Helena Wiśniewska Brow – Give us this day

Give us this day cover

Give us this day by Helena Wiśniewska Brow.
Wellington: VUP (2015).
RRP: $30.
Pb, 288pp.
ISBN: 9781776560509.

Reviewed by Ludmila Sakowski.

In his book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera wrote: ‘there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels for someone, … pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes’. These lines resonated several times with me while reading Give us this day: A Memoir of Family and Exile by Helena Wiśniewska Brow.

The author is a Wellington-based writer and journalist and the 2013 recipient of the Adam Prize in Creative Writing – the first time it was awarded for a memoir.  Having grown up in Whakatāne in the eastern Bay of Plenty, where her parents’ foreignness offered the only link to their tragic past, Helena and her sister spent a happy childhood, well adapted to provincial Kiwi town life.  In the late 1980s, Helena completed an arts degree at Victoria University and, having gained a postgraduate journalism qualification at the University of Canterbury, she worked for the New Zealand Press Association in Wellington and later in London.  Subsequently, having completed two short creative writing courses at Victoria University’s IIML in 2009 and 2010, she quit work in public sector communications to pursue a Master of Arts in Creative Writing in 2013 and to draft a full-length manuscript which became the book I am reviewing here – admittedly with tender and deeply felt hesitancy.

On one level, Helena’s book is a personal journey, of a Kiwi child of East European exiles: a Polish father and a Russian Jewish mother. Knowing little of her father’s birth place, Helena embarks on an inquisitive journey locating new relatives, discovering ‘new’ places and narratives that would illuminate her own, as well as her father’s psychological legacy. Despite Stefan Wiśniewski’s advanced age he was able to assist Helena in her quest and, together, father and daughter made several visits to his home town Brześć (now Brest in Belarus).

On another level, there is a breadth and symbolic depth in this story making it larger than a personal memoir. It is an emblematic account of the 732 refugee children with whom Stefan arrived in New Zealand on the 31st of October 1944, one of the first WWII refugee intakes adopted temporarily by this country. All of these children (the majority of whom were orphans) had experienced systematic repression, mass arrests and deportation to forced labour camps in Soviet Russia from 1939 until 1941, under a policy of ethnic cleansing of Polish citizens.

As his compatriot, I feel compassion and empathy for Stefan Wiśniewski’s pain and loss, as well as for the plight of all the refugees who arrived with him at that time. Having read this book, and invoking Kundera once again, I realise that there is indeed nothing heavier than the compassion and pain one feels for another; pain ‘intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes’ of the 732 Polish children and the 102 Polish custodian staff with whom they sailed into Wellington Harbour towards the end of the WWII and eventually were settled in a camp at Pahīatua.1

Pahiatua Polish Children

Stefan, his brother and three sisters were among those offered refuge in a camp outside Pahīatua, a rural town in the northern Wairarapa, in the Mangatainoka River valley. The town’s name comes from the Māori words for resting place (pahi) and god (atua) and, perhaps not surprisingly, the camp became known, affectionately, as ‘Little Poland’. The assumption was that the Polish contingent would return home after the war. But, in reality, there was nowhere to return to. The former eastern territories of Poland were annexed by the Soviet Union and their Polish population expelled towards the end and in the aftermath of the WWII.

In search of stolen time

The odyssey of the Pahīatua Polish children – their harrowing exodus in cattle trucks from Poland via Siberian labour camps, the malnutrition and death of their loved ones, their transit through refugee camps in Iran, their sea journey to the Pacific, to being greeted by Prime Minister Peter Fraser on arrival in New Zealand – has been told in a plethora of books. Some of these have been written by the Pahīatua children themselves.2 Several accounts were published in 2004 to coincide with the reunion celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the Polish children’s arrival in New Zealand and many of whom became New Zealand citizens.

Give us this day is a deeply honest gathering and articulation of the experiences of loss and exclusion. The author recounts her youthful desire to distance herself from her exiled parents, particularly her father who was often ‘moody, ‘proud’, ‘defiant’ and frequently short of time (p 78) and depressed (p 189). But, with the passage of time and the advent and challenges of motherhood, Helena’s perspective broadens and deepens as she begins to recognise the psychological toll of displacement. ‘My childhood wish for my father’s happy-ever-after ending in New Zealand was never going to come true’ (p 193).

Slowly, with patience and insistence Helena prompts her father’s and his siblings’ memories. There are occasions of friction and confusion, some concerning her inability to speak Polish. But her enquiry is earnest, graced with the innocence of an outsider who, like many Kiwis, had little understanding of why, after over sixty years in Aotearoa New Zealand, people like her father and his folks remain so ‘fiercely protective of their [Polish identity] and of each other’ (p 115).

