And so we come to the end of my grandmother’s story…
Days were scorching hot so we had to stay inside our tents, but nights were chilly. We had one army blanket for the four of us so we had to decide if were to sleep over or under it. We slept under it as my two older sisters wanted it so.
I developed a double pneumonia. Soldiers walked from tent to tent looking for sick people whom they removed to their “sick room”, later to be transported to the hospital (stretches in army tents). No doctors, no medicine.
The room was full with sick people so someone decided to put me, being unconscious, in an empty filing cabinet. Another person came and closed it. When I came round, probably from lack of air, I began to moan loudly. Another lady, from our tent, was passing by and heard me. She promptly carried me back to the tent and whispered that nobody ever came back from that tent alive. We kept quiet that I was ill. I survived for a third time.
My sister Hela, because of her prolonged starvation from when she missed the train, had weakened her whole system and heart. One early evening, she and Mila went for a walk where she dropped dead. The soldiers picked up her body and buried her – mass burials. We did know where and when. Hela, at the time of her death, was about sixteen years old. (Although she never wrote it down, I remember her telling me that she felt slightly relieved because there was one less person to share the blanket with.)
In June 1942, there was to be a conference in Tehran between The Big Three: Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt but unfortunately there was nowhere to land the planes.
We were promptly resettled. Red Cross still looked after us. Youngest children were taken to Isfahan (in Iran). Lovely green town. Magnificent mosques and private homes. The rest were moved somewhere else, among them Marysia.
Shah’s country estate accommodated one thousand boys. Rich men’s private homes were put to our disposal. My elder sister Mila and I were, together with 280 other girls, put in one such home. At last we slept in beds. Water could be drawn from a well and, although cold, we could sponge our bodies with a cloth.
We were given wool dresses but we itched all the time. We ate quite well, providing the Persians did not attack the food convoys and steal our food. We also had a French lady coming to us, teaching us French songs and repeating the times table. By then I had been taught in three languages.
There was talk of Persia being attacked by Russia, so the Red Cross, before sending us to India and Africa, tried uniting families. Marysia came to Isfahan. A few months later, our father, stationed in Iraq, heard of us being in Isfahan and came looking. What luck, he found Marysia first and she brought him to us. That was a few weeks before we embarked on a journey to India and my father to Italy to fight at Monte Carlo. That was the last time I saw my father.
We travelled to Ahvaz (Iran) to board a converted merchant ship “Dunera” with a French captain at the helm. A thousand of us; mothers and children. I don’t remember any men, just the crew and a priest. We were destined for India but on the way we encountered a submarine. They had seen us and we them but no attack came. The captain heard that a boat with children under ten, destined for South Africa, had been torpedoed. He took it upon himself to change the course and sail for S.A.
General Jan Smuts wanted children but not mothers. Five hundred mothers and children were accepted by the British government in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). They disembarked in Momasa, Kenya. The other 500 orphaned children, a few lady teachers and two crippled male teachers accompanied us to Port Elizabeth. We waited for the military camp in Oudtshoorn to be emptied and readied for us.
We had arrived in South Africa.
We lived in army barracks. Not a tree or flower in sight. Shows that only men lived there. We immediately started on the flower gardens and planted a few shrubs. It was much more pleasant to live there.
It had a large hall where we could gather for social events. One barrack was allocated as our chapel where we had mass daily, with lots of enthusiastic singing. Not that the children knew any of the words but we made enough loud noise for the Oudtshoorn residents to know that they had new neighbours. The teachers got immediately to sorting out our ages and previous education. Soon enough, we were organised into classes. I was, by then, ten years old and should have been in Standard One, under “normal” circumstances. So, I was put in Standard One – even though I couldn’t read or write as I hadn’t had proper school yet. The teachers didn’t know the difference however as we had no books or pens. We learned poetry by repeating after the teacher and times table too.
We sung a lot of songs and church hymns. As luck would have it, I had a fantastic memory so the teacher never realised that I couldn’t read or write but by the time the books arrived, it was too late. She liked me because I could sing and make up my own songs. I learned to print and when she realised I couldn’t do cursive, she put her hand on mine and taught me properly. After that, I was the top of her class and the youngest too. Some of my classmates were at least fifteen years old.
Besides the hall, there was no other entertainment. Later on, somebody made us a few swings. About a year later, a few church women from Johannesburg collected some toys and dolls for us. The boys got a soccer ball and kicked it around. The camp was treated as an orphanage and Child Welfare looked after us.
The Polish government, having learned of our presence in S.A., demanded Jan Smuts to return us, to which he replied, “They’ve just come from Communism, I’m not going to return them to it.” We were given a choice to return to our parents, wherever they were. Someone was paying for it. About fifty children found a family member and chose to join them. We chose to stay.
We progressed in school and, in the final year, we even got a retired teacher to teach us English without much success. I like to think she learned more Polish.
Life continued slowly until someone in 1948, just before the election where Jan Smuts realised that he might lose, decided to settle the future of the camp.
It was advertised amongst the Catholic schools that about four hundred children needed accommodation at boarding schools, and thank god, we were placed throughout the country. Mila and I were settled in Sacred Heart Convent in Graaff Reinet.
I was fifteen years old, not a word of English. Mila, who was already in a sewing class, continued to learn the skill and, after a year, left for Johannesburg to find work. She did easily and immediately.
When I turned sixteen, Child Welfare called me in and asked me if I wanted to join my father in England. I refused. I was warm; I slept in my own bed, clothed, fed and taught. What else did I need? I didn’t really know him anymore. We had all changed and he could not offer me anything in England after the war. I hadn’t completed school and spoke English poorly; what opportunity did I have there? So, with a snag in my heart, I decided to stay.
The nuns realised my situation and offered six of the best students to keep us with them, at no cost, until we matriculated. And people say that there are no miracles?
I did them proud. I matriculated as an English and Afrikaans Stenographer (a dictation transcriber). I could earn a good wage living in Johannesburg so I joined Mila who was, by then, married to an ex-soldier. I started work two days after my eighteenth birthday (my grandmother doesn’t remember her original birthday – her sisters knew it was between Christmas and New Year, so they decided to make it the thirty-first.) Marysia, who had been based in Port Elizabeth, came to join us. We were together again.
In one of my reflective moments, while I was singing and playing the organ, these words came to mind:
CHILDREN ON THE RUN
A little girl in a torn slip
Arrived in P.E. on a ship
Hoping that Jannie would say
“Children, you’re welcome to stay”
And he did.
My grandmother turns eighty-four this year, riddled with dementia. Some days are better than others. However, she is very grateful of the life she has led. She married the love of her life, had three children and then lost him to a heart attack when my mother was twenty-one and her sons were still in high school. Her hair turned bone white in a week. She remarried but it wasn’t the same and so they parted ways, where she came to live with my mom, dad and me. We didn’t always enjoy each other’s company, if I’m totally honest. How could we? She was, and is, the strongest, most determined, not to mention stubborn (she had to – it’s called survival) person I’ve ever met. I guess, that’s where I get it from 🙂
Love you Babcia