Writing Wellington: Twenty Years of Victoria University Writing Fellows
Pale bony fingers gripped the top rail on B deck as he surveyed the houses perched on the steep green hills surrounding Wellington's inner harbour.
Chaim Walkowitz was not afraid of falling overboard. He was afraid of missing something that would reveal whether or not New Zealand was a suitable home for a twelve-year-old Polish orphan.
The SS Ormonde steamed through the heads on a clear day in January 1946. A brisk warm northerly chopped the harbour waters , but the elements were irrelevant as Chaim studied this strange city on the opposite side of the planet to the malevolence that had devastated his childhood.
Goats would find it easier using those houses.
The youngster's height when standing erect meant the top rail was at eye level and obscuring his line of sight. He had to bend his knees to get a better view. Except that pushing his head forward to increase the angle of his vision bumped the peak of the grey cloth cap against the rail and down over his sad brown eyes, forcing him to bend even more and tilt his face upwards to observe the new world passing the ship's port side.
Chaim's discomfort was as irrelevant as the elements.
Baggy brown woollen shorts accentuated thin legs with one grey sock up and one grey sock down. The oversize grey jacket had been given to him by a Salvation Army woman at the London refugee centre, hoping her gesture might somehow alleviate the horrors this pathetic little boy must have endured. It covered a short-sleeved white shirt that Mrs Polikoff had ironed at five-thirty that morning for their apprehensive arrival on these distant South Pacific islands. The jacket's sleeves had fallen back from his gaunt wrists to reveal the last three digits of the number '138521' tattooed on his left forearm.
The stocky figure of Mrs Polikoff stood bravely against the railing alongside young Chaim. A black woollen scarf covered her head and she clutched a dark blue overcoat about her ample body. Pure habit. January in the South Pacific bore no resemblance to Januaries in Europe.
Her soft face was never far from smiling. No matter what confronted her or her family she always held to the belief that, 'everything will be alright'. Never mind that for the past decade life had been appalling. Her fortitude depended upon hoping for the best, so she said 'everything will be alright' as if it answered for every tribulation.
Husband Victor was searching for their daughters. At seven and nine years old they were otherwise engaged during this historic moment with two Greek girls who had become their playmates during the five-and-a-half week journey. The ship's nooks and crannies made for endless games of hide and seek with squeals and giggles transcending the language barrier.
Mrs Polikoff's bravery was vital, as the 120 European refugees on the ship knew what they had lost but not what they would gain. They had survived pogroms, war and the death camps, but as New Zealand loomed closer by the minute there was the fear of the unknown. The feeling they were landing on page 8 with alien flora and fauna, not to mention alien rules, regulations, laws and commandments. The Polikoffs had spent many shipboard hours discussing their future in this country. A discussion made all the more difficult by having no real idea what life was like in this far-flung corner of the British Empire. As far as distance goes this was surely the ultimate diaspora and they were all familiar with the story of the refugee in a European transit camp asked to which country he would like to emigrate.
'New Zealand,' was the unenthusiastic reply.
'Why so far?' enquired the official.
'Far?' The refugee shrugged. 'From where?'
Still, one indisputable fact overshadowed their discussions about New Zealand being better or worse than Europe—unlike millions of others they were alive to start anew. Victor Polikoff was even luckier. He had the most wonderful cousin already living in New Zealand waiting to welcome them with a home and a job.
Chaim had been chosen along with eleven other orphans to start a new life at a Wellington establishment set up by a couple who had escaped Tsarist Russia and now offered shelter to as many Jewish orphans as the New Zealand government would allow into the country. The Polikoffs were Chaim's chaperones on the journey from London. On the journey from his home town to the death camp he had been in the company of his mother and three sisters, his father having died in 1939. A blessing he would not have envisaged in his worst nightmare.
The youngest Walkowitz was the only survivor.
When the family arrived at the camp males and females had been separated. He never saw his mother and sisters again, but even at ten years old he did not have to see them die to know one's ordered fate in a death camp.
Innocence was not an extenuating circumstance when the capital offence was your birth.
One of the many seagulls that had joined the ship in Cook Strait swooped down and up again directly in front of them. It could not divert his scrutiny of New Zealand.
Mrs Polikoff followed the flight of the seagull and it brought her gaze down to the forlorn twelve-year-old beside her. She noticed the button on his jacket was through the wrong buttonhole and bent down to correct it, as if this sartorial fault might have a negative influence on whatever bureaucracy processed their arrival in this country.
Chaim did not notice her fussing with his jacket.
