New Zealand's First Refugees: Pahiatua's Polish Children
[A teacher's pride]
I was appointed to the English staff at the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua in May 1946 and left when it closed in Christmas 1949. Joan Hay and I joined the other English language teachers Margaret Storkey, Ruth Neligan, Marian Parker, Frank Muller and Andy Nola. Mr McKinnon was headmaster. Margaret and Ruth left, and were replaced by Mary Sergent and Alexander Henderson. When Marian Parker left, Pat Sloan arrived. At first, we lived in army huts and later graduated to the luxury of the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) quarters behind the officers' mess, where we (the women) ate while the men belonged to the sergeants' mess.
Because we lived in the camp, we were available and actively involved in most aspects of its life. To begin with, we taught English classes only and to all ages – children through to adults. Our resources were minimal – our tools of trade were imagination, improvisation, a sense of humour, endless patience and the ability to cope with the unexpected.
One day, there was a knock on the classroom door and in came Prime Minister Peter Fraser with camp officials and retinue – he was very proud of "his Polish children" and always anxious for their welfare. On other days, it could be the Apostolic Delegate, bishops, archbishops or other dignitaries who loved to visit.
Soon, physical education and sports became part of our brief, which were the highlights for many. From the very basic siatkówka (volleyball) with a couple of poles and a rope or net set up on any small patch, we graduated to baseball, basketball, soccer and rugby. Lack of knowledge or language was made up for by enthusiastic participation and the teams competed very well against the local ones. Girls will remember the "elegant bloomers" of the first basketball teams.
Camp social life was ongoing and there was any excuse for a party – imieniny (name days), dancing in the hall with Miss Merwid at the piano playing her heart out with the help of a sherry (You Are My Sunshine and Pokarekare Ana), the Masses and church singing, and the national dances that were danced with such patriotic fervour.
As staff members, we would hitch a ride on an army truck into Pahiatua to go to the pictures, a rugby match or party. On one such occasion, we were at Ned Barry's after-match party. Ned was the local police sergeant and an ex-All page 281Black. The fire sirens went (Pahiatua had a volunteer fire brigade), and the locals rose as one and left. Soon after, someone started screaming: "Come on you lot – the camp's on fire!"
The closer we got to camp, the more we could see how close the fire was to our quarters. In fact, it was the old grandstand behind the camp, which was used by the boys for such things as keeping chickens, stashing away their treasures and having a secret cigarette. I remember the poor chickens squawking madly, scattering to escape total incineration and some locals, who had come to watch, chasing and catching them to take home.