Memory and migration

Narratives of the European diaspora in Australia

AS PART OF its politics of memory, the European Union has expended considerable effort creating a transnational and unifying narrative of the past. By promoting a shared memory, it hopes to generate a sense of connectedness to ensure a peaceful future. Yet, in spite of numerous resolutions adopted by the European Parliament to unite Europe in its collective remembrance, conflicts, particularly over the memory of the Second World War, continue, and have even intensified. The September 2019 resolution on ‘The importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe’ was enthusiastically greeted by some in Europe as a tribute to all victims of all totalitarian regimes – but fiercely criticised by others as gross ideological propaganda and historical revisionism. While Europe’s multiple pasts and identities cannot be shaped by resolutions or regulations, the development of more pluralistic narratives of the past might be possible and worthwhile.

In our globalised age, is it only within a particular geopolitical space that memories can reconcile – or can Europe’s past be revisited from a distance? Memories are carried beyond states and nations through various channels, often migrating with individuals. Memory that travels detaches itself from its traditional anchors of meaning: location, landscape and bordered territory, from memorial sites and culturally defined contexts of remembering. It may become abstracted and hazy and vanish with time. Or it may become insular, rancorous and dogmatic, mooring migrants and diasporas in isolated and fixed narratives of a past they associate with home. But memory that travels may also be challenged by new localities and contexts, enabling new kinds of identification. While migrants are believed to centre their memory around a homogenising image of national heritage, re-­enacting representations of the past away from its point of origin may encourage a more critical engagement with that past.

The Australian National University’s Rosanne Kennedy has argued that the very distance between Europe and Australia can promote ‘a shared understanding of suffering…rather than a competition’. With its difficult colonial past and numerous waves of migration, Australia has long been an active participant in the construction of Europe’s transnational memory. Not only has it served as a new location for the working of memories that have travelled from Europe, but also as a space that has fostered their transformation.


BETWEEN 1945 AND 1965 more than two million migrants came to Australia from various parts of Europe. These included great numbers of Europe’s displaced persons, the survivors of the Nazi camps and Soviet gulags, and refugees from Soviet-­occupied parts of Europe. For many intellectuals, writers and artists, World War II resulted in what the Polish writer Lech Paszkowski, in an interview with Joanna Kujawa in Migration, Belonging, Alienation (VDM Verlag Dr Müller, 2010), describes as ‘a total crush of dreams’. Often it was writing that provided an autonomous space in which individuals could engage with the past to redefine themselves, outside of the culture of the group. In Australia, the history of migrant writing reflects trends in Australian postwar immigration, and thus in its earliest period features Greeks, Italians, Balts, Poles and European Jews as the biggest cohorts. Autobiographical narrative has been the main mode of creative expression among migrants, propelled by the need to reconnect with their homeland on the one hand and to renegotiate their own concepts of self on the other. Out of many examples I select only a few and focus on writers from a Polish background.

Although appreciation for having reached a safe haven in Australia is a common theme in postwar migrant writing, the feeling of estrangement and isolation in this largely homogenous and monolingual country is also a widely shared experience. As Barbara Schenkel, a Jewish-­Polish-­Australian writer, states pithily in Ethnic Australia (Phoenix Publications), one of the first Australian multicultural collections of writing published in 1981: ‘Here we will be aliens forever.’ Yet, while Australia and this sense of estrangement is largely perceived through the mediating memory of home, the writings of postwar migrants show that the very concept of home and homeland is quite complex and unstable. Krystyna Wanda Jackiewicz recalls ‘my Poland spoke in Lvovian’, Andrzej Chciuk revisits in his writings his then Polish, now Ukrainian, city of Drohobych, while Leokadia Kondratowicz-­Kordas writes about her fatherland as ‘Polish Belarus’. Lech Paszkowski also expresses his alienation from any existing country, confessing to Kujawa: ‘I feel European of Polish-­Lithuanian origin.’ Similarly, Schenkel finds herself ‘on a path of war’ with both Catholic-­ and Jewish-­Polish communities in Australia, and disappointed with Australians: Kujawa reports that ‘About Australia [Schenkel] feels regret for her alienation, a “certain [moral] hangover”. About Poland “a tragic sadness”.’ Some writers resignedly accept the labels given to them by Australian officials who often considered all postwar migrants as ‘Balts’. Thus, transnational ties that emerge from their writing are necessarily complex and multidimensional, the boundaries blurred and the divisions irrelevant.

