A Strange Outcome – The Remarkable Survival Story of a Polish Child
John Roy-Wojciechowski and Allan Parker
Penguin Books, $35.00,
About 800 Polish refugees, 733 of them children and Most of them orphans, sailed into Wellington harbour in November 1944. Given refuge in New Zealand for the duration of WWII, they were housed at a special camp set up at Pahiatua. Because of the political situation in Poland after the war, many chose to stay permanently in this country. John Roy-Wojciechowski, formerly Jan Wojciechowski, author of A Strange Outcome, is one of these children. His absorbing memoir, written with Allan Parker, makes a worthwhile contribution to existing literature on Polish refugees in New Zealand, of which The Invited (1974) by Krystina Skwarko, a teacher at the Pahiatua Camp, is probably the best known.
The book begins with Roy-Wojciechowski’s arrival in New Zealand. He is 11 years old: “On the wharf a band plays and a big crowd of strangers smile and wave.” It ends with white-haired, 69-year-old John giving a talk to the Howick Returned Servicemen’s Association about “his story of personal tragedy, national loss and international treachery and brutality.” In the intervening pages, A Strange Outcome moves backwards and forwards between aspects of Polish history in the 19th and 20th centuries and the personal story of a devout Catholic family – two parents and their six children. John, the youngest, is born in 1933, though he will never know his exact birth date as his papers are lost on the long journeys undertaken.
Until their uprooting on a cold winter morning, the Wojciechowski family live on a farm near the village of Ostrowski in eastern Poland, in the province of Polesie, an area that later became part of the former Soviet Union. From the warm cocoon of a secure, happy childhood, John and his family, along with quarter of a million others in eastern Poland, are thrust into the turmoil and violence of wartime Europe.
Rounded up by the Soviets, they are transported in cattle truck trains to a forced labour camp in Siberia. The journey, in abysmal conditions (their suffering includes hunger, cold and lack of toilet facilities), takes six weeks. Harsh life in the camp follows. During winter, temperatures plunge to minus 60 degrees centigrade, but in the summer there is beauty to appreciate as well as hardship to endure. Wild flowers carpet the forest floor: “You could almost think you were lucky to be alive!” Helena, John’s mother, works in the camp bakery and is able to smuggle extra food to the children. There are interesting encounters. John meets Menachem Begin, later Prime Minister of Israel.
After 20 months in the camp, the inmates are told they are free to leave and the next stage of their ordeal, involving more long train journeys to unknown destinations, begins. John and his two sisters eventually reach Iran and from there are brought to safety in New Zealand. In the course of the journey, Josef the father, the two brothers and one sister disappear or go their separate ways. Josef is believed to have been killed by the Soviets and Helena dies of illness in Iran. The six children, however, survive and meet again in the post-war years.
The second half of the book focuses on John’s life in New Zealand: first at Pahiatua Camp, where he “thrived”; his schooling at St Pat’s College Silverstream, with its “rigid discipline”; study at Victoria University; and his highly successful business career.
John’s ambition is always broader than financial gain, for he is, above all, interested in having the power to control his own destiny, a goal that makes particular sense after his powerless childhood. For the man for whom family is as important as God and country, marriage, six children, immersion in the affairs of community life in suburban New Zealand, and arranging a succession of reunions with members of his Polish family complete a productive and satisfying life. Other milestones include the acquisition of New Zealand citizenship and becoming one of New Zealand’s wealthiest people – “a regular name on the National Business Review’s annual Rich List”.
Refugees try to come to terms with their traumatic past in diverse ways. Some have a strong urge to talk and write of their experiences and even to search for evidence to fill in gaps; others want nothing more than to put it all behind them, even to the extent of almost entirely “forgetting” the emotions and events which have shaped their lives. John falls to some extent into the former category and tries to retrieve what he can of his half-forgotten early years. But when he visits Iran after his retirement from active business life, he finds that “Like so many of his memories, Number One Camp was now hard to bring back to the life it had always had in his mind.”
John’s various efforts to connect with his own memories (as opposed to simply retelling what he has been told by one of his older sisters) struck me as particularly poignant, probably because my own efforts to retrieve such childhood experiences as starting school in Budapest, escaping across the border to Vienna or living for almost a year in a refugee camp have been similarly elusive. How I’ve envied my New Zealand-born friends their vivid, specific and detailed memories of childhood.
In contrast to the lack of direct memories of Poland and Iran, John’s recollections of aspects of his New Zealand childhood are vivid enough. Shortly after their arrival in Wellington, for example, John, along with the other children, is handed a bottle of milk, a carton of ice-cream and a boxed lunch. “That first sweet taste of the creamy New Zealand ice-cream would stay with Jan and his sisters for many years.”
The text comes most alive where the writing is spare, not effusive, as it becomes from time to time. Simple observations such as “to anyone used to the exuberance … of New Zealand children … the young Poles were a silent group” or, in reference to himself, “He was used to being a very good kid” are sufficient to convey the atmosphere and emotion of those early New Zealand years.
“So much has been taken from him” that it wouldn’t be surprising if John were bitter about the hardships and losses of his childhood but the only note of anything approaching such negative emotion is directed at the Russians who “had killed his parents, scattered his family, taken his homeland, razed his home. Now they had even poisoned its soil.” The latter reference is to contamination from the 1986 explosion of the Soviet nuclear reactor at Chernobyl. One of John’s main conclusions in the book is the positive one drawn by every refugee in New Zealand I’ve ever known or read about: “I was lucky that I survived. I was lucky to be brought to New Zealand.”
I found the memoir of this “Pole, Kiwi, orphan, refugee, businessman, Honorary Consul, family man – and survivor” moving and engrossing despite a degree of weariness I sometimes feel with remarkable survival stories. When John, “his stature and rounded face betray[ing] his European heritage”, is telling his story to the Howick RSA WWII veterans who have never heard of places like Drohycin and Ostrowski, only of El Alamein and Monte Cassino, one of them says, “One of the tragedies … But there were so bloody many, weren’t there?”
Ann Beaglehole’s first novel Replacement Girl was reviewed in our June 2003 issue. She was eight years old when she came to New Zealand in 1956 after the revolution in Hungary against the Soviet Union-dominated regime.