Chapter IX

African Saga



Saga Oudshoorn was an army camp located in a barren desert. The simple barracks stood in rows. There wasn't any grass or trees to reduce the heat. What happened to the beautiful greenery, that we saw from the train, which brought us from Port Elizabeth? Inside the barracks the furniture consisted of metal beds. There were no tables or dressers. Clothes were folded in an army backpack, which was given to me (in Russia), as a part of the uniform. The concrete floors had to be swept and washed everyday.

Upon arrival in the camp, quite early in the morning, breakfast was served in the huge hall like "dining room" located slightly below ground level. Often the wind blew sand through the open windows. How we longed for grass which would help to stop the dust. However, this first morning no one worried about this inconvenience. Food was plentiful. Fresh bread, butter, milk, and a variety of fruit tasted heavenly. As many as seven slices of bread were eaten by each person. My friend who came out of Russia looking like a skeleton, brought slices of bread into the barrack to be dried and eaten at night even if the crunchy (mouse like) sounds irritated other girls. There were twenty of us. Ten beds in a row on each side of the long hall. There was only a narrow passage in between. The showers were located in the large building with half-closed doors, which did not provide much privacy. Along the wall the long troughs were placed for washing. All around accommodations were very simple and rudimentary, but we felt that it was nice to be settling down, hoping for some normalcy, even for a short time. The dream of war ending soon and returning home and family was constantly on our minds and in our hearts. It shone like a beacon. In the meantime, we understood that time must be spent on preparation for the future by acquiring much needed education.

The first day of classes was welcomed with relief. The dedication and enthusiasm was quite evident, but malaria attacks and other illnesses demanding frequent trips to the camp hospital created unwelcome interruptions in much desired studies.

After two months of being in Oudshoorn, the mail began to arrive. It was so wonderful to receive letters from my mother, father, and brothers. I was overjoyed to know that they all were well and out of Russia. It was quite a surprise to receive a letter from Olek Romanko because we had argued a great deal when we were in Russia, but it was nice to know that he was well. He had lost his parents and had no family to that Olek write to and to share his feelings with. Although he never complained, it was obvious missed his family.

In Oudshoorn, I was getting used to a new group of teachers, new climate, and new surroundings. There were no textbooks. We listened to the lectures, made notes, and later studied them. We were given few scribblers and had to write very small to save paper. The bus, which was involved in the accident on the way to Kuma, carried the school supplies. The scribblers that we used were stained with blood. The white South Africans and Americans donated clothes to us. We had no money to buy things. When we wanted to write a letter, we had to ask our priest for the paper, envelopes, and stamps. There was no radio. We spent our time on studies and that gave us hope for a better future. We dreamed about returning to our home in Poland and using our hard-acquired knowledge for the good of our people. This was what our Polish soldiers fought for, a free Poland, and reunited families. Hope kept us going.

Sometimes the whole school attended a mission church in the town of Oudshoorn joining the congregation of black people to give an example to white South Africans, who would never attend the church where blacks went. There were also separate trains, washrooms, benches, buses, restaurants, etc. The two races lived in constant separation. The wages of white people were 20 times higher than those of the black people who were labourers and servants. We felt sorry for the blacks, but we could not do anything about it. White South Africans were very angry when we tried to mingle with black people.

The Bishop Koening of Oudshoorn was very kind to us. He donated many things to our camp, chapel, and our school.

Sometimes on the weekend, we went on field trips. The most interesting were to ostrich farms, falls, and the caves of stalagmite and stalactite. What beautiful sights! It was difficult to believe that water could carve such wondrous shapes out of rocks. Of course it took ages to accomplish. A most memorable visit was to the hall of Queen Victoria-throne and all.

After a while, it was decided to change the type of our high school. Instead of an academic program, a commercial one was introduced. Fourteen friends and I decided that we would like to continue the academic program, which would enable us to attend university. The closest Polish High School, (Gimnazjum and Liceum) which offered this kind of education, was Digglefold, Southern Rhodesia. To go there, we had to receive permission from the South African government, which was reluctant to let young, white girls out of the country.

