Last night at 8:25pm my grandfather (Dziadzia in Polish) passed away at 94 years of age. He died about as well as you can, peacefully, in his home, surrounded by his family.
He was born in Warsaw Poland almost a century ago, and has lived a life that is almost incomprehensible to me, living now in Australia.
He was 18 when the Nazis invaded Poland. At 19 his parents were both dead, as was most of his extended family. He was in the Warsaw Ghetto, looking after his little sister, his aunt, his cousin, his fiancée (my grandmother, Babcia) and her sister. He saw the writing on the wall early enough to smuggle them all out of the Ghetto, and then looked after them all for the rest of the war in different parts of Poland, hidden by different people, with new identities.
Out of all of my Dziadzia’s and my Babcia’s extended families, all of their aunts, uncles, cousins, parents and grandparents, these were the only survivors. At the end of the war there was my Dziadzia and the five women he had smuggled out of the Ghetto.
There were some close calls. Dziadzia’s sister Nelly got sent to a concentration camp, but got processed as a Pole and not a Jew, and so she survived and was reunited with her brother after the war. Auntie Nelly is still living in Prague. My great aunt Genia was on a train to a concentration camp, and jumped off through a hole in the floor of the carriage where a plank had been worked loose. The guy who jumped after her was shot, but she survived.
Within a year of the war being over my mother was born.
Despite having seen humanity at it’s worst, and felt the impact of the holocaust in the most direct way possible, Dziadzia remained optimistic. He joined the Communist Party, finished his medical studies, and threw himself into rebuilding Poland under a different model.
Fast forward 14 years, and Stalin was giving Hitler a run for his money in the worst-bloke-in-history stakes. Again my dziadzia saw the writing on the wall (with a little nudge from my babcia – I’m leaving with or without you), and left for Australia.
My mother only found out she was Jewish at the age of 14 upon leaving Poland. After six weeks on a boat they all arrived in Melbourne.
At 40, my age, Dziadzia was in Australia, learning his fourth language (Polish, Russian and French weren’t that helpful apparently), re-sitting his medical exams, and starting from scratch with his two teenage girls.
He had seen genocide first hand, seen the promise of Communism disintegrate, and was entering what he calls his fourth life, starting everything again. If anyone had the right to throw in the towel, or turn to drink, it was him.
But instead he embarked on this chapter of his live with the same optimism and determination that he had brought to everything else. He ended up as the head of the Victorian Institute of Mental Health Research, the first non-Psychiatrist admitted as a fellow of the Royal Australia & New Zealand College of Psychiatry, a widely respected and admired physician, who published prolifically and had made an enormous contribution in his field.
Although if you asked him what he was most proud of, he would have said his daughters, his grandkids, and more recently his great grandchildren.
If I can channel just a fraction of his courage, his persistence, his optimism, and his faith in humanity (despite all the evidence he had to the contrary), I reckon I’ll be alright.
Thankyou Dziadzia … go well, go in peace, and go with love.