Dear friends, my amazing, loving, much adored grandmother died this week and yesterday I read her biography at her funeral. Such an honour! I wanted to share it a little further…
Granny shared the following stories with us. Please remember that like all oral histories they may have changed somewhat in the retelling.
Our Granny Vik was born in the Dnieper Valley, Ukraine, in a simple shed to Nina and Peter Hontscharow. Gran’s birth was registered in 1925. In fact she was probably born the previous year, at the time of the pumpkin harvest. Her parents did not register her birth immediately as many children died very young. Also, Nina and Peter did not want to draw attention to themselves as it was a dangerous time for people who were not communists.
Gran’s mum, Nina had a basic level of schooling. She could write her own name and read a bit. She also did beautiful embroidery. These embroideries are our family’s special treasures. Nina worked in the fields, growing food for the family and a little extra to sell.
Gran’s dad, Peter had a little more education. However, he was taken from school early to work in a munitions factory. There, most of his right hand was blown off in an accident. When Gran was born, Peter was working as a storeman. He was paid in produce, not money.
Granny had two brothers and a sister, Paul, Ivan and Alexandra.
The Hontscharow family lived in the shed for a while, then Peter built them a house. The house had three levels, a cellar where food for winter was stored, a ground level kitchen, where washing was dried over the wood stove, and also a barn for the cow, horse and the geeses and upstairs, a couple of shared bedrooms, kept warm by the animals and by the stove. Granny liked to sleep in the warm alcove above the stove.
Granny was especially fond of the cow. She gave good milk. A whole bucket of milk every day. The cow was black and not too big, she had horns and she was warm and soft and would let Gran milk her when Gran was just a little girl, five years old when her mum was in hospital having one of the babies who died and her dad couldn’t milk her on account of having most of one hand missing.
Gran and her brothers and sister did a lot of work around the farm. When she was old enough, Gran’s summer job was to whitewash the house to keep it weatherproof during the long winter. Also in summer, all the children would take a cart around the neighbourhood after school, and on the weekend and collect a huge pile of grass to feed the cow, and to have enough for the winter. They also tended the geeses. Gran also had to help pickle the cabbages down in the dark cellar under the house. Everyone worked hard all summer to survive winter. Despite the hardness of life, it was a happy childhood.
School was also important. Granny attended school from age eight to fourteen. She learned maths, geography, history, Latin, Russian, German and Ukrainian languages. If the children didn’t go to school or cheeked their teacher, Gran’s dad would give the children smack-across-bottom.
When Granny was a young teenager, the family were sent to Siberia for refusing to conform to communist rules. Peter stayed behind to sell the farm, but died in a tragic accident.
In Siberia, everyone lived in little wooden huts built by former guests of Stalin, in the middle of the snow and the vast forest. Granny remembered just how beautiful it was in that vast forest and the enormous fresh water lake where the kids broke the ice to get to the sweet fish below and the kids also ran a bit wild together and climbed and swam and had a whole lot of fun. No-one had anything, they worked together to survive and in the midst of all the cold and suffering, Granny was pretty happy there. However, she told us this cheery Christmas story that we think belongs to this time.
One Christmas Eve a man came to the door wanting a piece of bread and maybe a place to sleep. Nina was on her own with the children. There was nothing to spare. Nina told the man, ‘no.’ and she closed the door. In the morning Gran opened the door to go out and there on the doorstep was the man, frozen to death.
Eventually, the family made their way home to the Dnieper valley.
‘No return’ is kind of a theme in Gran’s life. When the family arrived home from Siberia, it was pretty tough. The local people were very afraid of the communists and would not have anything to do with the Hontscharow family for a long time. They told Nina that she should have stayed in Siberia. Nina could not manage the farm on her own and could not find work. So she went to live and work in a village many miles away. Gran stayed in the little valley with the other kids, tending the farm. Every Sunday, Gran would walk all day to visit her Mum, with just a crust of bread. And she would walk home into the night.
Eventually, Nina returned to the farm. Then WWII started. The Germans arrived in the Dnieper Valley. They burned farms and fouled the wells. They left people to starve and freeze in the snow. This was very much unexpected and even today the water is foul and the good farmland lies wasted.
The Gestapo went to every family and demanded a daughter. Nina chose Gran. Gran asked her why many years later. Nina said that she knew Gran was tough and would survive. She wasn’t sure about Alexandra. Before she left, Gran’s uncle who never said nothing to nobody took Gran aside and said here will never be good. You go. You go and never come back. And the girls were taken and travelled by truck and cattle train for many days without much food or sanitation until they got to their destination, a factory in Rosenheim, Bavaria. Some of the girls were only 12 years old.