While we were waiting for this permission, my friend and I were chosen by a doctor to spend two week vacations with an English couple, Mr. and Mrs. Swindle who lived in Georgetown. They had a beautiful home, gardens, forest, and a meadow. We could not speak English and that made communication very difficult. My friend refused to try to speak because she said she did not want to be embarrassed. I felt that it was wrong because our hosts were very nice, polite and patient. I felt we owed them some courtesy so I tried to speak for both of us. I knew some vocabulary, but had much difficulty in the sentence formation.

One day we were going for a walk in the forest. We had to cross the meadow where two cows were grazing. However, they did not like women and we had to wait for a servant to take the cows into the barn. Wanting to please our hosts, I wanted to say, "You have very nice cows", instead I said, "You are very nice cows". My friend understood that and began to laugh. She told me in Polish what mistake I had made. My face was red with embarrassment. Mr. and Mrs. Swindle did not laugh. They corrected me gently and praised me for trying to speak English. They were truly gentle people.

In addition to their lovely home, they also had a very nice cottage in the Wilderness by the Indian Ocean. We spent a week there and went home brown and much healthier. We corresponded with our hosts for many years and as we learned more English, we were able to thank them for their kindness.

Shortly after we came back to Oudshoorn, we were fitted for two dresses each. The government had given us permission to go to Rhodesia. The teachers felt that we should have new outfits to travel in because our other clothes were in such poor condition. We each had one gray, one blue dress, brown shoes, white socks, brown belts, and navy blue ties. Hats were made from the same fabric as the dresses. We looked very nice and were happy to have decent clothes. Many people on the train asked which private school we attended. We felt very proud.

Saying goodbye to our friend again was very difficult. We were tired of the constant changes and uncertainties. What was at the end of this journey?

We stopped in the cities of Mafeking (birth of Scouting), Kimberley (Diamond City), and Bullowayo. We saw many beautiful places and learned many new things. Usually we stopped at the Catholic Churches where the priests took good care of us. Often the parishioners took us around the cities and countryside in their cars. We visited many missions and listened to the beautiful native choirs. After a week of travel, arrived in Digglefold, Southern Rhodesia.

It was late afternoon when the train stopped in the country to let us off. We picked up our luggage and walked a short distance to a building hidden amongst the trees. Coming from Oudshoorn where there were no trees, we appreciated the beauty surrounding our new school. Soon we found out that a farming couple once owned Digglefold. Their little boy wandered into the bush during a storm became very ill and died. The parents left their farm to move away from the place of their tragedy. Later the Rhodesian government offered this place for a high school for Polish girls.

Our bedrooms were so small that we had to use the bunk beds. The classrooms were also small and so were the windows. Next morning, we were debriefed by the school's headmaster. General Ferdynand Zarzycki and then instructed to attend classes. We met our teachers one by one and realized that General was a stern disciplinarian. We went around very quietly and were cautious not to annoy anyone. Soon we found out that our severe General was also a very caring person who had our best interest at heart. He wanted us to gain knowledge, develop our personalities, and be ready to face our future positively. He took upon himself the role of an educator, father, and mother. We appreciated and loved him dearly and did not dare to do anything to upset him. The rest of the staff accepted the general's philosophy and performed their tasks well beyond the call of duty. They spent their time with us not only during the school hours, but came over during the evening to give us extra help, which was much needed. Under their guidance, we made great progress and soon became one big family.

