonds were not easy to trace and it took months before they would come across some signs of this precious stone. Occasionally they would try to move a heavy stone and underneath the stones, the raw diamonds would be bunched up like gravel of different sizes ready to be scooped up. They would walk for miles to discover another lucky source. When the diamond hunters’ water and food ran out, they had to ask locals to sell them some, but not having cash, they had to pay with diamonds just to survive! The man also told us that he had never met any Polish people in Africa and had not had a chance to speak in his own language for years. Having had been doing some practicing in our recreation hall, our teacher quickly picked up on the man’s tales and told us to get up on the stage, stand in pairs and perform for him the Krakowiak, the famous Polish dance. The diamond searcher cried all the way through as the memories of his own youth must have come rushing back to him. We never did see this man again in our camp.
The school was a small distance away from the dormitories, where the soil was undisturbed and perfect for worms to live inside. We were shocked when hundreds of them came out and covered the ground completely; they had very short legs and black shiny skin, and were as long and thick as a woman’s index finger. We could not avoid stepping on them and getting their black, slimy mess all over our shoes. I still have nightmares about them. We were told not to fear for it was a phenomenon that happened every year and only lasted a few days.
Very soon, after we settled in Africa, a shipment of clothes came in from Canada. The clothing was left in a room where we could drop by and search until we found items that fit us. We could not be very fussy because there was not much to choose from and very little that fit perfectly.
Shoes were also available, but they were all either too big or too small. I eventually found a lovely new cloth pair of running shoes that were too small, but with a little effort I made them fit - I felt like Cinderella’s step- sister fighting to claim them. The shoes eventually stretched out and I was satisfied.
As time advanced, our teachers were probing the country searching for interesting locations, so they could take us on weekend excursions. One of those excursions was a walk to an ostrich farm where we saw beautiful large birds in a wire fence, sticking their beaks out hoping for food. On another occasion, we visited a peanut plantation, where locals performed for us, dancing their native dance and singing rhythmically. We had a trip south to the Cango Caves that were filled with opaque and transparent stalactites and stalagmites of different types, sizes and appearances; the most beautiful and the largest in the world. They were illuminated with coloured reflectors adding to their beauty beyond comprehension.
On very hot days, we walked in pairs to a nearby mountain river, where we were allowed to romp around in the shallow water. One day it was so hot and the water was so enticing – I wanted to swim! I was the only one who jumped in and swam away from the water’s edge. I stopped and reached down with my feet to touch the bottom and discovered there was no bottom! Not being a very strong swimmer, I waded my way back to shore, cheered on by my friends. Luckily, I made it back. I looked back at how far out I had swum and realized how foolish i had been to take such a chance.
Dignitaries visited our camp regularly and would be showered with our entertainment of song and dance. They seemed to enjoy us immensely and praised us to heaven. Princess Radzilowna, who visited us from the United States, where she then lived, was also one of our guests, bringing bags of candies, which was never on our menu, so we had a candy party for some time afterwards.
A Trip to Digglefold
Every afternoon around 2:00 pm we had one hour of rest because of the unbearable heat. We would read, embroider, or sleep during that time.
We lived in Outschoorn to the end of the school year and were given the choice of staying and taking a commercial course or going to Digglefold in Southern Rhodesia to an Academic school, which would prepare students for university. Mrs. Otwinowska said Mary and I should go to Digglefold, plus ten other girls who decided they wanted to go to the academic school, as well. Digglefold was about two days’ train ride away.
Sometime in July the train trip was organized and a total of fourteen students, including two male students who had to take the same train, but were later forwarded to a boy’s school, went to the bus station with our supervisor, saying goodbye to our friends and teachers. There was an emotional farewell and our home teacher gave me a bouquet of flowers remembering the time when I organized her birthday celebration. For her birthday, I had decorated the whole classroom with wild flowers that grew up on a nearby hill, and taught the girls a birthday song, unlike the popular one that is sung these days, which we all sang beautifully for her.
It was a fascinating train trip and we were able to see locals at work on fields, animals grazing and other farm necessities like in Poland, which was a very agricultural country.
