The best bloody country in the world: Part 1

The scene above could be almost anywhere in New Zealand. Imagine, if you will, the pleasant paddocks of Pahiatua pictured above, containing the barracks, cabins, canteens and offices, schoolrooms, sick-bays and all the other outbuildings required to house and indeed create a new life for thousands of ?eastern European immigrants? and ?displaced persons.?

They arrived in New Zealand aboard SS Goya during her several return visits amidst the ongoing wharfie?s strike of 1951, and whose cargo of souls passed next through pastoral Pahiatua.

Due to the strike, passengers had to hump their own luggage and otherwise help unload their former temporary waterborne home. This task was no great burden for the ship?s inmates as they had all previously tasted real hardship. Hardship which a somewhat damp and breezy Wellington wharf?s shortfall in day-labourers couldn’t remotely begin to resemble.

Many of the ?Greeks? arriving aboard the Goya that year had in fact escaped the Soviet occupation and ethnic persecution of Romania immediately following WW2. The Greek diaspora in that country was suffering, but not nearly as badly as those targeted for retribution as well as removal.

The ?Transylvanian Saxons? of Romania were one such ethnic enclave, 75,000 of whom had been marked as ?suitable for hard labour? and were forcibly marched across borders to work-camps in a migration so miserable, to a destination so destitute, that many thousands would never meet their friends or relatives again. Instead they met only their maker in a forced march that history hardly cares to even remember.

The escape of many ethnic Greeks was facilitated by a Hellenist government in Athens engulfed in the throes of civil war, desperately attempting to defeat Communist forces that railed against them; battalions of Greek partisans hardened by years of resistance to Nazis, assisted by similarly battle-wizened zealots from Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.

Having neither means nor manpower to assist the Greek community suffering at the hands of the regime north of her borders, Greece was able to marshal a small flotilla of merchant ships to help carry them away from danger, provided those seeking flight could make their own way to the port city of Constanta on Romania?s eastern coast. That was no mean feat in those totalitarian times when travel required official permission and screeds of documentation.

My wife?s grandfather was apparently a very tall man at 6?4?. He had been successful in his own right and off his own back; a confectioner owning a company named ?La Bina? (The Bee) in Braila, on the Danube. His products came in tins adorned with his handsome and moustachioed image centre, surrounded by circles of bees in interleaving gold patterns. The tins contained his famous boiled sweets, and in somewhat of a cultural appropriation; Turkish Delight. His name was George.

George, Vera and their two sons were very close. When news came that George was being released, the younger son begged to accompany his mother to the ?police station? desperate to re-unite with his father – his hero. George had been gone seven days since being required to attend for questioning. It had been impossible to obtain any information about George. Why he was being held or if he had been arrested for some crime, real or imagined. Even the two Russian soldiers the family were forced to billet could tell Vera nothing of her husband.

The Soviet military treated Romanian citizenry with disdain generally. The long period of occupation was known in the black-humour of the populace as the regime of ?Davai ceas, davai palton? (Give the wristwatch, give the overcoat) – as so very many had simply been relieved of the burden of ownership of those personal belongings quite indiscriminately and often publicly, under the care of the occupying force.

The troopers domiciled in her home were much less demanding of Vera. She had been brought up in Russia, speaking the language fluently and was fully conversant with Russian cultural norms, practices and cuisine, so the soldiers were relatively kind to her. They even allowed her to ?keep some things? but the fact that those troopers could tell her nothing of her husband left her terribly concerned and worried.

Whenever my father-in-law told the story of the ?special police? handing back his father to the family, he would burst into tears, without fail, right up to his death nine years ago aged in his late seventies. Such was his emotion on recollection of the family re-unification.

Sitting on a bench in the tiled plaza that was the station entrance before the thirteen-year-old boy at the time, was the man he recognised and loved. Still 6?4?, still handsome, but unable to recognise his own wife or his adoring son. George could not speak, nor ever would again. Neither would he ever be able to tie his own shoelaces, feed himself, or wash himself.

The horror of this realisation. Those excruciating minutes spent in the station foyer as the full seriousness began to sink in. Recognising George?s incapacity and inexpressiveness. The sheer emptiness of his eyes. All these feelings first permeated their minds then completely dissolved their euphoria and left them in shock. Shock which tortured his loved ones for the rest of their lives.

Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket during the several re-tellings, whether to me or to my children, my father-in-law would become that thirteen-year-old boy again. Damping down his tears saying ?There was not a mark on him?nothing, just two dots here?and here [pointing to his temples]?. They waited and prayed that George would get well, but he never recovered.

Vera had to escape Braila. She had to escape Romania altogether as she sensed (correctly) that worse was to come. Using all the resourcefulness, quick-thinking, single-mindedness, resilience and fierceness (all qualities of every determined nest-defending mother – those we all know and love), as well as much of the remaining money she had ?been allowed to keep?, she acquired passage for her family; herself, two sons and the man she’d wed seventeed years before, now a total stranger.

Abandoning their home and all the possessions Vera hadn?t managed to pawn for a pittance or which they couldn?t carry with them, the family fled for the coast. From there they floated south to the relative safety of dire and rendered Athens. On arrival in the ancient city they discovered that their new ?home? (having formerly lived in a grand two-storey villa with garden in better-off Braila), now consisted of a section of roped-off space on a hard gymnasium floor which was shared with scores and scores of other families. Sheets draped over the rope boundaries were the only concession the all-encompassing paucity yielded to privacy.

Strangers in their own culture, alienated by their former country of residence; they had become ?displaced persons? now beginning a search from scratch, for a new place to call home.

That New Zealand assisted those souls, scooping them up from Athens and re-planting them in the now-quiet paddocks of Pahiatua, allowing them to re-start life half a world away, is a matter of national pride. The writer is particularly endeared and grateful for this act of mercy which would eventually deliver him the most amazing olive-skinned maiden in all of Christendom.

To be continued…