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Nasielski, Ksenia (1920–2015)

by Richard Hopkins

Ksenia Nasielski, c.1975

Ksenia Nasielski, c.1975

Ksenia Nasielski, nationbuilder and linguist, lived in Cooma New South Wales, having grown up in Estonia and having escaped from terrible dangers in the second world war.

In Europe
Ksenia was born Ksenia Nomm in Leningrad (previously and later, St Petersburg) on 12 February 1920. Her mother was Russian and her father, Estonian. At the age of three months, she travelled with her parents, fleeing the Russian civil war, to Estonia. She learned Russian from her mother, Estonian from her neighbours and at school, German from her grandmother, and English at school.  Her father was a notary and magistrate; they had many friends.

In June 1941 the Soviets, who had annexed Estonia, killed or deported political and intellectual leaders and many ordinary Estonians. Ksenia’s parents were deported to Siberia with the man Ksenia was meant to marry. Her father was shot; her mother survived.

Ksenia would also have been deported but she was studying in the capital and so the Russians did not find her. She was warned, and found her name in the list of “Enemies of the State” in the post office. Within weeks after the deportations, the Nazis expelled the Soviets from Estonia, so anyone who managed to hide or was not found, as in Ksenia’s case, was free.  

When Ksenia returned to her parent’s house, it was full of German soldiers. The gutsy young woman complained to the commanding officer who apologised, saying he thought it was unoccupied or owned by Jews and he returned it to Ksenia’s possession. She proceeded to clean and restore it from this temporary occupation. Ksenia found employment with the German administration.

Later during the war years, when the Soviets proved to have the upper hand, the fear of renewed Soviet occupation led her to travel to Germany by boat and train. The boat she was meant to be on was torpedoed and sunk.  The boat she was on was shot at but it got through. The train trip was unpleasant – standing room only for a trip the equivalent of travelling from Canberra to Brisbane. From Berlin she continued by train to Leipzig, where she found the Schlohbachs, parents of her former neighbour and friend. They had lost much but shared their house with her. One morning as they were eating breakfast, the American army burst in to the house and gave them two hours to leave, so they moved into a disused factory and lived on bread from the Americans’ garbage bins, still wrapped in the original plastic bags.

When the war was over Ksenia found work with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in Hamburg.

During that time, as part of a deal between the allies, Baltic women living in Germany were rounded up and transported to Lübeck to be handed over to the Russians. Lucky Ksenia was in hospital and had a doctor’s certificate to say she could not travel, otherwise she might have ended up in Siberia or worse.

Working for the UNRRA, she helped other displaced persons. She found a job for a young Polish man, author and lawyer, named Adam Nasielski. They became friends and he visited her regularly when she was in hospital with jaundice. They married, and would have moved to France to live; Adam would have been accepted: he had served in the French army; but Ksenia was Estonian – a country which had sided with Germany, so the French would not have her.

Ksenia is quoted: “Neither of us had surviving relations in our home countries so we had to start again and wanted to do so in an English-speaking country. We were considering USA, Canada and England.

“But at a party we met a Mr Grey, who was recruiting people for Australian work programs. All we knew about Australia was that it was far away and had a lot of sheep. 

“He told us: ‘We don’t need white collar, or even blue collar workers; we are looking for people prepared to do manual labour.’ We both knew what was expected of us and did not mind.”

In Australia
Ksenia’s words continued: “So we came to Australia [arriving on 15 January 1949], to make a new country our home. I got work as a housekeeper for a doctor in Sydney and Adam worked for the Department of Main Roads. At the end of our two-year contract in 1951, we came to the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Adam was offered employment as a junior catering officer at a construction camp [Island Bend] on the upper Snowy River, and I worked in the office making up his orders. The air was fresh, the sky beautiful and we were surrounded by mountains. In summer we went for long walks and sometimes swam in the Snowy River. The bush with its birds, heath and alpine flowers was new and something I had never seen before.”

Employed by the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority, the couple had to live in separate barracks, but did not mind because it was a start. All around them was bustling activity – the signs of a nation growing and building.

“Prefabricated houses were brought up from Cooma in 1954 and it became a little town. I no longer had to travel by jeep to Jindabyne to do the shopping.”

Ksenia was good at helping newly arrived neighbours to settle in. For one lady, she made a costume which won a prize at a Cooma festival. Her efforts in welcoming employees were noticed by the authorities, and particularly her language skills. In addition to her other four languages, she had learnt Polish from Adam and was proud to say she spoke it without fault or accent. In 1955, she was transferred to Cooma, where she interviewed new arrivals and determined what type of work they should be given. She put round pegs in round holes. She was sent to meet ships with arriving migrants in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, to choose employees. Her linguistic talents and welcoming attitude came to the fore. Throughout Australia people could later be found who would say, “I know Ksenia, she found me a job in the Snowy.” Ksenia once told the Commissioner, Sir William Hudson, that if he gave her two months holiday in Italy, she would come back fluent in Italian, but he couldn’t spare her for that time! She retired in 1985.

She was awarded an OAM in 1989.

During her time with the Snowy, Ksenia’s mother managed to get in touch with her and let her know that she was still alive, and eventually they could arrange to meet in Sweden briefly. They would have exchanged enough stories to fill books even though her mother was strictly forbidden to talk about her time in Siberia.

Ksenia continued her employment as senior employment officer until her retirement in 1985 after which she travelled the world meeting relatives and friends.

As Adam grew old and weak, Ksenia became his carer, a demanding job as he increasingly needed her presence. Towards the end she became closer to her Swiss-Australian neighbours, Niklaus and Monica Giger: she looked after their place when they were away and in turn they would take her shopping and transported her to appointments when they were in Cooma. She found respite visiting them. When Adam passed away they “adopted” her as their mother;  they had most meals together and she would join them on their holidays. Together they travelled to Europe; they showed her Switzerland, she showed them Moscow and St Petersburg. She introduced them to her distant cousins who came visiting her, Natasha Mezentseva from Moscow, Mart Lagus from Sweden and Kersti Jaager from Canada. Through her they also met many of her friends in Australia.

Ksenia died peacefully in Cooma Hospital on 26 March 2015, aged 95.

Original publication

  • Monaro Post (NSW), 1 February 2017, pp 8-9

Citation details

Richard Hopkins, 'Nasielski, Ksenia (1920–2015)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/nasielski-ksenia-27035/text34507, accessed 11 August 2020.

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