My friends who went to Palestine (from Teheran) wrote to me about their school year being shortened to six months based on the assumption that by now they were older, more mature and were ready to concentrate on their studies excluding everything else. We knew that we also were responsible for our future and we needed education to assure a profession. My friends I had only one move from Teheran to Palestine and were ahead of me in their studies. My moves from Isphahan and Oudshoorn resulted in lost education time. In Isphahan, I did the third year of Gimmasium (Junior High) and in Digglefold, I did the second year because there was not a third-year program. We talked to our teachers about it, making it clear that we were unhappy. We still took ten months to complete second year, but in the third year, a decision was made to let us do the third and fourth year in ten months. It was made clear that we were not allowed to skip any material. Everything was to be covered and at the end we were to undergo some tough examinations. To qualify for this program, we had to have only good and very good marks. Luckily I had those, but my health was very poor. I lost a great deal of weight and was still losing it. Constantly I had a temperature of 99 degrees, which was slightly high. The doctor thought I had tuberculosis. There was no way of confirming this because there was not x-ray in our school infirmary. The General decided to write a letter to my parents asking for permission so that I could enter this special program because it demanded a great deal of hard work and was more stressful. My parents had to be responsible if my health became worse as a result of extra duties. It took two months for the letter to reach my parents and two months to get the answer. By the time it came, I had passed my exams and was ready to begin the first year of high school. It was an important accomplishment and it made me happy. However, my health was still poor. I attended school from the infirmary where I spent all my time in bed. During the day, my bed was placed outside under the evergreen trees. Fresh air was considered to be beneficial for the lung ailments. During the night, I slept inside. Studying in bed became a habit for the rest of my life.

Making good grades and progress was the only aim of our lives. There were no men around to associate with, only the girls. The sole entertainment was Sunday afternoon dances at which the girls danced with each other. Very well used records provided the music. The only contact was with male population was letters to soldiers. It was considered a patriotic duty to correspond with them. We read each other's letters and often composed the reply together. Of course the recipients didn't know about that. Some of my friends later married their pen pals making good marriages.

Among others, Olek wrote to me constantly but his letters were only friendly. He was not declaring his love or anything of this sort. In fact, he wrote a great deal about the Italian girls and I still thought he was an incorrigible flirt. I did not approve of it, but we knew each other well and I had other things to write about. Finally my father joined my mother and they both lived in Tengeru, Tanganyika. Olek wrote to my mother, who treated him as an adopted son and in that way Olek became my adopted brother. This gave me certain privileges and I could write to him more freely showing my disapproval if necessary.

Politically we were quite worried. President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill made some concessions to Stalin and the independence of Poland was in jeopardy in spite of the heroic deeds of our Polish army in Italy and on other battlefields. Despite my poor health, I did well in my studies and had reason to be happy, especially when I remembered that Russia was a sad part of my past. But February 26 of 1945 brought a new tragedy of which I was not aware until Easter of this year. I was invited to spend a holiday with the mother of my friends, Mrs. Haciska, whom my family knew well from Poland. We also were together in Russia. She was always very kind to me and treated me like a member of her family.

On Easter Saturday, we went for a walk in the country. The eucalyptus forest provided coolness, wild flowers and colorful birds completed the beauty of the African land. My heart was for once content. Having good friends with me decreased my loneliness. We were holding hands and were discussing our future hoping that in spite of war and political upheaval, the time would come when we would have our families together and return to our home in Poland. "When did you have the last letter from your parents?" asked Pani Ziuta (Haciska). I said that it was quite sometime ago, but it did not seem strange because the mail was very slow and irregular. It was common not to get news for months and then to receive several letters at the same time. "I had a letter from your father" she said. The thought shot through my mind. Why only from my father, why not both parents? "I am sorry, but your mother died on February 26, 1945". I tried to pull away from them crying, "No, no, no." They held me tight and tried to console me, assuring me that I would always be a member of their family. I knew that Pani Ziuta would continue to give me her love and I was grateful for that, but my sorrow was so great, I was not able to think of the future. I did not think I would ever be happy again. When friends came to give their condolences, I pretended to be asleep. I could not face them. During the Easter service and procession, I cried constantly. My heart was breaking and I thought I would never be able to enjoy Easter again.

