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All That Was: Chapter Forty-Six - Six Weeks At Sea

"Thankfully, the rough weather abated as soon as we passed through the Suez Canal, to embrace the infinite vastness of the Indian Ocean. From then on the air temperature began to rise markedly. The hot nights heightened our discomfort in the unventilated dormitories. To escape the stifling heat, the younger generation converged on the deck. The considerate Dutch crew supplied us with hammocks, which we contrived to suspend from the metal configurations above us. From up there, as the gentle rocking lulled us, we were rewarded with a bird's-eye view of the dark expanse of the seas under the star-studded skies. The sight was magical!...''

Lusia Przybyszewicz and her fellow passengers make the best of a long and not untroublsome voyage to Australia. Then the joy of journey's end. "On a fine spring day in April 1947 Johann de Witt sailed under the Sydney Harbour Bridge and docked at Woolloomooloo. Scores of small sailing boats escorted us on our way to the wharf. Their occupants tooted and called out words of welcome.''

To read Lusia's wonderful story from the beginning click on All That Was in the menu on this page. The book is available from Lusia at PO 404 Vaucluse, NSW, 2030 Australia ($25 Australian plus postage).

Once we were at sea. the 750 exiles gradually embraced a new routine set by the captain for our six-week voyage. Seeing that the grasp of English was a most sought-after skill on board our ship, he won accolades for introducing regular English language classes. Mr K. was appointed unopposed to the position of our official English teacher. Of all the dilettantes who attended his daily lessons on the top deck, none seemed conscious at the time of how distorted by his heavy Hungarian accent was his English pronunciation.

His son John, a very handsome, serious young man, held a doctorate in agronomy from a Swiss university. In Australia he counted on securing a suitable position in the field of agriculture. Apart from his professional ambitions, the young man was an accomplished pianist. Now and then he would enhance our long afternoons by playing famous compositions on the ship's piano.

To the K. family's great sorrow, their married daughter chose to remain in Hungary for political reasons. She joined her family in Australia after the Hungarian uprising in 1956.

Our little group expanded after John made friends with his namesake, another young Hungarian from Budapest. However inadequate his formal education might have been, John S. certainly made up for it with his natural drive and enterprise. He showed all the potentials of 'a self-made man', as the saying goes.

A daily Bulletin in Dutch kept us up to date about happenings on board, weather conditions, and radio news. Our meals were served over several sittings, and passengers were encouraged by the offer of a small payment to help with the washing up in the galleys. John K. was the first one to volunteer.

The majority of inmates, unaccustomed to travelling by sea, fell victim to sea sickness as soon as Johann de Witt left the shelter of the Mediterranean coast. Poor Mrs K. was one of the first in our dormitory to succumb to this new scourge. For many days she felt too poorly to arise from her bunk and lay there prostrate, framed by her salamis.

Thankfully, the rough weather abated as soon as we passed through the Suez Canal, to embrace the infinite vastness of the Indian Ocean. From then on the air temperature began to rise markedly. The hot nights heightened our discomfort in the unventilated dormitories. To escape the stifling heat, the younger generation converged on the deck. The considerate Dutch crew supplied us with hammocks, which we contrived to suspend from the metal configurations above us. From up there, as the gentle rocking lulled us, we were rewarded with a bird's-eye view of the dark expanse of the seas under the star-studded skies. The sight was magical!

Early one night our peace was momentarily shattered by fire and smoke escaping from the ship's funnel. While everybody, expecting the worst, rushed towards the lifeboats, the reassuring voice of the cook came over the loudspeaker: There was no need to panic! The smoke came from the galley, where the fish in the frying pan had caught fire. The blaze was extinguished in no time.

Those balmy nights on deck created a holiday atmosphere amongst us. For a time at least we ceased being refugees faced with an uncertain future and acted instead like a bunch of young people madly enjoying their holidays in the tropics. The boys would chat up the girls in the normal fashion, in the hope of winning them over with their gimmicks and quirks. After dinner we sang, danced, or teased each other well into the night. Occasionally, just for fun, some unsuspecting character who had fallen too early into slumber in his hammock, would be pricked on his behind.

I used to spend a great deal of time with the two Johns, both at the dinner table and on deck, and was not unaware of the subtle ways each was competing for my attentions. I felt flattered. In the main though, the three of us merely shared common interests and faith in the future. The encounters on the deck constituted the principal source of our daily entertainment. Buoyed up by John K.'s intellectual stimulus and John S.'s ready wit, they seemed very precious at the time. How extraordinary that in the course of that one journey, in spite of language problems, we managed to develop a strong and lasting bond of friendship!

During our first year in Sydney the three of us met regularly on weekends. We tried out our freshly emerging English skills, exchanged news and views or gave each other support in coping with an alien environment. Later on this good fellowship extended to our respective families. It continued until John S.'s death in the early 1990s.

