Seven decades on: searching for answers

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Seven decades after World War II ripped millions of families apart, with the help of Australian Red Cross Barbara Bartczak is still trying to piece together the story of her own shattered family. Photo: Australian Red Cross/Lara Cole

Seven decades after World War II ripped millions of families apart, Barbara Bartczak is still trying to piece together the shattered story of just one – her own.

The life of Aniela Zmuda was one filled with loss, separation, unspeakable tragedy and, in a heartbeat, a family severed forever. When Aniela passed away four decades ago, her story was left untold. “She didn’t want to remember it and that’s why she wouldn’t tell us anything,” says Aniela’s daughter, Barbara. “It’s just something that wouldn’t be spoken about.”

For Barbara, connecting with her Polish roots and learning a little more about the lives of her mother and the family left behind are important to her own life. Now, with the help of Australian Red Cross’ tracing service, Barbara is finding some of the answers she’s been searching for.

When WWII broke out, Aniela was in her twenties and living with her twin brother, Piotr, and her parents on a farm in rural Poland. From the fragments of information gathered by Barbara, she believes her mother was taken by Nazi soldiers to a forced labour camp in the German town of Saulgau—the location of a sub-camp of the infamous Dachau concentration camp. Life in the camp was hard: there was little food, often she wasn’t fed at all, and she was beaten.

“She spent I think seven years there. I don’t really know how she survived,” says Barbara. “She didn’t know what happened to her mother or father and she didn’t know what happened to Piotr. Being taken away from your family without any notice … I can only imagine what Mum went through. It would have been horrific.”

But somehow, Aniela managed to survive and began searching for her family soon after the war ended. “She tried to find her brother, but she didn’t find him and she put it down to the fact that he was killed. She thought that her Mum and Dad were either shot or taken to the gas chambers …

“She couldn’t find any of them,” says Barbara. “It had a terrible impact on Mum. People who come from war torn countries, they won’t let anything out— it’s a skeleton and they’ve put it in the closet. Other Polish people I’ve spoken to don’t want to speak about it. It’s just put all in the past—leave it there, don’t dig it up.”

With nothing left for her in Europe, Aniela made a decision to start a new life in Australia and arrived in Sydney in January 1950 with her young daughter, Barbara’s older sister. Aniela went to work on an apple orchard, met and married Barbara’s father, before the family settled on the South Coast.

But Barbara believes the ghosts of the past were always there for her mum. “That part of her life was very, very sad, and there was a lot of bitterness there.”

Then one day in the late 1960s, news came no one was expecting. “I would have only been about 15 when the little old lady came from Red Cross—I’ll never forget it. She knocked at the door and explained to Mum that her brother Piotr had been looking for her for some time.”

Barbara says her mum was so happy. “She wrote to her brother and then she got another letter back—he was ecstatic. I can remember Mum saying that she would love Piotr to come here, but that didn’t eventuate because Mum died not long after that and we lost contact.”

Shortly after, Piotr died too and for the next four decades Barbara’s family story stayed in the past. But when Barbara was helping her husband to find his own family in 2011, she decided to try again. “I got back in contact with Red Cross. I wanted to know about Mum because we really didn’t know anything about her.”

She knew her late Uncle Piotr had one son, though she didn’t know his name. By early 2013, Australian Red Cross’ tracing caseworkers, with help from their counterparts at Polish Red Cross, had learnt that this cousin was named Jan but had passed away. However they managed to find his wife, Kazimiera, and put her in touch with Barbara.

Kazimiera is perhaps Barbara’s last living relative, and the two have begun writing. She hopes her late cousin’s wife can help her fill in some of the blanks.

Kazimiera has sent Barbara a drawing of their family tree, among the unknown names are two siblings of her mother’s that Barbara has never heard mentioned before. “My mother never ever spoke about these other two. I don’t know whether they’re alive, I don’t know what age they are or anything—but I will find out.”

Barbara has no idea what will come next or where the journey will take her. She hopes through this new link she’ll find some answers to the mysteries surrounding her mother’s life and what happened to her Polish family. “I keep wondering all the time … I’m determined to fill those gaps.”

Red Cross’ tracing service helps reduce the suffering of families all over the world who have been separated by war, conflict, disaster or migration. Tracing is a free service, set up to help people find lost loved ones, re-establish contact, exchange family news and clarify the fate of the missing.

