Political asylum

At last the day arrived.  Zygmunt wanted to be fair and therefore we went together, firstly to the Legation.  From now on I was not going to let Zygmunt out of my sight as too many “accidents” happened to those who “Chose Freedom”.  The butler, who knew us well, announced us and we were admitted immediately.  By the way, the butler and his family are now in Australia where we met them by chance many years ago and they were doing well and living in Oakleigh.  We sat down and were served wine and Zygmunt told what he had come to tell.  Poor Przybos – he had never expected to hear it from Zygmunt.  He tried to talk Zygmunt out of it, never realizing that our decision was made and no talk would change it.  I had nothing against him; I even liked him better than I liked Putrament.  He was – and still is – a poet and is considered a leading Polish poet.  From the Legation Zygmunt went to his Commission and I waited outside near a telephone, just in case.  He called all his staff and told them that he was resigning, giving only very briefly the reasons.  From there we went to the Swiss officials and Zygmunt asked for asylum which was promptly granted.  They knew Zygmunt as an honest person. 

The ensuing days, weeks and months were not easy.  I was constantly scared; I watched the children, not letting them out of my sight.  There were visits from the Polish Government, trying to persuade us to return to Poland, giving us vague promises but, of course we would not fall for those lies and we knew that at best it would mean a long prison sentence. 

There was the Press as Zygmunt, being in a high position, was NEWS.  There were again Polish officials (poor Andrzej) who tried to talk us into taking a holiday in Italy with all expenses paid (they knew how I was raving about Rome).  Zygmunt told them that they should let us alone.  He would be discreet but, should an accident happen to any of his family, here or in Poland, they should think about the fact that there were documents which would reveal why he “Chose Freedom” – documents which were quite safe as long as we were safe, and he asked just to be left alone. 

At last we were left alone to the extent that Zygmunt’s last wage was not paid, that my bill for the dentist was returned to us and already, by the following month, we were flat broke.  What a joke, what a change.  For the next thirty years or so we never had enough money.  Sometimes it was even so bad that I had trouble having enough food for the children, and providing shoes became a nightmare.  But neither Zygmunt nor I were ever sorry about the decision taken. 

We lost our social status, we lost security, we were poor, but we gained something intangible, something so much more important and precious – we were free, free to think, free to voice our opinions, free to bring up our children the way we wanted.  I was sorry thinking that I might never see my parents again but I was not worried about them financially as Mother had managed to bring a fair bit out of Lithuania (things which would sell easily) and would keep them for a long time and, who knows, maybe we would be able – sometime, somewhere in a far-away country – even earn enough to help them? 

Reluctantly, the Swiss Government gave Zygmunt a work permit and he started looking for work.  There was no permit for me.  The Swiss policy was quite simple:  Only – and really only when there was no Swiss citizen available for a particular job, an “Auslaender” (foreigner) could be engaged.  It was odd meeting old acquaintances in the streets.  Some of the Poles would pretend not to see us; others (when unobserved) showed sympathy.  Those who were not on the Polish payroll greeted us in a very friendly way, like Talunia and Mietek, but even the Kapski (who was still on the payroll) made it a point to greet us. 

Later on he also arrived in Australia as did some others but, at that stage they were not yet ready; they also had to be careful and could not draw attention to themselves.  Zygmunt was the first.  Soon four others followed and later on they migrated to Australia and others followed some time later.  Zygmunt found work as a labourer with a firm which imported fruit and vegetables from overseas.  There were big storerooms and a special railway line from the station so that the goods could be unloaded and stored immediately.  Zygmunt had to carry the boxes from the train to the storeroom, some of them weighing over 50 kg.  He received this job, thanks to Lotti and Zdislaw, whom we met in Italy.  Zygmunt’s work started at 4:30 am and lasted until late in the evening with only a lunch break, but the pay was not too bad – it was S.Fr.400 although quite a drop from the precious S.Fr.2000.  However, we were all happy and at least he was able to find work which was not too easy.  He would be able to support his family and, in addition, he was allowed to take home all of the damaged fruit - as much as he wanted.  Just think about all the vitamins!  The disadvantage of this work was handling the heavy boxes, the long hours of physical work, the constant rush as the wagons were not allowed to stay too long, and the poor pay. 