The closer we drew to the equator, the more oppressive the weather became. We had to learn to endure the sudden and massive downpours of rain at any moment of day or night. The rain fell with such force that it actually hurt. One afternoon my ship friend Nelly and I had the uncanny experience of being caught in a cloudburst while resting in our respective hammocks. Reduced to lying flat on our backs, drenched to the skin and helpless, we remained motionless until it passed over.

Nelly was the only person on board with whom I could speak fluent French, though her English and German were also excellent. She was born in Vienna and spent her childhood there. Her father was an Austrian Jewish lawyer, who on a visit to London in the early 1930's fell in love with an Australian opera singer. He became infatuated while watching her perform at Covent Garden. He subsequently married her and brought her home to Vienna. Nelly was their only child. In March 1938, when Hitler invaded Austria, her father committed suicide. The tragedy prompted her mother to return to Australia.

At the outbreak of war Nelly was studying medicine at the Sorbonne. Having survived in Paris throughout the Nazi occupation, she was now looking forward to rejoining her mother in Sydney. Tall and shapely, endowed with the Parisian chic, most amazing hair-dos, and a very shrill voice, she did not readily fit the familiar refugee image. People took to making fun of her. She realized that she was not very popular, and, accordingly, kept aloof. But her acumen was not adequate to save her from being thrown fully clothed into the ship's pool during our 'Crossing of the Equator Day' festivities. She looked a total mess when they fished her out again, poor thing, her morale sorely battered. After the incident I remained the only passenger on board with whom she was on speaking terms.

I found Nelly to be very intelligent and exceptionally well read. She was a great fan of the American writer Henry Miller and used to write to him regularly. She lived in the hope of meeting him one day in person in the United States, where she planned to eventually settle.

Nelly and I would fritter away several hours discussing politics with the ship's head butcher, a Dutchman. In the course of his naval career, this fascinating fellow found himself in the port of Haifa in the early days of the Exodus. He described to us in gruesome detail, how the Jewish survivors arrived on overcrowded rust buckets from Cyprus and how the English soldiers prevented the Jews from landing. The picture he presented to us was even more graphic than the film 'Exodus.' It left us in no doubt how abhorrent he personally deemed such conduct.

I maintained contact with Nelly for many years after I arrived in Australia. Sometime after her mother's death in the early 1980's I lost track of her. Maybe she made it to the United States. I hope so.

There was one tall and handsome male passenger on board who really did not belong on a refugee ship. Always well dressed and very polite, he spoke impeccable German. He was often seated at the captain's table, amongst the Dutch officials. No one knew much about him. Just before we disembarked in Sydney, we were astounded to learn that he would not be allowed ashore because of his war record. It was claimed at the time that he was a spy.

During the last ten days or so before we reached the Strait of Malacca the conditions on board deteriorated dramatically, due to the fact that Johann de Witt had exhausted its fresh water supplies. The equipment on board, designed for conversion of sea water, was very inefficient. We were all subjected to a most severe water rationing regime. Sea water had to be used for washing, and drinking was reduced to bottled beverages and some milk. People were feeling thirsty and itchy from the salt residue on their skin. In the sweltering, airless dormitories, tempers flared. The initial lure of the tropical paradise had lost its appeal long ago. Frustrated and resentful of the severe restrictions placed upon us, we grew weary of the long journey.

In 1947 the Dutch were still the colonial masters of Indonesia; therefore our crew was scheduled to be relieved of its duties as soon as the ship had docked in the Dutch territory. The men were then to be transferred to Battavia (today's Djakarta) in Java, from whence their replacements would come on board to sail with us to Sydney.

Our daily Bulletin in Dutch, indicated Sabang as our first port of call. It is situated on the island of Pulu Weh, about 20 miles north of Kota Raja, the capital of Atjeh in North Sumatra. Already from a distance we could discern a humble dock, thrown into relief by a coconut palm grove in the background. Soon a few brown-skinned urchins came into view, squatting in the shade of a hangar-like structure that dominated the tiny wharf.

A mood of elation swept over everyone at seeing land once again! We could barely contain ourselves at the prospect of stepping on firm ground, following the interminable weeks at sea. But expectations were transformed into disbelief by the shock announcement over the loudspeaker informing the ship's 750 odd itinerants, that, by reason of their status of stateless persons, no one would be allowed to disembark. The confinement on board Johann de Witt would terminate only in Sydney. The inmates' fiercest objections were to no avail!

I held council with the Hungarians. Together we could find no way other than to calm down and, swallowing the insult, tackle the dilemma with a little ingenuity. We would make an all-out effort to communicate with the natives and maybe seek their cooperation.

We did not have long to wait for results: No sooner had our vessel completed docking, than a full scale barter erupted between the bending-over-the-rails ship inmates and the fast mushrooming urchins on land. The lack of a common language as well as the considerable distance between the parties was probably responsible for the ensuing screaming match that resounded that day throughout the ship.

