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Workshopped at Wellington’s very own International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington, and the subsequent winner of the 2013 Adam Prize, Give us this Day is a personal project & labour of love, a work that offers readers value, in history, in entertainment, and by enriching our city of Wellington.
Give us this Day weaves a tale between the Wisniewski’s family-life in Wellington and father Stefan’s journey of exile from Poland to New Zealand during World War II. At the hands of the Communist USSR Stefan, along with his mother, brothers, & sisters were rounded up by Soviet soldiers in 1941 & transported from Poland to Siberia & south through the Soviet Socialist Republics to the Caspian Sea via cattle train. Twelve years old when exiled from his homeland, Stefan’s memories are often hazy, but there is one detail he cannot forget: the hunger. Constant & unyielding, Stefan recalls how hunger drove the Wisniewski family to make soup from grass & forage for seeds and edible plants whenever their train stopped, risking missing its unpredictable departure. When the USSR joined the Allies in 1941, the Polish Army was (temporarily) allowed to form, and Stefan & his brothers signed up, motivated by access to rations. The Wisniewski family were soon shipped to Iran – thankfully, as those who remained saw the insincerity of the Soviet promise for amnesty. From Iran, the Rt. Hon. Peter Fraser’s wife, Janet, displayed a great act of compassion, offering 733 Polish children refuge in New Zealand, and on the morning of October 31, 1944, the General Randall arrived in Wellington harbour. Scores of Wellingtonians turned out to greet the exiled Polish children, who would grow up to become “self-sufficient, hard-working loyal citizens… together with their families.”
It is a lofty task to write a family history & memoir that holds interest to an audience beyond one’s relatives & friends, but Give us this Day is masterful in making the Wisniewski story one that all can applaud. I warmed up to the memoir much like Wisniewska Brow’s first head-long dive into her family history in Poland – with apprehension & little understanding – but as the story developed & the characters took form, the memoir transformed from an account into a highly readable story. Wisniewska Brow subtly spins her family members into readable characters, without oversimplification, and threads us through the backdrops of Poland, Siberia, & Iran with grace, without exploiting the tragedy of such locations during the Second World War. Wisniewska Brow’s finesse for her craft is again demonstrated by the contrast of confusion & frustration early in the book & the serenity that is emitted by the final pages. Wisniewska Brow’s research, travel, & expression through writing has clearly resolved something for Helena − but, like all good stories, whatever is resolved for Helena, she has resisted a neat bow-tie finale for the reader.
Upon finishing Give us this Day, I ran along the Wellington waterfront at dawn for the umpteenth time, and as I approached Frank Kitts Park, wreaths of red flowers beneath a plaque caught my eye. I had never paused to read this plaque, but thanks to the red flowers this particular morning my brain yielded a result − sure enough, engraved on the wall right there in front of me, the plaque remembered the plight of “The Polish children of Pahiatua.” The anniversary of Stefan & the Polish children’s arrival in Wellington in 1944 had passed over the weekend. And I now knew the incredible story behind this plaque, a plaque that flocks of Wellingtonians hurry or saunter past daily, and that story suddenly made my environment, our city, the history of our country & its diverse inhabitants profoundly deeper.
Give us this Day, the Wisniewski story, told through Stefan by Helena, is a delicately crafted work that reads of a history less charted (and delighting for that), is a pleasure to read, and is a story all Wellingtonians should know.
By Abbie Treloar
Give us this Day
by Helena Wisniewska Brow
Published by Victoria University Press