(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, June 13.)
We buried my mother-in-law last month.
In different circumstances that might be the opening line of a bad-taste joke, but the life and death of Jadwiga Zychewicz was not something to be flippant about.
Mama (which was what almost everyone called her, Jadwiga being a bit awkward for New Zealanders to get their tongues around) would have been 97 in September. She survived tuberculosis and a Nazi slave labour camp and outlived three of her children.
She was born in Warsaw in 1922 and lost her only sibling, a younger brother, when he died of diphtheria at the age of seven. In the memoirs we encouraged her to write several years ago, she preferred to dwell on happy childhood holidays on a relative’s small farm.
Those pleasurable memories were made more poignant by her grim experiences after the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, triggering the Second World War. Both her parents died in 1942 as a consequence of inadequate food and the freezing Polish winters.
She recalled being alone with her father when he died coughing up blood in their small flat in Warsaw and feeling helpless because a curfew and blackout prevented her from going out to seek help. She sat with his body in the darkness through the long night.
She contracted TB herself and was admitted to a Catholic sanatorium which somehow continued to function. She ended up marrying the brother of a fellow patient and described, remarkably, a joyous wedding in the midst of war.
Antoni Zychewicz, my late father-in-law, was a member of the Polish Underground whose function was to monitor BBC radio broadcasts on a clandestine radio. Mama recalled hastily concealing incriminating radio transcripts when a German soldier burst into their apartment demanding to see Antoni’s identity papers. Had the transcripts been seen, the result would have been imprisonment and probable execution.
Long story short: Mama and Antoni were ordered from their apartment at gunpoint in August 1944 when the Germans launched savage reprisals as punishment for the Warsaw Uprising launched by the Underground. All Mama took with her was an envelope containing her wedding photos. With thousands of others, they were deported to Germany and put to work in a labour camp producing weapons and ammunition for the Nazi war machine.
After French forces set them free in 1945, they faced a difficult decision: whether to return to Poland, which was by then under Soviet control, or remain in Allied-controlled West Germany.
Wisely they chose the latter course. They had heard of other Poles who had disappeared or been arrested on returning to their homeland – victims of Stalinist paranoia – and they didn’t want to take the risk. In any case, they had no families to return to.
In the immediate post-war years they lived in a converted bomb shelter before graduating to an apartment block built by the Americans near Stuttgart. Antoni worked for the US Army in distant Bremerhaven while Mama raised six children virtually solo in a one-bedroomed, walk-up apartment on the fourth floor.
They tried for years to emigrate – first to the US, then Canada. Neither country would take them because both Mama and Antoni had lungs scarred by TB.
Then Australia accepted them, and that would have been that, except that some former Polish neighbours had migrated to Wellington and wrote urging them to do the same – which is how the Zychewicz family ended up, in 1965, living in a Lyall Bay migrant hostel.
Later came a state house in Porirua East and later again, a home of their own in the new Porirua suburb of Ascot Park.
Mama spent 20 years working in the bindery at the Government Printing Office and in the process suffered serious hearing loss from the ceaseless clanking of the machinery. Antoni, who also worked for the government, died in 1980. I don’t think he ever recovered from the deprivation of the war years.
Mama was a tiny woman. She was shy almost to the point of being reclusive and gave the impression of timidity, but she had a steely core which was probably a survival mechanism.
She showed no obvious emotion when three of her children died in recent years and I wondered whether the war years taught her that she couldn’t afford to dwell on sadness and grief; she just had to push through it.
This column barely touches on the many moments of life-and-death drama that marked her early life, including a narrow escape from a train bound for Auschwitz. She was matter-of-fact about what she had experienced, probably in the knowledge that millions of Poles endured much the same hardship.
In my eulogy at her funeral I said it was difficult to comprehend the breadth of the lifetime's experience embodied in her diminutive frame, or the strength of the spirit that sustained her. If I had to choose a single word to encapsulate her life, it would be that she was a survivor.