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From war-torn Europe to the Snowy Mountains Scheme
Ksenia Nasielski, nationbuilder and linguist,
lived in Cooma NSW, having grown up in
Estonia and having escaped from terrible
dangers in the second world war.
Ksenia was born Ksenia Nomm in
(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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
She was awarded an Order of Australia in
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
They would have exchanged enough
stories to fill books even though her mother
was strictly forbidden to talk about her time
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
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.
Her life ended peacefully on 26 March 2015
at Cooma Hospital, aged 95 years.
This record was assembled and edited by
Richard Hopkins from eulogies by Niklaus
Giger and Gilbert Wallace of Cooma and from
Snowy, by Brad Collis, Hodder &
Stoughton, Australia, 1990; and The Snowy:
the people behind the power, by Siobhan
McHugh, Angus & Robertson, Australia,
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