In ‘Migrant Hostel’, included in his collection Immigrant Chronicle (UQP, 1975), Peter Skrzynecki reflects on the isolation of migrant communities, experiencing homesickness or a lack of belonging to the host society, but also alienated from each other by memories of the past hostilities and suffering:

Nationalities sought

each other out instinctively –

like a homing pigeon

circling to get its bearings;

years and name-­places

recognised by accents,

partitioned off at night

by memories of hunger and hate.

Skrzynecki challenges these divisions and differences, the sense of instinctive grouping and the attitude of poignant isolation. Similar challenge is later taken by writers such as Andrzej Gawroński, who explore migrants’ insularity and parochialism through satirical writing, one of the richest literary genres produced to date in Polish-­language media in Australia. In The Polish Immigrant: Migrant Poems (1972–82) (Phoenix Publications, 1982) – which Thomas Shapcott calls an ‘entirely European combination of world-­loss’ – Skrzynecki encourages a sober reflection on a common fate. Surveying Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney with its Russian, Irish, Italian, French, Ukrainian and Polish graves, and its memorials to the victims of Buchenwald and Treblinka, he observes that although, ‘As in life, / the syllables of pronunciation / distinguish their epitaphs’, we need to remember that all men ‘are eventually walking / in the same Direction together’.

Yet many are also coming from the same direction with a common experience of violence, mass humiliation, suffering and loss to bond them. In the poem ‘Ułani na Tasmanii’ (‘Uhlans in Tasmania’), Jackiewicz writes of two World War II veterans meeting on the streets of Hobart and of their relationship being closer than between a father and a ‘Son [who] only knows war from the television’. This closeness is founded on the memory shared by a fellow veteran who is ‘dearer than children. / Because only he can understand. He also remembers.’ (Translation mine.)

While we can observe migrants being tied in various ways to ethnic identity and concrete locations, their travelling memory is not contained within the bounds of the nation or the ethnic group. The very displacement of people and communities already disturbs the alleged stability of their collective memory. Further rupture to their memory of home is caused by a ‘displacement’ of the places they come from: places that vanished or were transformed; places that changed their language and country. Remembering Drohobych, which was once in eastern Poland and is now in western Ukraine, Andrzej Chciuk celebrates in Pamiętnik poetycki (Poetic Memoir: Polpress, 1961) his hometown’s multiethnic and multilingual heritage. But he also signals, as Mary Besemeres observes in Transnational Literature (2017), its double removal from his life caused by both border changes and his migration. Recalling a Ukrainian schoolfriend killed by Soviet police, who ‘loved [Drohobych] in Ukrainian / while I loved it in Polish’, Chciuk further detaches his home from complex ethnic histories of the region and situates it beyond divisions.


HISTORIES AND PASTS are also transnationalised in other ways. Creating their compelling personal narratives of life in occupied Poland, of war, survival and emigration to Australia, authors writing in English, such as Halina Robinson or Maria Lewitt, move their personal stories and local memories across boundaries – from one language to another. By writing in English, many authors expressed their determination to embrace Australia from the start, but others, like Maria Lewitt, wanted to make a new beginning, to challenge the memory of the painful past and tell it differently, destabilise it by embracing the change and incompleteness of meaning that translation brings about. They construct their autobiographical novels by rendering everyday details into multilayered narratives, allowing for a generalisation of experiences beyond the specific circumstances of their communities and the Second World War. This process locates their works among narratives that Jenny Wüstenberg, in her essay ‘Locating Transnational Memory’, aptly identifies as ‘global normative discourses of “never again”’.

Usually, it is the memory of the Holocaust which is conceptualised as transnational. However, many postwar Eastern European migrants in Australia had suffered the loss of family members at the hands of both Nazis and Soviets, and had to deal with memories of two totalitarian regimes. Deportation to Soviet gulags and Nazi concentration camps, crimes committed by Nazi and Soviet armies, are recurring themes of many community-­based oral narrative projects, life narratives and memoirs recorded in Australia. And while public remembrance of the Holocaust in Australia is long established, widely attested and dynamic, memory of Stalin’s regime is virtually absent from public spaces. Eastern European migrants have continued to record and represent narratives of a double trauma. They weave together memories that do not compete with each other, do not obfuscate one another, but interact in a sombre and confident articulation of the complex past.

