For the woman I did not know, for the mother I remember, for my teacher, supporter, and occasional co-conspirator.
The sea brought you here and the sea separated you from all you knew and loved. May the sea now return you home, dear Mama. Vale Elza!
from Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot
extract from ‘Little Gidding’
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
Brief History of a Big Life
Elza Rūta Sasnaitis 15.02.1927 – 23.12.2016
Elza was born in Klaipeda, Lithuania, on February 15, 1927. She was the only daughter of Jonas Uigšys (Gr. Johannes Michael Uigschies) and Herminė Uigšienė. Sadly, she never knew her father, who died seven months later. Her dear mother never remarried though she enjoyed many proposals. Herminė always said that another man would not have treated Elza as his own.
The Klaipeda or Memel Region of Lithuania, where Elza lived was ethnically mixed. She grew up speaking both Lithuanian and German, and began learning English in school. She often spoke of her happy childhood, filled with the cultural activities of a cosmopolitan city. She recalled being taken to afternoon tea dances, the opera and theatre. Her home was filled with intellectuals, musicians, and theatrical personalities. Elza and her mother summered by the sea on the Curonian Spit, not far from Thomas Mann’s holiday house. At Christmas time and for other occasions, they went to her grandparents’ farm, where Elza enjoyed the company of many cousins.
Elza’s childhood ended abruptly on March 23, 1939. She and Herminė were on Theatre Square the day that Hitler stood on the balcony and accepted the capitulation of the Klaipeda Region to the German Territories. They went home and wept.
In 1940, Herminė fled the Nazi occupation, heading east to Kaunas, which remained under Lithuanian control. She left Elza in the care of neighbours. Elza was thirteen years old when she was made responsible for finalising the sale of their home. That fierce independence for which she is so well-known was forced upon her.
In Kaunas, Elza met Janina (later Goodsall), who was to remain her lifelong friend. She continued her education and began learning English. Her ambition was to join the diplomatic service, a dream that was curtailed by the advance of the Soviet Army.
In 1944, just before the end of the war, Elza and Hermine joined the long stream of refugees heading west, just ahead of the Russian front. They were in Pomerania when the armistice was declared. It took them two years of walking, hitch-hiking, and jumping onto trains whenever they could to get to Hamburg.
They lived for four years in several Displaced Persons Camps in the British Sector, and Elza began working for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration as an interpreter. ‘For nothing!’ she liked to stress. There she perfected her excellent English pronunciation and vocabulary.
Elza remained eternally grateful to her mother for agreeing to come to Australia when the opportunity arose. Her dear friend Janina and new friend Birutė Kaval, returned from working in Scotland to join them.
The three twenty-one year olds and their surrogate mother departed Europe from Genoa on August 6, 1948. Elza was the only one who never returned.
Their ship, the SS Wooster Victory docked in Sydney Harbour on September 6, 1948 after a rough passage. As extraordinary as it may seem, Elza recalled seeing a green ray over the harbour, taking the rare optical phenomenon as a symbol of welcome.
From Sydney, the women went directly to Bathurst Migrant Camp, where they discovered to their consternation that Australia was not the land of eternal sunshine they had expected. In those days, unlike now, refugees spent little more than a month in the camps, but were expected to work wherever they were needed in return for their assisted passage. And for wages! Assimilation into Australian culture was assured by teaching the refugees classic songs, like ‘You are My Sunshine’ and ‘Oh My Darling Clementine’.
Elza and Herminė were then sent to Geelong Hospital where they worked as wards’ maids for two years. While in Geelong Elza made her first appearance in the Australian press, again as an interpreter, this time for the recently established New Australians’ Information Bureau. She liked to joke that the only reason she was asked to assist was because they could not find a male migrant who spoke English, German and Lithuanian as well as she.
Her second appearance in the press was as a young migrant speaking of the occupation of Lithuania to the senior girls at Matthew Flinders Girls’ Secondary School in Geelong. She told the girls how the war put an end to the happy life of Lithuania, and ‘appealed to the girls to value the freedom of their own fine country, and to extend a sympathetic understanding to the New Australians who no longer had any country except Australia.’
Despite the many invitations from kind and generous Anglo-Australians, Elza tended to mix with the growing community of Baltic peoples working in the Geelong area. It was on one such outing to Torquay that she met her future husband, Ignas Sasnaitis. That was a rocky courtship… She thought he was too short! But Ignas persisted, and followed Elza to Melbourne.
The happy couple were married on June 18, 1954, and Ignas moved into the Murrumbeena house bought by Herminė and her daughter. Elza was by then working as a secretary for Beaurepaire Tyres, where she met Joan Mann. Joan and her husband Clem (both sadly departed) also became lifelong friends. Elza worked for the same company Beaurepaire, which later became Dunlop Olympic, for over 45 years until her retirement and afterwards, when she returned as a consultant.
Elza made her third appearance in the Australian press after the birth of her daughter Francesca Jūratė Kristina on June 19, 1958. Always called Jūratė by the family, the baby was famous for being the first infant born in the new maternity wing of the Francis Xavier Cabrini Hospital. Asked by the nursing nuns, to name the child after their patron saint, Elza balked. She disliked the name Frances, but conceded with the Italian version.
In 1971, the family moved from Murrumbeena to a newer home in Moorabbin, now Hampton East, in which Elza continued to live after the death of her mother Herminė in 2000 and the death of her husband Ignas in 2006.