They all wore second-hand clothing that accentuated their refugee status, with Chaim's the baggiest and saddest. He had said little since they first met in London seven weeks ago. Most of that had been for an English-speaking Polish schoolteacher who had organised daily language classes on the ship. A few of the refugees had dropped out of these two-hour lessons in frustration, but most of them had been glad of the opportunity for some sort of head start on whatever it was they would encounter 'down under'. Chaim had been the keenest, always seeking out the teacher as the time approached for page 9 the next lesson, making sure that he at least was on hand.
His dedication had been rewarded last night when the teacher announced that he had used the five and a half weeks of lessons to the best advantage and had picked up a sizeable vocabulary. Though she warned all of them that this difficult new language contained a host of unique words and phrases. Unfortunately, warning them that the little they had learnt could be easily misinterpreted made them doubt the little they had learnt, resulting in most of them retreating to 'please' and 'thank you', in the hope that at the very least the citizens of this country would recognise if not appreciate good manners.
They had survived a master plan wherein the lucky ones were designated infinitely superior and the unlucky ones manifestly inferior, so being polite could be the difference between life and death.
Someone pointed out a car driving along the sea-level road separating the urbanised hills from the white-capped waters. They studied the dark vehicle's progress in silence until it disappeared round a bend in one of the harbour's many small bays, leaving only the seagulls to show there was life in these islands.
By the time the ship docked they had a better idea of the local fauna.
Everyone—including Victor Polikoff and his daughters—crowded the railings to watch the harbour workers bring the ship alongside the wharf. They could have joined the bustling crowd downstairs waiting to disembark as soon as the ship tied up, but after five and a half weeks the ship had become familiar, whereas New Zealand was as mysterious as life after death.
One of the harbour workers waved to the refugees.
None waved back.
Chaim studied the strength, the competence of the big man tying a thick yellow rope to a rusty bollard and imagined himself having leapt ahead in time.
Me down there doing what that man's doing. Talking New Zealandese as if it's my only language. Living like I was born in New Zealand. Like my life was someone else's and that man was on B deck watching me with my New Zealand muscles tie my New Zealand ship to my New Zealand wharf.
* * *
Queuing before Customs officers and their wide wooden tables in a cavernous waterfront shed was a ludicrous formality, as the refugees had nothing but bundles of second-hand clothing.
The two senior Polikoffs spent most of their time waving and calling out in Yiddish to Victor's cousin and family waiting in the crowd roped off from the new arrivals. The two Polikoff daughters clung dumbfounded to their mother's rough woollen skirt while dark-uniformed New Zealanders went about the task of checking, stamping and signing pieces of paper as if a misplaced comma heralded Armageddon.
Occasionally an official would proffer a friendly greeting in English to a shabby newcomer. Usually this was met with a blank stare, but some responded page 10 with a nod or an apologetic smile. Like spectators at a tennis match, the children looked from the official to his target in the queue to see if what was said was understood, then back again to see what resulted when it clearly was not understood.
Chaim clung to no one.
In the midst of this regimented bustle he was left where he wanted to be left. Alone. He might look like a child, they might treat him like a child, but the death camp had culled the bewildered from the shrewd, the weak from the strong, the boys from the men and the unlucky from the lucky.
'This way!' An official unhooked the rope and beckoned the Polikoffs away from the wooden tables and into the tearful embrace of their relatives. Chaim avoided this fuss and stayed in the background until Mr and Mrs Davis, who owned the orphanage,stepped out of the crowd and made him the centre of attention.
'Chaim Walkowitz?' Mrs Davis beamed fierce blue eyes and a gold tooth down at the hapless child from atop her black, ankle-length astrakhan coat.
He nodded and stared blankly into the faces of those responsible for his presence in New Zealand.
The Polikoff family having fulfilled their obligation to chaperone him to the other side of the world, hugged the pale little boy goodbye and departed from his life forever.
Mr Davis was a short, round man prone to breathlessness at the slightest exertion. He always deferred to his wife who squatted to bring her face level with Chaim's and gripped his shoulders as if he must not escape, though the compassion in her voice belied any such intent. Holding him in this position she spoke quietly in Yiddish, to which he listened but did not react.
I spoke Yiddish on the other side of the world where it marked you out as an alien enemy, but here I'll speak New Zealandese or I'll speak nothing.
She explained about 'the Sterns'. A New Zealand Jewish couple who wanted to be his foster parents. They had a thirteen-year-old son and a twelve-year-old daughter. How did he feel about staying a week at their 'lovely home' with the promise that if he did not like it he was free to come and live at the orphanage, where he would be taken care of as if it was his own home? Where Mr and Mrs Davis would treat him as if he were their own son?