For Barbara each new piece of information gives her a little bit of peace and comfort. “It’s filling in those little gaps that are missing that no one can tell me. It’s as though it’s taking you back to Mum and it’s something that I want—I want to know.

“I didn’t know where to start … Without Red Cross being there I wouldn’t have found anything; I’d be still sitting here today wondering.”

Red Cross has societies in 189 countries, which means it’s in a unique position to locate the missing. Red Cross’ principles of neutrality and impartiality mean it has access to people in the most difficult of circumstances – in conflict zones, disaster zones, refugee camps and places of detention.

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Red  Cross has societies in 189 countries, which means it’s in a unique position to locate the missing. Red Cross’ principles of  neutrality and impartiality mean it has access to people in the most difficult of circumstances – in conflict zones, disaster zones, refugee camps and places of detention.


 

With nothing left for her in Europe, Aniela made a decision to start a new life in Australia and arrived in Sydney in January 1950 with her young daughter, Barbara’s older sister. Aniela went to work on an apple orchard, met and married Barbara’s father, before the family settled on the South Coast.
But Barbara believes the ghosts of the past were always there for her mum. “That part of her life was very, very sad, and there was a lot of bitterness there.”
Then one day in the late 1960s, news came no one was expecting. “I would have only been about 15 when the little old lady came from Red Cross—I’ll never forget it. She knocked at the door and explained to Mum that her brother Piotr had been looking for her for some time.”
Barbara says her mum was so happy. “She wrote to her brother and then she got another letter back—he was ecstatic. I can remember Mum saying that she would love Piotr to come here, but that didn’t eventuate because Mum died not long after that and we lost contact.”
Shortly after, Piotr died too and for the next four decades Barbara’s family story stayed in the past. But when Barbara was helping her husband to find his own family in 2011, she decided to try again. “I got back in contact with Red Cross. I wanted to know about Mum because we really didn’t know anything about her.”
She knew her late Uncle Piotr had one son, though she didn’t know his name. By early 2013, Australian Red Cross’ tracing caseworkers, with help from their counterparts at Polish Red Cross, had learnt that this cousin was named Jan but had passed away. However they managed to find his wife, Kazimiera, and put her in touch with Barbara.

Kazimiera is perhaps Barbara’s last living relative, and the two have begun writing. She hopes her late cousin’s wife can help her fill in some of the blanks.
Kazimiera has sent Barbara a drawing of their family tree, among the unknown names are two siblings of her mother’s that Barbara has never heard mentioned before. “My mother never ever spoke about these other two. I don’t know whether they’re alive, I don’t know what age they are or anything—but I will find out.”
Barbara has no idea what will come next or where the journey will take her. She hopes through this new link she’ll find some answers to the mysteries surrounding her mother’s life and what happened to her Polish family. “I keep wondering all the time … I’m determined to fill those gaps.”
Red Cross’ tracing service helps reduce the suffering of families all over the world who have been separated by war, conflict, disaster or migration. Tracing is a free service, set up to help people find lost loved ones, re-establish contact, exchange family news and clarify the fate of the missing.
For Barbara each new piece of information gives her a little bit of peace and comfort. “It’s filling in those little gaps that are missing that no one can tell me. It’s as though it’s taking you back to Mum and it’s something that I want—I want to know.
“I didn’t know where to start … Without Red Cross being there I wouldn’t have found anything; I’d be still sitting here today wondering.”
 

Kim Batchelor

    


Finding lost family – it is never too late

Have you lost contact with family members due to war, conflict or migration? It is never too late to start searching with the help of the Red Cross. The Red Cross Tracing Service, through its global network of societies, is dedicated to helping people re-establish links with lost family members from conflicts as long ago as WW2 and more recent conflicts in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. In the past year, the Australian Red Cross helped to connect almost 2,000 families.  Here is a wonderful story of such a Polish family (alternatively “of a family reunited after 70 years”). If you would like to know more about starting a tracing enquiry for missing family, please contact the Australian Red Cross National Tracing Service in your state or territory:

ACT: (02) 6234 7600
QLD: (07) 3367 7222
NSW: (02) 9229 4111
NT: (08) 8924 3900
SA: (08) 8100 4500
TAS: (03) 6235 6077
VIC: (03) 8327 7700
WA: (08) 9225 8888

You can also refer to the Red Cross tracing website: www.redcross.org.au/tracing-and-restoration-of-family-links.aspx   

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Support Red Cross’ work reconnecting families by donating at redcross.org.au or by phoning 1800 811 700