On his thirteenth birthday, he had his first ever visitor. She was a little old lady carrying a birthday cake, and she spoke to him in Polish. He couldn’t remember ever learning to speak Polish, but somehow he’d been able to brokenly discern what she’d said. “How are you, my son? I am your mother.”
It was clearly a mistake, and if any of the other kids saw the cake he’d have been forced to share it. A childhood spent within the regimental walls of orphanages and boarding schools had taught him to fend for himself, and so without hesitation, Edward had snatched the cake from the lady’s grasp and legged it.
Edward Wojtowicz wasn’t an orphan, but he might as well have been.
A smouldering dusk is languorously slipping from the fingertips of a balmy March evening. Zed (Edward) Zawalski (née Wojtowicz) sits inside his masterpiece, watching his world rotate into darkness. A wall of glass windows proudly flaunts a lavish panorama, and an immense living room ceiling made of rich, earthy timber, reaches up to the heavens. The house is gloriously perched on the brink of the bumping, billowing hills of Gundaroo, framed by a romantic twist of wisteria winding its way along the verandah. Zed’s abode is warm and comforting, and for all its grandeur, it is immensely homey.
The building is an artwork, and it is entirely the product of his own toil: a derelict stable block transformed into a home for his two kids, and also a jovial watering hole in which to celebrate the good times. It is absolutely beyond comprehension how one man could possibly have completed this feat all by himself, but Zed has done just that.
The family of three first started living in the house during the early days of its production; they initially got by with only a bathroom and one bedroom, and the kids slept upstairs in the loft. Meals were cooked on a tiny camp stove, and when the kids misbehaved they were sent to Dad’s room for time-out, because there was nowhere else to go.
After more than a decade of dedicated labour, the house was nearing completion (although Zed now insists it’s still a “work in progress”), and it was down to the finishing touches. And so, with a triumphant flourish, Zed planted a plaque on a wall that named his creation: Póg Ma Hón – an Irish Gaelic term that translates to ‘kiss my arse’.
Here he now sits in his living room, a wizened man in his mid-sixties, overflowing with so many more astonishing life experiences than anyone is entitled to have had at that age. He is tall, bespectacled and softly spoken, and he watches me intensely as I speak; a firearm accident during his training with the armed forces impaired his hearing in his left ear and so he strains to catch my every word.
I myself have very little to say, as I sit gobsmacked and aghast and very literally lost for words as he spins yarn after bloody good yarn. Any attempt at contributing worthwhile commentary to his tales seems pathetically stale, as I realise that I am dealing with a free-wheeling wildcard.
So who is he, then, this fascinating, peculiar man? To better understand Zed Zawalski, we must take a jaunt back through the history books to 1939 Poland, when World War Two was giving Europe a bit of a shake-up. In a diplomatic deal of sorts, Hitler had taken hold of Western Poland and Stalin had claimed Eastern Poland, before marching about 400,000 residents to Siberia to work in the forests and mines.
Zed’s mother Zofia Wojtowicz and his older brother Mieczyslaw were just two amongst the thousands of displaced Poles in Siberia. The work was gruelling and the conditions were unforgiving, and Mieczyslaw particularly suffered as a fast-growing adolescent male who was still categorised as a ‘child’ and accordingly received meagre child-sized rations.
Driven by an intense maternal concern for her suffering son, Zofia taped her breasts, hacked off her hair, and began working as a man – purely so that she could obtain extra rations to feed Mieczyslaw.
When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union later that year, the captive Poles were allowed to flee, and thus began an exhausting pilgrimage of escapees south through Afghanistan and Persia, all the way to Tanganyika (now Tanzania), which was a British colony. Zofia and Mieczyslaw wound up in a refugee camp called Tengeru, where in 1949 Zofia fell pregnant with her second son, Edward.
At a time when single mothers were admonished and rejected by ‘respectable’ society, Zofia’s plight was rife with scandal. Zed still doesn’t know with certainty who his father is, but his brother insists it was the camp’s local priest, who was also of Polish decent.
“So when people call me a bastard, I say yes, absolutely! I am a love child.” Zed’s eyes glisten with wicked satisfaction as he observes my reaction.
