This is a collection of truly personal testimonies, composed of records of individual experiences that were blown away in the Antipodes by the wind of history or the eye of life cyclones. Their reading will not leave the reader indifferent – especially one who has experienced emigration or had such an intention. For those who faced it, experiencing its consequences has become an inseparable part of their emotional rituals, which are described so accurately by the authors in this collection of memories.
Emigration has to hurt as it is a partial amputation; in fact, it cuts off access to the most significant, recognizable and well-functioning patterns of behavior in a predictable environment. On the other hand, naturally, it is an extraordinary opportunity to experience a new linguistic, cultural and emotional reality, and one to which a person enclosed in an ethnically homogeneous environment will never be exposed. Both phenomena are reflected in the texts of our authors. At the beginning of her memories, Anna Nassif humorously observes that the word emigration belongs to her private lexicon of troublesome vocabulary, in order to emphasize at the end of her text the paradoxical nature of exile by naming it: a chance and a loss at the same time.
I have made several attempts to describe the phenomenon of emigrant experiences from the psychological perspective. This book, containing confessions of Poles settled in Australia, provided me with new sources and inspiration. I hope that the systematization of presented themes in the published memoirs is consistent with the intent of authors and all together will contribute to a better understanding of the fascinating and complex process of adaptation to new conditions of life in exile and its accompanying emotions, which Jerzy Krysiak deeply described as: incumbent on me like an unfinished dream.
Aleksander Pęczalski has written in a poem “Poland”:
To see once again ploughed fields
shrouded in the eiderdown of the autumn mists.
Nostalgia is tied up with the emigrant longing for familiarity – sight, smell, taste, or sound. It is a consolation, but at the same time an unhealed wound, which is scratched when we look at a photograph of native landscapes. Never sated yearning for the home country causes some emigrants to not be able to reject, until the end, a temptation to return. To describe this state of mind, I once used a term “life in a stride”. Maryla Rose provided me with a more subtle metaphor, naming one of her poems: “Stitching the soul ”.
Profits and losses
A fascination with the unique Australian landscape is repeated in many works. Among others, the female authors of two memoirs have concluded there a delight with the differently presented Sun, that is supplied by the Antipodes sky: a huge Ball of fire hovered above the horizon (…) the most magical sight I have ever seen (Marika Biber), or the Moon: (…) suddenly I see a huge glow over a hill. My son in-law also ran. We didn’t wait long because the glow was growing immediately and an enormous ball rolled out from behind the hill. We were standing aghast. A half of the sky from our window has already burned in (Teresa Emilia Zientalska). I would be a careless reader of these memories, however, if I missed the word “but” that sometimes appears. Indeed, the experiences provided by Australian nature are amazing, phenomenal, yet Maryla Rose writes in her poem “Tear”: Still, I cannot find myself in Sydney. There is not enough shade.
Marika Biber describes a situation when an emigrant child was tested on intelligence in a language that it did not know. The test result, however, was successful. A ridiculous circumstance initiated a paradoxical process after some years of residing in a new linguistic reality: acquired English started to be for the author a natural tool for expressing herself in a written form (she translated her memoirs into English). Emigration, probably for obvious reasons, took away from her a possibility to acquire this skill in her native language.
Paweł Waryszak draws attention to the transcendental aspect of emigration. He recalls the evangelical description of Jesus walking on the water. The author, invoking in his text the event, however, does not see it in the category of miracles, but God’s call to his listeners to get rid themselves of all the patterns and habits and to be not afraid to listen to their own thoughts. Leaving the country of birth is the transgression of the system into which we were inserted, going out from the box to exist – but where? – eventually, perhaps, in another box…
Probably also in the category of ”profits” the changes in the sphere of ”habits of the heart” should be regarded. Krzysztof Deja whimsically describes how he brought a bottle of whisky to his first Australian workplace to “buy his co-workers favors” – he was accustomed to this in the communist reality. His emigrant female colleague did not hide her disappointment when she did not receive a popular carnation from her employer on the 8th of March…
The same author, also, notices an advantage of the integrated immigrant over a native who lacks the sense of his roots, quoting an interesting opinion of one of Australia’s intellectuals, Wark McKenzie: We do not have roots, we have antennas. As the author of “The Emigrant’s Will” continues, a far advanced technological progress in the absence of a reference point in a form of the canon of values and in the national-cultural traditions: it carries a risk of free flying in the space but without any navigation.
The price you have to pay for the emigration can be significant. This is how it is described by Jerzy Krysiak: Those were the years of exile stigmatizing in our hearts. (…) How many times were immigration dramas happening before our eyes? Divorces, betrayals, alcoholism, and suicides.
In a few memoirs a topic of a tragic bushfire in Canberra in 2003, which in nearly two weeks’ time destroyed the forest extensively, was mentioned. An intrigued reader is probably curious what can be saved in the face of fire devouring everything? For Bronisław Kołtun these were the memories preserved on black and white photographs. Rescued from the fire, they become a testimony that the author with his family managed to save the identity, despite the dramatic change of life’s circumstances, which is emigration. They have gone through the fire and remained themselves.
For Sylwia Surudo Sanders, emigration creates a chance to experience another life, although it also raises problems associated with adapting to it: this is very strange to feel like a baby that learns to speak, walk, and understand. A similar impression has been written down by Kamilla Springer: I sometimes compare myself to a little child that recognizes and learns the world around it.
