Give Us This Day
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In June 1944, when 14-year-old Stefan Wiśniewski stood by his mother’s dusty Tehran grave, he knew his world was about to change again, forever.
Give Us This Day: a Memoir of Family and Exile explores the story of one of the 732 Polish child survivors of wartime Soviet deportation offered unlikely refuge in New Zealand. Seventy years later, and no closer to a longed-for Polish homecoming, Stefan’s New Zealand-born daughter revisits his past. What is the burden her father has carried all these years? And why is he unable — or unwilling — to let it go?
With an aging father and the ghost of a namesake aunt as her guides, Helena Wiśniewska Brow searches for meaning in the family lives shaped by exile: her father’s, her mother’s and her own.
From: Give Us this Day, by Helena Wiśniewska Brow
Neither of them is looking at the camera.
Hela, my father’s sister, stands behind the makeshift wooden crucifix, a cotton scarf tied under her chin. In Mary Jane shoes and white ankle socks, she doesn’t look her 19 years. Next to her, my father, 14-year-old Stefan, is bare-kneed and in oversized shorts. His eyes, lowered, are fixed on the fresh and dusty grave at his feet.
It’s June 1944, and the grave is my grandmother’s. A week before this photograph was taken, 49-year-old Stefania Wiśniewska was buried without ceremony in the Polish corner of Tehran’s Catholic cemetery. These two children, the only family members then aware of her death, had travelled north from the Iranian city of Esfahan in the back of a canvas-topped army truck to say a belated goodbye. For Stefan, who’d had no idea his adored mother was so sick, no idea she’d even come to Tehran for surgery, this evidence, a heaped mound of recently turned rubble, is scarcely believable.
The photograph of their visit is a black-and-white souvenir of his bewilderment. Today it sits in an album with yellowed pages, some of them empty, that my father keeps in an old-fashioned suitcase with flick-up clips. He has few photographs of his early years, certainly none from before the war, so this is perhaps the youngest image of him I will see, probably the saddest.
Here is the end of your mother, it says. Here is the end of your world.
Dad has to bend to put his case of photographs away, his square fingers fumbling with the low cupboard handle. It seems I’m interested in the kind of detail that he either can’t or won’t recall. Who arranged the truck for them? Who took the photo? How long did they stay in Tehran? He can’t remember any of those things, he says.
‘You know, I ended up in hospital the day after this photo. I had malaria,’ he tells me. ‘When I got off the truck back in Esfahan I didn’t know where I was. I hardly remember being at the cemetery that day.’
I’m asking because I’ve never seen this image before. Not much more than a year ago, I stood with him at that same grave in Tehran’s eastern suburbs, just as his older sister once did. The cemetery looked different when I was there, of course. The dust and rubble had been tidied away under blankets of concrete and strips of grass. The old brick walls that still lined the cemetery’s perimeter, separating its Catholic foreignness from the rest of that Muslim city, were hidden behind veils of green foliage. Maybe that’s the way my father prefers to remember his mother’s death, I think: the rawness gone, a loss smoothed by time. Maybe it’s just me who sees it as a terrible turning point in the movie of his life, time rewinding like a clacking reel of film, frame by frame, back to that graveside vignette. My grandmother’s death sent the lives of her children, lives already way off course, spinning in an even less familiar direction. For my father it was a trajectory that would end here, 70 years later, in a country on the wrong side of the world, in a carpeted townhouse in a city of foreigners.
My father puts his glasses back on his nose, sits down in the tub chair under the window, sighs and looks at me.
‘So, where to next do you think?’ he asks. ‘We haven’t been to Siberia yet. After Iran, Siberia will be easy.’
There’s a pause as he studies my face.
‘Okay, I’m keen if you are,’ I say. ‘That would be great.’
He looks tired today. His skin is as rough as his fleecy top; his eyelids are puffy. He’s well enough, though, for a man who’s about to turn 84. We both know he would clear his almost empty calendar for a journey to Siberia, the only stretch of his story that we haven’t yet retraced.
‘What would that one be?’ he asks. ‘Our fifth?’
I’ve never counted. I know our first trip together was in 1988, when he was only a few years older than I am now. Since then we’ve been to Poland a number of times, to Belarus, and now to Iran. Each journey has started the same way: retracing roads that he remembers and people whom he mourns. I’ve followed his lead, attempting to make sense of the tangled snatches of stories I heard as a child. But I’m not sure what our shared journeys have achieved. They’ve simplified nothing and clarified very little; they have created new stories of ours to add to old stories of his. We have to reminisce about our changing travelling companions because everything else is so muddled. Do you remember 1997, we’ll say, when Mum came to Poland with James and Anna? When we put five candles on Anna’s cake in our Warsaw hotel room? And what about 2009, when the Canadian schoolteacher with the glasses was so kind to us in Gdansk? What happened to him?
A trip to Siberia’s vast wastelands may be overdue—I’m not sure why that place has always felt so out of reach for me—but I know there are no easy answers waiting there for us. And I find it difficult to believe, even now, that my father would willingly revisit his first place of exile. So we take measure of each other’s seriousness: he knows I am unsure; I know he is too. We are also both aware, but don’t say aloud, that a trip to Siberia would take months to set in motion, maybe longer. Would he be strong enough to cope with the rigours of even a post-Stalin Russia? There’s Mum to think about: she couldn’t come with us, but could we leave her? And how would I get away again? Would James want to come? My sister? The children? I’m surprised by how panicked this thinking suddenly makes me feel, the understanding that perhaps we are reaching the end of our travelling, my father and I. I’m surprised at the way my throat tightens.
‘Let’s do it,’ I say. ‘Let’s go to Siberia next year.’
But then Mum comes downstairs to say goodbye, descending slowly and almost sideways on the narrow stairs. She places one hand and then the next on the wooden bannister, each movement a small, deliberate act of bravery. My white-haired father and I watch in silence. Time is running out for the stories—his, hers and ours. They are racing, too fast, to their conclusions.