Our train stopped in Mafeking where we had to wait for another one to Digglefold. We were brought in to a Roman Catholic convent run by a German Reverend. With their students on vacation, they had a lot of room to accommodate us for a night. There was a small number of students who did not take vacation.
Mrs. Otwinowska used her French to converse with the priest who, like most people at that time, knew other languages for convenience. We were told that the supper was being prepared and the reverend’s students would chaperone each one of us to the dining room. They all surrounded the priest and, pulling at his priestly coat, begged to be included in this job but not all of them had the honour to be a part of it. The Reverend and our teacher followed us slowly to the main building, where we relaxed on the veranda that was covered with a curtain of grape vines.
When we were called for supper, the hosting students dressed up in their uniforms and chaperoned us in pairs to the dining room. It was a large room with long tables covered with white tablecloths and plates just for the present group. The food was vegetarian which was normal in their hot climate. Ice cream for dessert climaxed the meal. We tried to speak English, but the students had a hard time understanding us, so we remained silent. After supper, we were again assisted to a small room, which was a theatre where we were shown an American movie. Later we entered a dorm for a night’s rest.
In the morning, after breakfast we were back on the train leaving for our destination, Digglefold. From Mafeking to Salisbury, (Harare) the distance was only 400 km, so the place where our train was ordered to stop, would be reached before dark.
There were many communities along the way, so the train took longer than would be expected for that small distance, stopping at different stations on route.
When the train stopped in the middle of nowhere, we looked through the window, and we could see at least twenty lights, but no people. When we stepped off the train and approached the lights, we noticed girls, each one of them holding a kerosene lamp. Mrs. Otwinowska recognized a teacher with whom she worked in Poland and the two of them hugged, sharing a few, then a military commanding voice broke the night’s silence and thundered, “Let’s go!” The girls carrying the lamps scrambled together and walked ahead lighting the road for the rest of us.
We walked for about fifteen minutes through the darkness, with the lantern carrying girls on either side of us, when we were finally able to make out a widely spread out building, which was to be our school. We were guided up the front steps through the entrance into a courtyard. Then, down a few more steps, still in almost total darkness, we walked along a path to the other side of the courtyard and up some more stairs again until we were facing the door of our dormitory. It was a small dormitory, with six bunk beds all covered from top to bottom with mosquito nets. I was the youngest of our bunch, so they made me take the upper bunk bed. We left our bundles, went to wash our hands and were given some snacks, just enough to get us through the night.
In the morning, the man whose voice had startled us the night of our arrival, entered our dorm and was shocked to see us still in bed, informing us in a stern voice, that we were expected to get up at 6:00am and that was to be every single day. “Yes, Mr. General”, somebody behind us dutifully responded in a meek tone.
He was, indeed, a retired general from the WWI and his name was Ferdynand Zarzycki. During peacetime, he was a professor of the Latin language at the University of Warsaw, and later became a Minister of Commerce and Industry in the Polish government. He left Poland on the advice of government security. He was sixty years old with snow-white hair, and glasses on the tip of his nose. Under his arm, he always carried a stick, which was his whip for protection and defense as he patrolled the whole area on his bicycle.
Classes were ready for us immediately and we had no time for reminiscing or worrying. Army style one hundred percent! As the general had said, there was no time to lose, so we had to step on the gas and learn as much as possible to catch up with the program, from which we were behind due to our three years in exile. Getting up at 6:00am, dressing, pleating our long hair in two braids, (he detested “frizzles” – loose, unmanaged hair), exercise on the field, Holy Mass in the Chapel, breakfast and classes; that was our daily routine. We also had a mid-morning snack, a gong for 1:00pm lunch, one hour of rest to study on our own and a gong for supper. After supper, there was more individual study time, shower and bedtime at 9:00pm. Through four years of living in Digglefold, we entertained many dignitaries, bishops, army leaders, teachers and some private people, who were informed about our school and wanted to know more about it.
