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New Zealand's First Refugees: Pahiatua's Polish Children

Finding peace in a foreign land

page 117

Finding peace in a foreign land

I was 11 years old when we arrived at the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua, where we were separated by age and gender into dormitories. The following day we were able to explore our surroundings.

The buildings were practical and comfortable, and the dormitories were segregated for boys and girls by age groups. The buildings included a large assembly hall, a common room where dances and other functions were held, and separate dining halls and classrooms. There was a boiler house, army and personnel huts, a shoe-repair workshop, a garage for the army trucks, an administration block and a hospital. The camp was surrounded by farms, and had a river and native bush nearby. The paddocks also provided us with playing fields.

Then we were allocated our classes for schooling. The camp's adults were responsible for organising all our activities and needs. I took part in many of the activities, including Polish national dancing, Scouts, altar service and participating in nativity plays. Part of the routine at the camp consisted of dormitory inspections, but these were never a problem for me.

The New Zealand army had made bicycles available, which we eagerly learned to ride. One day, I set out to collect palms for decorating the hall. On the way back, a palm branch became trapped in the spokes of the front wheel and I ended up toppling over the front of the bike. I was hurt. Sheer embarrassment and hurt pride prevented me from telling anyone.

I clearly recall one of the girls trying to ride one of the bikes. So indignant was she from the experience that she said she would prefer to ride a wild bull than a bike again. The boys picked up on this and teased her whenever they could. We roared and had many a laugh at her expense. Thankfully, she was good natured and let us get away with it. We were also taught to repair shoes and naturally, as boys, would take full advantage of putting nails into all the girls' shoes for a laugh.

We would often swim in the local river and one of the boys convinced us on one occasion to try diving. We got covered in mud from head to toe and never trusted his advice again. In later years, when we began to learn English, we would take great delight in mispronouncing English words for a laugh, which our teacher Hugh McKinnon never took offence at. He was a kind teacher and very tolerant.

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One of the New Zealand soldiers made his army hut available to use whenever I liked. He had a gramophone and I used to play his records. One was by Judy Garland. If she ever knew how much I murdered it in my head she probably would never have recorded it.

As Scouts, we were invited to take part in a Scout jamboree. I was assigned with a group of boys to build a rope bridge. We were to be marked for neatness and tautness. For the effort I put in, my prizes were blisters on both hands as well as being rewarded by the jamboree committee. I was put in charge of a younger group of boys, "brown knees" as we used to call them, to teach them to march. This was displayed in front of a group of visiting dignitaries. They did this very well. I was very proud and the results spoke for themselves.

When singer John Charles Thomas was touring New Zealand, his version of Home on the Range was popular, as were the Western movies that we used to see. The Poneke Maori Club travelled to the camp to perform their traditional songs and dances, to which we have now become accustomed. I was fascinated by their makeup and dress. They treated us with their poi dancing and singing. To this day, I have not forgotten that evening.

The camp had a large family atmosphere. At Christmas, we would give concerts for the camp's personnel and invited guests. The girls' choir would sing traditional Christmas carols and we would perform national dances. There was always an atmosphere of joy and happiness at this time.

In 1947, my final year in the camp, we were taught by the older girls to dance. Mrs Watson never tired of playing the piano, and we would dance on Saturdays and Sundays. Mrs Watson would often come to the camp early and say to me: "We will have a singsong before the rest of the family get here. You are all like my second family." I would like to express my gratitude to Mrs Watson for everything that she did for us at the camp. It has meant a great deal to me personally.

On Sundays, many people from the surrounding areas would come to see the camp. It was like a parade. We marvelled at how so many people would come, but we could not understand them when they spoke to us in English. We often went on Scout camps in the surrounding countryside. It was always an enjoyable time. We would erect tents in the bush and stay for hours at a time, cooking on an open fire, singing around the campfire and playing games long into the night. At Christmas we would gather around the tree, lighting candles as we sang carols.

Two New Zealand teachers, Andy Nola and Frank Muller, introduced us to cricket and rugby, to which we took like ducks to water. I was chosen as captain of the rugby team and felt so proud. That gave me confidence for later years. Initially, we played in bare feet. Some of the boys were selected page 119to play on the local team and we were thrilled to be chosen to represent the area – more so when we discovered that we had been mentioned in the local newspaper. The whole camp took great delight in this and celebrated in our newly found "fame".

When I was appointed captain, everyone was given shorts, jerseys and boots to play in. All except me! Muller and Nola called me over saying: "Chris, we have something special for you", and showed me the boots – they were beautifully made leather shoes, which I had never seen the like of before.

One rugby trip to Palmerston North saw us having to play in very strong winds. It was a team decision to play against the wind. I won the toss and so we proceeded. We never managed to get the ball past the 25-yard line and each time we kicked it, it went further backwards. It never left our territory in the first half. In the second half the wind had died down considerably. From then on, I followed my own instincts regarding the toss. We played for Wairarapa-Bush in a seven-a-side tournament, which we won. The prize was very gratifying.

I was billeted to a New Zealand family in Masterton for the holidays. They were a lovely family, treating me like one of their own. One day they took me to the pictures to see A Californian Gold Rush and I can distinctly recall the main scene for the song Clementine. Every time I hear that song I can still vividly see the movie scene as I first saw it. We would gather around the piano and sing the songs. It was a marvellous time and like all good things it eventually came to an end.

