Surviving Stalin, Hitler and White Australia




Fear and ignorance are a poor basis for making any kind of decision, including the decision we make at the ballot box on election day.  In this posting I will tell the story of my grandmother, a Ukrainian peasant girl who survived the evil crimes of Stalin and Hitler to find a home amidst the racial intolerance of white Australia.  She knew the real meaning of fear and rose above it.

This is a story about my Baba (“grandmother” in Ukrainian).  Baba was born in 1924 and grew up in a small rural village outside of Lvov, a city in the ethnically Ukrainian region on Galicia.  Today, Lvov lies within the state of Ukraine but during the 1920’s Galicia was part of Poland, having been seized from the crumbling Czarist Russian empire and defended from the Bolsheviks during the Russian civil war of 1917-21.  During the civil war, nearly 1.5 million Ukrainians died as a result of the fighting and the subsequent famine of 1921.  It was in the ruins of Polish Ukraine that my grandmother was born and grew up.

Baba grew up in a peasant family, which, like most in the region, made a meagre living as subsistence farmers.  Her mother died when she was ten years old and her father re-married to a spiteful woman who showed Baba little love or favour.  Baba’s childhood was difficult, but her favourite childhood memory was of the family’s cow, “Sophie”, which she used to tend and milk daily.  The family also had an old army horse, which would start marching whenever it heard music.

Push Factors: Stalin and Hitler

If Baba’s childhood was difficult, her teenage years were to be a nightmare.  In September 1939 the German army invaded Poland, leading to the infamous non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin in which Germany and the USSR divided Poland between themselves.  As a consequence of the treaty, Galicia was annexed by the Soviet Union and my Baba became a subject of Joseph Stalin’s totalitarian regime.

In the decade leading up to 1939, the Soviet portion of Ukraine had been devastated by the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33 and Stalin’s Great Terror.  The Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 resulted directly from the Soviet policy of forcefully expropriating farmland from the peasantry to form vast collective farms, began in 1929.  The labourers on the collective farms, the peasants who formerly subsisted off that land were not allowed any farm produce until the state quotas were met.  Anyone caught taking grain from a collective farm was either imprisoned in a gulag or executed.  Collectivisation had a disastrous effect on agricultural productivity, which, combined with impossibly high state quotas, drove up to seven million people to starvation.

The Great Terror of 1936-38 was fuelled by Stalin’s political paranoia, in which he orchestrated a wholesale purge of the Communist Party, government officials and the Red Army officer core, along with violent persecution of the intelligentsia, the peasantry and any other unaffiliated persons identified as “saboteurs” against the Soviet state.  Scholars estimate that between 600,000 and 1.5 million people died at the hands of Stalin’s regime during this period.

Baba remembers the day in 1939 when the Soviet troops came to her village and seized their farm.  All their produce, animals and equipment were taken away, forcing them to become proletarian slaves on a collective farm—a vast agricultural factory.

It wasn’t long before Baba was to suffer a new hell.  In June 1941 Hitler broke his non-aggression treaty with Stalin and sent his army to invade the Soviet Union.  With so many young men fighting in the army, Germany needed labourers to man their industrial and agricultural machine.  The Nazi regime gathered up to 5.5 million Ostarbeiters (German: “eastern workers“) from across eastern Europe to work as slaves in German factories and farms.  Like many Ukrainians from Galicia, Baba was one of them.

The Nazi army took one person from each local family to to labour back in Germany.  Baba chose to go in place of her aging father and her younger brother, who was only ten years old.  She was 16 years old at the time.

Baba was taken to a forced labour camp in a town called Siegen, approximately 50 km east of Cologne, where she was forced to manufacture bullets.  She was required to make 22,000 bullets per day and she was not allowed to return to her boarding house until this daily quota was fulfilled.  To this day, she suffers arthritis in her knee from pushing the pedal that powered the lathe on which she machined ammunition.  Like all the Ostarbeiter workers, she was forced to wear a dark blue badge with the word “OST“ printed in white to signify her status.  The German overseers would call here a “schmutzigen hund“—a dirty dog.

She did, however, strike up a covert friendship with the manager of her factory, who  ocassionally seconded her to help his wife with house chores at his home.  The manager,“Heir Claude“ (Mr Claude) and his wife were struggling with the loss of their only son, killed on the eastern front fighting the Soviets.  Heir Claude told Baba that he had to abuse the Ostarbeiter workers on the factory floor or the SS (German secret police) would have him incarcerated.  Heir Claude and his wife were kind to Baba, smuggling her food and old clothes.

