Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

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


page 12


With the arrival in 1944 of the Polish children refugees at the behest of Prime Minister Peter Fraser, this nation of immigrants that is Aotearoa-New Zealand was significantly enriched.

The duty of peoples towards each other (being our brother's keeper, an attitude fostered in New Zealand notably from 1935 onward until today's global outlooks overtook it) was further stimulated by this event. It had its echo in New Zealand's moral position at the founding of the United Nations and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which this country's contribution to both far outweighed its small population

That young children torn from their homes and families by the totalitarian forces that bestrode Europe would become a catalyst for good was certainly not foreseen by the perpetrators. Yet in the nature of these children, with their strange sadness which turned into joy as the years progressed, that is what their coming to New Zealand came to mean.

The Polish character melded well with that of New Zealanders. They humbly and freely offered to New Zealand their rugged Polish character, that "vital spark of heavenly flame", adapted to New Zealand's way of life and contributed to it grandly in all walks.

As Fraser's electorate secretary and chairperson, then later as treasurer of the Polish Hostel Board, I was fascinated to closely observe just how elated he was with the prize he had won for humanity in these children. And over the years, his expectations have been fully honoured. His commitment is confirmed in a 1945 letter to the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua's administrator, in which Fraser wrote: "With myself, the interests of the children have been the paramount and decisive consideration."

Looking back over 60 years, the desire of New Zealanders, who are all descendants of earlier immigrants, was that to the best of their ability they had met the expectations of the children in the provision of care, education and social wellbeing in a peaceful environment. When the reunification of families took place in New Zealand after post-war demobilisation, it added to national enrichment.

That so many remained over the years in New Zealand has been gratifying page 13Perhaps, as with the earlier Polish immigration to New Zealand in the late 19th Century, that may be attributed to a yearning for peace and justice after a history of three partitions of their homeland. Responsibility and social order could be readily found in 1940s New Zealand. This country was said to have legislated for morality, or "applied Christianity" as it was called, in the true sense of social justice. After all, it was those inherent understandings which inspired in Poles their fiery independence of spirit.

This book recounts much that illustrates the character I have mentioned. It will return many of us to memories, happy and sad, and to recall those who have gone before us yet left their indelible marks. And sometimes those who did not even come here but, because we knew their children and their brothers and sisters, will reside in our hearts even though they may lie on Monte Cassino with the czerwone maki (red poppies), Russia, Egypt, France or the UK – wherever.

Many New Zealanders have happy memories of aiding in the children's upbringing, participating in their Easter Sundays, Christmases and singing of Polish songs, and enjoying the welcome that they give in their homes.

This book provides a picture, in the former Polish refugee children's own words, of what life was like after being ethnically cleansed from their Polish homes and roots, deported to forced-labour camps in the USSR, and their subsequent escape and arrival in New Zealand. It also reveals the intensity of the children's early lives resulting from their experiences and the joy in the lasting bonds created within the group.

But the main focus is to give the reader an understanding of their life and integration into New Zealand society – growing up in the Polish Children's Camp, leaving for New Zealand's schools, finding work, getting married, having children and grandchildren… In short, all the trials, tribulations, joys and triumphs of successfully making it in a foreign land against so many odds.

It will pay tribute to the caregivers and good people they encountered along their tragic journey through war-torn Europe and the Middle East (at a time when goodness was indeed a rare luxury), the Ursuline Sisters, priests, teachers, and those other older persons who gave their services and love to this unique enterprise, which was born out of goodwill, rectitude and duty – not as a demonstration to the world of responsibility, but simply as an action in accordance with faith and reason.

But most of all, it will record for history a small but greatly significant occasion and acknowledge the blessings that have flowed from humanity's care for one another.