The man took us on grocery deliveries to farmers. On weekends, we went rabbit and possum shooting. Two days after setting the possum traps we would retrieve the trapped possums and skin them. We used the hind legs of the rabbits as eel bait and usually went eeling at dusk when they were at their most active. Once the eel grabbed the bait, we then jerked it onto the bank. On one occasion, his daughter got too close to the edge and was pulled in by a big eel, and instead of the eel landing up out of the water, she ended up in the creek. At least she could see the funny side of it.

On one occasion, we came across so many rabbits that we wouldn't have any trouble shooting them blindfolded. However, even aiming my 22 rifle and with the barrel virtually touching my nose, I still missed. On weekends, the neighbours would visit and we usually had a singsong around the piano or entertained ourselves playing games.

I was told that I was to be sent to St Patrick's College, Silverstream, as a boarder. I left the camp with regret and apprehension, as my happiest years were spent there. When I first arrived at the college, I was homesick for the camp, but had to overcome that and learn to accept everyday life at the school. page 120The first year we played rugby and cricket alongside our lessons. It was instilled into us that they were just as important as our studies.

At the end of my first college year we were allowed to invite a partner to the annual school ball, at which we had to wear uniforms and white gloves. My partner and I made such an impression on the boys at the college that they were still talking about it six months later. She was also from the camp. She wore a white gown and danced beautifully. The experience gained by our group of Polish boys in that first year of college made it easier for other boys who followed from the camp in later years.

We had study times between 5pm and 6pm. Then the whole school would gather in the school courtyard in their respective years. Father Doohan would stand at the front calling the names of those who had received mail. As each student was called, we waited expectantly. On one such occasion, he came to a Polish boy's name which was as unpronounceable as you could have. The entire school erupted into laughter and even Father Doohan, who was known for his serious no-nonsense approach, joined in. In later years, I was to change my name by deed poll.

In my second year at the college, I was chosen to play in the First XV and was pleased to have been chosen to represent the school. That year, I was also given the responsibility of looking after the science laboratory, which I grasped enthusiastically. I had all the chemicals at my disposal and could practice experiments at will. Some of my colleagues nagged me to let them do some. Eventually, I gave way to peer pressure. At the time, the Americans and Russians were exploding the atom bomb.

One Sunday afternoon we decided to build a bomb. Once we had mixed all the chemicals, we wrapped it in aluminium foil and dipped the string wick into turpentine, lit it and hid. When it exploded it made a lot of black smoke. We quickly opened all the windows to release the smoke, which saved us from being detected. I got such a fright and I would not let them talk me into doing anything like that again. Some of my colleagues at the college took to smoking and, giving in to peer pressure, I allowed them to smoke in the laboratory. We were caught and I was lucky to not lose my laboratory privileges.

One night, I began to experience stomach pains. Throughout the night these became intensively worse and in the morning I could not get up. Father Doohan came and then fetched the matron, who deemed that there was nothing wrong with me. Father Doohan didn't agree and sent for the doctor who immediately had me admitted to Hutt Hospital.

There I was under close observation. The pain began to subside though I wasn't able to eat anything. They kept me there until the Thursday when I informed them that unless they returned me back to school I would run away page 121from the hospital. They eventually discharged me on the Friday back into the school infirmary. I had missed the week of barracks (army training) as a result. Matron was convinced that I had been trying to avoid barracks.

After a week of barracks, we would march to Trentham Army Camp accompanied by a drummer and bugler. The army always put on a special afternoon tea. It made it all the more special. I was one of the boys at the school given the responsibility for recording weather patterns. As a student, I came well above average in most subjects but my only downfall was my command of English.

I left school with the same regret that I had left the camp and boarded at the Polish Boys' Hostel in Island Bay, Wellington. I wasn't sure what I was going to do. I took a job as a clerk in the Ministry of Works. After four months, I was sent to vocational guidance and made to sit an exam to become an electrician. Upon passing, this became my chosen career.

In 1954, I bought an old house which was virtually falling down. I knew very little about carpentry and started to teach myself from books. I applied to be a carpentry improver and worked for a building firm specialising in houses. I gained valuable experience there, so I began renovating my own house. Next door lived a carpenter who had emigrated from England. He encouraged me as well. He felt that I was as good as anyone he had ever dealt with. It gave me more confidence to carry on.

During the day I worked as an electrician and did renovations in the evenings, bit by bit. At times, I worked until midnight. I couldn't afford to page 122buy furniture, only the bare essentials. The government valuation was half the price I paid for the place. When there were high winds, the house would sway. But once the new concrete foundations were done, sleep came easily. By the time I finished the house, I had rebuilt it from the foundations to the roof. It was like brand new. People were always stopping to admire the work that had been done.

At the end of my apprenticeship, I worked for a plastics factory in Te Aro. Working 16 hours, seven days a week, I stayed there until it relocated to Miramar. I bought a taxi and drove it for nine months. I then hired a driver for the taxi and began to work as a self-employed electrician and builder.

Our daughter was born in 1962. I named her after my eldest sister who had been left behind in Uzbekistan. I never drank or went to the pub because my motto was that I would have been denying my wife and children a better standard of living. I worked seven days a week for as many years as I dare to remember.

In 1972, I took the whole family to Poland to see it for the first time since World War II, where I met my elder brother for the first time in 30 years.