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

It takes a village

page 219

It takes a village

An African proverb popularised by Hilary Clinton states: "It takes a village to raise a child", meaning that it is the input of the whole community rather than just the family that shapes a child. In my case, I believe that I was raised by two villages – the Anglo-Saxon and Polish communities.

My mother was one of the Polish children who was fortunate enough to survive the horrors of Siberia and come to New Zealand with the 733 orphans at the invitation of the New Zealand Government. The tragic loss of both parents, starvation and deprivations endured in the years in Siberia, and the interrupted education played a major role in shaping her approach to life, and in the way she and my father raised their children.

If people make a conscious decision to emigrate, they may feel less inclined to retain their culture and may even make a conscious decision to abandon it during the process of becoming citizens of their new homes. In the case of the Polish orphans, they had no choice in leaving Poland and I believe that this accounts, at least in part, for their determination to retain their Polish culture in New Zealand.

My brother Chris and I were born in Australia, where my mother met my father after moving there not too long after completing her nursing training in Wellington. In Brisbane, where we lived until I was 10 years old, and in Lower Hutt, New Zealand, where we moved to in 1966 to be closer to my mum's family, the Polish village had a profound input and influence on me. I grew up speaking Polish as my first language, and apparently my mum would sit us down in front of the TV before we went to school to improve our English.

As my parents' friends were almost exclusively Polish, weekends were spent socialising with other Poles. We'd also go to Polish Mass, Polish Guides and Scouts on Friday nights in Brisbane, and later Polish School on Saturdays in Petone, New Zealand. There were also the formal and informal functions at the Dom Polski (Polish House in Newtown, Wellington). This was one side of my life and the other was attending the local Catholic school. The two sides were completely separate – until my mum spoke to me in Polish in front of my schoolmates.

Children don't like to be different and in the 1960s it was not considered "cool" to be from a different cultural background. There was no mention of "a page 220multicultural society" in those days. English, Scottish and Irish were seen as "normal" because there were no obvious signs of being different.

I remember mum waiting with us at the bus stop in the mornings and my intense embarrassment when she spoke to me in Polish. I would either try to stand out of earshot of my friends and grunt a response or answer in English, to which mum's reaction was: "Mów po polsku. Co? Wstydzisz się być Polką?" ("Speak in Polish. What? Are you ashamed of being Polish?") She and dad often said that being able to speak two languages was a plus and that one day I would appreciate it. Back then, I could see no advantage.

When we moved to New Zealand in 1966, I was surprised to learn that there were other Polish children in my school. In fact, there were three in my class! "You're Polish? Me too." There was a certain safety in numbers and for the first time the likes of Wigilia (Christmas Eve), pierogi (Polish dumplings) and akademia (a formal presentation of speeches, poetry recitals, songs and dances) could be mentioned at school as there was someone else who knew what I was talking about.

I enjoyed the Polish School classes in Petone, partly because I was with other kids so there was an element of fun. But there was also a downside. It meant I couldn't play any Saturday afternoon sport and that was a reason for feeling some resentment towards my Polish culture. My sister Danusia was born in the late 1960s and here was another example of having to explain: "No, her name isn't Dana, Diane or Denise. It is a Polish name with no English equivalent." But this was a minor detail as I was ecstatic to have a sister and no longer be the baby of the clan.

During my teen years, I learnt Polish dancing under the tutelage of Mr Babczyszyn. He was a hard taskmaster and I was certainly not a "natural", but I loved it. An early memory is watching the polonez (polonaise) being danced by the Koło Młodzieży (the Polish youth group) at the Dom Polski in Brisbane. I remember being breathless at the sight of the young women wearing beautiful gowns and moving like princesses to the rhythm of the stately polonez.

So when the opportunity arose to join the dance group I jumped at the chance. We regularly danced at functions in the Dom Polski and, in a sign of the changing times and growing awareness of other cultures in New Zealand, at a few events around the Wellington region. A few years later when no one else would take on the task of teaching the dances, I agreed to teach until someone else could be found. I took it on for about 18 months, though with serious reservations. Even though I could always feel the rhythm inside me and loved the music of the polonez, mazur and krakowiak, my feet were always happier on a sports field. It's only now that I look back at that time page 221and realise that I had finally grown into my "Polish skin", and must have been feeling very comfortable about it, otherwise it wouldn't have mattered to me if Polish dancing ceased in Wellington.

My mum and dad always hoped that I would marry a Polish boy, but that didn't happen. The ones I met in Wellington I got to know so well that it would have been like marrying a brother! My husband John has been not only accepting of the Polish side of me, but wonderfully supportive of it. Customs such as sharing opłatek (wafer) have been adopted and he quickly learnt to greet Poles with a kiss on both cheeks.

But the acceptance of different customs has not all been one way. Kiwi dishes now also feature at any family gathering and when carols are sung at home, English ones are included. These are just a couple of examples, but are indicative of the accommodation and acceptance of the two cultures that has occurred not only in our family but also in the two communities.

I am proud of my Polish heritage. But do our four children feel they have any connection to it? To different degrees, I would say undoubtedly. Our youngest, Jennifer, still attends Polish School, went to PolArt (a festival of Polish performing and visual arts) in Sydney in 2003 with the Orlęta (Little Eagles) dance group, and hopes to attend a summer school at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków when she finishes college.

While Anna, Stephanie and Krystina don't have the same agenda, all have
A group of second-generation children during the Polish national day celebrations, 3 May 2003, in the Polish House, Wellington. Back: (l-r) Konrad Mak, Holly Stephenson, Hanna Stephenson, Miriam Randall Front: (l-r) Zosia Trask, Jennifer Hanson, Daniel Mak

A group of second-generation children during the Polish national day celebrations, 3 May 2003, in the Polish House, Wellington. Back: (l-r) Konrad Mak, Holly Stephenson, Hanna Stephenson, Miriam Randall Front: (l-r) Zosia Trask, Jennifer Hanson, Daniel Mak

page 222attended Polish School and have been members of the Orlęta dance group. All our children enjoy various Polish dishes (each has their favourite) and accept as a matter of course that at Christmas, any other arrangements fit around Wigilia (Christmas Eve).

They make time for pisanki (decorated eggs) on Good Friday and also look forward to the Easter Monday tradition of mutual drenching in the hope that "maybe this year I'll wet mum and dad before they wet me". They have never voiced any feelings of embarrassment at their Polish heritage. Instead, it has been with a sense of pride that they have shared aspects of their Polish culture and how they came to be New Zealanders of Polish descent.

Over the years they have questioned their babcia (grandma), and used her as the basis of various school assignments and speeches. They have done this as they knew that her experiences, like those of all the other orphans, were not only interesting and would captivate the reader or the listener, but would provoke a number of emotions.

The Polish village has had a profound influence on me, just as the New Zealand village has. Both have shaped me into the person I am today. The importance of a good education was stressed in my home and at school, and being able to speak another language never hindered my progress. Now, a daughter of a refugee, I teach English to refugees from various war-torn parts of the world. A circle completed.

However, neither village is the same today as it was during my formative years. New Zealand has changed a lot since the arrival of its first refugees in 1944. There is not only a greater acceptance of different cultural backgrounds, but also a celebration of those differences.

The Polish community here has changed a great deal also. There has been a large degree of assimilation. So, while my children's generation may find it easier to wear their Polish hat in New Zealand, that hat is generally no longer as big. It will be interesting to see what influence the Polish village has on my future grandchildren.