Sunday, February 14, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“GIVE US THIS DAY – A Memoir of Family and Exile” by Helena Wisniewska Brow (Victoria University Press, $40)

            Sometimes great events in history are seen more clearly by us in the form of the individual memoir.
I am sorry that I did not get to review Helena Wisniewska Brow’s excellent family memoir and personal history Give Us This Day when it first came out in 2014. But I am delighted to do so now that Victoria University Press has produced a paperback edition.
Middle-aged and married with a family of her own, Helena Wisniewska Brow is the New Zealand-born daughter of a New Zealand-born Jewish mother, and a Polish father who was one of the 732 Polish children refugees welcomed to New Zealand by Peter Fraser’s government in 1944. Inevitably this memoir focuses on Stefan Wisniewski, 14 years old when he landed in Wellington and now an old man in his eighties. The trials and hardships of young Stefan and his family in wartime provide the book’s most dramatic moments. But Give Us This Day is also a book about an adult daughter coming to understand more fully who both her parents are; and it is a book about the condition of being an exile and the extreme difficulty of connecting with a new society – even one that is largely welcoming and friendly.
The author writes throughout in the first person and records events in both her parents’ lives, not in chronological order, but in the order in which they were revealed to her. Twice she and her father (and sometimes her younger sister Zofia) travelled to modern, post-communist Poland and sought out the places her father would have known when he was a boy. Once she and her father travelled to modern Iran, where wartime Polish refugees were based before being dispersed to various countries. Of course she also researched in archives, looked at other books written about the Polish children refugees, and interviewed a number of people. But the main interaction was with her father, so that it is Stefan Wisniewski’s voice which plays second only to the author’s.

