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

Brief history of Poland

Brief history of Poland

page 18

The circumstances of the Polish refugee children's arrival in New Zealand are very far removed from the normal experience of the average citizen in a peaceful country such as New Zealand. Here is a brief historical background of the children's origins – a turbulent history of invasions, betrayals and persecutions that has moulded the Polish character, and which cannot be understood without that context. It goes some way towards explaining the children's deep attachment to the language, faith and culture of their lost homeland. For more information, the very readable Heart of Europe: A Short History of Poland by Norman Davies is recommended.

The beginnings

The recorded history of Poland began in 966 when its ruler accepted Christianity and joined the community of European nations. The country's name derives from "Polanie"–one of the Slavonic tribes who lived on the Central European Plain. It is bordered by Germany in the west, Belarus and the Ukraine in the east, the Carpathian mountains in the south, and Lithuania, Russia and the Baltic Sea in the north.

In the 15th and 16th centuries the Polish kingdom, in a union with Lithuania, was the largest and most powerful country in Europe. After the last hereditary monarch died in 1572, the nobility elected all future kings – some of them foreigners with little interest in the country's welfare, thereby exposing it to external aggression.

Poland soon found itself in the rare position of having several powerful neighbours squeezing its borders at the same time and being at the mercy of four emerging empires. Within a short period, it was forced to repel invasions from Sweden, the Mongolian Golden Horde, and the empires of Prussia, Russia, Ottoman Turkey and Austria. Its borders were in constant flux.

The first downfall

Weakened internally, the country gradually succumbed to the combined pressure from the Prussian (the future Germany), Russian and Austrian empires, which partitioned the country between them. So in 1795, Poland disappeared from the map of Europe for the next 123 years. The irony of history is that Poland, under its king Jan Sobieski, had earlier saved the Austrian Empire and Europe from a Turkish invasion.

Before its downfall, Poland, under its last king, experienced a resurgence of culture and learning, which on 3 May 1791 resulted in the proclamation page 19of a constitution and far-reaching peaceful reforms – the first in Europe. The anniversary of that event is now Poland's national day. One of the reasons for Poland's partitions was its neighbours' fear that the "rot" of reform could permeate to their own subjects. The loss of their nationhood saw an upsurge of patriotism and a flowering of Polish learning, literature, arts, folk culture and scientific discovery. Unable to express themselves under foreign rule, or exiled after unsuccessful uprisings, the educated gentry took their culture and skills to enrich the cultures of other, more fortunate nations.

To mention a few of these luminaries – Chopin is a household name in music, Pulaski of the American Revolution has his own national day in the US and Kośoeciuszko has the highest mountain in Australia named after him. The exiles fought in other people's wars, the American War of Independence, and campaigned with Napoleon Bonaparte in the futile hope of regaining their nationhood. Those that remained at home kept the Polish language and culture alive, resisting their destruction by the occupiers.

Those dispossessed by the eviction policies of the German occupiers were forced to migrate and a group found themselves pioneering in Taranaki, New Zealand, towards the end of the 19th Century.

Brief resurgence

An independent Poland re-emerged under Józef Pilsudski at the end of World War I (after 123 years of occupation). During the following 21 years, it struggled to recreate internal unity and rebuild a fragmented infrastructure inherited from its three separate invaders. A major achievement was the building of a modern port and city – Gdynia – which was the only such undertaking in recent European history. In 1920, Poland's army stopped the USSR from invading Europe.

The second downfall – World War II

The clouds of war gathered again and Poland's neighbours Germany and Russia, the two most powerful military regimes in Europe, invaded in 1939, plunging the nation into chaos and despair under even worse bondage. It is from here that the history of the Polish refugee children's story begins. Towards the end of the war in 1945, Poland was betrayed by the Allies at the Yalta Conference and was ceded to the Soviet Union.

Independent again

Poland regained independence 50 years later when its peaceful Solidarity movement (Solidarność), led by the nation's future President Lech Wałęsa, was instrumental in the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union.