Visiting the homeland
Growing up, I was always aware that my father was Polish. He always spoke Polish to his friends on the telephone and my friends always told me that he had a strong accent.
I remember spending quite a lot of time at the Polish House in Auckland, especially during the construction of its new premises in the early 1970s and when my dad still did Polish dancing. Once I had entered my teens and became heavily involved in the youth group in our parish, I didn't have much to do with the Polish community in Auckland anymore.
Dad never spoke in detail about his ordeal during Word War II and his journey to New Zealand. When I read The Invited, by Krystyna Skwarko, I understood him a lot better, though I found, and still find, it hard to believe that these people went through such hell to reach their new home. I regret that dad never spoke Polish to me, my brother or sister when we were kids. I began learning the language a few years ago and must admit that I didn't get very far. Also, regrettably, not speaking the language prevented me from visiting my dad's relatives in Poland when I travelled there in 1993. But I sent them a postcard in English to let them know that I was in the country, hoping that one of the younger generation was learning English and could translate it for the family.
I had been led to believe that most young people were learning English but I did not come across many Poles who understood me. I met up with an English couple who were on holiday and they were kind enough to let me accompany them on sightseeing trips, including the salt mines at Wieliczka and white-water rafting on the Dunajec River.
One such trip was to the German concentration camp Auschwitz. I had heard stories, read books and seen TV programmes about the atrocities there, but nothing prepared me for the visit. Walking through the buildings was harrowing.
I still remember seeing the piles of thousands of artificial limbs, spectacles, suitcases, and brushes and combs, and thinking that they had belonged to fellow human beings who had been killed for no good reason. I had tears in my eyes when I walked through the crematorium and saw fresh flowers left in places, presumably by relatives of people who had been killed there. Before my visit, I had been told that the birds don't sing at Auschwitz. And it's true. An page 224eerie silence hangs over the camp and tourists tend to whisper or say nothing as a sign of respect.
I was driven through the countryside from the east of Germany down to Kraków and on to Zakopane. The towns and villages I went through were depressing. It looked as though the war had ended the previous week, instead of 49 years earlier. The buildings were very drab, in grey and khaki colours, and the streets were very rough with no footpaths.
But the countryside was lush and green, and the farmhouses were very well maintained. Many of them had holy shrines built into walls and their gardens were full of beautiful flowers. I was struck by the abundance of extremely tall sunflowers – that's probably when they came to represent something more to me than just pretty flowers.
When I was in Poland, I understood the cultural differences. I felt wealthy compared to most people I met and could afford to buy anything I wanted. I took advantage of the cheap amber that was available at the markets, but I knew that the people on the stalls were trying to make a living to feed and clothe their families. Things American were starting to appear and the young people were getting into its pop music. Everyone I met was very nice and helpful, even though there was a language barrier. The people in the tourist bureau in Zakopane went out of their way to ensure that I made the most of my time there and I was well looked after.
I hope to go back to Poland one day, preferably with my father, to meet my relatives and see how my distant family lives. My father knows that he is privileged to live in New Zealand, but he never forgot his homeland and, I am sure, would dearly love to share that with his "Kiwi" family.page 225