The big events that influenced his life go something thus: Pre-war Poland was not a paradise, as in its eastern areas there were racial tensions between Lithuanians, Jews and the Poles who ruled. There was indeed some Polish anti-Semitism, which the author does not skip over. However, things were relatively peaceful in the area, and for the very small child Stefan it was almost idyllic. When Hitler and Stalin went into alliance in 1939, however, catastrophe followed. While Hitler overran and annexed west and central Poland, Stalin claimed all the eastern areas and incorporated them into the Soviet Union. About 20,000 of Poland’s intellectual elite were murdered by the NKVD at Katyn Wood, to prevent a new nationalist leadership arising. From early 1940 to mid-1941, over 500,000 Polish citizens (c.25% of them Jews) were deported to labour camps in Siberia. Additionally, when Hitler double-crossed his fellow gangster and invaded the USSR in June 1941, retreating Russian troops massacred about 150,000 Polish POWs whom they were still holding in prisons. Later, the USSR did a deal with Britain, which allowed a Polish fighting force to be formed. Between March and September 1942, 116,000 Poles, 20,000 of them teenagers and children, were evacuated from the USSR to what was then called Persia. This was only a fraction of all those who had been deported from Poland, many of whom went on to die in Soviet camps. (Helena Wisniewska Brow gives these well-attested facts at p.134 and pp.89-90).  
How was young Stefan caught up in this? His family farmed just to the east of the River Bug, which marked the boundary of what Stalin had grabbed. Their hometown, Brest, is in what is now Belarus. As many others have similarly recalled, old Stefan remembers the invading Red Army in 1939 as a raggle-taggle peasant bunch, envious even of the meagre wealth that Polish peasant farmers owned. One assumes they were the survivors of the collectivisation and mass starvations that had happened in Stalin’s tsardom:
My father remembers the mass arrival a few days later of the underwhelming Russian conquerors. After the smart and well-equipped German invaders, the Russian soldiers were disappointing. ‘They looked terrible,’ my father says, ‘so awful.’ Old rifles were held to their chests with pieces of string rather than leather straps; many had no boots. Some were starving and begged locals for food. ‘They couldn’t get over how well off we were,’ Dad says, laughing now. ‘Us!’ ” (p.56)
In 1941 Stefan, his mother and most of his siblings were loaded onto cattle trucks and taken to Siberia. In Siberia they were “settled” in such a way that they had to scrabble for food and were often on the verge of starving. The book’s title is explained when Stefan’s daughter records:
 “I remember him telling me when I was a child how he’d made a deal with God when he was in Russia. If God gave him enough bread to eat, he would remain a faithful and devoted Catholic for the rest of his life. This made perfect sense to me at the time. Give us this day our daily bread. It’s the deal I would have made too, I remember thinking, and clear evidence that God must have been listening to his prayers.” (p.101)
The person who kept up Stefan’s spirits the most, and basically kept the siblings together, was his big sister Hela. The cover photograph of Give Us This Day shows 14-year-old Stefan and Hela mourning at their mother’s grave in Tehran.
Then there was New Zealand.
For the young Poles, this should have been a happy ending and parts of it were. There was a real welcome. Many people were generous with their time, even if the refugees’ camp at Pahiatua was a little regimented. Stefan recalls an idyllic brief holiday with the family of a New Zealand teenager with whom, in old age, he has an emotional reunion. But there was also the ache of exile, the alienness of New Zealand and a chronic inability to either fit in or feel at peace.
Stefan met and married a New Zealand woman, Olga, in 1959. Helena Wisniewska Brow is very even-handed about both her parents and it is clear that in some ways the marriage was one of two lost souls. Olga was Jewish. She came from a divided and dysfunctional family. Her daughter’s version suggests that Olga was running away from her family in marrying Stefan, and Stefan was trying to find stability in marrying Olga. It was unusual for a Polish Catholic to marry a Jew, but Olga agreed that the children would be raised as Catholics and on that level there was a certain stability. Even so, there were arguments, moody nights when Dad would disappear to the pub, and suggestions of things in the past of both parents that were not being told to Stefan’s and Olga’s two daughters.
If the most traumatic events in this memoir concern Stefan’s childhood, the author’s own most painful memories concern her attitudes towards her parents when she was a teenager. Growing up in Whakatane in the 1970s, young Helena was embarrassed by the shabbiness of her family home; embarrassed by her father’s money-saving handyman activities, which sometimes went wrong; embarrassed by the unglamorous car the family drove; and embarrassed by some aspects of the family’s Polish heritage. Much of this is simple, predictable and excusable teenage angst (no parents are good enough, or cool enough, for a 16-year-old). But it is overlaid with the sense of a second-generation child alienated from her parents’ inherited culture and wanting to be just an “ordinary” New Zealander. Obviously these are not the attitudes of the adult Helena Wisniewska Brow who is writing this book and is fully aware of the impossibility of complete assimilation. But they were the attitudes of her former self.
Overcoming this mindset took growing up and researching and writing this book. Some of the sadnesses that visited the displaced adult Poles were relentless. Stefan’s admired older sister Hela also settled in New Zealand but – despite an apparently stable marriage – her mental condition deteriorated and she was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. The author recalls from childhood some of her aunt’s odd or disturbing behaviour.
By middle age, Stefan desired more and more to revisit the country from which he had been uprooted. Recalling her journeys there with him, the author notes how different post-Communist, Westernised Poland is from neighbouring Belarus, which was once the eastern Poland in which Stefan was born. When they venture across the Bug River to what was once called Brest, she notes:
 “The following morning’s bleak autumn sunshine conformed my dismal first impressions of Brest. The Hotel Intourist was even less attractive in daylight, a blank block of socialist realist architecture on a wide thoroughfare, a broken fountain in its car park. Life-sized bronze children danced around an empty pool littered with autumn leaves…. In each direction, tidy streets were lined with blank-windowed buildings and badly lit stores. Locals wearing stilettos and leather jackets brushed past us, averting their eyes when they heard us speaking English. It was as if they were unaware that their city was only a few kilometres away from modern Europe. To the west, and across the broad, slow-moving Bug River skirting the city, was Poland, its back firmly turned on its poorer eastern neighbour.”(pp.46-47)
Both father and daughter are perturbed by how different Brest is from the homeland the father recalled, and how difficult it is for the father to identify places when there has been such change and when his memory is fading. He is uncertain about the exact location of what was once the family home:
 “ ‘I think this was our tree, our pear tree,’ Dad said, and then: ‘Actually, I’m not sure.’ He was muttering, walking in circles. I was worried. Did he really know where we were?.... The spot could easily have been another 100 metres that way – or that. There was no sign of a house having been there. How did he know it was there?” (p.49)
And yet, in Poland, Belarus and Iran, connections are made and memories are kindled and some surviving, aged members of Stefan’s extended family are met. There were those who had managed to make it back from their Soviet exile, and a very few who had prospered. For the New Zealand-born author, however, there is an unbridgeable gap between herself and those of her relatives who are still living a traditional Polish life. Meeting one such, Helena Wisniewska Brow reflects:
Maria and her family were living the simple lives of my ancestors, but this place wasn’t mine. I understood my father’s wartime exile was a tragedy for him; I knew it was a blessing for me.” (p.222)
For Stefan, the return journeys are sentimental journeys. For the author, they are proof that she is a New Zealander after all, and not a Pole.
Or is it that simple?
There is a great wrench in this book between the desire to exorcise, or come to terms with, the past; and the realization that the past, including the lives of our forebears, remains a part of who we are.
Sad and horrible in parts of the experience it records, Give Us This Day is an excellent example of the memoir where the personal meshes with the historical, illuminating the impact on individuals of those great events that the history books record. In the interplay of the father’s and the daughter’s voices, it is a layered and well-written book.

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Personal Footnote: Ten years back I wrote an article for Australian Historical Studies (issue of October 2006) called “Struggle for Souls”. It dealt with the clash in New Zealand between the Catholic Church and the tiny (and mainly insignificant) New Zealand Communist Party. Any strong evidence that all was not well in Stalin’s domain was anathema to the local Communists and was denounced as propaganda in their paper, the People’s Voice. Almost as soon as the Polish children refugees arrived in New Zealand, the People’s Voice began a low-level hate campaign against them, because the Poles bore such clear witness to the fact that Stalin had practised atrocities against the Poles just as Hitler had. So there appeared abusive pieces in the People’s Voice saying that the Polish kids were “agents of reaction” and so forth. Fortunately, as I found when I interviewed some elderly Poles for another project, this had absolutely no impact on the refugee Poles, who hadn’t even heard of the CPNZ. But then neither had most New Zealanders.
Here’s another memory. In the decade before I was born, a neighbourhood family billeted one of the Polish children. He acquired the nickname “Pete the Pole”. I was told by members of the family that when the kid arrived in New Zealand he knew only two words of English. They were “Shoot Russians!” Fair enough.

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