Above all else the travellers craved a proper drink, denied them for so long on board. Needless to say, running water was not available on the island. The coconut milk, which no one amongst the refugees had ever tasted, remained the only alternative. But to quench thirst with this exotic fluid we had to somehow acquire the coconuts in the first place. Besides, we did not have a clue how to crack open the large, ovate, hard shelled fruit.

The question of money did not arise since for the most part the refugees were penniless. Not to worry! The parties conducted successful negotiations using body language. By sheer luck I struck an extraordinary bargain on that day! As soon as a vendor from down below conveyed his desire to purvey coconuts in exchange for a photograph of myself, I dashed to my dormitory in the bowels of the ship and reemerged on deck, armed with a passport-size photo; it captured me with one cheek swollen after a tooth extraction in Paris. The pathetic shot did nothing to deter the young fellow from swapping it for a bunch of twenty-five coconuts. I was amazed by the sheer bulk of the merchandise! The two Johns helped me to haul the load up on to the deck, using a makeshift pulley provided by the seller.

After several futile attempts my mates finally learned how to split the hard coconut shell by hurling each one against the deck's rails. The split was then widened with the help of a penknife until the top section of the shell could be lifted out and the precious elixir released. All over the ship people could be seen guzzling the coconut milk directly from the brown, hairy husks. It tasted simply divine in the wake of our enforced abstinence. In the course of the day trade gained momentum. The eager merchants, coaxed into action by all manner of offers, tempted our palates with the most luscious cherry guavas and fresh pineapples, neither of which I had I ever seen nor tasted before.

From Sabang we set off for Surabaya on the island of Java to take on board food and water supplies for the last leg of our journey to Sydney. We stopped overnight. At dawn, stocked up and provided with a new Dutch crew, Johann de Witt headed for the Timor Sea, leaving behind the welcome protection of the Indonesian islands.

Soon the difference in the weather patterns could be felt; gale force winds buffeted the vessel and jolted it about. That was just the beginning! Sailing further out to sea, we came up against a savage storm. Coinciding with lashings of wind and rain, huge waves obliterated everything from view. Through the portholes, the passengers, aghast, watched helplessly as the roaring billows of froth washed over the decks. The onslaught continued for several hours.

At the height of the storm, I feared a disaster. Visions of shipwreck hovered in my mind. More blatant were the tangible consequences of the tempest before my eyes; sea-sickness tormented its victims in every corner of the ship. The sufferers who made it to the deck before throwing up were rare. The majority, unable to hold out any longer, let go on the spot. A pot-pourri of vomit, smashed crockery and spillages all over the place told the tale. Throughout the ordeal, the well drilled Dutch crew attempted to serve meals, but there were few takers.

For the most part, I tried to keep up with the foolhardy who stayed on deck, bent on defying the elements. In the nippy air and blinded by rain I felt like some tightrope artist striding along the slippery, listing deck. By chewing bits of dry bread I hoped to forestall the mounting nausea, but nothing was going to rob me of this unique spiritual experience. I saw it as a symbolic replay of my earlier struggles. The awesome power and fury of the storm produced a complex outcome on my innermost self - conscious of the human frailty, yes. Yet at the same time I was overwhelmed by an aura of exhilaration and a will of never giving in. A good start for taking on Australia!

Once the foul weather subsided, the remaining days on board were uneventful. I do not recall much of the passage down the east coast of Australia; maybe we had been sailing some distance from land. I sadly missed the warm rapport with the original Dutch crew on the last lap of our journey to Sydney. The new officers did not seem to provide the same comfort. Besides, the atmosphere amongst the travellers was growing tense, with everyone engrossed in their own thoughts.

The majority of the prospective migrants expressed enthusiasm and delight at the prospect of a new beginning. Others, like myself, were more circumspect, a little unsure of the welcome their Australian sponsors were likely to extend to them or of the future in general.

Mrs K. had doubts about her wealthy sister in Sydney, to whom she never felt very close. Nelly, aware that her mother lived in poverty, had not seen her for donkey's years. So far as I remember, John S. had no family here at all.

I had sent to my uncle, from Paris, a photograph of myself clad in a Canadian green dress and a gray hat Marysia had made for me. Its purpose was to make his niece's presence more conspicuous amongst the crowds on deck.

Finally, the long awaited moment arrived!

On a fine spring day in April 1947 Johann de Witt sailed under the Sydney Harbour Bridge and docked at Woolloomooloo. Scores of small sailing boats escorted us on our way to the wharf. Their occupants tooted and called out words of welcome.

All the newcomers spruced up for the big occasion. We stood on the decks, speechless at the wonderful sight of the Sydney Harbour. Down below, along the wharf, crowds of relatives and friends were waiting. Amongst them I recognized my own family - Uncle Joseph, Aunt Renee and cousin George. We made eye contact. I felt a tightening in my throat. As the queue subsided, I followed my shipmates down the gangplank towards the customs.

I turned around for a moment. The vessel was empty. Except for the crew and a lonely solitary German passenger.


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