Ultimately, the author comes ‘to understand that [she is] outside that experience’ (p 116) – experiences her father, his living siblings and Pahīatua comrades share intimately, without words. Or, more often, in their native tongue. Helena indicates that, without the help of her father’s translations, she would have remained unable to comprehend these past experiences.  And it is this awareness of the weight of silence and the significance of memory, overcome by father and daughter, that marks this book as much more than a memoir and, achingly, still so relevant.

Apart from being another testament of the tragic impact of war, Give us this day is part of a continuing narrative of the history, not only the Pahīatua Polish war orphans, but of all such war casualties – voiced with penetrating enquiry and touching sensitivity by a daughter. The importance of understanding and remembrance is psychologically and philosophically central to this book.

And even though the author does not find all the answers she sought, nor locate all the missing pieces that might have satisfied her puzzlement and curiosity, her quest of the stolen, articulated with honesty and insight, shows how complex and difficult it has been for her, and probably for most of the Pahīatua children’s children, to grow up in Aotearoa New Zealand shaped by distinctive foreignness, deracination and forced exile. In this regard, the photographs and captions included in the book are particularly pertinent.

Helena and Zoe Wiśniewska

Helena Wiśniewska (left, age 12) and sister, Zofia (age 10), 
at the now demolished grotto on the site of the Pahīatua Polish Children’s Camp, 1974.
Between us is a piece of my father’s past, slowly disappearing into history, just like his two little girls’.
Image courtesy of the author and VUP.

This book is an emotive, beautifully written memoir and a study of displacement; it is a story of WWII persons which needed to be told from another point of view. It will resonate deeply with many New Zealanders, especially those who came here as immigrants and whose stories (some written by themselves, by historians, sociologists and anthropologists) have rarely been told by their progeny who still live with the aftermath of a war long since ‘past’. Such progeny, despite being apparently well-adjusted, second-generation offspring of immigrants, in varying degrees, carry their parents’ unresolved trauma and emotional pain throughout their own lives. Thus, Helena Wiśniewska Brow’s book demonstrates that memoir can be more than a set genre.

'Monolith' (1975) by Tanya Ashken

Some of the masonry from the grotto shrine built by the refugees (and featured in the book) were incorporated in the commemorative work, Monolith (1975), evoking a mother and child, by the Wellington-based sculptor, Tanya Ashken. Image courtesy of the Artist.

One comment: for the benefit of readers unfamiliar with the internal and external complexities of the Polish politics before, during and after WWII times, it may have helped if some notes, elucidating the intricacies behind Polish exiles’ plight, could have been included in the book. Some readers may wonder, for example, why Polish civilians and their families were deported by the Stalinist army from Polish territories. What was the principal motive for the ethnic cleansing actions undertaken by the Soviets? Why did Poland have two governments operating concurrently towards the end of the WWII?  Why was it that the temporary refuge for the Polish civilians and children released from the Soviet camps was instigated by the Polish government-in-exile operating from London and not the Soviet-controlled Provisional Government of National Unity? What was the stance of the Polish socialist government regarding the return of Polish citizens living in New Zealand after the war? These issues remain unclear in Helena Wiśniewska Brow’s superbly written memoir. The silences surrounding these issues indicate that there is still much to bring to light which might contribute to our understanding of the insanity of war, the denial of differences and the necessity for tolerance and compassion.

1 The camp was originally established at Pahīatua during WWII to intern ‘enemy aliens’ who were moved there from Somes Island in 1943. In 1944 they were sent back to the island and the camp became home to 732 Polish children, refugees from war-torn Europe. Maria Wodzicka, herself a Polish immigrant, helped negotiate their acceptance by the New Zealand government.

2 See: Chmielow: Our Paradise Lost (2015) by Czesia Panek; A Strange outcomethe remarkable survival story of a Polish child (2004) by John Roy-Wojciechowski and Allan Parker; Polish Kiwis. Pictures from an Exhibition (2006), by Halina Suchański (based on the ‘Polish Kiwis’ exhibition, a collection of stories, photographs and artefacts from the Polish survivors of WWII living in Canterbury, organised by The Polish Association in Christchurch Inc. and the Canterbury Museum) and The Invited (1972) by Krystyna Skwarko.

Ludmila 5Ludmila Sakowski lives in Kaiapoi, North Canterbury. She moved there in 2010 having previously spent twenty seven years in Dunedin with her husband and two children. They arrived in NZ from Austria as refugees from Communist Poland under the auspices of the NZ government, sponsored by the Dunedin Presbyterian St Clair Church. She learned English language in Aotearoa and was Highly Commended in the 2012  takahē Cultural Studies Essay Competition and Commended as one of a “strong field of 32 entries” in the Otago University Press Landfall Essay Competition 2015.

First published takahe 87
August 2016