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Article  •  3 November 2020


The Freedom Circus photo album

Sue Smethurst on five of the remarkable images she discovered while researching the story of her grandmother-in-law.

The Freedom Circus is the tale of how Mindla and her husband Michael Horowitz, a circus performer for the famous Staniewski Brothers, escaped from Poland with their young son and embarked on a terrifying journey through the USSR and Middle East to Africa and ultimately to safety in Australia. Sue Smethurst learned of this remarkable story through chats with her grandmother-in-law over cake and bright nail polish. Here Sue offers a glimpse into The Freedom Circus photo album.

Kubush (Pop) with the Circus Staniewski, Krakow 1937


Source: Polish National Archive 
Colourised by Marina Amaral

This image was hugely significant for me, because it was a turning point in the research of Mindla and Kubush’s journey. I found this photo virtually by accident as I was scouring the Polish National Archives looking for clues about the Circus Staniewski. I began searching through Pop’s name, which led to a dead end, then Circus Staniewski which unlocked a treasure trove of gorgeous images of the circus, glorious pictures of performers and the Circus owners Bronislaw and Lala Staniewski, the chimpanzee smoking cigars, it was a rich tapestry. But there were no pictures of Kubush or Faivel. So, the search continued. I knew he had to be in there somewhere. Dozens of images popped up under a random search of circus clowns and among them was this one. I almost passed out. It was the spitting image of my husband – Ralph was staring back at me on screen. Of course, it wasn’t him, it was his Pop. The eyes and the cheeky smile were unmistakable. The image was taken in Krakow in 1937; he was so young, his face so full of hope and happiness. From there I was able to locate newspapers from Krakow at that time and find reviews of the circus performances. The original image was black and white but I asked very talented Brazilian artist Marina Amaral to colourise them for me so I could see and feel the texture of the time. Her work brought Kubush to life for us one more time.

Lala Staniewski and Mimi the Chimpanzee entertaining

Lala Staniewski and Mimi the Chimpanzee entertaining

Source: Polish National Archive (date unknown)

This picture was one of the first I came across of the Circus Staniewski, it’s from the Polish National Archive. The image shows Lala Staniewski and Mimi the Chimpanzee surrounded by men in suits – important looking business types. They may have been local politicians or dignitaries she needed to butter up to allow the circus to keep performing. She is the centre of attention, entertaining them all. So much about this picture struck me. What influence she must have had to be the woman at the heart of this table. And, the contrast of life in Poland. This image shows a level of sophistication and wealth, and bonhomie, and yet there was so much poverty, despair and sadness in Poland too.

Moscow, 1941

Moscow, 1941

Source: Horowitz Family
Colourised by Marina Amaral

This picture is very dear to us. Somehow Mindla carried this picture with her all the way to Australia. How she survived the journey, let alone how the picture survived it, is a miracle.

The small black-and-white image was one of a handful of pictures she kept stored in a rusty old tin, which she gave to my Mother-in-law Meg to look after when she moved into the Montefiore nursing home. For us, that little tin is a treasure trove of memories, never previously spoken of.

I asked Marina Amaral to colourise this one too. She has perfectly captured Kubush and Gad’s piercing blue eyes. In this picture, the family are reunited after Mindla is released from jail, and they are together in Moscow where Kubush is performing with the Moscow Circus. We believe the image was taken at the circus. Little do they know the Nazis are on their way to attack the Soviet Union. Freedom is short lived.

Camp Nyabyeya, Africa

Camp Nyabyeya, Africa

Source: Debbie Kopel and Julie Leder
Gad (Denis) is sitting on Favel’s knee, pregnant Mindla to the left of him.

Piecing together Mindla and Kubush’s journey was a series of lucky moments more so than any brilliant detective work.

Mindla had told me a lot about Faivel’s role in their escape and his special friendship with Kubush. Faivel never married and he never had children, but we felt sure he had family here – that’s why he came to Australia. I contacted the Jewish News in Melbourne and asked if one of their reporters would do a little story on my search for information about Faivel Ditkowsky.

Less than 24 hours after the story ran, I received a call from Debbie and Julie, Faivel’s nieces. To say I was floored is an understatement. We arranged to meet and had a fabulous afternoon sharing stories of Mindla, Kubush and Faivel. Faivel was a very special uncle to them and between them, they had their own little treasure trove of images such as this one. Like us, they knew little about who was in these pictures or the context of them, but tucked them away safely in the hope that one day they might know.

Together, we were able to put the pieces of the jigsaw together. In this picture, Gad is sitting on a grinning Faivel’s knee, Mindla is next to him, clearly pregnant. The smiles on all of their faces tells us this is a time of happiness.

The real miracle here was that Faivel had kept a record of the place and address. There were many refugee camps in Africa, now I knew exactly where they had settled. We found the needle in the haystack.

Warsaw August 2019

Warsaw August 2019

Source: Sue Smethurst
Sue with Jolanta Staniewski, niece of Lala and Bronislaw Staniewski, and Janusz Sejbuk from the Polish National Circus

In 2019 Ralph and I travelled to Poland to trace Mindla and Kubush’s footsteps. It was a fantastic adventure and very emotional to see the remnants of where Nanna’s family lived, the Hilan factory where she worked and the former site of the Circus Staniewski. We followed her footsteps to Bialystok and visited the jail where she was interned. The jail had lost none of its harshness. We marvelled at how on earth she could’ve made it from there, all the way to Australia. While there, we met Jolanta Staniewski, the niece of Bronislaw and Lala Staniewski, who shared stories and precious memories of her aunt and uncle. Jolanta and a nephew are the only surviving members of the Staniewski family. Popping his head up in the background is Janusz Sejbuk who curates the archives of the Polish National Circus at Julinek, about an hour out of Warsaw. Janusz invited us to visit the circus school and scour his archives for material, which we did. We found additional images of Pop as a very young performer and invaluable information about the Staniewski Circus, old programs, posters and reviews. It was a very special to meet these people with whom we had such a unique connection.

Feature Title

The Freedom Circus
A remarkable true story of one family's daring escape from Poland during the Second World War.
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