Marika Biber describes her first days in an Australian school, and how a sandwich of wholemeal bread with a delicious Polish sausage, which she brought with her, became a stigma and started yearning for the match – therefore the author bought a vegemite sandwich for lunch (a typical Australian product created on the basis of yeast solution, rich in vitamin B, distributed on the bread, first greased with a thin layer of butter), which she could not swallow. Adjusting, or even more: absorption of a new taste (at the end of her memoirs the author writes that she grew up to become fully fond of the Australian sandwich) becomes a metaphor of the integrating experience for the author, instead of excluding attitude either / or, one can achieve a comfort of having this / and that.
Eaten meals, combining elements typical for both gastronomic cultures, become symbols of the emigration’s positive power, which stimulates the process of cognition, development, learning and personal enrichment. Taking into an account all different attitudes of immigration, we can say that the author has reached a level of integration (uniting what is the best in the home country culture and the country of residence).
Determinants of alienation
The authors of this volume list a lot of them, including the accent, above all, which in most cases can not be eradicated. Jerzy Krysiak, for example, concludes with a serene resignation: I have never learnt to pronounce the word “differentiation”. The next is the difficulty in understanding the nuances of language and culture. Another are tastes for “exotic” dishes in the inhabited country. And finally, it is an incompetence / inability to experience a sense of belonging.
Marika Biber includes in her memories an interesting observation on the sense of identification with an environment also on a local, Polish level, which she experienced in her native village, Bielawa, but not in a big city. The fact that you can feel strange even at home, many emigrants know.
Areas of support
The beginnings of Polish mass emigration to the United States is often a peregrination of entire villages, led by the vicar. After arrival in a place people concentrated on two things: looking for a job and building a church. The church for Polish emigrants was always a centre not only for a spiritual support, an oasis in the sense of Polish language, culture and faith, but also a specific place where one could meet fellows, set up a Polish school, a centre of catechises, a place where scouts meet, a residence of a dance group, and even a Polish newspaper editorial office or an improvised radio studio, in which people prepared broadcasts to release in an ethnic radio station. Such pastoral, ethno-cultural ministry is perfectly fulfilled by the Society of Christ Fathers for Poles Living Abroad, popularly called Christ Fathers (Chrystusowcy).
Jerzy Moskała writes about the phenomenon of focusing life of Poles around Polish parishes, recalling an actively working Polish centre near Sydney named “Bielany”. When reading Jerzy Moskała’s memories it is hard to resist a reflection that he incarnated entirely in his life two inalienable principles of feeling happy: be happy for what you have and work not only for yourself but also for others. The activist’s passion of the “My Emigration” author has resulted in a life full of satisfaction, and gratitude of people who benefited from the effects of his enthusiasm. Although he writes: our decision to emigrate to Australia proved to be correct, the reader has an impression that it was not only a decision which caused a feeling of today’s satisfaction; it was rather what was done with that decision by the author of these words, knowing or anticipating that the source of happiness has to be looked for first in ourselves and in what you are doing.
During the adjustment process, we often experience an overwhelming loneliness. Therefore, the friendships we make are very helpful. We join with others, generally, on the basis of similarity, such as solidarity in diversity. It is illustrated interestingly by Marika Biber’s history of friendships: her friends are mostly outsiders, distinguishing from the dominant environment.
The need to put down roots
What is difficult to change in yourself, you can strive for with your children, providing them with the conditions where our sense of the country of choice as the “foreign land” does not transfer to the offspring, for example, taking care of not to change the place of residence unless absolutely necessary. This is what happened in the case of Marika Biber and her husband when they refused an offer to work on a different continent.
For Jerzy Moskała this need took on a quite literal dimension: he planted about two hundred trees in Australia.
Semantic reflections, or Poland as a mother, Australia as a stepfather
Yakov Smirnoff, a Russian emigrant as well as an American comic, finished one of his meetings with an American audience in more less these words: you can emigrate to Germany but you cannot become a German, you can emigrate to Italy but you can not become an Italian, you can emigrate to France but you can not become a Frenchman; but you can emigrate to America and become American – thank you for that, I can feel here like at home! Krzysztof Deja shared a similar observation: Europe, among many undoubted advantages, has a terrible character of being nationally egoistic. Despite these democratic leanings, someone like me is still estranger, auslender, extranjero, staniero or foreigner there. Here, almost one in four was born somewhere else in the world.
It is impossible to overcome totally the sense of strangeness, we can not fully identify with the country of settlement but it is possible – and here I agree with the quoted author – to feel well in exile, under a condition that the “stepfather land” is friendly to us. Australia today offers them an emotional comfort, greatly reducing the factors that contribute to a sense of alienation.
However, it was not always like this. Marian Brzeziński, with over sixty years of emigrant experience, had an opportunity to trace the Australian evolution in relation to emigrants. He wrote: In the course of time our status was changing. First we were called “Aliens” then “Foreigners” and “Migrants”, “Newcomers”, “New Australians” and finally “Ethnics”. I do not know what, but I am sure who we are now. Our status has changed over time. The attitude toward newcomers from other lands has changed, what has not changed was the tradition, education, principles and faith instilled by parents, who were a moral compass for the same author.
Doubts inseparably accompany our decisions. If they are small they have a lighter weight; the weight of more serious ones we sometimes feel through our whole lives. An example is the choice of occupation, partner, or just a place of residence. Unfortunately, nobody and nothing will give us certainty that it was a right decision to go away or on the contrary, to stay in the home country, just like an architect, for instance, who will never know how his life would have gone if he had decided to apply to an acting school, since uncertainty is usually automatically included in the package called freedom of choice.
Everyone, feel invited to read! In order to purchase the book click on the following link:
[Translated by Anna Barcz]