Helena Wisniewska Brow “Give us this day – a memoir of family and exile”

 ‘Give me this day’ is a love story; a father / daughter / sister / aunts & uncles story – the mother on the outskirts yet the glue that kept the family together. The father, Stefan, and his daughter Helena spend years –even decades – discussing and retracing the three years of his deportation from Poland to Siberia, his track via Iran to New Zealand, where Stefan was one of The Polish Children offered refuge in 1944. Stefan is a different kind of father – not the familiar taciturn father who keeps trauma and fear inside, doesn’t talk and becomes a stranger, withdrawn with violent outbursts. This father shares his stories, traumatises his daughters and imbues them with fear of the Russians who might invade any time soon…

Observing the father-daughter relationship and its development through the book is a treat. The child, embarrassed by the father’s thick accent, is amazed when a classmate states ‘your father is cool’ when he visits the school to share his stories.

Maybe the rejection from children born in the new country is typical for the second-generation immigrant? A cultural rather than a personal challenge? My high school boyfriend tried to keep his friends (and girlfriend) away from his petite French mother and her odd ways…

The child’s reflection, when it dawns on her that ‘normal’ foods, traditions and behaviours in her family differ from those of others, make her an outsider too; the traditions are Polish. The Christmas preparations, the darkened living room, the mother in the kitchen preparing the perfect Polish Pierogi instead of Christmas Ham.

If you lose access to your childhood people, language and culture and grow into an adult in a different country the childhood ideals remain – you’re not naturally growing out of magic Christmas traditions when the child turns into the adult, the magic remains.

How do families in Poland celebrate Christmas now, in times of peace and consumerist abundance?

Trauma shared with friends and neighbours does not require explanation – they’ve all been there. You don’t share and analyse and reflect on events with people who have shared those experiences in the same manner as you share them with ‘outsiders’. Without the explanations there’s less opportunity to process that trauma.

Stefan, the father, the main character, was one of 11 children in the family. Three siblings stayed behind with the father, several siblings shared deportation, the trauma and the immigration. The siblings shared the memories of the magic childhood, with the ability to reflect on people and occasions to keep those memories alive in the new country.

Reading a timeline ‘and then and then and then’ is terribly boring and no fun. To keep me as reader entertained breaks and jumps from memories to the present work well. Breaks in the timeline are good to keep the interest. Yet, in a factual memoir, I want that timeline; the facts neatly lined up so the fragments hang on the structure of context. I don’t want to read the timeline, but I want it. Somewhere. Like the table of content, the glossary, the map – where I can look up the fact I’ve forgotten, or missed its importance in the excitement of being engrossed in the child’s unstructured memories.

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The book ‘Give me this day’ gives an insight into a group of immigrants I had not yet considered. The accidental immigrants, the people who never intended to stay, but stayed because going ‘home’ was not an option for one reason or another.

Some observations:

·      He could build his present in NZ, as he was not part of the Polish community who lived exclusively in the past: ‘Maybe it was a good thing that we lived in Whakatane, in a place with none of my old Polish friends,’ he says. ‘Maybe I couldn’t think so much about the past like the other Poles, the ones who stayed together. I had to get on with it and make a life. So that’s what I did. I made a life.’

·      Being a bi-cultural family, rather than a Polish family where both parents are immigrants, and the home language remains Polish, helped Stefan to settle in New Zealand.
‘Maybe, my father says, it was his marriage to my mother, a non-Pole, that helped him settle. Olga was happy in NZ; she would help him learn how to be comfortable to be here too.’

·      Connection to Poland remained through family gatherings and traditions upheld for special occasions.

·      Age and distance help – the grandfather is at peace where the father was struggling.

·      The daughters, who don’t speak the language, don’t share the faith miss the security they experienced as children when unquestioningly embedded in the faith.

·      The connections between the families, the siblings and cousins, seem strong and unquestioning.

The book also contains an interesting contemplation on trauma – is one trauma more ‘valid’, more traumatic, than the other? Are traumas from outside terrors worse than the trauma inflicted within the family? The death of the loving mother – how does that compare to the trauma of the little girl left behind when the mother takes off to a new life, leaving her to a grumpy father and nasty stepmother?

I’m delighted that more of the mother’s story is revealed throughout the book. Shards and fragments, yet it seems the mother’s stability held the family together even through times when the father was deeply unhappy or absent or furious.

The later visit to Poland reveals the alternative– would a return to Poland have resulted in a better life? It seems towards the end of his life Stefan is at peace, and happy with his lot.

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Reading through highlighted passages they speak to me:

·      ‘My father’s monstrous legacy: a childhood trauma that he was lucky to survive and that cast a long shadow over mine.”

Thinking of my parents this resonates deeply – neither emigrants nor immigrants, they survived the Second World War as children within Germany. Raised within the Nazi education system, my parents also survived monstrous childhood traumas that cast a long shadow over my childhood. The effects continue – the shadows cast on my childhood affected my decision to emigrate; my parents’ trauma and my own immigrant status affect the next generation, my children. As the author quotes DH Lawrence on trauma: ‘… a bruise which only slowly deepens its terrible ache, till it fills all the psyche. And when we think we have recovered and forgotten, it is then that the terrible after-effects have to be encountered at their worst.’

·      ‘My childhood wish for my father’s happy-ever-after ending in New Zealand was never going to come true. I wasn’t the daughter of a hero; I was the daughter of a damaged survivor.’

The desire for a happy relationship with my ageing parents is a Cinderella dream only. Other than Stefan and his family my parents remained where they grew up, surrounded with people who shared the traumatic past and the inability to discuss and explain what happened, thus never processing this trauma. They remain damaged survivors who have not found their peace.

 

The links below provide access to

·      An extract from the book

·      A Radio NZ interview with the author

·      A review from booksellers NZ

Book Review, AllHella Bauer