Katerina Lee reposed in the Lord on the 26th February 2017
We gather today to honour an extraordinary woman, to reflect on her life and her legacy.
Katerina was born on the 15th November 1929 in a village called ‘Rabki’ in Belarus, 50kms from the Russian border. Although much of her life was lived here in the Western suburbs of Melbourne, it was in Belarus that she learned what matters in life and that her values were formed. Kacha, as she was known, was the eldest of 9 children, of whom 7 survived. When she was only 2 months old, in the middle of a harsh winter, her family was exiled. This was the beginning of a period of intense suffering and turmoil for the whole family. Her mother Vera and Vera’s parents were sent to Siberia and her father Peter was sent to a Soviet Concentration Camp near the Arctic Circle for 3 years, then exiled to the Far East for a further 5 years. They were transported in cattle wagons without any possessions, not even a match to light a fire! This was the fate of many millions who were sent to slave labour camps called ‘Gulags’, under the Communist regime, simply for owning their own land, which was confiscated by the regime due to the collectivization.
Kacha’s mother and grandparents were forced to work, cutting down trees in the forests. They lived in inhumane conditions and were left to starve. After serving a 5-year exile, Kacha, her mother, and her grandparents were returned to Belarus where they shared accommodation. Kacha was 8 when her father returned from exile and the family was finally reunited. He was able to build a ‘shack’ for the family to live. Kacha commenced school and living conditions were very poor. The food was scarce and life was a struggle.
Later that year Kacha’s beloved sister Nadia (which means ‘hope’ in Russian) was born. In 1939 another addition, her dear brother Mikhail was born. The same year World War 2 began and Kacha was 10 years old. In 1941 – Hitler invaded The Soviet Union and life changed dramatically again – from bad to worse. Schooling ceased. Bombings, famine, executions, hangings, shootings – death was everywhere. As a result of the Second World War, Belarus lost one-third of its population. After years of War in 1944, the German Army began to retreat, and the family escaped from Belarus with a horse and cart – missing land mines, dodging bullets, air raids – more death, famine, and executions – the horrors of war surrounded them. Life had now gone from bad to worse to even worse.
The Horrors of War forced them to head into Poland and then into Prussia by foot. In Prussia, they stayed on a farm for about a month where Kacha, her parents, and grandparents had to work from dawn until dark. Their sleeping quarters were the pigsty.
The Soviet forces were advancing on the Germans and again the family was forced to flee, this time to Berlin where the allies were bombing day and night – the Americans during the day and the British at night. Before the Soviets reached Berlin, the family yet again were forced to flee further west to the countryside of Bavaria. Our mother always remembered this next horrifying incident. During their journey, the train stopped at a station, and her Mother ran off to get some water. The air raid siren sounded, the train immediately moved to a nearby tunnel for safety, leaving her Mother behind. Kacha jumped off the train and ran to help her Mother. At that moment an American fighter plane swooped in very low and opened fired on her Mother, who tripped and fell onto the ground,
an act which saved her life. An image Kacha could never forget was the pilot’s face, his pearly white teeth, and the whites of his eyes piercing through her.
The train journey continued to Bavaria, and end of the war was near. Life improved as the family found work on a farm, through a kind woman who provided food and shelter. The war ended in 1945 when Kacha was sixteen. However, life was still not safe, radio broadcasts were reporting that all Soviet nationals would be rounded up and returned to the Soviet Union by force. An agreement had been made that saw Stalin in co-operation with Britain and America to enforce the deal. Many Soviet nationals took their own lives rather than to be sent back to certain death. Kacha’s father heard that Polish nationals would not be returned – so while in Bavaria, he managed to change the family’s identity and got them into a Polish refugee camp in a small countryside village.
Kacha resumed her education and life became easier through the aid of the International Refugee Organisation. Kacha remembered and spoke often of the beautiful days spent with her siblings in the forest, gathering mushrooms, wild berries, and nuts. In 1946 her brother Alex was born, followed by Serge in 1947 and then Paul in 1948.
After the War, displaced persons were offered immigration to other countries – eventually, Australia accepted the family. 1949 – November: Kacha is twenty years old and her adored grandfather passed away. She was heartbroken for the rest of her life, even when she was in the grip of dementia she often spoke of him. The family traveled by train to Italy where safety was still an issue, especially in Trieste where the Soviets were still trying to round up Soviet nationals by any means possible to return them to the Soviet Union. 1949 – The journey continued through Venice, Rome, and Naples where they eventually embarked on an American troop carrier ‘The USS General WC Langfitt.’ Their long journey to Australia began – sailing between Sicily and mainland where everyone remembered Mt Etna’s volcano reflection of lava in the clouds. The ship sailed through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea, Port Eden then into the Indian Ocean – stopping in Colombo – Ceylon where her father exchanged a jacket for a bunch of green bananas. They had never seen bananas before – and attempted to eat them with the skin on! Life on the ship was wonderful! – 3 meals a day, even fruit and dessert! Western movies at night on deck – Wow!