Later I said that in a letter to Olek and he tried to console me too. I could talk to him about it since he had known my mother well and also because he lost his own parents. I felt he could understand my sorrow. Both of us had lost our chance to have our family back. I felt sorry that there would not be a chance to show my mother that I loved her and to compensate for all the loneliness and longing that she suffered by having her young children so far away.

This tragedy affected my health. Greater loss of weight caused a loss of energy. Concentration was very hard and this in turn affected my studies. However, I had to be well prepared for my lessons, especially in Latin, social studies, and philosophy. General Zarzycki constantly asked me questions in these subjects believing that work would stop me from dwelling on my sorrow. It did not seem to diminish, but time did not stand still. I was attending classes from the infirmary and managed to get good grades. The teachers were kind and the General demanding but caring. Often at night when we were studying, he would come and order me to turn my kerosene lantern off and go to sleep. "No late study nights for you", he would say, having a scowling face and long brows drawn together. He really cared for us, but never wanted to show the softness of his heart.

Pani Ziuta taught in our school, coming from the nearby settlement of Marandellas. She always found the time to give special attention to my emotional and physical needs. She made sure that the doctors took good care of me and solicited the help of an outside doctor when necessary. Whenever we had free time, she insisted that I come to her home along with her daughters Olenka and Zosia. Her young son Wieslaw was like a brother to me. Walks in the country and food supplemented out of her teacher's small salary, helped to improve my physical strength. At Digglefold, we read and discussed the best books in Polish and other countries' literature. Our minds were well occupied. After supper, we could stay in the school's dining room and listen to the news on the only radio at school. At first, the news was of the war. We rejoiced when in May of 1944, we heard of the victory at Monte Cassino in Italy. The Polish troops, after many attempts by other forces, were the ones who reached the monastery on the mountain and placed a Polish flag at the top. The monastery was a German strong hold, which controlled the whole valley and prevented the allied troops from advancing toward the city of Rome. Polish forces suffered great losses. The dead were buried on the mountain slightly below the monastery and the cemetery became a place of pilgrimage not only for Poles, but for people of many other nations.

In spite of this victory, the news for Poles was bad. At Yalta- Churchill and Roosevelt let Stalin take Poland into Russian influence and put in a communist puppet government. The eastern part of Poland, where Olek and I were born became part of Belorussia, one of the Soviet Union's Republics. Having been imprisoned by Russians for two years, we knew very well what would await us if we returned home. The hopes of returning home and seeing the rest of the family became an unattainable dream. We were worried, but still hoping that the politicians would change their minds and not abandon Poland which fought along with allied forces from the first to the last day of the war.

The war ended in 1945 and we still were hoping for a better tomorrow. In the meantime, we continued our studies. The Christmas of 1945, I spent in the hospital in Salisbury. After lengthy tests and examinations, I was placed in isolation and was terribly upset. I could not speak English. The nurses did not tell me much. I was certain that my premonition of having TB had become a reality and my greatest concern was that I would not be able to go back to school and obtain my matriculation. At that time, TB was "cured" by patients staying in bed, breathing fresh air and becoming fat. There was no medication to help. Next day, I found out that I had typhoid fever. I was so happy not to have tuberculosis!! I even forgot how deadly typhoid fever could be. However, the hospital in Salisbury was much superior to the one in the Russian kulag and I was cured of that dreadful disease. Even though the nurses fed me double breakfasts and lunches, I still remained very thin, anemic, and looked like a young teenager although now I was going on twenty.

When I returned to Digglefold, the holiday was over and we resumed our classes. This was my final year at the high school and the matriculation exams were set for November 1946.