Elza worked all her life, rising from the typing-pool to private secretary to female staff supervisor or head of human resources, as we would now say. She spoke fondly of the staff, her colleagues and her bosses, and they returned that regard by nicknaming her ‘Aunty’, an irreverence that secretly pleased her. In the 1970s, she was also appointed course leader by the Australian Institute of Management, a position in which she attempted to inculcate in (mainly) young women the rules of good English grammar, vocabulary, and spelling.
In 1975, Elza made her fourth appearance in the press. ‘She found room at the top,’ wrote Beryl Town in a feature that can be read as a classic migrant success story, from frightened refugee to ‘executive-type room high above Swanston St.’ ‘Mrs Sasnaitis has a few complaints,’ wrote Beryl, and quoted Elza: ‘I really believe that many students with secondary school education show a deplorable standard of English.’ As many of you would know, her attitude and opinion never changed!
Elza’s great passion was language.
She tutored Jūratė through HSC German and Lithuanian, and later tutored Kallista Kaval, the granddaughter of her friend Birutė, and Claire Scully, the daughter of her dear neighbour Lizzie, in German.
In recent days, she was particularly concerned that, with the Second World War generation dying out, her native language would be forgotten by the subsequent generations of the Lithuanian diaspora.
Elza was a complex woman, and not always easy to know. She has been described as cheeky, charming, intelligent, funny, flirtatious, generous, kind, and most definitely stubborn! Many here today wish they could have helped her more, but she simply would not let them!
She was much loved in her community, by her family, and by her daughter. She was a performer at heart, something she may have passed on to Jūratė, a method of survival she perfected during the war years. She touched so many lives, and gave so generously.
Jūratė is particularly grateful to the extended Conroy-Ogilvie-Holt clan for welcoming them into their family after the death of Ignas, and to Fiona Conroy for being such a caring friend to Elza, especially in these last few years. It was largely due to Fiona’s help and to the helping hands and watchful eyes of neighbours like Liz Scully and John Smith that Elza was able to continue living in the home where her memories resided and in the neighbourhood in which she was a familiar and beloved figure.
Jūra is the sea in Lithuanian. My parents named me Jūratė for the Goddess of the Sea, who sits in her shattered palace under the Baltic weeping for her lost love. The sea brought my parents here and the sea separated them from everyone and everything they knew and loved.
On the ship to Australia my mother started writing her diary in flawed but extraordinarily good English, to practise for her new country. She describes the exotica of the East—the sight of black men on camels, palm trees, the decayed mansions along the banks of the Nile—and she writes how she feels as a young woman uncertain of her worth or her place in the world:
How nice would it be to travel under normal conditions, to do whatever you like. But we are only Displaced Persons and can enjoy life only from the outside, we are no longer enough to be members of world society. I am sometimes afraid this depressing feeling will never leave me. It will be twice as hard for me as my character asks to be accepted as full member of society.
This is my mother’s legacy to me, this insight into her character, her will to survive, to succeed, and to fit into her new environment. She claimed not to remember what was in the excised section of the diary, the ‘best bits’ I’m sure, and I have had to reimagine those in the novel I’m currently writing. It is my testament to her memories and experiences.
I have spent most of my life trying to understand and transform my family’s deeply abiding loss and grief into a positive creative artefact. And this too is my mother’s legacy to me: the belief in the transcendent power of literature, art and music. She introduced me to ballet and opera as a little girl, later to theatre. She gave me books for birthdays and Christmases: subscriptions to literary classics abridged for children; art books; authors from her perceived canon, from Austen to Balzac, Cervantes, Dickens, Flaubert, Gide, Tolstoy to Zola, you name it! She was determined that I should grow up able to hold my own in cultivated society.
I am infinitely grateful to her for her financial support of my utterly impractical vocation. Without her help, I could not have moved to Perth to complete my PhD. She swore she would live long enough to come to my graduation ceremony, to see me become the first Doctor in the family. It is not her fault I am a slow writer!
The week before she died, I read her a brief extract from the section of the novel that describes shutting up the house in Kaunas and leaving everything behind. Before I could finish, Elza anticipated my second last line: ‘She locked the door and threw the key into the storm-water drain.’ The last line is an apt description of my mother’s attitude to life: ‘She did not look back and she refused to cry.’
I don’t pretend to having an easy relationship with Elza—mothers and daughters, I suppose. We may have irritated each other, after all we did share the need to be in control, but when Elza forgot to be my mother and allowed herself to be my friend we had some terrific times together, filled with banter and laughter. I have nothing but admiration for her fierce optimism, her strength of character, and her achievements.
Thank you all for joining me today in remembering Elza. I look forward to hearing more about the woman I did not know from all of you, her thankfully acquired and devoted family and friends. I will finish with a quote I found while looking through her documents, written in her own hand; I think Elza tried to live her life with W. C. Gannett’s words in mind:
I expect to pass through life but once. If there is any kindness, or any good thing I can do to my fellow beings, let me do it now. I shall pass this way but once.
Farewell Mama. I love you.
from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
extract from ‘The Coming of the Ship’
Let not the waves of the sea separate us now,
and the years you have spent in our midst become a memory.
You have walked among us a spirit,
and your shadow has been a light upon our faces.
Much have we loved you. But speechless was our love,
and with veils has it been veiled.
Yet now it cries aloud unto you,
and would stand revealed before you.
And ever has it been that love knows not its own depth
until the hour of separation.
With especial thanks to celebrant and friend Ellen Spalding, who conducted Elza’s funeral with such heartfelt warmth, to Richard Donaldson at Allison Monkhouse, Brighton, for his help and kindness, to dearest friend Des Cowley for his reading from T. S. Eliot, and to cousins Madeleine Davis and Ali Peake for their reading from Kahlil Gibran.