Hooray!!! Finally!!! On 14 January 1950 – Noon, they arrived at Station Pier. What a life so far, a woman shaped by history and searching for freedom and opportunity. After arriving in Melbourne, the family traveled by train to the Bonegilla Migrant Camp in Northern Victoria. Displaced persons of working age had to fulfill a contract to work in a pre-arranged job for 2 years, and so began Kacha’s involvement with the Western Suburbs. Kacha worked to sponsor her grandmother. Her father worked to support the rest of the family. Kacha fulfilled her contract as a ‘Nanny’ for a doctor in Williamstown. Her father worked at CSR Yarraville. They both resided at the Williamstown Hostel, while the rest of the family were transferred to a camp in Rushworth – Victoria where they lived for one year. 1951 – by now Kacha is 21 years old, and her father purchased a block of land in Newport, VIC, where they built a bungalow. At long last, the family has reunited again.
In 1952, aged 22, Kacha met George Cwiehkowski, who had also immigrated to Australia through similar circumstances. They fell madly in love and married in Melbourne. They both worked hard and took English lessons. Kacha worked at the Commonwealth Aircraft in Port Melbourne and later at an Electrical plant in Spotswood.
Eventually, they purchased their land and built a home in Maxwell Avenue, Altona North. On 19 April 1953, their first child, Elizabeth was born. Amazingly, Kacha’s youngest brother Colia was also born that year. On 30 May 1957 their second child, Anja was born. Kacha continued her studies, becoming an outstanding nurse – working in various aged care facilities around Melbourne.
She worked as an Industrial Nurse at the Williamstown Dockyards, the Altona Petro Chemical Complex and at Dons Smallgoods for many, many years. Her husband George studied as a Diesel Mechanic and Engineer and worked for most of his life with Lewis Constructions.
1970 – George’s health declined and Kacha became the sole provider. In January 1972 her beloved husband George passed away. Kacha was now a single parent, bringing up 2 teenage girls.
In 1975, Kacha meets an old family friend – a Russian Don Cossack – Nickolia,
who shared a similar life experience. The family grew – to include Nickolia’s – 4 adult children. Kacha and ‘Pop’ (as we called him) had a wonderful and happy 20 years together, spending many weekend getaways at Daylesford, holidays in Perth and New Zealand, Russian social events, family fun times and just enjoying each other’s company.
The next few years saw many changes. 1st March 1988 – Mums became a grandmother, Lisanne Kate was born- but unfortunately passed away shortly after birth. 1993 – Kacha’s loving mother, Vera passed away. 1994 Kacha’s soulmate, Nickolia passed away. After Nickolia died, Kacha and her sister Nadia became even closer, spending more time together, enjoying outings with clubs, singing with the Belarusian Church Choir. They traveled to America and had a passion for garage sales. 1995 – Kacha’s father, Peter passed away. 1999 – Her beloved ‘Sis’, Nadia passed away.
From 2000, life became lonely in her home, and she spent most of her time with her beloved hairy canine son “Chigi”. However, she still spent time at the Russian and Belrusian Clubs, had her Russian clan visiting. She loved to spend quality time with her family, spending time in Daylesford and Loch Sport, renovating houses with the family. She was involved with a Community Group HBRA, helping save Parkland and outdoors in the West.
I think our Mumma was super
human, strong, resilient, unique, vibrant, intelligent, and loved telling jokes that she kept forgetting. She was to us “The Best Mumma in the World” who had a miraculous journey of life- to survive this alone was truly amazing. Mumma was so proud of her two darling cherished daughters and her beautiful, loving adopted kids- Colin, Eve, Daryl, Andrew and her Boobichs – Lidia and Debbie, Anna and Olga, and all her loving grandchildren. She had a big and generous heart. How fortunate are we that the little child from Belarus not only escaped and made a new life in Australia but made a life that was filled with care, cheerfulness, and wisdom. Katerina all her life believed in miracles, but perhaps the greatest miracle of all was how a little child so caught up in the circumstances of terrible war and suffering could not just survive but choose to live a life of remarkable warmth, compassion, and love. Her greatest legacy to us is the miracle she made of her own life. May we all learn from her and live by her example. Our mother believed in the life beyond this one, and so we commend her now to God, His Holy Mother, all the saints and the angels – the great company of heaven waiting to welcome her.