The munitions factories staffed by Ostarbeiter workers were prime targets for allied bombing runs.  Baba recounted how the dreaded hum of the fleets of allied bombers could be heard for hours before the bombs would start raining down.  That expectant drone of impending doom struck terror into the hearts of those on the ground.  Many Ostarbeiters lost their lives in those bombing raids.  Baba was lucky.

As the war neared its end, Baba remembers a chance encounter with two strange men who spoke an unusual accented German.  It turned out they were American paratroopers on a reconnaisance  mission behind the German lines.  Not long afterward the US army arrived in Cologne and Baba’s ordeal as a slave labourer was over.

After the liberation of Cologne, Ostarbeiter men from a nearby factory were moved into Baba’s all-female camp.  It was here that Baba met my Gido (“grandfather“ in Ukrainian) and after a brief courtship of a month, they were married in the camp by a US army chaplain in May 1945.  My uncle Michael was born a year later, one of a whole cohort of Ukrainian children born and conceived in the resettlement camps in the aftermath of the war.

All of Europe lay in ruins at the conclusion of the war—governments extinguished, infrastructure destroyed, no social services, millions of displaced people, millions of people dead.  The survivors of this calamity were left with limited, difficult and uncertain choices about how to pick up the pieces of their lives.

As displaced persons, Baba and Gido were processed for resettlement or repatriation to their country of origin.  The likely fate of Ostarbeiters upon repatriation to the USSR was incarceration in one of many Siberian gulags (concentration camps).  Stalin harboured a great distrust of Ukrainians after some had fought with the German armyagainst the Soviets during the war. Gido had been part of anSoviet resistance group in his home town prior to his capture by the Germans.  He feared for his life if he had been forced to return to the USSR (even as late as 1974, Gido chose not to accompany Baba on a trip back to Ukraine out of fear that he would be incarcerated by the Soviet police for his anti-Soviet activities during the 1930s).

Baba and Gido had to hide from special Soviet brigades who were instructed to search the resettlement camps and forcibly repatriate Ostarbeiters to the USSR.  The American staffer who processed Baba and Gido’s resettlement application instructed them to register as Poles rather than Ukrainians, and offered them the option of immigrating to Canada, the United States or Australia.  Gido wanted to go to America, but Baba chose Australia.  Not surprisingly, she won the argument.

Once their application had been processed, Baba and Gido were housed in an abandoned building, formerly a meeting hall for the local Hitler Yungend (Hitler Youth).  The Hitler Yungend were a warped equivalent of the boy scout movement in which German teenagers were indoctrinated into the Nazi myths of Aryan supremacy and anti-Semitism.  Yet Baba and Gido were able to turn this shrine of hate into a home.  Gido was a skilled craftsman and he built furniture for the dwelling and as a qualified shoe maker, made shoes which he bartered for food and other consumables.

At one point Baba and Gido offered a room to Heir Claude and his wife, Baba‘s former overseer.  Heir Claude had lost his job in the factory and all the privileges that came with membership in the now defunct Nazi Party.  Baba repaid the kindness of Heir Claude and his wife by taking them in.  When it came time for Baba and Gido to leave, they gave Heir Claude the home they had refurbished from that old bastion of Nazi hatred.

…In the Footsteps of Us All

Baba and Gido’s long journey to a new life in Australia began in Naples, Italy, where they stayed for two years.  European refugees being resettled overseas were to be ferried to their new home countries on allied military ships, which were in the meantime occupied repatriating allied troops.

Baba’sfond memories of Italy included her amusement at the local custom of drying washing on ropes suspended between buildings, buying sandals for Michael at a local market and laughing about the shock of eating pasta for three meals a day!

Gido came out to Australia first in November 1948, arriving in Adelaide where he was employed by Energy and Water Supply (E&WS) digging trenches around the Adelaide airport site.  He was indentured to work for the state government for two years in exchange for his passage to Australia.  It was hard manual labour for Gido, working in what back then was an unforgiving snake-infested swamp.  Even though he was a skilled tradesman, manual labour was the only work available for new immigrants from Europe who spoke no English.

