When I look back on my childhood growing up in Wellington in the midst of the Polish community, one word springs to mind – idyllic. Yet it is only now as an adult and parent that I realise just how privileged I was to be part of the deep affection and cultural richness that is the legacy of the 733 Polish refugee children who came to New Zealand in 1944.
My mother was one of these children. She was 16 years old when she arrived in Wellington with her two sisters and two brothers, after surviving three harrowing years in a kolkhoz (collective farm) in Kazakhstan. She had witnessed death, and experienced starvation, separation and loss. It was a childhood so different to mine that I still find it difficult to believe this is part of my family history.
After arriving here, my mother's fortune changed dramatically. The refugee children were settled in the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua where they could recover from their horrific war experiences in a caring and peaceful environment. The children forged strong and lasting bonds, and a deep sense of community. Sixty years later, these bonds are still as strong as ever.
It was in this caring and intimate community that I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. By then, the refugee children had moved all over New Zealand and set up a Dom Polski (Polish House) in Auckland and Wellington, where they and their descendants could meet to keep in touch and maintain their cultural heritage, while embracing life in New Zealand. My mother settled in Wellington and married my father Edward Mroczek – a Pole who visited New Zealand with the British Merchant Navy. They had two sons – Edward and Krzysztof – and then me.
From the beginning, the Polish House in Newtown was the focal point of my childhood. It was here I learnt to read, write, sing and dance in Polish. It was here I attended movies, plays, lectures and cultural festivals. It was here I experienced my first ball. Like most of the former refugee children, my parents were deeply committed to passing their Polish heritage on to their children, which happened in the culturally rich and festive atmosphere of the Polish House. For me, it was a home away from home and an extension of my immediate family.
Naturally, I took it all for granted and sometimes even resented the fact that Saturdays were taken up with Polish lessons. But on a recent trip to page 245Poland I experienced the deep pleasure of being able to communicate fully with the Poles and immerse myself in their culture. I am eternally grateful to my parents for encouraging me in my lessons and for making everything Polish a priority at home. It helped me to understand and tolerate cultural differences, and influenced me in choosing a career as a teacher of English as a second language to migrants and refugees.
At the time I was growing up, my mother's sisters and brothers were all living in Wellington so we had many lively family gatherings where we would celebrate Polish customs and traditions, such as imieniny (name days), which is the celebration of the feast day of the saint whose name you have. These gatherings always involved tables laden with traditional foods, such as pierogi (Polish dumplings), naleśniki (crepes stuffed with meat), gołąbki (meat and rice-filled cabbage rolls) and not to mention plates piled with cakes, my favourites being sernik (baked cheesecake) and pączki (jam-filled doughnuts).
Often we would meet at midday and continue well into the evening with our parents playing circle games with us, which they remembered from their own childhoods. Inevitably, there would be a lot of noisy singing. In my mid-20s, when I first went to Poland, my cousins there were impressed by my knowledge of Polish songs and the fact that I could sing more than just one verse.
My parents' religious faith played an enormous part in my growing sense of identity as a Polish New Zealander. The former refugee children were, and still are, devoted Catholics and we attended Polish Mass each Sunday. This was a huge unifying force within the community, and another opportunity to meet together and celebrate the old customs.
The traditions I particularly enjoyed were during Easter and Christmas. On Good Friday, my cousins and I spent many hours decorating hardboiled eggs with wax and colourful dyes for the Easter baskets. We would also sculpt a small lamb out of butter, symbolising the Lamb of God. On Easter Saturday, we would take our baskets to church to be blessed by the Polish priest. Then the contents of the basket would be eaten on Easter Sunday as part of the Polish celebration of the Resurrection.
But the most special festival for me was Wigilia (Christmas Eve), which we celebrated in our own home with just our immediate family. It was my job to set the table and I did this very reverently, appreciating the symbolism of the different aspects of the ritual table settings. First, I went to collect "hay" to put under the white tablecloth, which was a reminder of the stable in Bethlehem where the baby Jesus was placed. On this, I would place the opłatek (Christmas wafer) which had been sent from Poland by a relative and blessed for this very page 246occasion. We would begin our meal by sharing the wafer with each other and wishing each other well.
The meal was considered a fast because it was without any meat or dairy products. But it was, as with all Polish food, delicious. My mother made barszcz (beetroot soup) with uszka (tiny dumplings stuffed with onion and mushrooms) and delicate fish cakes out of fresh minced fish. According to tradition, I always set an extra place at the table for a chance guest that might arrive. We would finish off the evening by opening a mountain of presents and singing traditional Polish kolędy (Christmas carols).
Now it's my turn to pass these traditions on to my children. I find my parenting has been hugely influenced by my "Polishness", and my two sons have a keen appreciation of all things Polish and multicultural.
In 2004, my Kiwi husband and I took the boys to Poland to experience their heritage first hand. They visited the homes where their grandparents were born and explored the historical treasures of Kraków and Warsaw. I was very proud to see my children so comfortable and interested in their ancestral homeland. I believe they will grow into tolerant and broadminded Kiwi citizens, and through them the legacy of my parents and the former refugee children will continue to flourish.