It takes a village to tell a story, and stories from many villages to paint the full picture.
One villager’s recollections cannot ever represent an entire event—what did the neighbour see, or the person up the road?—but that villager, if embroiled in the event, holds his or her own valuable insight.
Earlier this year, at a regional meeting of the National Oral History Association of New Zealand, the woman sitting next to me repeated the old truism that if 10 people saw an incident, there would be 10 different versions of the story. I cannot remember who she was, but I do remember she smiled as she told me.
I attribute my lack of specific memory about her to hearing this so often, that I dismissed her statement with my rote answer: Yes, there could well be 10 versions of the story, but only by listening to all 10 versions would anyone be able to get to the truth of that incident.
The topic of whether oral historians should always believe their interviewees came up briefly at that meeting. We never did resolve the conundrum about truth in the telling of personal or family stories.
There will always be those who embellish and gloss over different parts of their lives. Most of us will have done things we later regretted, or regretted things we had not done. In the days before the internet, grandparents, if they did recollect family stories, could gloss over, or put a positive twist on, less salubrious aspects of their heritage without anyone being the wiser.
As ships made travel increasingly accessible in the 1800s, Europeans explored the rest of the world. They included the wealthy, who could immediately buy land, explorers hoping to make their fortunes, families like the Poles fleeing persecution in Prussian-partitioned Poland, and a smattering of miscreant men who left their homelands, and unwanted wives, children, debts and misdeeds, and created new names and new lives. A tenacious family genealogist can now find those centuries-old loose ends.
I have interviewed scores of people on behalf of this website, and learnt something new each time. Each story has helped me build a picture of Poland at various stages of its geographical existence, power, demise, resurrection, communist stranglehold, and renewal, as it gained and shed millions of people since its royal inception in 966.
The voices of those born in eastern Poland before WW2, whose families Stalin targeted for forced-labour in remote and brutal USSR facilities, differ from the voices of descendants of the Poles who arrived in New Zealand in the 1870s. The difference is in the experience—one personal, the other removed, acquired.
Voices differ. Their physical sound is largely a result of chance. My mother, who arrived aged 14 in England in 1948 with thousands of other Polish refugees from Africa, retained her charming accent. Considered too old for school, she waited on tables and cleaned rooms at a hotel in Newquay, Cornwall. She told me that people became more generous when they heard her speak.
My mother said she had few memories of her and family’s incarceration in Taishet, east of Lake Baikal in Siberia, but they evoked strong emotions. The Soviets classified Taishet as a gulag before and after the NKVD moved Polish families there in 1940 and 1941. During one long phone conversation, I asked my mother about her baby sister’s death as the family walked towards Uzbekistan and “freedom.” She replied, “I’m freezing, I’m shivering, I can’t speak.”
Should she have been less believable than someone who happens to have a plummy accent? Millions took Winston Churchill at his word, yet he admitted in the late 1940s, “History will be kind to me, because I intend to write it.”
Yesterday Jan Kaźmierów told me about the donkey that became his friend during the time his family languished for several months in an Uzbekistani kolkhoz. His father worked as a blacksmith and his brothers in the fields as they waited for the call-up to the Polish army in 1942. His mother and two of his sisters had died in a forced-labour facility in northern Russia.
One day his older brother asked for a closer look at the donkey that approached then seven-year-old Jan whenever it saw him. While Jan stood next to the donkey, his brother took an axe and slashed open its forehead. His father and brothers quickly butchered the donkey, smoked some of the meat, and distributed the rest among other Polish families. They burnt the remains—evidence of the donkey theft could have led to dire consequences from the Soviet soldiers stationed nearby.
Jan’s story, which should appear in the War Immigrants page in the next few weeks, includes his personal memories, and what he absorbed from his father and older brothers.
His story adds to the overall understanding of what happened to Poles in eastern Poland during WW2, and how they ended up living on the other side of the world in a country with which they then had little in common.
Sharing personal traumatic experiences takes courage. Despite the cores of their stories still having the power dredge up raw emotions, those who have contributed to the War Immigrants page have proved well-able to articulate their experiences. Like my mother, they don’t forget the cold.
To be heard—and to be believed—is everything.
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