Zygmunt did not complain even once, not even when, still dark, he would wheel out his bicycle when going to work.  He never forgot to give me a kiss when I held the door for him to wheel out the bicycle.  He did not even complain when his wrists became swollen and had to be bandaged so that he would not drop the boxes, nor when his fingers became swollen and stiff.  Only occasionally would he swear a bit, especially when coming home hungry and tired to find that there was hardly any food.  He worked 56 hours a week in a hard and physically demanding job, and prior to that, the heaviest job he had to do was to hold a pen.  He was constantly tired but never once complained, and on Sundays he still had time to play with the children and to tell us jokes that he had heard.  Jurek was very impressed with Zygmunt’s overalls.  They seemed to him a lot better than his old tails as they had many pockets.  Jurek used to go to visit Zygmunt at work.  By now he was a big boy and could go through all of the city; I was not worried as nothing could happen to a child in Bern.  I was not a good manager nor was I a good cook, but I kept trying. 

We even sub-let a room to Mr & Mrs Malrecki.  Talunia and Mietek were having the main meal with us as Talunia was a worse cook even than I.  We shared the expenses between the seven of us because it was cheaper that way.  Talunia and I would go shopping together and we would shop at the cheapest places but, before going home, we would stop at a café and spend more than we saved on the cheaper food. 

I even went to the abattoirs situated on the other side of the city.  There was a very long queue and none of us knew what was on offer this day.  The queue consisted mainly of women and children, all poorly dressed and haggard looking.  When my turn came I got an udder.  It was very cheap and seemed to have plenty of meat.  I was quite happy as there was enough meat for everyone.  In the fourth week we had no meat as there was no money.  Zygmunt’s monthly wages barely lasted for three weeks and I did not know how to stretch his pay.  I was told to cook the udder slowly and for a long time.  I started cooking it after breakfast but by lunchtime it was still very hard, so I continued cooking it until dinner time.  When Zygmunt, Mietek and Talunia saw how much meat there was on the table, they went into raptures but not for long as the udder tasted like rubber and even when cut into small pieces, we were unable to chew it.  We just swallowed it to fill our empty stomachs.  Even now, many years later, when we speak with Talunia or Mietek about a sumptuous meal, we say “Just like the udder.” 

Although we did not have enough money, although we were worried, although Zygmunt was very tired, we were happy.  I played bridge, sometimes all night through; Zygmunt received many pleasant letters from the Polish club of the émigrés, and we even had parties at our place.  I provided the water, Talunia and Mietek the bread, someone the butter, someone else something to put on the bread and butter, and one Pole who was married to a very nice Swiss girl (a baroness) provided the drinks.  The parties were gay, we would dance in the kitchen and we were all happy.  We still had the free tickets to picture theatres and Zygmunt and I would go there quite often after his work.  I would buy bread rolls and, if possible, put something on them, and the moment it became dark we would start eating them slowly so that they would last longer.  It was annoying that the paper made such a lot of noise. 

There were also unpleasant times.  When winter came, both boys needed shoes and there was no money with which to buy them, but I remembered that I still had things which could be sold – like my emerald ring for which I got a lot more than needed for shoes and clothing.  Both boys got the Krupp disease, or rather, the “false Krupp”.  I was very worried as I thought that they would choke to death.  The doctor told me to get an inhaler and to keep it going in the room at the time.  I was able to buy the inhaler for a silver tray and the jars (coffee, tea, sugar, cream).  As I needed the money in a hurry, I could not haggle about the price offered, but later I learned that it was sold from the shop for four times the amount paid to me.  But it did not matter.  Both boys recovered and we had some extra money left over.  Once Bama gave us a few gold roubles to sell and once again we had some money to tide us over until pay day.  I could cope with all those things without any real trouble, but I was unable to cope with Bama. 

Our relationship became worse.  I did not know what to do.  As time passed, it became even worse.  She blamed me because Zygmunt was now a labourer and in a way, she was right.  I think that I could have persuaded him to accept the position in Vienna, but I did not.  Her attitude to Roman became a lot worse.  I was unable to leave home as often as before as I tried to earn some money on a knitting machine – “Passap” – and spent a lot of time knitting but was barely able to pay for the Passap and I was unable to get a work permit, therefore unable to help Zygmunt financially.  Most of us, the Displaced Persons (DP for short) were thinking about immigration as none of us was very welcome by the Swiss Government. 

Talunia and Mietek were thinking about Peru as they had some connections there; others wanted to go to America but were unable to be accepted in the yearly quota.  Zygmunt and his family could migrate to America because he (being a former diplomat) did not have to wait for the quota.  The USA did not appeal to me as I imagined it to be too much of a rat-race and I wanted something quiet, away from politics, somewhere where people had a chance to live freely and not to be too cluttered.  Zygmunt had already been working as a transport labourer for over half a year and one thing was certain:  that he, as an unqualified labourer, would have great trouble supporting a family of five.  He could not use his law degree as the legal system was different in each country, and he had not completed his degree in architecture.  The Swiss Government gave a subsidy for those who wanted to learn a trade, but it was given to the head of the family only. 

