We departed Germany in June 1950. The ship was a luxury liner with cinemas and swimming pools, and a passenger list of refugees from Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Latvia. Many of the women were pregnant, and the final count was about 200 ladies with morning sickness! Once on board the men were separated from the women and children. Mum and I shared a room with six others, but not for long. As expected they put me in hospital after a few days. Overall the voyage wasn’t pleasant for either of us: for most of the time I was vomiting and had diarrhoea, and Mum was so seasick she couldn’t keep food down long enough to enjoy the luxury. Dad though, never one to be idle, worked in the engine room and had a great time! While the ship had excellent medical facilities and care, Mum wasn’t allowed to see me for fear of infection, so to keep me company the ship’s Captain and his wife were the ones who visited me. A childless couple, they were so taken with the curly haired little girl who smiled at them every day they came to my parents with an offer: in return for a ‘secure start’ in Australia they wanted to adopt me. Their reasoning was simple ~ as Mum was pregnant she would soon have another baby, and with their help my parents could buy a nice home and get a good debt-free start in a new country.
Shocked, my parents not only refused, they were horrified. With everything they had been through, the thought of losing their child was unbearable. When it came time to disembark, I was nowhere to be seen. Mum was beside herself with fear, and refused to step off the ship without me. They were in fact the last passengers to go ashore. After Dad had taken care of our papers and boxes, he went looking for me. They didn’t give me back until the very last minute. Even though the relief was overpowering, instead of feeling joy and excitement for what was ahead, my poor mother was so distressed she was barely coping.
So on a cold Australian winter’s day, after years of war and refugee camps, a month after we boarded the ship we disembarked, together. What was to follow would be a hard road with yet another refugee camp, a new language, a new culture, and xenophobia all ahead of us, but at that moment as we walked towards freedom, albeit with a heavy heart for the home that was left behind, we did it as a united family ~ Mum clutching our meagre personal possessions and Dad holding me safely in his arms.
Inara Hawley © 2013
*This story is an abridged extract from my book, ‘Conversations With My Mother’, published for the family in 2010*