“Anywhere, as long as it’s hot” Polish-Australian post-war stories

There are many Polish heroes who emigrated as a result of the turmoil of World War II
– for many this emigration was a compulsion. One of them was Zbigniew Tadeusz Kwieciński, the grandson of Maciej Kwieciński, a distinguished Polish physician. What was his way to Australia and building a new home on the other side of the globe looked like, about love, family, the long shadow of the past – tells his daughter – Anna Kwiecińska.

Born in Krakow, Poland, Dad was only 17 when he was mobilized into the Polish Army
in August 1939. Initially he served in an observation unit of an anti-aircraft artillery regiment, but in November 1939 he was sworn in as a member of the Polish Underground State. Zbigniew served then mainly in intelligence units, where his excellent knowledge of the German language was particularly valuable.

In 1944, with the rank of captain, he was arrested by the Germans and sent to a POW (prisoner-of-war) camp in Germany, where he was released the following year by the Allies. In a displaced persons camp in Ingolstadt, he met a Hungarian woman, with whom he emigrated to Australiain in 1949.

When I met her many years later, in Perth – Western Australia, she remembered the first words of her father who had said to her in a dance together: “You don’t know it yet, but you will be my wife.” Dad’s roots reached Bielsko Biała, and the local long, frosty winters were the reason why he declared: “anywhere, as long as it is hot” – when he was asked to select a preferred country for emigration after the war.

The ship Anna Salen, on which Zbigniew Kweiciński sailed to Australia in 1949

If it hadn’t been for his impatience – the fact that he stepped off the ship from Naples
the moment it first docked in Australia, I might have grown up in Melbourne (still a few weeks sailing further east).

As it turned out, Fremantle (a port city in Western Australia) was where he and Elly (girl from Perth) disembarked and immediately boarded a train inland to spend the next few years in another temporary hostel, this time in a remote area of Western Australia, where Dad once again stood out for his language skills.

Western Australians call themselves “sandgropers” – we love the beach! Many (most of them) of his Polish contemporaries, and sometimes their children – Ann’s generation – have always believed that Poland is truly home, but Dad was always proud to call himself “Sandgroper” because he made Australia his home with all his heart – along with my mother, a Perth girl whose heritage in Western Australia goes back to the arrival of the first British settlers
in the 1820s.

Today, after several trips with Dad to Poland, combined with the nostalgia of my adult years, I can only start to imagine the enormous effort that took over his inner life, which was to suppress the past to ensure the future of the family.

My dad didn’t talk much about the war.

Constant hunger, “secret missions” in Lvov, his mother died of a stroke just a few days after witnessing Jewish neighbors being shot in the street outside her window in Krakow…
these few images remain in my imagination to fill in the many gaps about my dad’s last years in Poland during WWII.

There were several pictures. Plus memorabilia: a U. S. Army fork – a regulation issue
for those liberated from POW camps in 1945 – rattling around in our cutlery drawer,
his military beret in a cabinet, and a mysterious heavy leather military coat shoved in the back of his closet.

Always grateful that he was the father of two daughters, rather than sons, “because you girls will never have to go to war”, he was, nevertheless, an old-world disciplinarian where “children and fish have no voices”. 

Marched down the hall to bed – “hup two, three, four” – my sister and I were often lulled to sleep by Dad deeply crooning Polish guerilla songs, or that wartime classic Lili Marleen
in German, which he spoke perfectly. 

If Mum slept in too late on school mornings, I was usually directed to rouse her into action with a hand-trumpeted version of Reverie, and slothful behavior was denounced with “wakey wakey, your country needs you!”

First meeting of the General Council of the Polish community of Australia

So it’s little wonder that my enrolment into the Girl Guides couldn’t happen early enough.

“I look at it now and realise what a tiny little thing you were”, says Mum, as she holds up the pleated cotton frock that was my first Brownie uniform. “You seemed like such a big girl”.

There was usually a bit of scuffle to get to Brownie’s on time every Saturday afternoon. Having gone to speech and piano lessons in the morning with Mum, I’d sometimes then accompany Dad to the ‘European butcher’ to buy Polski ogorki, smelly cheeses, wizened sausages and dark, dense bread. Weekend brunches were olfactory treats cut short by my 2pm pack meeting.

Mum, once again taxi’d me to and fro, but not before Dad checked my uniform. Tie badge polished, shiny belt, he’d invariably, however, re-arrange my beret. With the spic and span deftness of a sergeant major, the part I least liked about my uniform was pulled from
its precarious placement on the back of my head to a regulation inch above my eyes,
with a precise tug to the right for good measure. Little soldier prepared for action

Meanwhile, Dad spent many Saturday afternoons at home, listening to the football whilst repainting the metal plaques whose words in silvered relief commemorate Western Australian soldiers killed or missing in action during the First World War. Each plaque was staked
at the foot of a towering eucalyptus tree lining the miles of ‘Honour Avenues’
in the magnificent King’s Park on Mount Eliza in Perth. 

Although Dad would eventually preside over the RSL (Returned Services League) Committee in the Highgate Sub-Branch managing these Honour Avenues, this story happens well before that. For him, maintaining these poignant records bearing witness to the thousands of men who set sail to fight for a far-away King, was, I know, his way of offering gratitude to
the country which welcomed him in 1949.

However, the plaques needed repainting with a frequency that, even as a labour of love galvanised by civic duty, became a burden on ageing men. Dad’s helpers were not getting any younger and nor were their knees. His busy-bees were harder to fill and more and more plaques were brought home to fix alone.

Polish war veterans in Tasmania, 1948
Anna and Meredith repainting plaques in King's Park

When I joined in to paint the letters silver after he’d finished cleaning them with a wire brush and coating them in glossy black enamel, it was quickly apparent that small, nimbler fingers could do this job easily. And so it was, after considerable consultation, that the Girl Guides Association in Western Australia joined with the RSL to permit the services of Brownies in the maintenance of this public icon, with our time acknowledged in the awarding of the coveted ‘Service Badge’.

I’m not sure when this unique symbiosis ceased, but eventually Captain Harms retired and I left the Guides. Dad remained incredibly active in the RSL throughout his 50 years of membership, whilst around this time also starting Mensa in Western Australia – but that’s another story!

It has to me mentioned that Anna got stuck in Sri Lanka in connection with the COVID situation – there she also has a chance to listen and write about Sri Lanca Polish post-war stories – or Ceylon, how the island was called back then. More about her and the stories: https://www.annakwiecinska.com/spice-voyager-blog