I wanted to write about Joanna after attending the launch of her exhibition titled Departure, Transit, Arrival at the Migration Museum in Adelaide. Joanna had put the exhibition together from photos taken mostly by her father in the 1950s and 1960s.
On the day of the launch, a small crowd gathered to admire the Majchrowska family photographs. Having no European connection myself, I wished for more information so that I could enter into the story the crowd so obviously shared, a story they relived as they peered at the photographs with evident delight.
Joanna agreed to an interview, but life’s troubles prevent us from meeting until two days before the exhibition closes. Despite everything that has happened, Joanna smiles and says, ‘I thought we have to do this’.
Sitting side by side in the exhibition room, in the manner of old friends catching up after a long separation, Joanna tells me about her family. (Because I was not familiar with many of the cities mentioned, I had trouble following their journey. So I’ve mapped the cities below, using green pins for homes in Poland, red for trips in Poland, blue for the journey, and purple for trips in Australia.)
In Lublin, East Poland, we lived in a one room apartment, sharing a kitchen and bathroom with other people in the building. In our one room, there were three beds (folded away during the day), a table, and a wardrobe. Because the apartment was so small, we would go out on family trips in the weekends to enjoy wide open spaces in the countryside.
In the holidays we would go to my grandparents’ farm in Dubow so that my parents could have some privacy.
Wherever we went, dad would take photos. Later, back in our apartment, we would develop those photos. We would darken the room by covering the windows. I remember sitting in a row with my sisters, dipping the negatives in this solution, then that, then the next. How I loved the process.
My father was a a pastor with the Seventh Day Adventist church in Poland. Because of this we lived in many places. People were always gathering in our apartment. My dad conducted choirs in our home and we children didn’t go to bed at 7pm – there was too much to do! We moved from Poland because of our faith. Poland is Catholic. Although we were not persecuted, sometimes children wouldn’t play with us for a day or two.
The family migrated in November 1965. There are photos of the train station farewell, the Swiss Alps framed by a train window, an Italian church bell seen from their Genoa hotel. From Genoa, they they boarded the ship Sydney for Australia.
The photographs change then to a mixture of sea ports- Naples, Messina, Port Said – and cities within reach by taxi from the ports, such as the ruins of Pompeii. After Yemen, there are several nautical scenes of the long journey across the Indian Ocean – little Joanna poised to jump into a swimming pool on the ship’s deck, a comedic shot of crossing the Equator, Joanna’s father sitting in a deckchair, his face to the sun, enjoying the moment.
The family disembarks in Fremantle, then sail again for Melbourne. They finally settle in Adelaide where they shared an old Norwood sandstone cottage with another Polish family. The two families rent from a Greek landlord in order to make ends meet, but they do not have a penny-pinching pained look on their faces.
Instead, there are pictures of picnics in the Kutipo forest and other weekend getaways with the Polish community. Unable to find work in his original profession, Joanna’s father worked at car factory for some years. The last photo in the exhibition is a taken at their newly built home in Holden Hill. Joanna’s father stands beside a fruit tree in flower.
Negatives and Positives
At one point in our conversation, a tourist couple from Glasgow come into the room and strike up a conversation with Joanna.
‘What camera was it?’ asks the man. ‘It must have been very good to capture such good quality photographs.’
‘We brought over the negatives in a Kodak box. I blew this up and touched up the dots in Photoshop. One dot at a time. Very therapeutic.’
I might have said mundane. Therapeutic is better.
The idea of this box containing negatives travelling all those rail and sea miles stays with me. A negative is a curious thing. To capture an image, it has to reverse everything. It needs black to represent white; it needs darkness to represent light. My brain has this habit of projecting meaning on to curious things. I think now of darkness and troubles. The troubles lurking beneath the surface of this story have not been allowed to take centrestage.
Poland was badly damaged by World War II. After the war, the norm was want rather than abundance. But Joanna shows me post-war Poland through her eyes. I see the way people were helpful to one another through those lean post-war years, see the love of music and art and a close-knit community.
As for the journey, Joanna’s mother said that the sea voyage from Europe to Australia was one of the best holidays she’s had because all meals were catered and there were no dishes to do. The photographs testify to the places they saw and the fun they had travelling. It seems fitting to me that half of the exhibition was devoted to transit. Are not most of our lives are spent travelling from departure to arrival, from enrolment to graduation, from aspiration to outcome? So why not turn our faces to the sun and take some time to bask in the moment?