Baba came by boat to Australia the following year.  She vividly remembers sailing through the Suez Canal and being shocked to find that the Red Sea was actually blue.  As a peasant girl from land-locked Ukraine who had only recently seen the ocean for the first time, she honestly thought the Red Sea would be coloured red!   She also remembers befriending the ship captain, who occasionally let Michael sit with him in the bridge.

Having survived the wrath of Hitler and Stalin, Baba and Gido faced new challenges in white Australia.  Of immediate concern was the language barrier; as anyone who has lived abroad will know, it is extremely difficult to integrate into another society if one is not fluent in the native tongue.

Baba and Gido also had to grapple with how they were to support themselves and their young family (my mother was born in Adelaide in 1951).  When the family was reunited in Adelaide in 1949, they boarded with an Italian family in Bridgewater (near Port Adelaide).  No Australian family would offer them a room.

Gido bought a block of land with his resettlement grant and managed to save enough money from his labouring work to build a house.  Eventually, both Baba and Gido found employment at the new General Motors plant in Woodville, opened to make Australia’s new Holden cars.  Gido worked at the Holden plant his entire working life and was promoted to factory foreman.

Most disheartening of all for Baba and Gido was the venomous reception they received from many Anglo-Australians.  Sometimes people would spit at Baba when she was shopping at the Port Adelaide markets.  Later when she was working at the General Motors factory, a female co-worker told her to “go back to where you came from, new Australian”.  Baba replied (in her thick eastern European accent), “you are new Australian too, everyone is new Australian apart from Aborigines”.  Touché Baba, touché.

Local socialists and communists affiliated with the labour movement heaped further indignation on Baba and Gido.  These men, including the local doctor, called the Ukrainian émigrés thieves and bandits, under instruction from the COMINTERN (Communist International) in Moscow.  During the 1950’s the Australian socialist movement was still buoyant about the prospects of communism as an alternative economic paradigm and were as yet unaware of the monstrous crimes of Stalin’s Soviet regime.

Lessons from Our Past — Lessons for Today

Thankfully the kind of bigotry heaped daily on Baba and Gido is no longer pervasive in Australian society, but there are still sections of our community who are openly hostile to migrants from foreign lands.  There are also people in our community who harbour this prejudice but keep it hidden from view.  Often these views stem from fear or from ignorance born from lack of exposure to foreign people and cultures.  When our politicians talk border security, these are the people they are trying to impress.  When our politicians talk border security, they are exacerbating our society’s most repulsive festering sore.

The intimidating task of integrating into a new society, combined with the hostility of that society to foreigners acted to keep the small community of Ukrainian émigrés in a cocoon.  Not only did it slow their integration into wider Australian society, but also kept them in a cultural time warp, trapped in the customs and ways of the 1930s Ukraine that they grew up in.  It was left to the brave and pioneering children of these original migrants, like my mother, to take the first tentative steps of assimilation into white Australia.

Indeed it has always struck me as odd that some members of Australian society vilify immigrants for not assimilating into our culture, while they simultaneously persecute and abuse these same people.  My grandparents were persecuted here in Australia by Australians who knew nothing about them, who understood nothing of the suffering they had escaped in Europe, and whose sole basis for hatred was a white superiority complex inherited from Britain and a fear of the unknown.

The lesson for us today is a simple one.  It’s not rocket science:  if we want newcomers to integrate into our community quickly, we need to actively make them feel welcome.  Our fear and our lack of understanding of the circumstances in which migrants come to our country inhibits their integration into our community.

My Baba was right: all non-indigenous Australians are “new Australians”.  We have ourselves, or have relatives who have made epic journeys to find a home on this unique continent.  We all have to remember this every time border security rears its ugly head in our national political discourse.  We have to remember that fear and ignorance are an unacceptable and unhelpful basis upon which to base a debate on an issue so important to the national psyche.

Politicians, please, put away your dog whistles.  Playing 52-pickup with a deck of race cards is a dangerous game.

In later postings I will look at the history of the immigration debate in Australia, explore some of the arguments for limiting Australia’s immigration intake, and examine some of the drawbacks of the country’s skilled migration program.  This is a complex subject that requires a comprehensive treatment, above and beyond the jingoistic, xenophobic garbage that currently passes for national debate.  Stay tuned…


Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben’s research project projects include North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and methodologies for undergraduate teaching. He also teaches Australian politics.  Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.

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