Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

By Distant Roads

By Aussiegirl

I've been meaning to publish my mother's memoir of our family's trip to Australia from post-war Germany for some time. It originally appeared in Ukrainian, in the periodical "Vira" (Faith), published by the United Ukrainian Orthodox Sisterhoods.

I have translated it here, with an attempt to retain her distinct voice and style. I hope my readers find it of interest.


Somehow, looking through my "archives" of old papers and documents, I happen upon an old, long-forgotten photograph, on which I am barely able to make out a group of gray figures with sad, thin faces. Who are these miserable scarecrows, I think to myself, and turning it over read on the back: March, l949, seeing us off to Australia.

Dear God -- why it's us! That's my emaciated and exhausted-looking husband and me looking the same beside him -- and our two little daughters. And these other people gathered around us are our friends from the Displaced Person's Camp -- and this old barracks behind us is our church, where we prayed and sang, and where we had only just taken Holy Communion prior to our departure on a long journey.

Yes, this is us! Drained and weary from the horrors and trials of the long war, and the endless tortures of internment under the Yalta agreement in Allied prison camps. After nearly four years of deprived and miserable existence in the Displaced Persons Camps in post-war ravaged Germany, and having no possibility to emigrate to the United States -- we decide to wander even further, to the fifth continent, to distant, unknown Australia.

. . . Here we are undergoing our medical checkups. They pinch our muscles, weigh us, look into our mouths and inspect our teeth -- we pass through transitional camps, one by one, and at last we are on the train, which takes us from Germany across Austria, into Italy the full length of its "boot" all the way to Naples.

In the cold, unheated rail cars we remove our old UNRRA (United Nations Relief Agency) raincoats, cover our sleeping children with them and watch through the window as the flight of the swift electric train speeds us over the Alps, passing towering cliffs, terrifying precipices, green valleys.

At last on the horizon we can see Mount

We arrive! So this is the sunny Italy of song -- now ruined, impoverished, and bedraggled -- with crowds of children running with outstretched hands after the train, begging for bread.

Here another camp awaits us -- Baniola, on the outskirts of Naples, where we wait two weeks for further transport. A lot of the children are ill with dysentery as is our baby daughter and we assiduously hide her from the medical "authorities" whom we do not trust, and under the advice of our own doctor treat her ourselves, selling our last few rags to purchase medicine.

One unfortunate mother in the hospital there, lost both of her children, and traveled no further.

But even so, despite all the difficulties, we somehow manage to see Pompeii, the city inundated by lava and buried under the ashes of Mt. Vesuvius in the year 79 A.D.

. . . Here we are again, standing in a long gray line at the dock waiting our turn to board the ship "Wooster Victory", which awaits its designated "cargo".

Once more our papers and belongings are checked. But what sort of belongings do you call these? All we have are the rough, green UNRRA blankets and a few bundles of other "goods", which were sent to us in the camps by generous and kind Americans.

At last, after a long wait -- we find ourselves in the dining room, where a marvelous vision awaits us -- on long tables stand bowls piled high with white fragrant bread and on each individual plate a boiled egg and stalk of willow -- the symbol of Easter!

Here the Australian Counsel, who, to our good fortune, is returning home in this very ship, greets us warmly as future citizens of his country and wishes us a Happy Easter and a safe and pleasant journey!

We thank him as well as we are able, and brushing aside an uninvited tear we heartily apply ourselves to the blessed food.

After a while somewhere deep in the bowels of the ship the engines start to vibrate and hum, the dishes on the tables set up a clatter, the floor begins to rock gently under our feet and the ship begins to move imperceptibly and gently take its leave of the shore.

And all at once, we race upstairs along with everyone else to try to catch one last glimpse of Europe -- and to say farewell -- perhaps for a long time -- but perhaps forever -- to that continent in which, somewhere far away on the Black Sea, we have left our distant homeland!

We ply the stormy waters of the Mediterranean and most of the passengers are seasick. As luck would have it our entire family feels well, even though we like so many others are at sea for the very first time.

After a few days on the horizon land appears -- our first stop -- Port Said.

As the ship pulls into port it has not even weighed anchor, when all at once, from every corner it is surrounded by boats -- little boats, barges, and on them all sorts of goods: fruits, vegetables, carpets, leather goods, colorful scarves and many other wares. But most interesting of all in this amazing sight are the vendors themselves -- olive-skinned, barefoot, their legs wrapped in some sort of white cloth, they are extremely energetic and very talkative.

