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All That Was: Prelude

Today Open Writing begins the serialisation of Lusia Przybyszewicz’s horrifying, yet at the same time inspiring, life story.

Lusia, who was born in Poland, lived in the Warsaw ghetto during the darkest days of human history. Her parents died in the Holocaust as Hitler’s Nazi henchmen slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Jews.

Because of her Aryan appearance and gift for languages, Lusia managed to escape from her native land, ending up in Germany. She worked there during the war, adopting a false identity.

In the year after the war she lived in Paris, then emigrated to Australia, where she has lived since 1947.

Lusia’s story is at times harrowing, yet courage and the ability to endure shine through her words. Although English is not her first language, she is a wonderful writer.

Her story, chapter by chapter, will be posted in Open Writing on successive Fridays.

Her book, All That Was, is dedicated to “my dearest children’’. It is available, $25 Australian plus postage, from PO 404, Vaucluse, NSW 2030, Australia.

Throughout my very busy post-war life, I gave little thought to the writing of memoirs. It was only upon my retirement in the early 1990s that I began to seriously consider the idea of committing to paper All That Was. However intriguing it seemed, it took me a while to overcome a natural reluctance to lay bare the secrets of my tortured youth. Furthermore, I felt intimidated by the unavoidable and overwhelming prospect of writing in English, a language with which I only began to grapple as a young adult. My most cherished memories, both wonderful and horrendous, are linked to Poland, Germany, and France, and to their respective languages.

My children did their best to convince me how important my testimony would be to them, to my grandchildren, and maybe even to the future generations.

The die was cast, when, with the help and encouragement of my daughter, Cathy, I finally purchased a second-hand computer.

Thus, my story begins!

I came to Australia from Europe, on a Dutch ship, Johann De Witt, along with 750 other refugees, many of whom, had their arms branded with German concentration camp numbers. Like me, they were mostly sponsored by relatives already living in Australia. Uncle Joseph, my Father's youngest and only surviving brother, who had reached the Australian shores during the war, secured a Landing Permit for me and sent it to Paris where I was studying at the time.

Upon arriving at Woolloomooloo in April 1947 after some six weeks at sea, I felt lost, insecure, and alienated. From the deck of the ship, I caught a glimpse of uncle Joseph, aunt Renee, and my cousin, George. They were waiting down below. I recognized them from a photograph.

There was a strike on the wharves, forcing the passengers to carry their belongings down the long ramp and into the customs shed. Since I was not yet attuned to the Australian accent, I could barely communicate with the customs officers in English.

Once reunited with my relatives, I was eventually whisked away, quite bewildered, to my family's Artarmon apartment. Our historic reunion was celebrated with drinks and cheers. As my aunt was Viennese, my first day in Sydney was spent chatting with her awkwardly in a mixture of Polish and German. I was just 24 years old then.

Now, some 50 years later, I am a retired Australian, blessed with a loving and supportive family, living in peace and comfort in beautiful Sydney. This is perhaps the right time to seek a link between my past and the present by telling of all that was.

This is also a time to remember, with much love and sorrow, all the members of my family and every one of my great friends who perished in the war.

Firstly, let me introduce my parents.

I am not really quite sure how they met. My Mother lived in Warsaw and my Father, in Lodz. I suspect they made contact in Vienna, through my Mother's relatives and my Father's business associates. In their youth, my parents were both frequent visitors to Austria. Mother's cousins, Israel and Sala Fragman, lived in Vienna with their daughters, Gusti and Irene.

My Mother's favoured sister, Natka also lived there married to a Viennese gentleman, Adolf Petersburger. As a young adult, my Mother was often their guest. I have some very old photographs that bear testimony to her visits. I also recall that Father had a stack of old photographs of Vienna and of his raft expeditions along the Danube. He made these expeditions with his sister, Cyla, with whom he was very close.

I recall babcia (grandmother) Fragman's description of Father's proposal. Very much aware of her youngest daughter's temperament, babcia agreed in principle to their marriage, but only on condition, that in the future, Henio, her prospective son-in-law, would never come to her with any complaints.
My parents often reminisced about their courtship days, the highlight of which appeared to be the evening they attended a performance of 'Carmen' at the Warsaw Opera House. For this performance, they were seated in a box adjoining that of Marshal Pilsudski, the Polish national hero, who was accompanied by his two young daughters.

Father must have paid a fortune for such tickets! He often spoke of my Mother's stunning outfit she wore on that night, especially of her red leather, tightly laced, knee high boots.
Their wedding took place in Warsaw on 25th December, probably in 1921. They spent their honeymoon at Semmering, a very popular district of Vienna in those days. It was named, I believe, after an Alpine pass in the vicinity of the capital. I explored the area in 1977 with my son, Claude.

Every week during the first year of my parents' marriage, babcia Fragman would send a list of menus to the young bride in Lodz. Babcia was conscious of the fact that her eleventh and youngest offspring could not cook at all. Until her marriage, Mother used to be so involved in her dentistry studies and social life that her interest in such mundane domestic matters was perfunctory at best.

In Lodz, Father provided his wife with a live-in maid in their spacious flat in Sienkiewicza Street. Mother was not accustomed to such luxuries: she was terrified of the maid. So fearful was she of the maid, that, for safety, during Father's long business trips away from home, she kept a kitchen knife under her pillow at night.

Mother recorded her first culinary disaster, the day she attempted to prepare semolina to be served with chicken broth. This was a very popular soup in the Jewish households of that era. She did not know that the semolina had to be cooked in a small amount of water so that it would set solid in a tray. Only then could it be cut into small squares and placed in the broth. Instead, Mother put the tray on the outside window ledge, on a winter's day. The semolina froze solid. On contact with the hot broth the whole mess fell apart and Father refused to eat it!


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