Digglefold originally was a doctor’s property, who had planned to build a medical laboratory research center in the main building and ten smaller ones more toward the east. The doctor, with the surname of Diggle, was married and had a two-year-old boy. When the doctor and a group of his employees went out to work on the field, they brought the baby with them, making a spot for him in the tall grass just steps away. One day, the boy fell asleep and the group, engrossed in their job, did not notice that the boy had woken and walked away, looking for his parents. When they discovered he was gone, everybody searched for him in the tall grass, but unfortunately could not find the boy. Dr. Diggle and his wife were so devastated by this tragedy, that they gave up his dream of building the laboratory and moved away, leaving the property to charitable causes. That is when the government offered this spot to Polish orphans on lease, and made our general the manager.
On weekends, we took care of the property by sweeping the roads that belonged to the school and repainting the white stones that lined the sides of the roads. We enjoyed watching the clean roads with blue blossoms that would fall down from the trees, truly creating an enchanting view. In addition, we took care of our vegetable and flower gardens. There were orchards of plum trees on the north and south of the property, so on very dry days we had to water them with pails of water. The orchard with oranges, tangerines and grapefruits was fenced in, so only qualified people were allowed to enter them. Digglefold was situated in a much-forested area, as opposed to the majority of the land in Southern Rhodesia, which was mainly covered with grass and bushes and very few trees.
The General loved roses, so he personally grew and took care of them. His roses were the largest and healthiest I had ever seen! He was truly an excellent gardener and everybody appreciated and enjoyed the results of his hobby, which he proudly cultivated in front of the school.
Some evenings we practiced choir singing, our national dances, playing piano, ping-pong and reading. There was a lot of pressure on students to learn English, French and Latin so we had additional lessons in the afternoon. A Girl Guide group was organized by our geography teacher, and a Sodalist Marianus group by the priest. Every moment was occupied, so there was no idle time at our school.
It was a very disturbing moment, when I received a letter from our father informing us that our brother Zenon, our parents’ first born, was killed in an allied attack on German soil where Polish students were taken as prisoners to dig trenches because the Germans did not want to use their own soldiers in case of such attacks. We never got over this incident and my father always regretted that the boys had not stayed with us, as a family.
My brothers, Zenon and Witold, were very talented. Zenon played violin, had a beautiful voice, which he inherited from our mother, and was often called to play in school theatre productions. At the beginning of the war, he was called upon to sing Polish songs to fellow Polish soldiers as they registered for the army to encourage confidence, patriotism and pride as they went off to fight in the war. Witold, the second eldest of we children, had excellent artistic abilities, exhibited in his numerous portraits of his friends, particularly the girls. I also shared this artistic ability and still enjoy painting life-like portraits.
In wintertime, my brothers skied to school together. In the summertime, in the river bordering our property, they fished together and brought home what were some of the best fish I have ever tasted. Sometimes they would help with the harvest, although my father had workers for such things, because they enjoyed working on the land. They would occasionally take excursions to other parts of Poland. My brothers, Zenon and Witold, had been inseparable before the war.
After Zenon died, Witold was in the Polish Army, where he achieved the rank of Lieutenant, fighting against brutal attacks on Polish communities and villages by invaders from the east. He was only 25 years old at this time. My father could never have foreseen our family being torn apart by this deadly and treacherous war in such a manner.
During the two summer months of vacation, the female students who had mothers would leave for Lusaka or Rusape, their mother’s camps, and stayed away for the full duration. The rest of us girls had to remain at school and keep ourselves busy by creating occupations like embroidering, reading, bicycle riding, and playing volleyball until dark. Since there were not too many of us girls remaining, we used to get special treats from the kitchen staff, whose head cook was one of my friends’ mothers, Mrs. Block, whom we had known since Russia and our fathers were friends through the teaching profession.
One morning, we decided to have some excitement and wanted to go shopping. Our father sent us a monthly allowance, which we saved for clothes, and two other girls also were getting a few dollars from their working mothers. We walked to the highway and hitchhiked to Salisbury, which was the capitol of Rhodesia. It did not take too long before a car stopped and a nice middle-aged couple opened the door, asking where we were heading; they were going the same way and all three of us squeezed into their small car and off we went. Around lunchtime they shared their tomato sandwich with us, for it took one hour to get to the city.