And a very strange bazaar gets underway!

The vendors shout up from down below, spreading out their wares while demonstrating the price with their fingers, and from up above the buyers on the deck yell back, shaking their heads in vigorous disagreement and lowering the prices by a factor of ten (also with their fingers). Here one enraged vendor, in answer to such an insulting counteroffer points his index finger to his temple and twists it so -- as if to say -- are you completely crazy? Why this watermelon is of the very finest quality! But without waiting, fearing perhaps that the buyer might change his mind, he nimbly throws up onto the deck a long rope to which a basket is tied and the watermelon is quickly hauled up. Haggling thus for a long time at last the basket returns to its owner with some small coins inside.

On the deck there is a lot of happy commotion and laughter -- but soon the bargaining is over. The ship slowly moves from shore, leaving behind the disgruntled sellers with so many unsold wares.

But it is not long after we leave port that the order comes down from the captain -- everything of a perishable nature must be thrown overboard! So with great reluctance over the side flew someone's precious bananas, and all sorts of other longed for "delicacies", and with great regret and sorrow overboard went our watermelon as well, which had been so valiantly bargained for and won by our daddy.

. . . Very slowly, so as not to disturb the sandy banks, our Wooster Victory proceeds through the Suez Canal and we observe with interest its desert shores. On the right bank we often meet green oases, gardens, orchards, some settlements with small humble daubed houses, but the left bank -- as far as the eye can see -- sand, sand, desert. Here and there a few people wander about, repairing the eroding banks, carrying the sand on their backs in large woven baskets.

And you think -- how can people survive here? What do they live on?

But this is their land, their homeland, it is perhaps about them that the words are written:

Dearer to us is our own desert
Than in a strange land, an earthly paradise

And heavy thoughts weigh down one's soul, and the heart chills in fear before the unknown and uncertain future. But the waves sound their ceaseless splashing and we are far - far away in the Red Sea.

Little Yulia asks her father why the sea is called the Red Sea when the water is so very blue.

To this question she receives the reply that in the sea there grow certain watery plants, which occasionally give it a reddish hue. The children peer long and hard into the foamy waves, but aside from the play of the dolphins they do not see anything red at all. But I think to myself, that the sea is called Red because it is so hot, oh, Lord -- how terribly hot!
There are many sick children on board, sick with some unknown tropical fever, and many mothers are filled with fear over this.

In Aden at the next stop of the ship a local doctor comes on board in the company of two policemen - he is olive-skinned and barefoot, as is the policeman, his legs wrapped in a white cloth puttee, with a leather doctor's bag in his hands. He carefully and very professionally examines the ailing children. Clearly concerned he advises several families to remain in Aden in the hospital, because he says that their children are so ill, that they may not survive until the next stop in Colombo.

One grandmother agrees to stay behind with her sick granddaughter and they are both led away by the good doctor.

Several families decline the offer, fearing leaving their children or the boat.

The old woman and her recovered granddaughter arrived in Australia two months later.

. . . Somewhere far in the distance we have left Ceylon at last and approach the equator. The heat is unbelievable! On the deck the sailors have stretched a canvas to protect us from the sun and douse it regularly with seawater to keep us cool, but this helps very little. In the cabins and below deck it is sheer hell! And before long many of those green UNRRA blankets begin to fly overboard flapping along on the wind like huge green birds - after all -- people say -- what good are they to us now? The heat is so tremendous here and we are sailing into equally hot and sunny Australia!

. . . In a tiny isolated cabin which faces out onto the deck I sit at night over my little baby girl, who has suddenly come down with a strange tropical fever.

Sponging her small, feverish body with a wet cloth in order to somehow reduce her raging temperature, I tremble, I weep, I pray.

I open the little porthole window in the hopes of feeling perhaps some hint of a fresh, cool night breeze, which after all does not appear, and suddenly I see on the deck some unusual activity for the nighttime. What is happening?

A small group of people are gathered on deck, perhaps a dozen or so uniformed sailors and officers and the captain himself holding a Bible in his hands. Because of the churning of the motors I cannot distinguish his words -- but in between the splashing of the waves I can hear someone's inconsolable weeping!

I look -- and I begin to comprehend.

The sailors are holding a small, narrow plank, which is supported at the other end by the ship's railing. At the captain's command, the sailors slowly lift their end of the plank and the tiny, canvas shrouded body of a child slips slowly and soundlessly into the water.

