Brenda Richards: “Bulrushes and Black Ducks”

Poldi decided to emigrate when he was nine years old. America would be a good place to go, and it was far enough away. He just didn’t know how to get there.

Poldi’s mother died when he was a baby. A family friend saw her picture and told him she was a beautiful woman and that now she was an angel in heaven. With the logic of childhood, he thought if she really was an angel, she would have stayed alive and looked after him. His father remarried. His stepmother wasn’t that pleased that her husband came complete with a small boy. She proceeded to provide him with eight siblings, seven of them girls. They were all delivered at home by a mid-wife.

“I knew there was another one coming when the old lady walked up the mountain with her bag,” he explained. “One more for me to look after.”

But he thought it would be nice to have a little brother. Unfortunately, when at last one arrived, the boy was the mother’s favourite. In contrast, everything Poldi did was wrong.

The family lived in the mountains, near the Yugoslav border. The war started when he was small.

“I didn’t know much about it until it was over, but I knew wars were not good things for anyone. It was not a happy time for me, except when I was going to school. The teachers were good to me. I liked Maths, and every year I topped the class. The school only went to Grade eight and the family could not afford higher education, as they still had to raise the other children. At 14, it was time for me to support myself, so Dad got me a live-in job on a nearby farm. The work was not very interesting. Although there were lots of animals, there was not much social life. I thought there had to be more to life than talking to the chooks, much as I liked the little fellows. My life was going nowhere.”

Poldi asked his Dad for help finding something else.

“I think he really did love me because he found me a job as an apprentice carpenter, which paid a small wage, but at least I was learning something. I returned home to live while I finished my apprenticeship. After the war, different parts of Austria were occupied by four different countries. We were in the British section. They were decent people who treated us well. Emigrating was still in the back of my mind. I thought I might go to England if I couldn’t get to America.”

Where did Poldi end up going? Just to the other end of the globe. The nearest sea port was Trieste in Italy. He managed to get a berth on the Tuscana. Austria means Eastern Land. The first opportunity to keep faith with his nine year old plans, led Poldi to Australia, the Great Southern Land, which he didn’t know much about. The trip took him nearly two months. He was just 22 years old when he arrived at Station Pier on Australia Day in 1955.

“I didn’t learn much English on the ship as the crew were Italian. It was really hot when we arrived. I had made friends with a fellow passenger. We had not enjoyed the food on the ship and decided that when we got off, the first thing we would do, would be to buy an ice cream. We couldn’t work out how to pronounce it. Was it an ‘eecy’ cream or an ‘eyecy’ cream? Whatever we decided, we managed to buy one in the little shop on Station Pier. It was delicious.”

Poldi was initially placed in Bonegilla, which consisted of a number of Nissan huts that had been converted from an old army camp to a migrant one. From there, he went grape picking up in Red Cliffs. When the season finished, he came to Melbourne and worked as a porter on the railways. As his English got better, he started work as a carpenter. Eventually he worked for himself, building houses all over Victoria.

He married an Englishwoman and had a number of children. They visited the wife’s relatives in England and Ireland, but always returned to Australia. They separated when the children had grown up. Poldi still thought of himself as Austrian, but for a long time he didn’t make any contact with his family.

“I went home for a visit after a 15 year gap. I didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out well. It was good to see them all again and meet their new families. Austria will always be a part of me, but it’s getting smaller. Over the years, my Aussie family has grown. I have children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Australia is now the major part of who I am.”

Poldi entered into another union and settled in St. Kilda.

“We made a number of short trips to various countries overseas, as our children all had their own families by now, and while I love travelling, the best destination is home.”

Poldi described his last return, when a small grandson visited him.

“I missed you Grandad,” Danny said, then pointed to a small marble bust on my mantelpiece.

“Who’s that?” he asked.

“I heard about him. They found him in the bullrushes.” I couldn’t help smiling. “Can we go to the beach today?” he added.

“Of course. And we’ll go through Albert Park on the way. We can watch the black ducks waltzing on the lake,” I joked.

“You’re funny Grandad. They’re black swans, not ducks.”

The little fellow held my hand and looked up. “And can we have an ice cream?”

Poldi knew he was really home.

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