New Zealand’s First Refugees: Pahiatua’s Polish Children
ed Adam Manterys
Polish Children’s Reunion Committee, $39.95,
Many New Zealanders know that in 1944 a shipload of orphaned children, refugees from war-torn Poland (732 children and 102 caregivers, to be precise) arrived in this country. Perhaps not many know just how that came to pass, or what subsequently became of the children. This extraordinary book of 101 stories and more than 200 photographs, published to mark the 60th anniversary of their arrival, is far from sensational yet it tells all and more besides.
Prime Minister Peter Fraser, his wife Janet, the Polish Consul Count Wodzicki and his wife were all instrumental in the negotiations. Several of Fraser’s letters (including one to General Sikorski, leader of the Polish government-in-exile in London) are included. Models of clarity and compassion, they reveal an impressive sense of the leadership needed to carry out such a complex project.
An introduction and early chapters summarise the history of Poland, so the scene is set for the horrendous events that saw dislocation and savage devastation of so many Polish lives in WWII. The war stories that follow are at times nigh impossible to believe or bear, yet you can tell every word is true. It is the resilience of these youngsters in somehow coping, somehow surviving, that draws you to read their vignettes of personal experiences and memories.
After two years in an orphanage complex in Isfahan, the children were brought here on an American troopship, the General Randall, which was carrying New Zealand soldiers home. The soldiers played with the children, talked to them, gave them their chocolate rations. This wasn’t heaven yet, but hell was beginning to recede. The ship berthed in Wellington on 1 November 1944. Many still recall that sunny spring day, the freshness of green hills with bright little painted houses perched on steep slopes, the friendly welcoming smiles, the waving of flags, both New Zealand and Polish.
The children boarded the train for the Pahiatua camp, marvelling at the sight of so many green fields and the friendly waves from people who gathered at points along the way. The train was delayed for hours in Palmerston North where people crowded around the carriages and spilled onto the railway lines, passing food, drinks and gifts to the children on the train.
One little girl was so pleased to be given an icecream she put it in her bag to save for later. Was she perhaps the same child who, back in Isfahan, had held her little dead sister all night long, then buried her in the morning? Or perhaps the seven-year-old whose last memory of her mother was a tear-stained face as the latter waved to her five children departing on the train.
Many remember the beautifully-made beds and the flowers awaiting them in the dormitories of the Pahiatua camp. Two years of stability and security, nourishment and schooling began to restore the children to health. That schooling was in Polish since it was believed they would be returning to their homeland after the war. But the world knows that Poland after the war was a Soviet-dominated nightmare. (Interesting to note that when those authorities tried to reclaim the children we had “stolen” during the war, Fraser moved swiftly to form a Board of Guardians and declared all the children wards of the state.) Gerald O’Brien, Fraser’s secretary and a longtime MP, was a member of that Board of Guardians. He writes a beautiful foreword, describing how the “nation of immigrants that is Aotearoa-New Zealand was significantly enriched by the arrival of these refugees.”
This multitude of contributions makes for one coherent book, never over-written, impeccably presented and with informative appendices – all credit to the editorial committee. Impressively successful adult lives are recounted, and always a strong sense of family and community is maintained. There are further sections with contributions from the next generation born here, and also from New Zealanders who became involved in various ways.
Every one of these brave children helped to defeat Hitler and Stalin. A young lad describes how a camp supervisor one day grabbed him and gave him a cuddle: “It was as though an electric shock passed through my body. This is how it must have felt to be cuddled by our own mothers, whom we all missed so much.” Another remembers:
One day we went to a farmhouse and asked the owner for permission to play on his property. As my command of English consisted of only a few words I had to gesture with my hands to make him understand that we would like to go over there and play. He nodded and said yes. Usually I was timid but I found a new freedom when we ran, sang and rolled down that gentle slope.
The children who now dance the mazurka and the polonaise at the various Dom Polski around the country, their feet stamping and swishing, their heads smothered in bright flowers, are the adored grandchildren of the Pahiatua lot 60 years later. That many of them can speak Polish is a tribute to their community’s conviction that language and identity are intertwined. Cherish te reo.
Jennifer Shennan teaches Dance Studies at Victoria University of Wellington and writes reviews for The Dominion Post.