. . . Somewhere there we crossed the equator, never having noticed that black line which is inscribed on the globe -- there we were "christened" by old Neptune -- and at last, after a difficult journey of 30 days we sight land on the horizon. Australia!

Our Wooster? has docked in Melbourne. It is the end of May, in Australia -- winter!

Here I must make an aside and state, that Australia then needed, as it still does today, a steady flow of immigrants, especially young, healthy people with children, because in them, in the children especially, they saw their true future citizens, the "new Australians", as we were called.? Because of this need the welcoming of such immigrants was very well planned and very gracious, which to a certain extent calmed our fears. And even though we also had to spend some time in camps there in the beginning, these were very different conditions than we had experienced in Germany.

The first such camp, called Bonegila, a few hours train ride from Melbourne, was also a one-time military barracks, only here they were not wooden ones, but constructed of corrugated metal, which baked us in the sun in the daytime, and with equal ferocity chilled us at night. Some of us now remembered with deep regret those UNRRA blankets, which had taken such impulsive flight over the ocean.

For a time we rest after the long and difficult sea voyage, we partake with great appetite the roasted mutton and other tasty foods, which are new to us, we acquaint ourselves with the surrounding area, we study the flora and fauna of Australia, which is really and truly completely different, and we await the decision of our further fate.

Such a decision arrives quite quickly. All those who are capable of work, who had signed a two year contract to work where they were needed, would be sent to various assigned jobs. The women, children and older persons, who did not come under such contracts, were to be placed in different camps which were especially outfitted and supplied and placed in the areas close to the workplaces of their men.

And so it was that my children and I, along with several other Ukrainian families amongst many nationalities, after an all-day journey by bus, arrived late at night at our assigned destination, a former POW camp near the town of Cowra.

Here they are truly ready to receive us. Everything has been prepared, even a hot meal awaits us.

Each family receives a separate room, with the required number of beds, mattresses, pillows and all the linens, towels, clothes, and even raincoats along with other miscellaneous necessities. There is a common dining hall, with plentiful, nutritious and tasty food. For the children they have already organized a school. For all of this our dear ones will pay a relatively small sum from their wages as they work off their contract.

The camp is located in the midst of the Australian outback. Around it, as far as the eye can see -- nothing except thick brush and gaunt eucalyptus trees. The director of the camp, a sympathetic Australian whose role it is to take care of us, cautions us to be very careful, because here there are poisonous snakes, reptiles, spiders and other such dangerous pests. Already on the second day some of the young boys had "captured" a reptile (thankfully not poisonous), which by its size more resembled a crocodile than a lizard, and having tied it up dragged it all over the camp, showing off their "prowess".

We quickly find the road to the nearby town and with amazement we examine the overflowing stores filled with a variety of goods. Everything is so wonderful, so plentiful -- and the wool -- everywhere wool -- in all forms, in all colors. So it is true, what we read about Australia in books, that "Australia rides on the back of a sheep"!

And so begins a general mania for embroidery with those wonderful wools -- pillows, rugs and other sorts of colorful articles. We don't have material suitable for backing, so we use the canvas sacks in which foods were packaged for the kitchen -- rice sacks, potato sacks and such.

Soon a new group of immigrants arrive at the camp and are greeted with great joy -- perhaps we would find some more of "our own". And truly -- among the new arrivals is the elderly Bishop Sylvester with his daughter Lida Stepanivvna and his grandson Ihor.

The young Lida Stepanivna, energetic and full of life, immediately transforms our carefree existence. Within a very short time, at her initiative and under her guidance, we organize an exhibit of Ukrainian embroidery along with a concert with performances by our children with song and dance, which amazes not only our fellow residents of other nationalities, but the Australians as well who with great interest and curiosity had come to look over these "new Australians" as they called us.

Lida Stepanivna, as I myself, loved to sing and this brought us even closer together. Often after dinner, having put the children to bed, we would gather in a group, talk, laugh and without planning begin to sing. Presently other women joined our group and before long, over the wild Australian bush country was heard the plaintive and beautiful sound of the ancient Ukrainian folk song!

This eventually became almost a necessity, we sang often, we sang with all our heart, we sang all sorts of songs: sad ones, happy, historical and ancient ones and somehow without realizing it we began to sing the familiar and beloved hymns of our sacred liturgy -- The "Our Father" and "The Apostle's Creed", and suddenly it struck us! We must have our own church in the camp! We have our own pastor and we have a choir which is a requisite for any Ukrainian Orthodox service.