We got off at the railway station, already familiar to us, stopped at the park to listen to an orchestra in a gazebo, went shopping and window shopping, went to the museum, which we did on excursion days, and saw a lot of fossilized ostrich eggs, human and animal bones plus pictures of a cannibal, five times bigger than a fully grown man! After a small snack, we went to see a movie. Immediately after, we had to go to the station to enquire about returning to Digglefold. We were delighted that the clerk knew about us, saying that a couple reported us and the trip was paid for. We boarded the train and the train stopped in a designated place before dark.
Next day at breakfast time, the General had a blustering speech saying, “The forbidden behaviour yesterday of three of our students hitchhiking to the city, was brought to my attention - and this should never happen again as long as I am a principal and a commandant of this school”. We did not have the guts to face him, for we knew his temper, but deep inside we felt that being so independent and domineering helped him to become a general.
Our friends from a higher grade were graduating and I was asked to make a speech to the class praising their efforts in reaching this level of education. When i was making this speech, I also advised them to be prepared for future unknown ventures, which we will all eventually face within our lives. I promised, in honour of the graduating class, to forever preserve the precious values which the General and our professors has instilled in us, and to always follow a straight course in my life. At this moment of my speech, the General gently elbowed the Reverend sitting next to him and they both looked at each other with a grin on their faces, likely recalling our hitchhiking adventure. I was momentarily humiliated, but kept on ploughing and in the end, received loud applause from students, which made me feel better. The General and the professors congratulated me and left us to celebrate by dancing to records that were available in the room, and later on, we went into the field to finish our celebrations outside.
Our school was near tall grass, which caught fire on very hot days. One day the fire came too close to some small woods with old trees and quickly started to burn. The whole school was released to fight the fire that was just steps away from the building. There were a few adults who were also employed to help, so together we doused the flames and were called heroes for saving the school. We were very happy that the blooming poinsettia bushes that grew on each side of the road leading to the highway were not damaged by the fire.
Two years after the war ended, in 1947, all the Polish children from all the schools in Africa, were assembled in Camp Gatooma in Southern Rhodesia. Although the school year was still in progress, governments were planning our departure. The first transport went to Poland, the second one to England, with Mary and I included, and the other ones went to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, U.S., Palestine, Israel, Lebanon and India. A lot of kids remained in Africa.
Gatooma was a large camp that had been used for Mussolini’s prisoners captured during WWII. The prisoners had built a miniature amphitheatre out of stone and clay, abundant in the area, which they used for a bit of entertainment. After the war ended and the soldiers had left, it became our temporary camp. During our stay, we took full advantage of this amphitheater, putting on musical shows with singing, dancing and piano playing for important guests who would come to see us, including army generals and soldiers, different bishops from other parts of Africa, teachers and curious people interested in seeing us and our camp.
Although we enjoyed entertaining our guests at the amphitheater, we studied hardest that final year. The parents and caretakers of all of us kids had arranged for our school year to be shortened so we could be transported to England by ship, but we still had to complete our academic obligations. It was during this stay in Gatooma that we acquired our high school diplomas – this was in March of 1948.
At the juncture of March to April, we were back on the train to the Port in Beira, Mozambique. At this port, we embarked on a beautiful ocean liner, half of which we students and a few of our teachers occupied, the other half was shared with English soldiers, picked up at different camps along our journey, returning them home to England.
Beira was a beautiful port with palms lining each side of the roads and swaying in the wind like Indian dancers in their exotic costumes. On the horizon, we could see the blue water and were looking forward to being on the Indian Ocean again, after five years on land.
For the first few days on the ship, we stayed in the recreation room playing checkers and cards, but after a while, my sister, Mary, decided to organize a choir to entertain the crew and teachers. There were only about fifteen of us choir members, which was about half of our school choir, but because we had participated in singing in Africa, Mary did not have to work too hard at getting our performance organized.
The English soldiers were also invited to have their version of entertainment, to which they agreed, and a couple of weeks later we were ready for the stage.