Zygmunt decided to learn a trade and chose welding as we had heard that welders could get work easily and were well paid.  Mietek and some other Poles also chose welding.  Frau Kurz, a Swiss social worker, helped us a lot and so did Caritas.  Thanks to them, we now had S.Fr.600 monthly.  At this time, Australia announced that it would accept 500 DP’s from the 14,000 living in Switzerland.  They had to be white and without criminal records. 

Australia?  I knew it vaguely geographically.  I was certain that the capital city was Sydney.  I knew that there were plenty of sheep, that it was vast, undeveloped and that it had plenty of space.  It was under-populated compared with Europe.  The main attraction was that it was far away, far from all the European political tensions.  I did not know much more but started reading leaflets and statistics and became more and more interested.  The schooling was free, there was no unemployment, the sun shone many days of the year, there were hardly any frosts and, therefore, no expensive winter clothing needed; it had big towns with factories, it had huge farms and was short of labour.  From the photos I saw beautiful beaches with people lying around with yachts in the background.  It had a government and an opposition which could criticize the Establishment; it had freedom of speech, and of religious belief and it was prepared to give work to migrants.  It even provided some centres where people could wait (without payment) for work - food being provided. 

One had to sign a contract for labour but only for two years after which one could do as one wanted.  It all sounded very good but we were all used to various types of propaganda.  To learn more, we went to meetings organized by the Australian Government where one could ask questions such as those regarding schooling, wages, weather, discrimination, etc.  From the few meetings that we attended, only one made me wary.  Zdislaw Makomaski asked if he would be able to practice medicine – either in private practice or in a hospital – and was told “No” but he could work as an orderly.  Even after stating his qualifications (and they were quite considerable) still “No”.  Another man, an engineer, known internationally as being extremely able in ship-building and with many letters after his name, was given “No” as an answer too.  “Why not?” he asked, and the reply given by the representative of the Australian Commission made me wonder.  The official told us:  In Australia there were enough brains; Australia did not need brainy people, it needed people with calloused hands, people who could work with their hands and not their brains.  What an odd statement.  A stupid statement and he who had made it definitely did not have enough brains.  Were they a race of megalomaniacs? 

I had never heard much about Australia’s leading discoverers, perhaps, except for Fleming, and only a few others.  I thought that, if a representative of a country could make such a ridiculous statement, I did not want anything to do with them.  Zygmunt laughed at my outburst, saying not to judge a country by some of their representatives; those who might be quite stupid; but they did not make the country.  We should gather more information, more statistics, etc.  There was the problem of the language.  What I had learned at school, I could barely remember, and Zygmunt did not know English at all.  Zygmunt pointed out that there were free night schools for those who wanted to migrate to a foreign country.  Thinking about the children, I started worrying that they would lose at least a year.  Zygmunt did not mind; they could catch up later on and anyway, where should we go if we were looking for a country where only Polish, Russian or German was spoken?  He was right.  We should forget the language problem; simply, we would have to learn. 

Everything we read about Australia appealed to Zygmunt and me, including such things as a lot of public holidays, the 40 hour week, and the free weekends.  Altogether, there were approximately 130 days (including holidays) off work.  To us (the Europeans) it was an unbelievable amount of days off work.  We began to consider Australia seriously, reading a lot and not only leaflets but also books from the library.  Our impressions strengthened that Australia had freedom, empty spaces and good prospects for employment of DP’s.  Talunia and Mietek were still undecided but also started to think about Australia.  Those who wanted to go to Australia had to assemble for a few days at Wangen an der Aare for political screening and for a health check.  People who had TB would immediately be excluded.  That meant that I would be out.  Zygmunt, still being an optimist, sent me to Zdislaw and Lotti.  Zdislaw was a specialist in lungs and malnutrition.  The tests he made were negative but he needed X-rays which we could not afford.  However, Lotti had some friends who had some friends, etc., and I had the X-rays without charge.  Zdislaw was delighted. 