Factory life was pretty bleak. Gran said that the girls were not molested. But the food was a watery soup and a piece of bread, and the bed was a layer of straw on the floor. The girls burrowed under the straw and slept close together to keep warm. Gran was very ill with a kidney infection. The girls looked after each other as best they could. If someone got too sick to work a black car would come for them.
The job the Ukrainian girls were given in the factory was to sort through clothes and other personal items. Gran later realised that these were the belongings of murdered Jewish people.
Surprisingly, Granny often says thanks God for the German people. She told us about the wonderful German women who bought them food – bread and sometimes cheese and a little meat (which the Ukrainian girls secretly cooked in the boiler while doing the washing). They bought food and even better – they took the Ukrainian children. Some of the Ukrainians were pregnant when they were taken and the German women, they adopted these babies and kept them as their own, and on Sunday the German women would bring the babies to see their mothers at the factory. After the war the Ukrainian women knew they had to return to the communists and that they would be badly treated. So they asked the German ladies – would you keep our babies? Keep them safe? And even though the Germans were now suffering terribly themselves, they did keep the children in Germany where they would have a chance of a better life. Many of the girls who returned to Ukraine were sent to forced labour camps by the communists and starved and died.
Gran’s Uncle was right to warn her not to return.
After the war, Gran met our Poppy, Jaroslav Vik in the Red Cross Hall at Rosenheim. Jaroslav had been in the Czech resistance and suffered a lot, but was very handsome and charming and could speak many languages. He could talk to anyone. He called our Granny Lydushka. They married in Rosenheim and soon after moved to a refugee camp in Belgium where they were married again due to administrative reasons. In this camp were people from all the nations of Europe, all mixed up and happy that the war was over. My Mum was born in Belgium in 1948. It was another happy time for Granny however she became ill with a chest complaint and was advised to move to a warmer climate. They chose Australia and travelled on the SS Roma, arriving at Fremantle, then Newcastle in 1950.
The Vik family were taken to the Greta displaced persons’ camp. Pop worked at the BHP and lived away from home, joining the family on the weekend. Then they bought a block of land and for a time they lived in a tent in the bush.
Newcastle was a bit of a shock. The aboriginal people lived in a shanty on the outskirts of town. They could not go into town after dark. In the shops they got served after white people, even if they got there first. Gran wondered about how people who could go all the way to Europe to save Jews could treat their own people so badly.
In 1953, our Uncle Paul was a much loved addition to the Vik family.
The family moved a few times around Newcastle before moving to Sydney, eventually settling in the house in Bourke Street, Bondi Junction.
Granny had several jobs in Sydney, initially working as a domestic. She told this story about working for Mrs Duncan, mother of Carmen and Paula Duncan. One day Granny was crying at work and Mrs Duncan asked her why. She said that Poppy was unable to manage money and she did not know what to do. And so Mrs Duncan told her to get her very own bank account and to manage the household money herself. And so after that, Granny managed the family finances and everyone was happy.
Another time Granny worked in the Menzies Hotel. It was a very posh hotel, and Gran was shy, but the staff there told her to push herself forward, which was more good advice that she took.
And then Granny worked for a very long time for the University of Sydney. She managed one of the canteens. She was the only one who managed to make a profit and the bosses always asked her how, but she would not tell all these men with their business degrees. It was a secret told to her by a Jewish businessman friend. I will tell you the secret now though. She made a profit because she never took anything without paying for it. And that set a good example to the workers. She made sure to put money in the till every time she took something, even a cup of coffee. If the workers were hungry, she would buy some sandwiches for them. That was her secret.
At the same time Granny and Poppy were both working hard and sending money back to their families in Europe, they both suffered serious health complaints. Our Poppy eventually died in 1983, aged 60. Gran stayed in Sydney, working as a nanny, swimming at Bronte, going out for coffee, enjoying life a bit. Eventually though she moved to Brisbane, which was where most of her family were living. Soon after she moved, my Uncle Paul and his son Aaron joined us in Queensland, so Gran was right in the heart of her extended family. For many years she has presided over all family events and activities, providing loving and wise advice and a sense of fun and adventure to us all.
When she was only 89, Gran made my daughter Keltie cry – she said, you know, I am old on the outside but on the inside I am young girl – just like you!
And so, when we remember her we will see Lydushka, the geeses girl, running in the summer grasses, covered in whitewash, leaping in the snow, huddling against a friend with TB to keep her warm, carting water from the creek to her tent in the bush, keeping a stern watch over herself and the girls who worked in her canteen, sewing her beautiful frocks, all the things in this little story and all the stories we haven’t squeezed in. Such beautiful stories! They live in our memories.