When the curtain was drawn, we girls faced an impressive-looking theatre audience made up of the Captain and his navy officers, all dressed in their uniforms, complete with ranking ornaments shining in the semi-dark room. There were also a few of our teachers in the crowd. Our choir had the opening performance, so Mary, as our conductor, took her bow, and we began singing Polish songs, harmonizing beautifully. When we finished, applause echoed through the ship’s concert hall. Next, the soldiers performed some more familiar songs, with one of them playing piano. They had a few more numbers, including with solos on guitar, piano and accordion. The pianist played a beautiful piece, “Au Clair de la Lune”, which concluded the show and we in the audience enthusiastically demonstrated our appreciation.
We were very fortunate that the weather was good during our 3 to 4 week journey, so we were spending a lot of time on the top deck enjoying the view of the ocean, and again wondering what the future would bring. We travelled on the Indian Ocean to the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, and the Suez Canal. The Canal was an enormous project undertaken by the Arabic and Egyptian governments with England joining in partnership later. It was opened Nov.17, 1869 and is 107 miles long, 197 feet deep and ships of 38 feet draft can make the transit. Aware of some historical facts about the Canal, we had an eerie feeling as we passed through her waters, knowing so many people who had lost their lives on the job had built it. The ship was moving slowly and with caution, a security ship following close behind ours. There were mud huts and villages on the Egyptian side of the Canal but just mountains and desert on the opposite side.
The ship stopped at Port Said for inspection and refueling, proceeding westward to the Mediterranean Sea between Malta and Sicily, through the Strait of Gibraltar and then north to England. It is true about the Mediterranean waters being perfectly blue, as opposed to the ocean, which looks more like a midnight blue. The Mediterranean Sea is so vast, we couldn’t see enough of the land to identify the countries as we passed them.
We landed at the port of Portsmouth in the south of England where our co-entertainers left the ship never to be seen again. After two days of being detained, we disembarked and hopped onto the waiting train that took us to Blackpool.
The scenery was magnificent, south England being a very well cultivated land neatly divided into individual farms. It was a real transformation from South Africa, which looked bare in comparison, but it still had its charm.
We marveled at the appearance of this country and tried to express our views to the train attendant but she only shrugged her arms, saying she had been this way a million times before. As we were looking through the windows, we noticed a Blackpool sign. The train slowed down and we prepared ourselves to exit. Inside the station, we waited for our father to meet us. About five minutes later a medium sized man in a spring coat and a brimmed hat approached us and without a word hugged us with tears in his eyes welcoming us with a smile. We noticed a physical change in him as a result of his serious illness, having lost his eldest son in the war, and from constant worry about his family.
We took a bus to a Polish club where father wanted to get some late snacks, but having arrived so late, we could only get herrings and bread. Father placed the order anyway and for the first time in eight years, we had herrings, a typical Polish delicacy, which we enjoyed very much.
By bus, we went to Stanley Park where father had his quarters. He had been assigned a position as a supervisor of soldiers from Italy and was given accommodations anticipating the arrival of his two daughters from Africa. The residence was divided into two sections by a brick wall, half being my father’s part and the other half, Mary’s and mine. It was a nice large room equipped with two beds, a table, four chairs and a small sofa, sufficient for a temporary stay. We were overwhelmed by the spaciousness of this place after living 60 girls to a dormitory in Africa for 5 years!
Our father was a member of the English-Polish club in Blackpool and, being well-known as a speaker for two years, he was well respected and we were treated the same.
While greeting some of the members, a young English woman approached us and in good Polish started a conversation. I was curious and asked her to explain to us how she had learned the language. Well, she told me that with the start of the war, a Polish family escaping Poland came to Blackpool and rented an apartment in her parent’s house. Having a little boy her age, who played with her, but did not want to learn English, she asked him to teach her some Polish words and sentences. She became so immersed in the language, that when she went to high school, she studied Polish seriously, eventually getting a job where there was a need for people returning from the war, with this English-Polish club a perfect example. I am still moved to tears when I think of how wonderfully welcome this young woman made me feel in England!
Polish soldiers came to England two years before we arrived from Africa, so the English women had their first chances with the young soldiers, resulting in many Anglo-Polish marriages.
My father, Mary and I knew we had to have many discussions before we decided whether to stay in England, go to Poland or to Canada. Mary signed up for piano lessons, I took an English language course and my father was busy with the soldiers making sure they had good care until they made a decision about their own futures.
