‘Discovering my father’s secrets: Bigamy, desertion and siblings I never knew’

Aug 17, 2020
Betty O'Neill has written a book about her journey to discover the truth about her late father's life. Source: Getty.

Most gap years are taken at around age 18 but there was no such thing when I was that age. In 2010, at 56, I decided to take up this gap year idea and planned an unplanned year except for two dreams I had held for a long time: a Women’s Retreat in Bali early in the year and a Memoir Writing Course with Patti Miller in Paris.

Little did I know it would be the beginning of a completely different phase in my life and that the story I began to write in Paris would evolve into a doctorate and a published book ‘The Other Side of Absence: Discovering My Father’s Secrets’, ten years later.

On the first day of the two-week writing workshop, our homework was to complete the sentence ‘The first time I met…’ and keep writing for 20 minutes. I wrote “The first time I met… my father I was nineteen.” When asked to add to this each day, I realised I knew very little about my Polish father. This was the catalyst for a detective-like search for the missing pieces of my family history.

I had gleaned snippets of information from my mother over the years. He had been in the Polish resistance during World War II, was arrested as a political prisoner in the middle of the night at his home in Lublin, Poland and sent to Auschwitz concentration camp. He survived and made his way to England where he met my Australian mother. They married, I was born, we came to Australia and then he disappeared and although he stayed in Australia, I didn’t see him until he contacted me when I was nineteen. My mother filed for a divorce when I was six years old, on the grounds of desertion, only to find that he was a bigamist with a wife and daughter in Poland. My parents’ marriage was annulled.

When I met him, he was not a well man, either physically or psychologically and it was a harrowing time. Before the end of that year, believing he was dying and wanting to be buried in his homeland, he returned to Poland and I never saw or heard from him again. I was relieved to see him go and deliberately did not think about him again until the writing workshop stirred up some old feelings and a curiosity about who was this man who was my father? I decided to find out.

I started with two photos of my father and a few documents– his demobilisation papers from after the war, my parents’ marriage certificate and my birth certificate. Attempts to find his death certificate came to nothing and I gave up for a while but my nagging curiosity got the better of me. I went to the Polish Consulate in Sydney to request a search for my father’s death certificate. Some months later, it arrived in the mail. I was shocked to read that he had lived for a further twenty-two years in Poland and that he had returned to live with his first wife and other daughter who hadn’t seen him for thirty-three years, not since the night he was arrested by the Gestapo in 1941.

Unfortunately, I speak no Polish and requests in English to various Polish organisations and institutions for information gained no response. I wrote to the Red Cross International Tracing Service. Eventually I was given a case number – 95629 and I waited. I went to the Society of Australian Genealogists – nothing on Ancestry.com but Familysearch.org revealed brothers and sisters, a son who died as a baby but no trace of my half-sister Janina or the two sons my father told me she had. I started to draw a family tree but didn’t feel like I was getting very far.

And then the breakthrough came. I was introduced to Melbourne-based, Polish-speaking Krystyna Duszniak of Lost Histories, who helps people trace Polish relatives and family histories. Through her detective work, letters, request forms and phone calls we discovered where my father had lived, where he was buried, that my half-sister was the same age as my mother (that took a while to sink in) and that she had no sons – my father had lied again.

I planned to go to Poland and follow my father’s footsteps from Lublin to Auschwitz and Gusen camps and then to England, visiting archives and other public offices to see what I could find. And to see if I could find my half-sister. Sadly, a short while before I was due to leave for Poland, I found out she had died just two years previously. I was torn – should I still go to Poland? With no family left, was there any point? I felt strongly drawn to go, especially as we had found someone who knew my father.

I arrived in Lublin on a Thursday and by Tuesday, with no other known relatives, I had inherited the apartment in which my father, his first wife and Janina had lived which had been locked up since she died. This apartment was a time capsule of photos, letters and other.

My belated gap year delivered many fascinating and significant experiences. I came to understand so much about my father and found a peace in doing so.

I’d thoroughly recommend a gap year, whatever your age.

Sue's sassy!

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