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SRB: Halina's Story

halinaog200.jpgGrowing up, Halina Ogonowska-Coates would find bread hidden in strange places around the house. Her mother had put it there – she had a lifelong obsession with hoarding bread in case she ever found herself without food again. LAURA MCQUILLAN of the Scoop Review of Books talks to Ogonowska-Coates about her recently re-published book Krystyna’s Story and growing up in New Zealand as the daughter of a Polish refugee.

Krystyna’s Story follows a young Polish refugee during WWII who is deported from her home to the Soviet Union, and later ends up in New Zealand. Krystyna is based loosely on Ogonowska-Coates’ mother, Irena and like Irena survives a Soviet labour camp by hiding scraps of bread in her clothes.

Ogonowska-Coates describes her childhood as interesting, with a mother who was, well, different.

“There were many things that were quite strange about our life as children – such as the fact that our mother stores up bread. Bins and bins of the stuff. There was always mouldy bread stuck away in weird places – because you never know when you’ve going to have to go hungry.

“I think on reflection that we had a sort of ghetto-ised Polish/ New Zealand upbringing in which the Polish element was a mishmash of distant cultural memories and techniques of refugee survival.”

Ogonowska-Coates interviewed 35 other Polish refugee who came to New Zealand as children following the war.

“The passing on of ‘memories’ began to have a different resonance for me. I realised that the tiny things that people could remember or maybe imagine, were deep within the psyche of survival,” Ogonowska-Coates says.

“The trauma of being taken from your home, the horrors of the journey, the internment in hard labour camps, the death of parents and siblings, the chance of surviving, of somehow snatching enough food and making it to a refugee camp were all deeply scarring experiences.”

Ogonowska-Coates said her mother initially hated the idea of having a story written about her life, but following the success of its first edition, has allowed for her photo to appear on the cover of the book’s latest run.

“She was ashamed of having been a refugee and her story was secret and shameful as it was among many of the people who came to NZ with her.

“For me her image on the cover is a celebration of her acceptance of the story,” says Ogonowska-Coates.

The book was written during what she calls “a period of life change”, when, in her thirties, she found herself in hospital with ovarian cancer

“My relationship with my mother during my illness led me to realise that I didn’t actually know anything much about how she came to New Zealand or about the story of her experiences during the war.”

Ogonowska-Coates said as a child, she didn’t realise how different her mother was to others’, despite her heavy accent and dressing quite differently, but writing the book was a way for her mother to reclaim her history, and for Ogonowska-Coates to finally understand what her mother had experienced.

“She would cry and cry when she came to visit me in my hospital bed. I suppose I wanted my mother to be strong for me but I realised that for her, the sight of someone lying skinny and sick in a white hospital bed meant that they were going to die.

“This was her experience of sickness in the refugee camps and the institutions that she journeyed through as a child.”

An historian by training, Ogonowska-Coates received a Creative NZ grant to support her research of the 750 Polish refugees who came to New Zealand in 1944.

She says she soon realised that there was no one factual story that would carry the narrative of Krystyna’s experience, so she worked towards writing a narrative “that would carry the whole journey from Poland to NZ and then used some of the fragments or memories from the interviews to draw out different experiences.”

“These memories were often a first-time telling. There were many tears and I guess in the writing I felt that it was my responsibility to convey some of the depth of this experience.

“I knew that I needed to take my critical voice out of the writing and to let the real and imagined memories lead the narrative.”

Unusually, Ogonowska-Coates’ mother doesn’t know her age, having lost her papers during the war.

“She has been fifty for years but now I’ve turned fifty and she refuses to move on.
It’s a bit strange,” Ogonowska-Coates says.

Ogonowska-Coates has worked as a self-employed writer, documentary maker and oral historian for twenty years, and says she has a deep commitment to helping to facilitate the telling of ‘difficult’ stories.

She is currently working on a follow-up book to Krystyna’s Story.

Travelling hundreds of kilometres in a cattle car, young Krystyna is surrounded by loss from a young age – from the deaths of her family members to being forced to leave the home she had grown up in – and not knowing if she would ever return.

After life in the labour camp with the remainder of her family, food and security become the priorities in Krystyna’s young life. She is sent to New Zealand following the war, and the book tells of her struggle to fit in with the completely new society, and into a Catholic school, where she is separated from other refugees to prevent her from speaking Polish.


LAURA MCQUILLAN is a journalism student at Massey University, Wellington.

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