Resistance fighter, daredevil, and POW survivor; Barbara Eustace is not your average retiree.
It’s not every day that a war is declared on your way home, but for Barbara Eustace, September 3rd 1939 was the day she lost everything. “They just walked in, Poland was not ready for any kind of war.”
Born in the small Polish town of Mszczonow in 1925, you would never know, looking at the demur little woman, of the horrors that she has endured. However, it is strength and resilience that emanate from Barbara Eustace, who prefers to deem her life as, “…very very complicated.”
Only 14-years-old when Hitler and his army invaded Poland, Barbara had the misfortune to be on a train headed back home from the Polish Capital, Warsaw, when the Germans came to take her away. Only 12kms from her home, Barbara was forced off the train, and into the hands of German soldiers. They exclaimed: “You’re not going anywhere, except to Germany. To work on farms.”
Now in 2016, in her home in Blue Hills Retirement Village, Barbara recites her story amongst the relics of her past; golden plates adorn her walls and colourful pillows litter her lounge. There is no sign of fear in Barbara Eustace’s Australian life; as if her story only happened to the other Barbara, who, scared and alone, was dragged from her mother with the rest of Poland’s young people, and put on a train headed to Germany.
“You know what… I would never do it again what I did then.”
As 14-year-old Barbara sat on that train, crying her eyes out, a German-sympathiser threatened to throw her out the train window if she continued to bawl.
Still sniffling, Barbara sat with fear and her suitcase as the train headed into a tunnel. “He just went *wump* window down, and he said ‘Basia out.’ Without any thinking, or asking any question, I just went and jumped from the window… If any other train would have come at that moment, I would have been killed on the spot.”
Even now, it seems that Barbara cannot believe her own bravery.
“He threw my suitcase out after me.”
It would be this bravery that would sustain Barbara through the hellish years to come.
Yet, to Leone Cordingley, this bravery is a whole new side to her village neighbour, and friend of 13 years, “I’d had no idea what she’d been through…You would never, looking at the package.”
Barbara does not associate herself with bravery or courage, only her hands, constantly roving over one another, pierce the tranquillity of her home. Yet it was this bravery that led Barbara, at 18-years-old in 1944, from the relative safety of her cousin’s farm, to the centre of conflict and danger in Poland: Warsaw.
It was there in the Capital that Barbara Eustace, alone and barely an adult, discovered the Polish Resistance. Today the 90-year-old flippantly disregards the gravity or danger of the choice of her 18-year-old self. “So I went there, and I said that I would like to join the Resistance and of course I was very welcome.” Barbara met the people of the Polish Resistance “…here and there and on the quiet…” to discuss the current military situation, and the clandestine actions of its members. For Barbara, her membership meant working in Warsaw Hospital; quietly taking care of those resistance fighters that were injured in minor clashes with the German soldiers.
Until the Warsaw Uprising.
On the 1st August 1944, the repressed citizens of Warsaw staged a rebellion against their German captors. Armed with almost no guns, the men of Warsaw attacked any and all German military men they could find; taking their weapons in the process.
“Warsaw was one hell on Earth.” Barbara’s hands stop their movement as she forcefully spits out these words. Her eyes hot with the anger and fear resounding over the 70 years of peace. For Barbara, the uprising meant picking men off the street, and carrying them to the hospital for treatment. It was hard, backbreaking work, and fraught with danger.
“I was a little bit damaged, my hands and so.”
This is how Barbara describes being hit by the shrapnel of overhead Allied planes. Amongst the bombings, shootings and deaths, Barbara’s own hands seem to be of little consequence. Although the physical scars of her ‘damage’ are long faded, the emotional trauma of the 60 days of hell named the Warsaw Uprising is still visible in Barbara.
Her hands wave about amongst the bronze Polish artworks and pristine furniture of her home; the only traces of the rebel fighter locked in a box in her bedroom.
Barbara’s medals of merit and valour collide the 18-year-old with the decades older version. “I earned them.” She says, her chin sticking up as if ready to prove that the resistance fighter is still there, sitting in the same chair as the old woman. That relentless spirit enabled Barbara to fight through the massacre of Warsaw. “Fighting and fighting, and the bombs were dropping. It was one real hell.”
And it would be all for nothing.
After 60 days of war, Barbara Eustace, despite her daring escape from captivity four years ago, was finally forced to Germany, to the Bremen prisoner of war camp.
Barbara’s eyes are distant as she recalls her time in the POW camp. The Australian landscape paintings and grinning family portraits that decorate her walls do not reflect the anguish she faced to have the life she now leads.
For months, Barbara and 2,500 other Polish girls toiled in the surrounding fields from daybreak to four o’clock. But it was not the nightmare that many feared it would be, and the backbreaking work was often lightened by the kindness of strangers, and of the German guards themselves.
“We were lucky, we were mostly treated quite well.”
The German camp soldiers, left with the guard duty only befitting those who could no longer fight, took pity on the girls in their care, who wanted to be there as little as they did themselves. This pity took form in sandwiches surreptitiously handed over in the fields, or in the allowance of contraband given to the girls by the free farmers who also tended the crops.
Barbara’s hands tap nervously against her dining room table as she recalls one incident where the kindness of the guards did not extend itself.
One girl, her name escaping Barbara 70 years into the future, returned to the camp the same as any other girl that day; with food from one of the farmers in her pocket. Yet it spiked the ire of the most vicious guard at the Bremen POW camp, and truly, as Barbara recalls it, the only ‘nasty’ one there. The girl was shoved to the ground by the guard and beaten until every last crumb had fallen out of her clothing, and then some.
Barbara stills for a moment in her story. “She never took food again, even though we all did.”
As the end of the war drew ever nearer, unbeknownst to Barbara and ‘her girls’, 19-year-old Barbara continued to toil in the fields, finally fearing that she would never see the outside of her prison. She had been in the camp for seven months, it had been two years since she had seen her family.
And then the plane came.
“One day a plane came very close, flew over our camp, we thought it was the Germans going to shoot [us] but then, there was one hat… that a Polish airmen had tied up, with chocolates in it, and a note that said: don’t worry girls, we are coming.’
The years shed from Barbara’s face as her eyes light up with the hope that 19-year-old Barbara once felt. A smile dances at the corner of her stern and lined mouth; as if she is that young woman again, finally seeing the window of freedom so long denied her.
It is this moment that Barbara has treasured throughout her long years of struggle and heartache, the moment that candy rained down from the sky.
“That was the best thing that could happen.”
Two weeks later, Barbara Eustace; daredevil, resistance fighter, and prisoner of war, was free.
Today Barbara’s life is a lot more peaceful, with travels to her hairdresser, and much less clandestine meetings in the Blue Hills Village members’ hall. Her husband has passed and her son lives in Queensland, but Barbara makes the most of the days given to her. The fight has never left her, or diminished her hope for the future. As Leone Cordingley puts it, “She’s very brave, strong, resilient…and maintains her joy in living.”
This joy is replicated in the bright decorations of Barbara’s home; in the plates from her European travels and the paintings from her house in the Blue Mountains, and most importantly, sitting in the centre of her living room table, a bowl of candy that is never left empty.