Zofia and her two sons were shipped to Fremantle in Western Australia at the beginning of 1950. Her lover had a leg injury, and given that Australia was only in the mood to accept able-bodied immigrants, he had to stay behind.
In Perth, Zofia found life as a single mother to be unsustainable. With no social security services available, she had to work six days a week. She could see no option but to hand her children over to the care of the Church. Zed doesn’t recall ever meeting her before their brief encounter on his thirteenth birthday, and their contact thereafter was relatively limited. Nonetheless, he insists that he is not bitter about her decision to give him up; he believes that she always made her decisions with her children’s best interests in mind.
Indeed, Zed reflects on his time as an ‘orphan’ at Mary’s Mount boarding school with fond nostalgia, reminiscing on his summer holidays spent getting up to all sorts of mischief, including skinny-dipping with the girls from the nearby girls’ school. “It was one of the few days where you suddenly realised it was a good thing to be an orphan!”
He recalls with a devilish chuckle that when the lights came on midway through their mischief-making, the day students whose names had been sewn into their clothes were caught and severely punished. Nobody had ever named his clothes, and so he was one of the lucky few that managed to foil the school authorities.
When the time came for Zed to progress to high school, his mother took him to her home where a man by the name of Zawalski was waiting. She said that it was his father – but the facts simply didn’t add up. Zed pointed out that his own surname was Wojtowicz, not Zawalski –“and so for two and six they said, ‘we will fix that!’… and we went down to the local court and changed my name.”
Indeed, the man was not Zed’s father, and he was abusive towards Zofia. When Zed protested against the abuse, he was promptly booted onto the streets.
For several years he remained homeless, and ultimately dropped out of high school to take up a full-time job delivering telegraphs on a pushbike. He lived from day-to-day in an unstructured and unpredictable lifestyle that saw him sometimes sleeping on friends’ couches, and at other times sleeping rough on the streets.
Nonetheless, this proved to be an immensely developmental experience that shaped him into the spectacularly independent and empathetic person that he is today. Most importantly, he was introduced to a kindly Greek shop-owner named George, who he now credits as being “the fondest memory that I have growing up,” and the most influential person in Zed’s life.
George offered him sporadic work in exchange for healthy food to eat – he refused to let Zed buy lollies with his earnings. Fifty-odd years on, and Zed passionately advocates the benefits of organic, wholesome foods: “you can’t patent something that occurs naturally!”
Significantly, George taught him about empathy and love – fundamental human qualities that he had missed out on experiencing due to his lack of a consistent role model throughout his childhood.
As Zed reflects on his time knowing George, it is clear that he is drawing from a pool of memories that have been archived for some time. His appreciation for the man is sincere and raw, and his voice becomes husky as he tries to make me understand exactly why George was so special to him.
“I learnt that there were three emotions that I couldn’t handle: anger, revenge, and jealousy. Anger because it got you nowhere. Revenge because you’re always looking behind. And you couldn’t be jealous if somebody had something that you didn’t have. It just didn’t matter.”
I realise with chagrin that I’ve been buying right into Zed’s eternally optimistic and thankful attitude. Throughout our interview, he has reflected on every experience with gratitude, owing his current successes to his past disappointments. Now I realise that growing up as a child with no known family, identity, purpose, sense of direction or role model to turn to for guidance, he must have wished for something more. All children are guilty of envy. Most adults are too. And all that Zed was wanting for were those things that most children take very much for granted.
Zed’s life has shown him the horrors of war during his services in Indonesia. He has been through marriages and divorces and has started up his own business. He has successfully competed in prestigious sailing competitions such as the Sydney-Hobart and the Fremantle-Albany. He has been homeless, and he has built his own home from scratch. But he considers his greatest achievement to be his children Zac and Deni, whom he adores limitlessly.
The feeling is mutual; Deni attributes her personal successes to his relaxed parenting style: “He wanted us to make our own mistakes so that we would learn from them… I think because he’s had to be so independent his whole life, he pushed me to travel so that I could gain that independence too. It was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Where Zed lacked loving support and consistency throughout his harum-scarum childhood, he has certainly ensured that his children have not. He has chosen to let his ample life challenges enrich him, rather than limit him.
As a result, his wisdom is boundless: “If we all had a social conscience, it could be a much better place.” I couldn’t agree more.