Unknown to me, the superintendent, an English lady, approached the authorities to bring my father from Tengeru to Digglefold hoping that this would improve my health. I was told about it only few days before my father's arrival. We decided that he would make his home in Marandellas, a settlement 12 miles away from Digglefold. A few times a week, he traveled on a bicycle to visit me. During the holidays, I went to see him and had a place to stay. Soon he remarried. I felt quite unhappy. I felt it was much too soon after mother's death. Also our future was very uncertain.

Within a short time, I received a letter from my older brother, Antoni, who also decided to marry an Italian girl claiming that he would like to make a home for me because I was not well, and needed looking after. Again, I was anxious, but this time for Antoni. He was having a hard time recovering from his many wounds. After many operations, he still had some shrapnel in his spine that could not be removed without risk of paralysis. He also had lost one kidney.

The time of my matriculation exams was approaching very fast. Hard work and constant pressure caused me to lose even more weight, which had plummeted to 103 pounds.

Our exams were made up of two parts, oral and written. My heart and my stomach were in knots. I was terrified and prayed constantly. The Holy Spirit was with me. I did quite well on the written exams and was exempted from the oral in Polish and history. I did not remember much about my oral exams, but some fragments would stay with me as a nightmare for the rest of my life.

In the end, my marks were very good. I made it! I was a "mature" person, but where was my future? For a week, we put all our problems aside and celebrated. The school, the teachers, and the kitchen staff gave us separate parties. We ate, sang, and danced. A group of 18 girls for there were still no boys. During the night, we wandered around playing pranks and making all kinds of noises. Everything was permissible to us! Our strict General Zarzycki pretended not to hear. Our English teacher locked himself in the room when someone informed him that we were going to carry him out of his room - bed and all.

Then the festivities were over. Reality set in. What would we do now? There was no money to continue our education and no jobs. Although living in Africa, we were educated in Polish and for Poland. Our English was poor. Most of us had to accept jobs looking after the children or running households of white Africans. The salaries were very low. We felt degraded and unhappy.

Since we did not dare to go back to Poland, political plans were made for the families of the Polish soldiers to go to England. No one could tell how long we would have to wait for the transport. Antoni with his wife immigrated to Argentina. Janek was at "Junaki" (school for boys run by the army) and no one knew if he would be eligible to bring his family to England. When I expressed my concerns in the letters to Olek, who by now was also in England, he surprised me by offering very generously to have me come to England as his financée. Since he never told me that he even liked me, how could I accept his offer? Naturally I thanked him and pointed out the danger he was putting himself into. What if I accepted? What would he do? As every young girl, I dreamt about marriage to someone whom I would love very much and who would love me too. I did not feel that I was at this stage with Olek. Often he confided in me (as a friend) about the conquests he made among the girls in Russia and in Italy. In my innocent heart, I considered him to be "too experienced". There was a bond between us, but I could not define it. However, I felt secure enough to tell him what I thought and felt.

In 1947, we were moved to Gatooma, a camp previously occupied by Italian prisoners of war. The clay cabins were very small and hot. Termites ate out our window frames, which made it impossible to open the window. Luckily I was working most of the time, first in Que-Que and then in Gwelo (South Rhodesia). Having black servants to do the housework, I did not have to perform physical tasks. My role was to supervise. Loneliness from being among strangers exhausted me emotionally. I asked my father to send me a telegram informing me that our family would soon leave for England. This spared me from arguing with my employers about leaving my job. The truth was that our family had to wait for our turn.

During that time, I worked in the office of my previous high school for the headmaster, General Zarzycki, whom I always approached with awe. I saw p. Ziuta Haciska and her daughters, Olenka and Zosia. It eased my loneliness, but I had to make some hard decisions. The Haciski family (my surrogate family too) was leaving for Poland to join the husband and father, Pan Zdzislaw Haciski. We were all worried about their safety. They wanted me to come with them fearing that I would be even more unhappy when I lost their closeness and friendship. Our goodbyes were very tearful. My family's prospects of leaving for England were better, therefore, I decided to stick with them. By now, my father and stepmother had a son Zbyszek

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