The only thing I needed now was coaching on how to speak during the health screening.  He was a good coach.  I did not tell a direct lie; I only looked stupid and told part of the truth only and, after a second lot of X-rays and tests, the doctor passed me.  It seemed that we had made it when we were advised that Jurek would need a small operation on his penis; something similar to circumcision, but he would also need another lot of tests as his kidneys seemed to be affected.  It was hard to believe that something was wrong with Jurek as he looked very healthy and was in very high spirits.  Suddenly I remembered that on the day of the first tests Jurek poured a whole bottle of Maggi Aroma Sauce on his porridge (which he still did not like much).  For the next few days he was on a strict diet with no spices, no sweets, and he was also passed by the doctor.  The operation which he had to have was performed in Bern and he was only a few days in hospital. 

In a few weeks’ time we were advised by letter that our family, that is Zygmunt, Bama, the children and I, were accepted to migrate to Australia.  We were among the 500 who Australia accepted.  Another 13,500 still had to wait to emigrate, sometime, somewhere.  It did not take us long, just one evening walking along the Aar River to decide to go to Australia and to try our luck there.  The unknown future did not frighten me, nor was I too upset thinking about my parents.  They would manage – Mother always was able to manage. 

I had only one serious problem – Bama.  Our relationship became worse and she even tried criticizing me whilst speaking with Zygmunt, but he told her that he liked me the way I was and that I still had plenty of time to learn all the tricks.  Once she overdid it and Zygmunt told her that it was not nice to speak the way she did – she (being the mother of an “honourable welder” and an ex-diplomat) should not speak in a tactless way.  There was also the problem with Roman.  Bama loved Zygmunt and Jurek but did not like either Roman or me.  She often mentioned to Zygmunt that Roman’s legs were still not straight after his rachitis, that he was not doing as well as Jurek at school, that he was a poor swimmer, etc.  To a certain degree she was right as Roman was weaker than Jurek but he was also younger and he usually became reserved, and even flustered, when in the presence of Bama and Zygmunt.  My comments were wiped off as being those of a doting mother.  Jurek never told lies but Roman did.  He was full of fantasies, telling completely improbable stories.  One day he overdid it with his lies.  Zygmunt was looking for his screwdriver and Roman was helping him, suggesting places to look – such as under the bed, behind the wardrobes, etc., and all the time he was clutching the screwdriver in his pocket.  This went on for quite a while before Zygmunt caught him once again looking in his pocket.  Zygmunt got angry out of all proportion, probably because he was very tired.  He started belting Roman, really hard.  It was the only time that I openly interfered, covering Roman with my body.  Bama, of course, pointed out to Zygmunt how badly I behaved by openly taking Roman’s side.  Although Bama told me many times that Zygmunt hated Roman, I could not believe her as Zygmunt was always nice with both boys and they adored their father. 

I was thinking constantly about my future with Bama – it became an obsession with me.  I wanted to sort out my problem but felt trapped and could not decide what I should do.  I tried to pin it down.  Our disagreements were spread out in time and space.  We did not like each other to start with but by now, I had to admit it, I did dislike Bama.  It started in August, 1939, when Zygmunt was called up and Bama was parading with him on the platform and he had no time for me.  My feelings intensified after Jurek was born and it became worse after the war when they all arrived in Poland and worse again after Jurek began to stammer, and even worse again after Bama came to us in Switzerland, and really bad after Zygmunt became a labourer.  A few times, even Zygmunt noticed that something was not quite right as once, when Miatek and Talunia were with us, Bama said:  “Zygmunt, I can’t understand you.  How could you have married Maruszka when you knew Talunia?  She would have been much better for you.”  They three tried to laugh it off but looked most uncomfortable.  Later on Zygmunt asked me if Bama had said these things to me before and I answered quite truthfully that she never had.  I did not add that I had pin-pricks and barbs constantly, that the remark which Zygmunt referred to was quite harmless, that there were many nasty and ugly remarks.  I hoped to be tolerated but was not.  I was upset about her dislike of my parents and especially towards Roman, a child who did not deserve it.  Bama was a very good-looking woman still, full of charm and very feminine and very domineering.  I thought that she used her charm and, what I thought was her love for her son, cunningly and cleverly. 

Only years later did I realize that I had been brainwashed from early childhood by parents and church:  Respect and obey your elders, respect your parents, etc.  Long before my marriage I was told that a good wife should never interfere with her mother-in-law.  The husband could interfere with his mother-in-law, but not the other way round.  I thought that I should never come between my husband and his mother, not even for the sake of the children.  I believed her when she told me repeatedly that she knew her Zygmunt; I believed her when she told me that he would always do what she wanted as he adored her, that soon he would snap out of his stupid love for me because I was getting old and did not look pretty anymore.  I believed her because Zygmunt was always nice to her and tried to please her and also because a lot of her criticism was quite valid.  I thought that I was a bad cook; I thought that I could not manage the money as I should, and I thought that I was a bad mother and a bad wife because I did not help Zygmunt in his career.  I thought that I was a hindrance.  Even during this hard period I was unable to help him financially.  I was, simply, no good.  Thinking along these lines for days, I became certain that I would be unable to cope with all the years to come. 

