Keeper of gunpowder

My surname is Prokhovnik. It’s my father’s name. When I was a child people would say, ‘I’m not going to even try to say that’, or, ‘That’s a mouthful’. Then, in the ‘90s and early 2000s, those hesitations vanished. People would say, ‘How do you spell that?’ without any nuance. But now, in the last few years, it’s back. ‘I’m not going to even try to say that.’ ‘That’s a mouthful.’ We’re back to people looking at my name and making a funny little ‘phew’ noise, sometimes asking how to pronounce it.

Before it was Prokhovnik, it was Prochownik. ‘Prochownik’ apparently means something like ‘keeper of gunpowder’. At some stage of the migration process my grandparents changed it to be more palatable to an Anglo audience. My grandfather, Max Prokhovnik, made it even simpler and called himself ‘Mr Max’, my father ‘Simon Max’.

My grandparents, Max and Eva Prochownik, were Polish Jews who arrived in Australia – Melbourne – in 1930. They had two sons. Max didn’t live long enough to meet any of his six grandchildren, and Eva didn’t live long enough to meet any of her 13 great grandchildren, let alone the growing number of great great grandchildren. As far as I know, there are no Prochowniks in Australia, and no Prokhovniks outside our direct family. Even within the current generations in our family the name ‘Prokhovnik’ is rare as the women surrender the name to their husbands.

I’m very protective of my name.

I was married briefly in the 1970s. I nearly refused to sign the divorce papers because they named me as ‘Katrina Howard known as Katrina Prokhovnik’. I was never known as Katrina Howard, and how dare they imply as much.

When Australian author Alex Miller published Prochownik’s Dream in 2005, I was horrified. Every time I saw the title, I felt a bit sick, as if something had been stolen from me. If anyone was going to publish a book with ‘Prokhovnik’, or even ‘Prochownik’ on the cover, it was going to be me, not a man with Irish and Scottish antecedents. I also have Irish and Scottish antecedents, on my mother’s side, but on the Prokhovnik side it’s Polish Jews all the way back. A family of Polish Jews that was eliminated in World War 2. I don’t remember when I first started to say it, but I’ve said it countless times in my life. ‘My father’s parents were Polish Jews. They left Poland in 1919. We’ve got photos of the rest of the family but they were all killed in the war.’ How has that affected me, having that massacre in my past?

Still, I wondered why I was so disturbed by that title, Prochownik’s Dream. This must happen to families all the time. But our name is such a rare one. Our family always seemed such a frail, precious thing, decimated by war. Old photos from the 1920s show massed groups, extended families of Prochowniks, gathered for European picnics. I’ve grown up knowing that most of those smiling people were slaughtered. The discovery of a cousin, long-lost to us, in Paris in the ‘70s, was a cause for rejoicing. There was also a great-aunt and another cousin in Paris, but that was the extent of the survivors.

This is the story of Eva and Max Prochownik that I grew up with: Eva (then Skowkowska) and Max Prochownik left Wloclawek, Poland, on the eve of May Day 1919. Eva and her friends were making red rosettes for the marchers when they were told that their house was going to be raided by the police for this radical act. A small group of them left the house immediately, and headed out of the country. Without any money for trains, they walked. They would stop in a town to earn some money – Max was a master tailor and could earn money quickly anywhere – then move on. In Magdeburg, Germany, Eva realised that she was pregnant. Max made her a white dress – my father always said the dress was made of ‘tissue’ or ‘papier mache’, but I think he meant crepe paper – and they were married. They kept walking, catching a train when they had the money, and finally reached Paris where Max had a brother and sister living already. My father was born in June 1920, soon after their arrival. In 1925, having borne a second son, they decided to leave Paris. They went to New Zealand, living in Wellington for five years, but never settled in and returned to Europe. They went to Paris and London, but Europe seemed dangerous, so they were returning to Wellington when they stopped off in Melbourne to visit some old friends from Wloclawek. They stayed in Melbourne for the rest of their lives.

Taking my granddaughter to a playgroup recently I met a Polish woman, Ludwika, a young woman with a boy a year older than my granddaughter. She laughed hesitantly with a flicker of recognition when she heard my name. ‘Is that, Prochownik?’ she said, pronouncing it the Polish way, not the Australian way. ‘There is a story …’ she turned to her phone. ‘Look, here.’ She showed me the story of the Jewish man Abraham Prochownik. The leader of the Poles had died and it was decided that the first man to enter the city the next morning would be nominated prince of Poland. Abraham Prochownik was that man, but he declined the honour. This was a story told to me from time to time by my father, in a joking voice, a voice that I had always believed more than the story itself. But here it was on Wikipedia, being shown to me by a Polish woman who had recollected it from some storytelling, possibly history-telling, past. She looked at me differently, and I looked at me differently too.

I thought of my father and his jokes, and how he’d told that Abraham Prochownik tale as one more of his shaggy dog stories. I thought about the way he told the story of his parents fleeing Poland, with a chuckle at the wedding dress and a note of pride in the detail about Max getting work ‘anywhere’. And I thought about how the chuckle and the pride had been a distraction, shielding me from any explosive hint of the slaughter of the families that his parents had left behind.

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