There was good news about Canada, being a free country, and well-advertised in England. I had my Aunt Josephine living there and a pen pal, who had sent some nice gifts to me around Christmas time. Bronia, my father’s youngest sister, had told him to stay away from Poland. In parts of Poland, there were dangers for Polish soldiers of higher rank, like my father, of being hunted down, persecuted, captured, shot or sent to Siberia by Russian communists. I made my decision to go to Canada and father had his mind set on Canada, as well. Mary was not sure, since she had already begun music studies in England and she wanted to stay there, but majority ruled and she had to come with us to Canada.
My Aunt Josephine, when she was only 19 years old, came to Canada on
the request of her aunt, a Canadian citizen, who needed help with her three children. Josephine married to a Canadian policeman, with whom she bought a farm, later renting it to people who worked the land for she and her husband, and bought a bungalow in Rossburn, Manitoba, where she sent her two kids to school.
We had to go to London for a medical check-up, so Father took the time to show us some museums, the art gallery, a bird sanctuary, and the aquarium, where I saw an octopus for the first time. We also saw all the sightseeing destinations: magnificent and enormous architectural edifices, containing museums, art galleries, royal dwellings – too many and too large for people who were only passing through to enjoy seeing much more than just a glance of, but we took in as much as we could.
We had to stay in a hotel for the night and the owners were Polish, which was not uncommon, mainly because England was the safest escape for the people who wanted to flee their war-ravaged countries. On the streets of England you hear the Polish language, but many other languages, too, spoken everywhere.
The results of our medical tests were favourable, allowing our father to make immediate ship reservations for our trip to Canada. Aunt Josephine sent us an affidavit invitation to Canada, but Father found out that the next passenger ship was not scheduled until Sept 25th 1948, so we had five months to prepare. The clothes we had were not appropriate for Canadian winters, and Blackpool being a summer retreat, was geared only for sporting outfits so we had to travel by train to Manchester in order to equip ourselves with heavier clothing. It was a big expense for my father’s bank account, but he never complained and was happy to see us looking fit and clean. Our father, having had been a translator for the 2nd Corps and General Anders, participated in organized trips to the Vatican, and had therefore earned enough money to be a bit generous.
The three of us attended the club, went dancing to the Winter Gardens, and visited Mrs Tausaud’s Wax Museum, which had wax images of all the famous military leaders and the Royal Family, past and present. We went to see some Polish plays and tried to use the time wisely, for we did not know if we would be coming this way in the future. My father befriended an English family with two small boys, the younger one Anthony, who was eight years old, was very comical and intelligent. We exchanged dinners learning about their habits and interests. Their father owned a soap factory in Blackpool and they frequented the English-Polish club, which was very popular after the war.
We had to leave this lovely city a day before our departure, on the 26th of September, to get to Liverpool, where the Beatles lived and became famous.
We booked a hotel, stayed for the night and the next morning we left by taxi to board an exquisite passenger ship called the Ascania. We thanked King George the VI for financing our and other veterans’ trip to Canada after having served in the war side by side with England.
We stood on the deck with many English and Canadian people who sang their favourite army songs and the English anthem as the ship moved away from the shore. It was getting further away and suddenly I felt sad and lonely for I was leaving all my friends and teachers behind and going to another hemisphere that I did not know anything about, except what I learned in my geography classes. The ship travelled north on the Irish Sea, north of Ireland and then west on the Atlantic Ocean.
The first few days were good and rather pleasant, but as we moved closer to the center of the water, the ocean started developing bigger swells, stronger winds and heavier rain, and I started getting seasick. For three days I refused to eat or drink anything and my sister, Mary, desperately begged me to at least drink some water, but I just pointed her to the exit door, meaning please leave me alone – I was so sick I couldn’t even utter a word!
On the fourth day I started to feel better and with the help of Mary, I slowly got off the bunk bed, went up to the top deck and thought how nice it was to be healthy and alive. After lunch, we went to the recreation room to read some books and magazines, play checkers or chess, which my father liked to do, or simply relax.