A less known example of such a narrative is Wooden Butterflies (Hesperian Press, 1989) by Anna Wiciak-­Suchnicka. For all its weight, it is a very short memoir: in 130 pages it recounts her experiences of two world wars, of hosting refugees and becoming one, of running away to the East and then to the West, of losing family to Nazis and Soviets, of losing friends to war or ideology. The memory of these experiences becomes a deep reflection on the nature of evil and the gift of forgiveness. Wiciak-­Suchnicka’s emotional journey ends in Perth, where she meets a childhood friend who, in 1940, became an executioner of her family members in the Katyn massacre, the mass execution of about 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia by the Soviet Union. Wiciak-­Suchnicka struggles as her inner voice instructs her: ‘You must learn to forgive’, and finally her resistance breaks, allowing her to reconcile the past and present, to feel free again.


A GREAT NUMBER of Australia’s second-­ and third-­generation migrant voices shift the framework of remembering much further. They often openly juxtapose various histories, or explore the past within their own experience of reconciliation and self-­discovery. Arnold Zable’s texts exemplify this well. His Polish-­Jewish parents, who came to Australia in the 1930s, escaping the pogroms in Europe and the annihilation that followed, were deeply rooted in Yiddish tradition and cultivated it actively in Melbourne. Zable is inexorably drawn to these ‘worlds far removed’ and is immersed in their fractured past, as he poetically conveys in The Fig Tree (Text, 2002): ‘Fragments, everywhere… This is my inheritance, your countless jottings in Yiddish, with scatterings of English, Hebrew, Polish, Russian.’ The Fig Tree’s narrator collects fragments of second-­hand memories to recreate a past from what he can: from books his parents ‘brought from the old world – books which you were continually rebinding, rereading, reinterpreting’; books he acquired himself; from his father’s poems and his mother’s songs; from theatrical performances he saw in Melbourne and stories he pursued talking to the people he met and travelling to his ancestral places. All these fragments of the past are meticulously analysed: the themes and authors, their lives, experiences, ideals and motifs; all is important and provides an anchor into ‘the Old World’. What is particularly interesting in Zable’s engagement with the past is the way he reaches beyond personal stories and memories to explore connections and draw analogies, to build bridges between individuals, communities and cultures. He stresses what is universal and continuous. So while his texts resonate ‘with a strong Yiddish-­Polish culture’, he warmly invites others: strangers, students, artists, refugees, wanderers. Referring to the more recent refugee crisis and Australia’s hostile approach to asylum seekers, Zable instantly sees commonalities: ‘My elders had also arrived in boats, and they too brought with them tales of epic voyages and aborted dreams… We share a common fate.’

Zable insists that ‘We tell stories because we must’, and many first-­ and second-­generation migrants would probably agree. Many European migrants in Australia still share a collective memory of Europe as ‘another universe in which the nations of Europe were congregated in the same living hell: Poles, Russians, Jews, Italians, Czechs, Spaniards, Serbs and Bulgarians. Among them were former ministers and businessmen, tradesmen and professors, all reduced to striped garb and a frantic struggle to survive.’

In this, migrant writers look on from shared ground: they acknowledge there is no space for competition among the Rookwood Cemetery headstones. They resist both conflation and segregation, strive to learn compassion and to accept new forms of identification that recognise that histories are not easily separable and, in fact, that we ‘cannot tell the one without adding the other’. To be European, then, is to draw on the past to learn. It is to remember how important memory is for individuals and communities, and how constructive it can be – when free to travel and open to interaction – to enable those who remember to participate in an ongoing process of becoming European.

In the midst of unending wars about memory in Europe, it might be interesting, if not useful, to remember what all migrants always learn – that, as American historian Michael Rothberg describes it in Multidirectional Memory (Stanford University Press, 2009), the ‘borders of memory and identity are jagged’. It might be useful as well as interesting for all Europeans to become like migrant storytellers – to look back from a distance and, as Zable puts it, ‘to venture out and become seafarers again…to drift awhile, beyond sight of all land. And then return, and see the continent anew.’



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