Remembering Poppy Day in King's Park
Updated: Nov 10
Dedicated to Zbigniew Tadeuscz Sixtus Grabiecz Kwiecinski AO
June 2, 1922 - July 16, 1999
My Dad didn't talk much about the war.
Constant hunger, 'secret missions' in Lvov, his mother dying from a brain haemorrhage just days after witnessing the shooting of Jewish neighbours on the street below her window in Crakow ... these few images have expanded in my imagination to fill the many gaps that will probably always remain about Dad's last years in Poland during the Second World War.
There were few photographs.
A U.S. Army fork - regulation issue to those liberated from prison camps in 1945 - rattled around in our cutlery drawer, his army beret in a cabinet, and, stuffed like a guilty secret into the back of his wardrobe, an enormously heavy leather greatcoat liberated from its owner on 'the other side'.
These were the only three objects of 'Dad's past'. A background of which nothing remained, not even relatives.
Always grateful that he was the father of two daughters, rather than sons, "because you girls will never have to go to war", he was, nevertheless, an old-world disciplinarian where "children and fish have no voices".
Marched down the hall to bed - "hup two, three, four" - my sister and I were often lulled to sleep by Dad deeply crooning Polish guerilla songs, or that wartime classic Lili Marleen in German, which he spoke perfectly.
If Mum slept in too late on school mornings, I was usually directed to rouse her into action with a hand-trumpeted version of Reverie, and slothful behavior was denounced with "wakey wakey, your country needs you!"
So it's little wonder that my enrolment into the Girl Guides couldn't happen early enough.
"I look at it now and realise what a tiny little thing you were", says Mum, as she holds up the pleated cotton frock that was my first Brownie uniform. "You seemed like such a big girl".
There was usually a bit of scuffle to get to Brownie's on time every Saturday afternoon. Having gone to speech and piano lessons in the morning with Mum, I'd sometimes then accompany Dad to the 'European butcher' to buy Polski ogorki, smelly cheeses, wizened sausages and dark, dense bread. Weekend brunches were olfactory treats cut short by my 2pm pack meeting.
Mum, once again taxi'd me to and fro, but not before Dad checked my uniform. Tie badge polished, shiny belt, he'd invariably, however, re-arrange my beret. With the spic and span deftness of a sergeant major, the part I least liked about my uniform was pulled from its precarious placement on the back of my head to a regulation inch above my eyes, with a precise tug to the right for good measure. Little soldier prepared for action.
Captain Harms discharged her duties as Brown Owl with a broad brogue. While it's true that I was often more fascinated by the dark hairs squashed beneath her stockings than mastering a repertoire of knots, I took to the challenges of collecting badges with zeal.
The Girl Guides Handbook was a wealth of information. Along with comportment and thrillingly grown-up advice about personal hygiene, lay a catalogue of endeavours, the mastery of which resulted in badges to sew on our sleeves. Over my last three years at primary school Captain Harms handed out these cloth awards for everything from 'camp tenderfoot' to 'singing', and we celebrated with cordial and cake baked by her snowy haired mother who came to every meeting.
Meanwhile, Dad spent many Saturday afternoons at home, listening to the football whilst repainting the metal plaques whose words in silvered relief commemorate Western Australian soldiers killed or missing in action during the First World War. Each plaque was staked at the foot of a towering eucalyptus tree lining the miles of 'Honour Avenues' in the magnificent King's Park on Mount Eliza in Perth.
Although Dad would eventually preside over the RSL (Returned Services League) Committee in the Highgate Sub-Branch managing these Honour Avenues, this story happens well before that. For him, maintaining these poignant records bearing witness to the thousands of men who set sail to fight for a far-away King, was, I know, his way of offering gratitude to the country which welcomed him in 1949.
However, the plaques needed repainting with a frequency that, even as a labour of love galvanised by civic duty, became a burden on ageing men. Dad's helpers were not getting any younger and nor were their knees. His busy-bees were harder to fill and more and more plaques were brought home to fix alone.
When I joined in to paint the letters silver after he'd finished cleaning them with a wire brush and coating them in glossy black enamel, it was quickly apparent that small, nimbler fingers could do this job easily.
And so it was, after considerable consultation, that the Girl Guides Association in Western Australia joined with the RSL to permit the services of Brownies in the maintenance of this public icon, with our time acknowledged in the awarding of the coveted 'Service Badge'.
I'm not sure when this unique symbiosis ceased, but eventually Captain Harms retired and I left the Guides. Dad remained incredibly active in the RSL throughout his 50 years of membership, whilst around this time also starting Mensa in Western Australia - but that's another story!
Today, the leafy verges of the Honour Avenues are often parking areas and joggers crunch past. Occasionally I notice a flower stuck behind a plaque, but on Remembrance Day, late Spring sunshine brings a flutter of colour to the temporary flags at each tree, an invitation to stop, read and reflect.
On those Sunday afternoons my young imagination barely understood the implication of the words Ypres, Somme, Poizieres ... some plaques bearing the names of three or even four brothers, or a father and sons. But today, imagining the dreaded telegram arriving home, I wonder who was left behind to wonder where my father was when peace was declared for a second time, just 27 years after Armistice Day.
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders Fields the poppies grow Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place. While in the Sky The larks still bravely singing, fly Unheard, amid the guns below. We are the dead, Short days ago We lived, felt dawns, saw sunsets glow; Loved and were loved – but now we lie In Flanders Field
Take up our quarrel with the foe! To you from falling hands we throw The torch, Be yours to bear it high! If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep tho’ poppies blow In Flanders Field.
by Lt. Col John McCrae
Composed in Ypres on May 3, 1915
A detailed account of Dad's life is chronicled in his obituary by Ken Bladen,
the State President of the RSL, on pg 15 of "The Listening Post'