Being a first generation Kiwi, the intrigue and complexity in which my ancestors moved across Europe, from Europe to America, from New Zealand to America and back again, has frequently consumed my thoughts regarding my identity and sense of place. The immigrant experience has been part of almost every generation of my family, motivated by many reasons, although predominantly in search of a better life.
Here are some of their stories.
To avoid being drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army, Janus Varkondi was sent to live in America by his mother, a businesswoman living in Prague. He was just 14 years old. Once he had established himself, he returned to Czechoslovakia to find a wife to settle with him on a farm near Philadelphia, where they had seven children, the youngest being my maternal grandmother. The children were forbidden to speak their native language at home their names, John and Susanne Varconda, were Anglicised in an attempt to assimilate into American culture like many other immigrants of that time.
My great grandfather was one of the 12 million immigrants who entered America through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954. This is not surprising as it is believed that about a third of all Americans have at least one ancestor who was processed through Ellis Island. What is more shocking is that many were children travelling without a guardian, including my great grandfather who was barely a teenager at 14 years old.
Many generations ago my ancestors left London to settle in Christchurch. Their son worked for the railways as an engineer like his father had. He was a keen cornetist and founded the Addington Railway Workshop Band to escape the monotony and boredom of his day job. His oldest son refused to face the same fate as his father and set off to seek his fame and fortune as a jazz musician in America. He died in WWII and his name can be seen in the Auckland War Memorial Museum.
Beulah Long was working in her father’s coffee shop in San Francisco when a tall, handsome Jazz musician from Christchurch came in for a coffee. A few years later my grandfather was born and his oldest daughter, my mother, boarded the Canberra Ocean Liner in 1972 to set sail from San Francisco to explore and reconnect with her New Zealand roots. She still lives here today.
My grandfather was doing an Economics degree in London when WWII broke out. Being a German Jew, going home wasn’t an option. He signed up to fight along side the British, changed his name from Hirschberg to Haggard and married an English woman. He never lost his accent, but always insisted he was from ‘Southern England’ when asked where he was from. His first son, my father, emigrated to Aotearoa in the 60s and is still here today.
When my great grandparents were forced to leave Berlin just before WWII they left behind them a life of great privilege and wealth. The adjustment they had to undergo as refugees was monumental. They were treated with suspicion because of their strong German accents, making it impossible to find work. My great grandmother, who had never had to work a day in her life, had to learn how to lay a fire and boil an egg. Her brother, who had been a talented architect and designer with the Bauhaus, could never pursue his career in England and instead taught art to inmates at a local prison. Her son changed his family name.
All prints are available from Endemicworld, 62 Ponsonby Road, Auckland