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

Prime Minister's letters

page 27

Prime Minister's letters

The Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua was the very first humanitarian experiment by the New Zealand Government in assisting a large group of refugees to this country. It was not so much a deliberate immigration policy, but rather a humanitarian vision by Prime Minister Peter Fraser when he learnt of the Polish children's plight when they were in the temporary refugee camps in Iran. These letters reveal that he and his government always regarded the children as their guests.

The first letter is dated almost a year before the children's arrival and the second was written five years later in the year before the camp's closure. The New Zealand Government had no precedent to follow other than its willingness to give it a go.

To Count Wodzicki, Polish Consul to New Zealand

28 December 1943

My dear Count Wodzicki,

With reference to our discussion concerning the reception of the Polish refugee children in New Zealand and the meeting held in my office on Tuesday, 14 December, I have to inform you that the New Zealand Government would be very willing to afford hospitality in New Zealand to a total number of persons, including staff, of say 500 or 700, whichever number your government considered more convenient.

Our whole conception of the scheme is that it should cater for the largest number of children and would, therefore, wish that as many children as possible should be included within the total number who might come to New Zealand. We recognise, of course, that it is essential that sufficient staff should accompany the children, and we would be willing, if the Polish Government so desired, to receive, within the total number of 500 to 700, a number of mothers of the children.

The New Zealand Government would make all arrangements in connection with the establishment of the camp and would provide all necessary capital equipment, such as beds, bedding, furniture, kitchenware, etc. Responsibility for maintenance costs, such as food and clothing, would also be accepted by the New Zealand Government subject to discussion on questions of detail with whatever authority may be nominated by your government.

I understand that, in company with the government officers concerned, page 28you and the Countess Wodzicki visited the Internment Camp in Pahiatua on Wednesday, 15 December. If, after consideration of plans, it is decided that this camp would be suitable for the accommodation of the children, and, generally speaking, it does appear that it will meet all requirements, we would arrange for it to be vacated by its present occupants and made ready for the reception of the children.

I would suggest, on the assumption that the arrangements proposed for the reception of the Polish refugee children in New Zealand are acceptable to your government, that nearer the time when the children will leave, arrangements may be made for the camp commandant designate to travel to New Zealand in advance of the main party. He could, I feel sure, afford us valuable assistance in ensuring that, as far as possible, the layout and facilities of the camp will meet the requirements of the children and staff when they arrive.

P Fraser

Prime Minister

To Szczęsny Zaleski, representative of the Polish Government-in-Exile

Mr S Zaleski Senior Polish Official Polish Children's Camp Pahiatua 17 August 1948

Dear Sir,

I wish to refer to our recent discussions concerning the arrangements which might be made to safeguard further the care and wellbeing of the Polish children in New Zealand. As you are aware, the New Zealand authorities have always regarded the children as their guests and will continue to do so, but it is possible that some of them may now, or at some later time, wish to leave New Zealand and return to Poland. They may, therefore, wish to know the extent to which the Government will assist the repatriation of those who choose to return to Poland.

It has been suggested that those who have attained the age of 18 years and over should be given the opportunity of deciding whether they would like to return or to remain in New Zealand. I would like to inform you and those young Poles that, if they wish to go back to Poland, their repatriation will be facilitated or, if they choose to remain in New Zealand, they will be welcome to do so. It is the Government's wish that those young people should have page 29complete freedom of choice and that their decision should not be influenced by any consideration other than their future happiness.

It is anticipated that some of those who have attained the age of 18 might not then wish to make an election. In that event, there is no reason why such young people should not have three years in which to determine whether they wish to return to Poland. The Government is prepared to meet the full cost of the repatriation of those between the ages of 18 and 21 who choose to return to Poland.

Adults over 21 wishing to return, however, will have been in employment and should have been able to save from their earnings sufficient to make full financial provision to cover the cost of passage to Poland. If, however, there should be any case in which special assistance towards the cost of passage is desired, the Government will consider, on the merits of each case, their application for repatriation assistance for the purpose of determining whether any assistance is warranted.

I would like to make the contents of this letter known to all the persons having children under their care and these persons should be requested to assist in both the letter and the spirit of the Government's policy. Those employed in looking after the children should be asked to inform them of the Government's decision.

P Fraser

Prime Minister

Dominion of New Zealand Prime Minister's Office Wellington

Source: Archives New Zealand

Peter Fraser, Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1940 to 1949. He believed that the loss of children Poland suffered was New Zealand's gain. He wrote: "With myself, the interests of the children have been the paramount and decisive consideration"

Peter Fraser, Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1940 to 1949. He believed that the loss of children Poland suffered was New Zealand's gain. He wrote: "With myself, the interests of the children have been the paramount and decisive consideration"

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