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

Growing into New Zealand

page 175

Growing into New Zealand

How's your English?

While I was staying in Dunedin in 1947, Prime Minister Peter Fraser visited the city. Among other business, he wanted to meet the "little Polish girls" from Catholic schools in Dunedin.

The Dominican Sister who was teaching us English discovered an English translation of the Polish national hymn Nie Rzucim Ziemi (Never We'll Leave The Land Where We Were Born) and thought it would be interesting for New Zealanders to hear us sing it in English at the concert which was given in honour of the distinguished visitor. So we learnt it and sang it, and were very proud of ourselves, until after the concert when one of the ladies from the Prime Minister's party asked: "Your song was very nice. What does it mean in English?" Pffft! went our ego.

You eat my culture and I will eat your culture

The Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua, 1946. Two of us Standard 6 girls were tidying up the New Zealand teachers' dining room. While cleaning out the cupboard, we found a piece of revolting mouldy cheese so we threw it out. Then we were surprised that instead of thanking us, the teachers told us off.

St Dominic's College, Dunedin, 1947. One of the teachers, a Dominican Sister by the nickname of Winnie the Pooh, asked me in class what sort of food we ate in Poland. With the aid of a Polish-English dictionary, I told her "kwaśne mleko" (fermented milk). Everybody pulled a face and somebody commented: "Ooh, rotten milk." I went red and was most ashamed that in Poland we ate rotten milk.

2004. I am a glutton for blue-vein cheese, and all the contemporaries of my former classmates consume yoghurt by the litre – some of it most definitely rotten tasting!

"Married" without a proposal

My friend Jadwiga Nawrocka (Roman Kolodziński's wife) and I stayed with the Dodunski family in Durham Road, Inglewood. Mrs Dodunski, who was a descendant of the Polish immigrants that came to New Zealand in the 19th Century, could still speak some Polish.

One day, she said brightly in Polish: "We'll go to Inglewood and I'll buy page 176you girls some string." Being polite little girls, we didn't say anything to her, but whispered to ourselves: "What do we need string for?" Her grown son Leon took us all to Inglewood and she bought us beautiful ribbons to tie our hair. Leon then bought us each a gold signet ring. Poor Jadwiga, she only recently confessed to me that she was worried when that happened because she thought that Leon had married us and she didn't want to be married.

Talking about marriage

One consequence of living almost your entire childhood and adolescence, sometimes longer, in single-sex orphanages is that you grow up with a wrong idea of the opposite sex. We were living daily lives among only girls or boys of mostly the same age – and not even with sisters or brothers because they were all segregated according to sex and age. Girls had female carers, boys male carers, and very rarely the twain met.

So, as we grew up and began day-dreaming about marriage and family life, she imagined a loving husband who looked after her and forever was nice to her, like the fellow in the books and films, while he imagined a dainty adoring wife, who would look after his every need, bring his slippers, cook for him and never complain, like the sirens in the films. Well, we know real life is not like that.

"Shpeeking Eengleesh"

For years we used to refer to New Zealanders as "szpiki" (pronounced as shpeekee). Nothing derogatory, but we just liked to play around with words for amusement and "shpeekee" seemed a very appropriate word for people who continually asked us: "Do you speak (sounded like shpeek) English?"

For years, our New Zealand teachers frowned when they heard us speak Polish to one another and admonished us. To us, it seemed ridiculous to speak broken English to friends of longstanding who could much better understand Polish. But our teachers must have thought that we would never learn English unless we forgot Polish. Back then, New Zealand was a very isolated country and few people travelled to Europe. There were also some people who were so conceited that they could not imagine anyone who did not speak English to be able to think intelligently.

One, and I must stress one, senior Plunket nurse whom I was obliged to see when our five-year-old son was starting school was shocked when she caught me speaking Polish to him: "Don't you see what harm you are doing to him? How is he going to cope at school?" Fortunately, I was by then a much more self-assured person and was able to reply that if I, who had very little primary schooling and no knowledge of the English language when I went to secondary page 177school, could not only cope but surpass my classmates, finish university and become a teacher of English in a secondary school, I was confident that our son would cope very well. And he did. Fortunately, soon after this incident, the attitude of the educational authorities changed and new New Zealanders began to be encouraged to cultivate their ethnic culture and language. We, the "Pahiatua children", have been cultivating it for 60 years.

Tolerance, praise and encouragement

Miss Eising, my English teacher at the Polish Children's Camp pushed a book into my hands without even asking if I could read it. My first English book! I was surprised that I actually got the gist of it. Next she gave me A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Such confidence.

At St Dominic's College, the Sisters, instead of pitying us ("Poor little Polish girls, they don't know any English") and giving us easy work as some other schools did, constantly encouraged us to do the work that the rest of the class was doing. We cried, struggled and thought the nuns cruel, but our work improved steadily. I never dreamed of attempting any of the public examinations such as School Certificate, but again the Sisters signed me up saying: "You can do it, Stefania."

