Krystyna Kurzydlo was six-and-a-half when she arrived in Australia in 1950. Her Polish parents had been forced labourers of the German Nazi regime during World War II, and were anxious to escape from Europe. They spent years after the war moving from one “displaced persons” camp to another before finally being accepted by Australia. Krystyna’s parents – Tomasz and Zofia – had hoped to go to America, but her father’s illiteracy prevented that, and Australia seemed the best chance for the family.
Australia wanted cheap labour and population growth, but it also wanted to restrict its migrant intake to “white” people. Eastern Europeans displaced by the war were regarded as acceptable candidates to become “New Australians”. The Kurzydlos came out on the USS Taylor – an old converted American warship – and arrived in Newcastle, NSW, where they were immediately put on a train to Greta, in the Hunter Valley, where the government had built a large camp for migrants over the top of an old army camp.
Krystyna’s parents were fearful of the train ride, with Australian authorities telling them practically nothing about their destination, and when they arrived at Greta and saw the camp they genuinely feared for their lives, as it brought back frightening memories of the Europe they had just left. “The first night we spent there, we woke up and the sheets were red. The whole camp was riddled with bedbugs so we were moved out. I remember sitting with my belongings, watching the huts being sprayed,” Krystyna recalled.
The Australian Government required its “New Australians” to repay the cost of their transport and accommodation, and Krystyna’s father was sent to cut cane in Queensland before getting an easier job closer to home working on the construction of Glenbawn Dam, in the Upper Hunter Valley. Her mother was a cook, so she landed a plum job in the camp’s kitchen. Like some other people in the camp, Krystyna’s mother broke the rules and smuggled in a little spirit stove. When her sons caught eels in the nearby creek she could cook them in their cabin. Krystyna’s mother also knew a woman who lived outside the camp and arranged for her to bring fresh milk – straight from the cow – to her children.
Although she says she was a tomboy, Krystyna wanted to be a dancer, perhaps having been inspired by some performances staged at the camp from time to time. She recalled taking a bus to the nearby town of Cessnock one day, seeing a dance studio there and watching wistfully, imagining what it would be like to be a dancer.
Eventually – after about two years – the family saved enough money to move out of the camp and into a cheap house in Smith Street, Maitland. By then, her father and eldest brother were both working at BHP’s Newcastle steelworks. Meanwhile her mother worked as a cook, and also as a cleaner and maid for a Dr Galbraith in Maitland, whom the family remembers fondly.
The great flood of 1955 put the house under water, and although the family had been warned to put valuables in the ceiling, the floodwaters rose so high that everything was lost. Krystyna remembers the day of the flood, because she was walking with her brother in High Street, wondering what to do, when a local shopkeeper called out to them and took them into a safe part of her own home. The shopkeeper’s name was Mrs Martin, and Krystyna said she was a much-loved figure in the eyes of the New Australians from Greta. “Mrs Martin was the first shopkeeper in Maitland to give us credit. Her stock might not always have been first-class, but she gave us credit and as far as we were concerned she had a heart of gold,” Krystyna said.
The massive floods of 1955 were traumatic for many people across NSW, but Maitland was especially hard-hit. Even after the water subsided, many homes and businesses were full of foul-smelling mud and the clean-up job took many months of hard work. One response to the widespread damage to homes was to send children from the worst-affected areas to be cared for by willing families in other parts of the state. Krystyna and her brothers again became “displaced persons” for a time, sent to different families in Sydney. Krystyna regarded herself as extremely fortunate to be sent to a relatively “poor” couple in Bankstown – whom she remembers as Bill and Grace Royle. While her brothers went to richer families and had a very dull time, Krystyna’s experience was delightful. “Bill and Grace were a young couple with a baby and they just embraced me to their family,” Krystyna said. “I remember going to school with a new uniform, and they knew I had started dancing so they took me to a dance studio. They were wonderful people.”
The great flood of 1955
Back in Maitland the family bought another house in a different part of Maitland – Carrington Street. While still flood-affected, it wasn’t as bad as the home they were forced to leave.
Krystyna had started dance lessons in Maitland, but the family struggled to afford the two shilling fee. It was her brother, Eddie, who chipped in some of his wages to make it possible. The studio where she began learning to dance was in the old manse in Maitland and was run by Betty Walsh and her aunt. Recalling the day she first turned up for lessons Krystyna said she had imagined she would have to audition. “There on the footpath I did splits and bend-backs and begged them, ‘please take me’. Of course they laughed at me,” she recalled. The lessons with Betty Walsh continued until Betty sold the studio to Tessa Maunder.
By the time she was 15, to help pay for her tuition, Krystyna helped teach younger students in Newcastle, often at night. One of these, she said, was Marie Walton, who went on to gain fame in the dance world. Krystyna’s dream was to be a ballerina, but she realised she wasn’t cut out for that role and decided to be a dancer instead.
At one point, while she was teaching a young girl with a serious muscle problem, she found herself acting almost as a physiotherapist. She made good headway and the girl’s mother – without telling Krystyna – sent a photo of Krystyna to the organisers of an upcoming show in Sydney. The show was the Star Night Revue, organised by Harry Wren, and it was about to tour New Zealand. Krystyna went to the audition with her mother on a Friday night, was accepted and told that rehearsals would begin on the following Monday. She had to ask permission from the nuns who taught her at high school to be away for three months on tour, and next she recalls the big farewell and being aboard a ship bound for New Zealand. After that show came another with Harry Wren – “Yellzapoppin” (a take-off of the famous American Hellzapoppin show). It was a typical revue with dancers and topless models who had to pose motionless on stage.
Back from New Zealand Krystyna and some friends formed a dance trio and were soon working multiple jobs. One was as the “NSW Bowlers’ Club Lovelies” in Clarence Street Sydney. Another was as dancers on the famous Bandstand television show and another was at Chequers Night Club. She also recalls working with Don Lane on one of the evening television shows.
During this phase of her career she worked with some memorable artists, including the Japanese magician Shimada – for whose pregnant wife and assistant Krystyna stood in for in a few shows. Others included Nelson Eddy and Gale Sherwood, Diana Dors and Shirley Bassey.
In 1966 she went to Hong Kong dancing, and then to Singapore, Taipei and Macau. The Asian centres were glittering in the 1960s, but Krystyna also recalled enduring a terrifying typhoon in Hong Kong. She returned to Australia when her parents were ill and next found herself working in a managerial role at a Sydney hotel.
Krystyna was married at the age of 34, in Sydney, to her next-door neighbour from Maitland, Michael Bourke, with whom she had a family. She now lives in Newcastle, and is still friends with a number of her old colleagues from her dancing days.