I could not stay in Bern without giving Zygmunt a convincing motive and I could not go to Poland.  He would never have believed me if I gave as the reason that I was afraid of the unknown future.  I could not speak with Zygmunt about my problem as it would be contrary to all that I had been taught and believed in.  If I went with Zygmunt to Australia, I would become a hindrance.  I might become a neurotic or something worse. 

There was only one way out for me – I had to commit suicide, and I decided to take Roman with me because I thought that without me he would have a bleak future and also because I had promised my parents never to leave him.  I felt better after making this decision.

 I started planning how and when.  I did not want to give Roman strychnine (which I still possessed from the war years) as I had read that death would be painful.  Luckily I was able to get plenty of Veronal for Roman which would make him go to sleep peacefully.  I told Zygmunt that I would be going to Talunia and I asked her to cover for me should Zygmunt ring.  I wrote three letters; one to the police, explaining that I was committing suicide of my own free will, that nobody was to be blamed as I was doing it whilst of unsound mind.  The next one was to my parents, asking them for forgiveness and not to blame Zygmunt as he was the best husband I could have wished for, and I still loved him.  The letter to Zygmunt was the hardest to write.  I was unable to lie and I could not tell him the truth as it would be pointless.  I just wrote that I was too weak to face the future that I was taking Roman with me because I had promised my parents never again to part with him.  I asked Zygmunt to look after Jurek, thanked him for the happiness he had given me during nearly ten years of marriage, apologized that I had let him down, and wished him all the happiness and a new wife who would be better than I was.  I told Roman that I would take him late in the evening for a long walk, just the two of us.  We would listen to the night sounds and count the stars.  He was very happy and became excited, but I asked him to keep quiet as it was a “secret” and not to tell anyone.  He should go to bed and I would pick him up when the time was right.  He trusted me and even went to sleep.  When I thought the time was right, I went and got my hidden poisons, went once again for a last look at Jurek, and then to our bedroom to pick up a blanket for Roman and to say a silent goodbye to Zygmunt. 

As I was leaving the room, Zygmunt cried out.  He had a nightmare, now of all times; he hardly ever had them.  When I went to him he clutched my hand and would not let me go.  He started to ramble about his nightmare, speaking about Vievie and the disaster of the trains and all the dead ones.  This happened a long time ago when he, by chance, alighted from a train and a few minutes later saw the accident where the majority of the dead were from the compartment which he had shared with them a few minutes before.  He was saying that he would feel lost without me, that he loved us all so much, that he could not manage without us.  He spoke of love and understanding, still holding my hands.  He asked me to cancel my visit to Talunia – please, could I stay with him?  I stayed and Roman missed his walk at night but I made it up to him the next day.  Now I could not go, not after Zygmunt’s rambling talk.  I could not go and kill Roman and myself.  I simply chickened out.  Did I do right or wrong?  I would not know. 

Decades later I realized that I did only one thing wrong; I did not confide in Zygmunt my problems.  If he would have known, he would never have let it go that far.  I never repeated this mistake again.  I had kept quiet when I should have spoken.  Now I believe that the family comes first and the parents second.  I hope that I have brought my children up with that belief.  Share your problems with your partner if you trust him, and if you don’t, get out, and then it is no true partnership anymore.  Now I could cope with Bama.  Her remarks stopped hurting me as before; now I knew that Zygmunt and I were a unit and together we would be able to manage, even in very hard circumstances. 

I did not tell Zygmunt for many years about my intentions of suicide and it took many more years before Zygmunt realised that the relationship between me and his mother was bad.  Does it sound incredible?  Or was I so good at hiding my feelings?  We received a letter advising that the departure point for Australia would be a camp in St Antonio near Napoli, and we started packing.  All winter clothing went out as we were told that there were no cold seasons, except in the hills, and none of us would be sent there.  Most of the books went out too as we were told that books were very cheap in Australia and, in addition, there were many public libraries.  The sewing machine, my darling Elna, went out too as we were told that sewing machines were ridiculously cheap and it was not worth taking an old model – we would be able to buy a new one any time we wanted.  For the five of us, we took one trunk and three suitcases.  Everything else was given away as we would not need anything from here.  We were going to the country of plenty where everything would be available to people who were prepared to work the 40 hour week.

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