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Within one week, I’ve heard 2 stories about WW2 ancestors who through receiving a kind action had their lives profoundly changed even though no-one really knew if there would be any consequences. To put it simply. They went ahead with fingers crossed and holding their breaths.
As an Australian with Polish ancestors, I was extremely touched by these stories.
Recently on SBS there’s been a program that’s specifically focused on the stories of WW1 and WW2 ancestors. It has similar structure to the program ‘Who Do You Think You Are’.
The general consensus is, interested celebrities are having their family’s ancestors’ stories researched and recorded for a television program.
One story that was told, was about a British actress’s (apologies for not remembering her name) Grandfather who worked in the Spanish Embassy based in France during WW2.
His story was about how he unknowingly, saved hundreds of Polish Jews’ lives as they were fleeing Europe via Spain to board a ship in Portugal which was bound for the USA.
As they had to travel through Spain to reach Porto, Spanish law stated that documents for each person must be sent to the official department in Spain for approval and then returned to the applicant.
As this was war time in the 1940’s it would be approximately 2 weeks before receiving back that approval to enter the country of Spain.
The Jews could not afford to wait. They needed to flee war torn France immediately or risk persecution.
While the gentleman in the embassy understood his dilemma he knew of the dire urgency so went against all diplomatic rules. In a short period of time, he had signed off hundreds of applications.
‘He saved their lives’.
His British Granddaughter was informed by a lady she met up with for the program.
This lady was a Granddaughter of one of the Polish Jews who had escaped through Spain and went on to live a long and fruitful life.
It truly brought tears to my eyes.
A Little Girl
Anna came over from Poland a few years after the end of WW2. She was just a little girl of 2 years of age.
The bombings had stopped and the sounds of military gunfire and air raid sirens were no longer being heard but the people of this again quiet country village of central Poland were not back to ‘normal’. And far from it as the country was in an upheaval.
It would take years, possibly a decade to gain some sort of normality again.
So, when the Government announced that there was an opportunity for a brand-new life the Polish people jumped at the chance.
It was a new start but there was no oppression. There would be peace, freedom and opportunity for children to receive an education even though it was far away from the loved ones they’d leave behind.
Now or never
This was a ‘NOW or NEVER’ offer and decision.
If Anna’s parents wanted to go, it was Go Now! There was no time given to ‘think’ about it.
The instructions were, to make your way to the port with only the barest necessities and only with what you can carry.
So, in 1949, with just 1 suitcase Anna and her parents found themselves at the port looking at 3 ships.
They were told to choose any 1 of them but the ships were going to 3 different destinations.
- South America
All three of these were relatively new nations in the Western world compared to the UK and Europe. So, the whole situation was extremely daunting for simple country folk.
Anna’s parents had always thought that they would do as their fore-fathers and live to a ripe old age in the hometown where they wer born.
Anna’s father couldn’t decide which ship to choose so he handed that decision over to his wife who was just as confused and undecided as well.
She knew a little about the USA as she’d heard that the cities were big and busy. Both cars and people everywhere so coming from a country village that was a concern for her.
She hadn’t heard of South America or Australia so to decide which country to live in for the rest of their lives was extremely difficult. It’s a long way from home if they find they’ve made the wrong decision.
As they stood on the dock staring at the ships, wondering and unsure of what to do, thoughts ran through their heads. They were still in Europe so they could change their mind and stay in war torn Poland. But as far as they were concerned, staying was NOT an option.
Then a sailor from one of the ships walked up to them and offered young Anna an orange to eat as he smiled at the confused parents.
Kindness from a stranger
Anna’s mother thought, ‘What a kind thing for that man to do.’ It had been a long time since she had witnessed kindness from a stranger. With everything that had been happening in their world it was over a decade.
Anna’s mother asked him which ship he was on and he pointed the one that was going to Australia.
With that Anna’s mother decided that they too would go to Australia.
Her reasoning was based on the man’s kindness because it said to her that Australians are kind people.
Anna’s parents never spoke about their ordeals in Poland and from that day forward have treasured their lives in Australia.
A Bit of Insight
Many of the ships that were used in the war were converted to take on passengers who were making a new start in a new country far from Europe.
Comforts on the ships were basic and room was cramped as those once large empty holds were fitted with double or triple bunks. Also rooming was based with women and children together while men slept in another area.
On the ships the food was simple and plain and the immigrants longed for their traditional spiced meals. This carried through to the hostels and reception camps after they had arrived in Australia so for most of them, their beginnings were tough until they settled in a home of their own.
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