If you had met my father, you would never – not for an instant – have thought he was an assassin. But he was. In Warsaw in 1943, at the height of Nazi atrocities, he was recruited to Kompania Zemsta (Revenge Company), a top-secret counterintelligence execution squad. Kompania Zemsta was responsible for the assassination of Polish traitors; Poles who were giving away Resistance secrets and telling the Germans where Jews were hiding. Dad was 19 years old.
Warsaw during the war was another world away. My entire family fought in the Resistance. I always knew that my grandparents hid Jewish people. Poland was the only country where the Nazi penalty for hiding a Jew was the death sentence. My grandparents were a couple of roly-poly sweet-tooths: hardly what comes to mind when one thinks of courage.
I first went to Warsaw during martial law in 1982 when I was 21, the age my father was when the war ended. My grandparents were dead but I wanted to meet my aunt, uncle and cousin. Living in prosperous Australia,
I was naïve about communism. I had a brutal awakening. Soldiers with submachine guns goosestepped through the city. My father had described prewar Warsaw as the “Paris of the east” but in 1982 it was a cold, grey concrete desert, still broken from the war. I cried every night for the two weeks I was there.
Hardship and deprivation were omnipresent. Everything was rationed: two eggs per person per month, two pairs of pantyhose every six months. Even toilet paper was rationed and had to be paid for. Gnarly old women would sit at the entrance to every public toilet block, issuing the state-mandated allowance of three sheets.
My relatives, who were very proud of their nation’s reputation for hospitality, would procure little treats for me: bonbons, maybe a little chocolate, a boiled egg. People queued for everything. My Uncle Andrzej would screech the car to a halt, running to join a queue – only because it was short – with no clue as to what was being sold.
When I went back in 1992, the Berlin Wall had fallen, communism had collapsed and where once it had been dull and grey, now it was vibrant and full of brassy optimism. There were Coke signs and ice-cream vendors and Chopin concerts in Łazienki Park.
I continued to go back every five years or so and each time I was moved by the human capacity for regeneration. A place that had seen so much death was full of life again – at least for some. Most of Poland’s Jewish population of more than three million perished in the Holocaust.
My aunt died earlier this year. All of the ties that bind are slowly breaking, working loose, wearing thin. And I wonder how much longer our family’s connection with Poland will be a living thing and when it will slip into history, and all I’ll be left with are memories and my unpronounceable Polish name. ￼
In September, Magda Szubanski – best known for her roles in Babe and Kath & Kim – published her first book, Reckoning: A Memoir.