Thursday, July 11, 2019

Not home, exactly, but where we came from nonetheless

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, other Stuff regional papers and on, July 10.)

“Welcome home,” I said to my wife.

Minutes earlier, our train had rumbled over the River Oder, which marks the border between Germany and Poland, although I didn’t realise that until we passed the next town. The sign on the station platform identified it as Słubice, revealing that we had passed from a Teutonic country into a Slavic one.

Jolanta corrected me, as she frequently does. “I never thought of Poland as my home,” she said, “any more than you think of Denmark as yours.”

She was right in the sense that although born to Polish parents, she never lived in Poland. Her parents were forcibly transported to Germany from Warsaw during World War Two to work in a labour camp and never went back. Jolanta grew up in Germany and emigrated to New Zealand with her family in 1965.

But in my defence, I was speaking figuratively. She’s undeniably Polish, after all; she grew up speaking Polish as well as German and regularly conversed in Polish with her mother, who died only recently.

So her roots are in Poland, just as mine – on my father’s side, anyway – are in Denmark. And while I’m not one of those people who become fixated with the minutiae of family history, one purpose of this trip to Europe was to connect with those roots.

For me, this involved visiting the towns my Danish grandparents came from and enjoying the very convivial company of distant Danish cousins. Similarly, for Jolanta it was a pilgrimage of sorts to Warsaw – although we had been there before – and an opportunity to re-establish contact with descendants of the few family members who had survived the war.

In Warsaw, by sheer coincidence, our hotel was only a short walk from No 2 Daleka St, the address of the apartment building where Jolanta’s parents were living when the Germans invaded in 1939, and from which they were evicted by Wehrmacht soldiers in 1944.

There’s no trace of the building now, because the Germans flattened the city as punishment for the ill-fated Warsaw Uprising and everything was later rebuilt. But we went there anyway, on a quiet Sunday morning, and just along the street came across a plaque marking the spot where 17 Polish civilians were shot in cold blood and their bodies burned. Such memorials are tragically commonplace in Warsaw.

We also took a bus across the Vistula River to the vast Bródno cemetery, a serene and beautiful place where Jolanta’s grandparents were buried in 1942. No trace remained of their graves, although they were still there when we last visited in 2002.

There was war in my family’s past too. Religious conflict drove my Protestant du Fresne ancestors out of France in the 17th century and eventually led them to the town of Fredericia, in Denmark, where Jolanta and I wandered around the simple but elegant church built by the French Huguenot community in 1735.

There are still du Fresnes living in and around Fredericia, although they use a different spelling: Dufresne. In the small town of Søvind we were lavishly entertained by the grandson of my great-uncle, who stayed in Denmark when my grandfather left for New Zealand in 1890, and his wife. Their daughter provided translation when needed. Most younger Danes speak good English; the older ones not so much.

Near Sønderborg, close to the Danish border with Germany, we went with another cousin, a Clausen from my grandmother’s side of the family, to the Dybbøl Mill – something of a national shrine, having been the scene of an historic battle between the Danish and Prussian armies in 1864.

Fighting raged around the Clausen family’s lovely old stone farmhouse, where Danish troops were accommodated. The house was severely damaged but was later repaired and still stands at the end of a quiet, leafy lane, only a short distance from where tourists swarm around the great mill and its impressive museum.

The Danes lost the war with Prussia, which is why some of the Clausens decided to emigrate to New Zealand. They didn’t want to live under Prussian (German) rule.

They settled in the Manawatu and are there still. Ironically, the part of Denmark that was ceded to Germany after the 1864 war reverted to Danish control after World War One.

My Danish relations were almost embarrassingly hospitable. A laughter-filled dinner at the home of another cousin in Sønderborg banished any notion of the Danes as a dour nationality.

So what’s the point of relating all this? Not much, I suppose, except that our European pilgrimage reminded us that all New Zealanders (yes, Maori too) are immigrants, or at least once were, and that many of our forebears came here to escape troubled pasts and start afresh.

It often took great courage, determination and resourcefulness. But most found what they were looking for here at the end of the earth, and that's something we should never take for granted.

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