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

The Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua

page 24

The Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua

The piece of land on State Highway 2, some 3km south of Pahiatua where the rest area with the Polish Children's Memorial is situated, was once part of the Pahiatua Racecourse, established in 1901.

Shortly after Japan entered World War II on 7 December 1941, the New Zealand Government rounded-up all foreign enemy nationals (Germans, Italians, Japanese and Samoans of German extraction) and interned them on Somes (Matiu) Island in Wellington Harbour. However, the fortification of Somes Island meant that the internees had to be shifted. In 1942, a prison camp was built at Pahiatua Racecourse for these "alien" civilian internees.

When on 9 June 1943 the US transport ship Hermitage, carrying a group of 706 Polish refugees from Iran to Mexico, anchored for a short time at Wellington, the wife of the Polish Consul, Countess Maria Wodzicka, visited them and conceived an idea of bringing some of the other Polish orphans from Iran to New Zealand. She shared her idea with Prime Minister Peter Fraser's wife, and eventually that idea become a reality when Mr Fraser and his government offered hospitality to 733 Polish children and 102 staff who were to accompany them. So the journey from Isfahan to Pahiatua began.

On 1 November 1944, Mr Fraser, the Polish Consul Count Kazimierz Wodzicki and his wife Countess Maria Wodzicka welcomed the children to New Zealand on board the USS General Randall in Wellington. That same day, the last part of the long journey was completed by two special trains from Wellington to Pahiatua.

The Polish children were farewelled from Wellington Railway Station by hundreds of Wellington school children waving New Zealand and Polish flags. There were also big welcomes at Palmerston North and Pahiatua, and all along the way there were groups of children waving to the arrivals. In a gesture of further goodwill, some of those children were driven to other railway stations to cheer on the refugees again.

Thirty-three army trucks transported the arrivals from Pahiatua station to the old internment camp whose official name was now the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua. At last they had a new home. The long journey was over.

Ladies from Pahiatua's Polish Children's Hospitality Committee prepared the beds, put flowers on tables and tidied up the camp for their arrival. The camp was administered by the New Zealand army. All army maintenance staff took orders from Camp Commandant Major Foxley. In addition, the page 25Polish administration was headed by the Polish Delegate Jan Śledziński and the Polish staff received their orders from him.

All teaching at the camp was in Polish and even some of its street names were in Polish. It was intended that after the war all the children and staff would return to Poland. However, after the Russians had pushed the Germans back across Poland in 1945, the Russians installed a pro-Soviet communist government in Poland and retained, with some adjustments, the territories occupied in 1939. It was at this stage that the New Zealand Government assured the children and staff that they were welcome to remain in New Zealand.

The limited financial assistance from the Polish Government-in-Exile in London soon came to an end and the New Zealand Government took over the entire financing of the camp. The Polish authorities were aware of the huge costs of running the camp, and it was decided to try to lower them by cultivating a vegetable garden, and taking over the running of the laundry and kitchens.

The children performed their duties and chores outside of school hours by cleaning the campgrounds, working in the vegetable gardens, cutting the grass, washing dishes, and also tidying their dormitories, classrooms and washrooms. To help them get acquainted with the New Zealand way of life, the army and Catholic hierarchy collected 830 invitations from New Zealand families for the Polish children and adults to spend two weeks' holiday with them in May 1945 and January 1946.

In early 1945, one of the first groups of girls left the camp to attend New Zealand schools, and at the beginning of the 1946 school year a second group left for Catholic secondary schools or to towns to learn various trades. Towards the end of 1946, the new Russian-installed Warsaw Government sent a special envoy to New Zealand, Mrs Zebrowska, to inspect the living conditions of the Polish children in the camp and New Zealand schools. After inspecting the camp, she returned to Poland completely satisfied with the conditions.

As the Polish army was demobilised, there arose the possibility of bringing some of the children's relatives to New Zealand. Soon afterwards, Polish ex-servicemen and other relatives began arriving from Africa, India and Britain. In 1948, they formed the Polish Association in New Zealand, which was based in Wellington. Thus, the children formed the nucleus around which the Polish post-war community in New Zealand developed.

The exodus from the camp continued as each year those children who had finished Polish school up to Standard 6 left for New Zealand schools or apprenticeships. The last group of children left the camp on 15 April 1949. Thus, by the time the camp was closed in 1949, many of the children were page 26already working or attending New Zealand day and boarding schools. The youngest girls were transferred to the Polish Girls' Hostel "Ngaroma" in Queen's Drive, Lyall Bay, Wellington, which closed in 1958. The older boys were accommodated at the Polish Boys' Hostel, Clyde Street, Island Bay, Wellington, until 1952. A group of the youngest boys was cared for at the Polish Boys' Hostel in Princess Street, Hawera, until 1954.

When the last of them left the camp, it was converted to accommodate "displaced persons" who migrated from forced-labour camps in Germany. They were also stateless because of the boundary changes in Europe after the war. By 1952, the last people left the camp and it was finally closed.

The buildings were sold for use as barns, halls and beach cottages. Some of the best-preserved camp buildings are still in use, such as at the Southern Cross Abbey in Takapau, Hawke's Bay. The land then reverted to farmland. Thereafter, nothing remained of the original camp to remind anyone that a huge camp had existed, except for a small grotto shrine on its northern perimeter which the Polish children had helped to build from rocks from the local Mangatainoka River in 1945 for their religious devotions.

In 1971, the Jaycees of Pahiatua notified the Polish Association in Wellington that the grotto structure was rapidly deteriorating. The former children of the camp felt that they could not allow the only tangible reminder of their happy years at the camp to disappear. So the Polish Children's Memorial Committee was convened to build a monument and establish a rest area.

The land and air-landing strip for top-dressing on which the former camp stood was now owned by Balfour Stud Farm Limited, and part of it was donated for the rest area through Mr P Williamson of Wellington. The rest area was established at the northern entrance to the old camp, and the stones and masonry from the grotto shrine were incorporated in the monument now standing there.

The monument, a white marble monolith, was unveiled on 22 February 1975. Based on Greek mythology, its shadow at midday represents a mother holding a child. A historical noticeboard, prepared by Józef Zawada under the auspices of the Historical Places Trust, was unveiled in the rest area by John Falloon, the Member of Parliament for Pahiatua, on 23 October 1994 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Polish children.