Monday, 6 August 2012

Biography as a means of survival

HALINA ROBINSON, our guest blogger, became a writer at the tender young age of 80. Three books later, it has been a remarkable journey.

I never had any ambition to write a book. I learned to read before going to school from the subtitles of the films I attended. They were mostly American, but sometimes French. No one in those pre-World War II years was making films for children in my native tongue, Polish.

Once I was able to read, I did so voraciously. When I was in the first grades of primary school my doctor father used to lock my books up during the week. I could read for pleasure only during weekends, he told me. On other days I should concentrate on homework and reading that was part of the school curriculum.

I turned to the books Dad had stacked on his bedside table. The most popular books for adults of this era were so-called ‘novel rivers’ totally unsuitable for someone my age. Some sophisticated expressions borrowed from these must have crept into my school compositions, but since they were spelled correctly no teacher ever commented.
Other than school assignments I was made to write monthly letters to my grandmother who lived a long way from our home. If initially I rebelled against yet another writing chore, I gradually came to enjoy reporting on my everyday life to this lady, the person I loved best in the world. I often added fancy phrases so that she would find my letters more interesting to read.

The outbreak of War turned my peaceful comfortable life upside down. I was swept from place to place like a cork on turbulent waters. I didn’t know what would happen to me from day to day, let alone in the future. I write about these years in my first book, 
A Cork on the Waves. When the War ended, I was alone, the sole survivor in Europe of the Holocaust of my large multi-generational family. All my school friends and my teachers had also vanished. Everything that had been familiar to me, a whole world with its structures, customs and institutions had gone as if it had never existed. There was not a trace of the community into which I had been born and where I lived for my first 14 years, nothing for me to cling to for support.

My survival was due to many interconnected miracles. I was lucky that I didn’t actually have to witness the cruel deaths of any of my loved ones.

I had to rebuild my life on my own. No one could do it for me. There was no point trying to search for another survivor who might recognise my pre-War self. During the War I had been given a false name to disguise who I really was. I had to become this make-believe person and believe that it was the real me. A few months after it ended, I was asked to become the governess to three daughters of a doctor in a small town not far from our destroyed capital, Warsaw. I had to make sure the girls used French at meal-times and that each of them practised the piano every day. In this happy home it was fairly easy for me to block out my painful Wartime experiences.

Within months I became a member of the family. ‘Daddy Doctor’ would introduce me to strangers as the orphaned daughter of a colleague, a surgeon like my real father killed during the War. ‘Mama Anna’ taught me to cook dinner and help her in the running of the household. We moved to Wroclaw, a big town in the ‘recovered territories’. ‘Daddy Doctor’ became a professor at the medical school and I enrolled as a student. These happy days were cut short by the sudden death of ‘Daddy Doctor’ and my own illness which made it impossible to finish my studies.

During the following 10 years I was washed from place to place, working, taking courses, and meeting my husband, Edek. We had two children together. The Communist rulers of Poland, initially announcing themselves as liberators bringing peace and normality, gradually became more and more oppressive. My husband found himself in serious trouble due to rumours about his sister who was allegedly living in Australia. During the War he had been involved with the leftist resistance movement and hence he was now approached to join the oppressors. To resolve a difficult situation we made the decision to leave the country. The new state of Israel was thriving, and I remembered attending Jewish school as a child and dreaming of going to Palestine to help build a Jewish state.

In 1957, my favourite cousin, Janek, one of two overseas survivors of our family, was living in Israel. We went to join him. But migration is never easy. We arrived unprepared for conditions very different from those imagined by the schoolgirl, daughter of a committed Zionist who was no longer by my side to guide me. Our years in Israel, which I write about in Treading Water in the Promised Land, were difficult, but with hindsight I consider we were lucky to have had this experience.
We moved on to Australia which, in 1961, was a very different country from the one we know today. Our first days here, described in my book Upstream, were not easy. It was, however, our family’s second migration and even when we felt like packing up and going ‘home’, we knew that this was now our home, and that there was no other to which we could return.

Even with my qualifications and experience in different jobs in two countries, knowing only a couple of words of English meant that my Australian employment prospects were not very bright. I started out as a nursing aide. After many challenges I made a real effort to prepare for the tests gaining me initial library qualifications. Later my children went on to tertiary education. We have now fully integrated into the life of this strange but wonderful country. Along the way, Australians often offered a helping hand without being asked. The Polish community here also provided social contacts. Acquaintances in Israel suggested we look up their friends, but I was cautious. Australian Jews might have felt that we had ‘deserted the cause’ by leaving Israel after such a short time.

In 1976 my beloved husband Edek died of cancer. I was devastated. I didn’t want to continue living without him, my strength and support. My children’s love and their insistence that I continue to live a full life, saved me. I could now do things I hadn’t been courageous enough to try during my first 15 years in Australia. I left my safe job in TAFE library services and embarked on a Masters degree in Library Science. This opened up new worlds for me. I could attend professional conferences and do research. I also became involved in one of the most exciting developments in my new country: multiculturalism.

My son Vitek and daughter Joanna both married and provided me with much-loved grandchildren. I began to look for an Anglo-Australian soulmate for a grandpa. When I found Leslie Robinson, he helped me truly understand how to be Australian. I belonged at last.
In 2003 he died and I became a widow for the second time. But this time I knew I had to do something completely different if I wanted to keep myself on an even keel. Four days after Leslie passed away I started to write my first autobiographical book. It was splendid therapy. I was writing about times, people and places that Leslie never knew. Since he couldn’t have been there, his absence wasn’t so painful. At last I was telling anyone who was interested about the heroism of those who risked their lives and the safety of their own families during the War by saving a complete stranger: me.

A Cork on the Waves was received with an enthusiasm I could never have imagined. It was published by the Sydney Jewish Museum in their excellent Community Stories series, nearly 50 survivors’ stories. It has been called ‘an invaluable archive of the social history of the community for future generations’ by author Diane Armstrong. Then my book was taken up by a commercial publisher. Copies were taken to a book fair in Taiwan; seminars and talks were held about it; and it was presented at a  function organised by the Polish and Israeli embassies in Canberra, their first joint event.

Readers asked me what had happened in later years to many of Cork’s characters, including me and my family. I began writing Treading Water in the Promised Land. It was followed by Upstream: belonging at last. This is how in my 80th year I became a writer.

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