Boarders at St Dominic's College in Dunedin, 1947. The Polish girls are: Back: (l-r) Helena Chwieduk (1st), Anna Manterys (5th), Romualda Sokalska (6th), Dioniza Gradzik (7th) Irena Ćwirko-Godycka (8th), Stefania Manterys (12 th) Front: (l-r) Zofia Rombel (2nd), Krystyna Czoba (3rd)

Boarders at St Dominic's College in Dunedin, 1947. The Polish girls are:
Back: (l-r) Helena Chwieduk (1st), Anna Manterys (5th), Romualda Sokalska (6th), Dioniza Gradzik (7th) Irena Ćwirko-Godycka (8th), Stefania Manterys (12 th)
Front: (l-r) Zofia Rombel (2nd), Krystyna Czoba (3rd)

page 178

I was fortunate to receive the same kind of encouragement and confidence in my ability at Auckland Teachers' College, and from headmasters when I began teaching. After all, they could have had their doubts about my ability to teach English when they heard my "lovely Polish accent", as my students used to put it.

Wrong kind of dinner

During the five years from the time we were deported from Poland to our arrival in New Zealand, we had no books to read, not even text-books. So we learnt poems and hundreds (true!) of Polish songs by heart, and could sing for hours on end. Now, with all those aids – song books, sheet music and photocopies of words – we tend to rely on them, watching even the la la la las, and not on our memories. Pity.

But back to dinner. Two Polish girls on a holiday with a New Zealand family (our first Christmas holiday, 1944) were sitting outside lustily singing a lively Polish Christmas carol where the chorus goes – "Oj dyna, oj dyna, oj dyna…" (pronounced: oi dinner, oi dinner, oi dinner).

Their hostess came out with a worried look on her face and tried very hard to make them understand that dinner was not ready yet. However, they thought that she did not want them to sing "oj dyna" and stopped singing.

Back to school – 60 years ago

Sigh! Today we leave our beloved Polish Children's Camp, friends and "Polishness", and return to Catholic boarding schools in the South Island. A sad time, but exciting too. First, army lorries take us to Pahiatua Railway Station. Then by train to Wellington, very slowly, pulled by two engines over the Rimutaka hills. Slowly enough for us to be able to walk beside the train when the guard is not looking. A few hours' wait in Wellington for the ferry to Lyttelton – will it be the Rangatira or Hinemoa this time?

Some Polish people already working in Wellington and some curious New Zealanders gather on the quay in Queens Wharf to wave us farewell. We all talk Polish and New Zealanders stare, wondering what it is all about. We hurriedly and unselfconsciously hug and kiss those staying behind, girls and boys, before going on board. As the ferry starts to move away from the dock, we begin to sing a Polish farewell song, then much more softly our evening hymn Wszystkie Nasze Dzienne Sprawy (Receive Graciously, O Lord, All Our Days' Affairs). Every child sings – we feel sad and tired.

A night on the ferry, sleeping on bunks. We are woken up at 5am with a cup of tea which is so strong and black that it was enough to withstand the rolling of the ship! Next day we disembark at Lyttelton, the port of Christchurch, page 179then travel a short distance by train through a smoky tunnel to Christchurch, have breakfast at the station where another farewell takes place as some of the boys and girls are picked up and taken to boarding schools or private homes in Christchurch, while the rest of us board the train again and off to Timaru.

At the station in Timaru we say goodbye to the girls going to Sacred Heart College. Then on to Oamaru for another group of girls to attend Teschemakers College and the boys to St Kevin's College – my brother Stanislaw with my suitcase (we both have the same first initial). The small remaining band of girls travels on to Dunedin to St Dominic's and St Philomena's, and we finally arrive at our destination at 4pm, two days after leaving the camp. I put my brother's suitcase back on the train and hope that mine arrives the following day.

We are back at school where I like learning, discovering new ideas and understanding new concepts. This gives me great pleasure, but I miss the camp where I feel at home.

Where does my loyalty lie?

Poland or New Zealand? I will let the reader decide.

I am not a sportsperson, but I like watching rugby when the All Blacks are winning. I watch the Hurricanes play other teams, but only if they are
Farewelling the Polish Girls' Hostel's Ursuline Sisters at St Anne's Hall in Newtown, Wellington, 9 March 1958.(l-r) Mikołaj Polaczuk, Sister Bernarda Brennan, Stefania Zawada (Sondej), Stefania Sondej (Manterys), Sister Monika Alexandrowicz

Farewelling the Polish Girls' Hostel's Ursuline Sisters at St Anne's Hall in Newtown, Wellington, 9 March 1958.
(l-r) Mikołaj Polaczuk, Sister Bernarda Brennan, Stefania Zawada (Sondej), Stefania Sondej (Manterys), Sister Monika Alexandrowicz

page 180winning. I was disgusted when yachting's Coutts defected to New Zealand's rivals. When I went to Poland to visit my relations, I praised New Zealand so much that almost every person I spoke to wanted to come here. But I loved being in Poland, where I did not have to explain myself nor justify anything and was believed when I recounted some extraordinary experience from my life – they knew it was true because they had experienced similar.

When our Polish dance group Lublin in Wellington was due to have their first public performance, they were sad because they did not have any costumes. So I took two months off from my part-time job, raided every fabric and haberdashery shop in the Wellington area, organised mothers, friends and relations, and at the end of two months Lublin had 32 lovely Polish costumes.

When I visit Australia and the Australians boast how they beat New Zealand in this and that, I point out that the entire New Zealand population could fit into Sydney with room to spare, so they have nothing to be proud of. I am a sworn Justice of the Peace. On Sundays, I attend mostly the Polish Mass. What New Zealand priest would let us sing our beautiful Polish hymns Sunday after Sunday and allow us to pray for the freedom of Poland for 50 years?

Now you try and decide where my loyalty lies.