The plates in the dining room were attached to the top of the tables, fit for ten or twelve passengers each. We had a small meal, took some fruit and left to explore the rest of the ship. There was a swimming pool on top, but we did not have bathing suits and there were enough people who did! From then on, the trip was smooth and there were no more casualties.
As the ship was a few miles away from the Canadian coastline, in the distance you could see Newfoundland on the right and Cape Breton on the left side, blending with the sky in the mist. At the mouth of the Gulf of the St. Lawrence, the ship slowed down and stopped at Father’s Point for a checkup and refueling, after which it kept a slower speed along the St. Lawrence River towards Quebec and ultimately Montreal.
It was the month of October and the view on the north side was spellbinding as all of us immigrants witnessed the most beautiful coast in the world. I fell in love with Canada at first sight and thought that only here my wounds could heal and make me forget our plight of the past. Having been weak and a bit shaky, I asked Mary where all those cars in the background were going “Is there a war somewhere?” She answered me a bit surprised by my silly question saying, “Sister we are in Canada, a peaceful country where there are no wars”. My imagination was rampant after the trip, but upon hearing my sister’s response, I calmed down, relaxed and enjoyed the rest of the view of our new country.
There was a lot of construction going on along the edges of the St. Lawrence River with cranes, machines and building materials. It all looked so rich and powerful and made me feel more secure. We passed the bridge and the ship landed in the Port of Montreal on October 2nd 1948 around noon and there I realized that in that one year we were present on three different continents; Africa, Europe and now North America.
This century was certainly filled with the miracles of exploration, communication and transportation.
As routine would dictate, we were held up for two days at the Port and given lunch boxes for the day. Once we were free to leave, we disembarked and were taken to the train station, with instructions for our departure.
At 11:00pm we had to be ready to leave Montreal. We decided to explore the buzzing city that looked more like any European city with narrow streets, old buildings and crowds of people. Our father was always making us follow him, knowing and understanding the character of large cities better than us.
We enjoyed some food, typical of Canada with a lot of meat of which we had not seen in Russia, Persia, Africa or England. After the war, all the above-mentioned countries had a shortage of all different kinds of foods, but Africa was 100% vegetarian.
We walked back to the station and left Montreal by train at 11:00pm. We spent four days and three nights on the coach train to Manitoba, and witnessed a new open look in this country as opposed to the old one, with densely populated communities.
The vast grain fields had already been harvested and the loggers were moving large timber to their storage locations. Occasionally there were farmhouses surrounded by trees and bushes, but no people were visible through our train windows.
There were miles and miles of agricultural land and it felt like we were on some distant abandoned planet. The train would stop at many stations in larger communities to service the engine and fill up with water.
It was already dark when the train made a final stop at the Rossburn, Manitoba station, where my Aunt Josephine, her husband Peter, son Johnny and daughter Helen greeted us warmly. My father, not having had seen his sister since they were teenagers hugged each other emotionally and we followed them to their house. It was a lovely three-bedroom bungalow with electricity, wood burning stove, nice well taken care of furniture in the living room, and bedrooms with beds, dressers and pictures of the family and landscapes. Our father’s uncle and his wife, to whose family Josephine, being only 19 years old, immigrated to, were also present.
The table covered with a tablecloth had some homemade preserves, pastry and homemade cakes, which were an excellent treat for the late hour we arrived. The food was super and Father praised his sister for being such a great hostess. The elderly relatives left and our aunt had all our accommodations ready for the night. We were happy to curl up in beds, and not to have to wake up on the train. We had an early breakfast and tried to get better acquainted with members of the family.
Uncle Peter found a job for my father for a year, in a compulsory program for all new immigrants to this country at that time. My sister Mary left for Winnipeg to study piano and I went to school in Grade 11. I was only qualified to take French, History, Math, Physics and Chemistry. The rest of the subjects required a better knowledge of the English language. I was treated exceptionally well by all the students and was able to participate in all the activities. On weekends, our aunt kept my cousin Helen and me busy rigorously cleaning and dusting the house, for she was a very meticulous person. My uncle was a city police officer, so he was not seen around the house very often. My other cousin Johnny was busy with his school and sports, so we would only see him on the field.