Without a second thought, and without any further ado, committee meetings or formalities of any kind, Lidia Stepanivna and I set out the next morning to see our sympathetic camp director to explain to him our wish and to request that he give us a room or building for our church. It seemed like such a simple proposition! But to our surprise, this matter turned out to not be quite so easy!

He simply could not understand what we wanted of him, what were we unhappy about or what were we dissatisfied with? We spent a long time "explaining" to him that we were delighted with everything, that we were thankful for everything, but -- after all -- man does not live by bread alone.

We need spiritual sustenance, we have a spiritual leader, the Bishop himself, and we want to have our own church in the camp! It seemed that everything was so plain and simple -- but he just did not seem able to comprehend what we wanted of him.

So, having used to no avail the total sum of our meager English vocabulary, glancing at one another Lidia Stepanivna and I set our hands into motion -- we folded them together on our breast reverently, we raised our eyes to heaven imploringly while crossing ourselves earnestly and clasped our hands together in fervent prayer -- I think we even dropped to our knees at one point.

Such a sight greatly amused our director, he smiled broadly and nodded his head in baffled amusement -- while we smiled and laughed with him -- when all at once, in a blaze of recognition he suddenly grasped the situation and the purpose of our "dramatic" entreaties. Feeling very pleased with his own perceptiveness and perspicacity and without any objections he led us across the camp and showed us an empty barracks, as if to say -- you want a church -- make yourself a church!

Exhausted from our "conversation" with the director but proud of our success we raced across the yard to our "parish" which awaited us with impatience.

And immediately our work got underway. From every corner of the camp the women descended on that abandoned barracks with bucket, brooms, brushes and washrags. We washed and scrubbed the floors, the walls, the windows -- our barracks seemed to have grown even larger and brighter. On the next day, we gathered up some old boards, fashioned a table, or should I say "altar", and all the other necessary accouterments. We collected all our treasures into the church: icons, embroidered cloths, tablecloths and little rugs -- and our little church began to shine.

Sunday. A beautiful, sunny, warm morning -- for us a double joy. Yesterday, after a long separation our men arrived for a long awaited visit and today we will have the first service in our new church.

Our humble little church is filled to capacity with people, many who don't even understand our language. We greet everyone and welcome them all. We feel ourselves to be those first "pioneers" who have laid the first cornerstone of the Ukrainian Autocephalic Orthodox Church in Australia.

The service begins -- the blessing of our church and the holy liturgy. And in the middle of the wild and untamed Australian bush, far away from the cultural centers of Sydney and Melbourne, for the first time in history the Holy Word of God echoes through the land in the ancient Ukrainian language.

And on the wings of a song issues forth our sincere prayer of love and gratitude -- " Glory be to God, Glory be to God".


At 5:30 PM, Anonymous Pindar said...

Aussiegirl, I just finished reading about your mother's diagnosis of cancer, and then I read Bonnie's prayer for her...and prayed along. Then I read this unbelievably beautiful story that your mother wrote...and was overwhelmed. The tears of seeing a child buried at sea, the humor of a little girl asking why the Red Sea is blue, those wonderful images of the land and the sea, the hardships of establishing herself in a foreign land...what a talented, imaginative, poetic woman you have for a mother! And then I remembered your writing some time back of her memories of the Ukrainian famine, the horrors that she was forced to witness and then later remember...and I was speechless at the unfairness of it all! I said that prayer again, and since the ways of God are known only to God, I can only hope that any treatment that she undergoes is successful and that she lives a good long time. By the way, your translation reads beautifully itself, and I can only imagine how much lovelier the Ukrainian must be.

At 8:19 AM, Blogger Timothy Birdnow said...

WOW!!! I am speechless! That was an awesome, incredible tale! You have GOT to put out a book about all of this, Aussiegirl! Your family story is much better than anything out there (either in print or at the movies) and is simply crying to be told to the World! You would have a best-seller for sure!

Your mother is one heck of a lady, and I`m praying for her speedy recovery. Let her know how moved everyone was by her memories!

At 1:07 PM, Blogger Aussiegirl said...

Thank you both so much for these lovely comments -- my mom will be tickled pink!! I've printed them out, along with BonnieB's thoughtful reaction and will be sharing them with her. She used to be on the stage, so this will be like getting good reviews all over again!!

She's feeling well so far and we are exploring treatment options. I thank you for the prayers, and we trust in God's ultimate wisdom and plan -- and meanwhile -- we love -- for what else can we do -- or should we do while here on earth?


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