When Christmas arrived, it was customary to visit all the people who lived on farms and sing happy songs about Jesus Christ so we ran in the deep snow to every home singing carols and getting a few cookies in return. After this exhausting job I was frozen, not having been prepared for the Canadian winter and barely out of Africa, where I lived for five years.
My Aunt made a party with a turkey dinner for many families who were relatives of both my aunt and uncle. They used to take turns having that kind of celebration every year. She had nothing missing on the table, the food was excellent and the table looked like the front page of the Eaton’s magazine. The only thing I missed was having another stomach. My sister Mary remained in Winnipeg having had been busy with concerts which were a part of learning the piano and we had a chance to hear her on the radio, performing. Father and I were present, but he was too busy with the men, discussing politics and playing chess.
In the next couple of days, we were back to normal. My father planned to go to Shiloh for a job at a military post for the summer, and my aunt was making plans to send me to Brandon Manitoba to work for the summer holidays at her friend’s Steak house.
When the school year was over and I received a passing report card. I was driven to Brandon Manitoba right to another relative’s house where I rented a room for two months. Ollie, the owner of the restaurant hired me on the spot and put me to work that instant. Her husband, an Irish man was the chef and they had a successful business. After two months, I met my father in Winnipeg, where I continued my education and signed up at the St John’s Technical High school to take grade 12 in 1950.
The 1950 Winnipeg flood spoiled all my plans, for the school was flooded and had to be closed down. I had to take a job and never went back to school; another reason being my lack of knowledge of the English language.
I worked and took several courses, landing a job in an office, and then the Toronto-Dominion Bank, as a Secretary, which was exceptional for an immigrant. Father decided to go to Toronto and urged me to join him so we could be closer to Mary, who was married and had a son.
All this happened, and I got married to a Canadian with a big heart and a good sense of humour, who made me feel like I belonged in this country and helped me forget about the difficult ten years of my past life.
My husband Mitch, a talented violinist, was drafted by his stepfather into his furniture business and learnt the art of custom upholstering, a very artistic craft that was more promising than music at the time, and which remains his hobby to this day.
My Father received a letter from the government promoting him to the rank of Lieutenant but died of a massive heart attack in 1973 at the age of
74. I joined Mitch in 1974 and we opened Decorisma Furniture and Custom Built Upholstery.
Mary, my sister and my best friend with whom I suffered in exile, was married to Michael Jozefacki and they had three boys; Alexander, Richard and Michael who live in Toronto. Mary and her youngest son Michael are both gone now.
My stepmother Theodosia, stepsister Martha and stepbrother Andrew are also gone now, but Martha’s son Cameron also lives in Toronto.
Witold, who had been a Lieutenant in the army, went back to Poland after the war, where he studied law and became a lawyer. He married and had three sons. We corresponded regularly especially around holiday seasons. Sadly, he passed away in the 1980s, leaving me as the last family survivor in this country. After his brothers passed away, my nephew Krzysio, was the last surviving family member in Poland. I am not counting the in-laws, for that is another story.
Mitch and I bought a house; have four healthy and talented children Mitchell Jr., Victoria, Christine and Robert and their respective partners: Mandy, Scott, Danny and Vicky, who all make their own contribution to Canadian society.
Our two grandchildren, Michelle and Daniel, make our life complete. At the age of 74, Mitch and I closed our business, retired and sold our house in Toronto, deciding to move to Peterborough ON. We presently spend our time on hobbies, visiting friends and family throughout Ontario, travelling, and going to concerts and shows. This is what seniors should be doing and more, if they have even more exotic plans and desires.
Quite frequently, I reminisce about our plight in the past, and I cannot thank our father enough for his selfless care and concern for us girls, and for saving our lives through his clever maneuvering. Without him, I would have definitely been ashes now, like some of the unfortunate orphans who had crossed my path and had nobody to act as their safety net through this ungodly period.
This biography was prepared through the encouragement and inspiration of Sister Dolores Pius (Passionist Sister), in charge of the Polish School, John Paul II, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.
I dedicate this biography to my family:
Mitchell Wallace Sr.
Mitchell Wallace Jr.
and their families
April 6, 2010