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

The good and the bad

page 89

The good and the bad

I arrived in New Zealand with my sisters Helena, Zofia, Maria and Alfreda while our father was still in active service in the Polish army. I was 20 years old and assigned to work at the hospital in the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua as a nurse aide. At one time, I had to look after a boy who died soon after, but that was no shock to me. During my years in the USSR I had seen many people die.

I was one of the first girls sent out from the camp to work in the New Zealand community in 1945. We were not quite sure where we were going and most apprehensive as to what it was going to be like to work there. When the train started, even though many times before we had started a journey into the unknown, this was different – there were only four of us and the rest, including my sisters, stayed behind. I started to cry. Lewisham Hospital in Newtown, Wellington, was our destination. This hospital was later called Calvary Hospital and is now known as Wakefield Hospital.

I had great problems in understanding instructions. One day, I was told to take a glass of milk to a person in bed No 9 in room No 10, or maybe it was the other way round? Anyway, I gave it to a person who was going for an operation that afternoon and it had to be postponed. The Sister said that it could have been she who had given me wrong instructions.

At first we lived in a small room by the kitchen but then we were shifted to a small house just by the hospital. There we felt free to speak in Polish and sing our favourite Polish songs. We were allowed to go to the pictures in the evening but had to be back by a certain hour. That was enough to give us a feeling of freedom. My first pay was £1 4s. We used our money wisely. If, for example, one of us needed a pair of shoes, we put our spare shillings together and she bought her shoes. Then every one of us bought a pair of shoes paid for in the same way from our future pay packets.

Slowly my English improved and I enjoyed my work as a nurse aide. At one time, I had the privilege to serve meals to Prime Minister Peter Fraser. On the day he was leaving the hospital, I collected his tray in the usual way and took it to the kitchen. There I noticed an envelope on the tray. Quickly, I went back to return the envelope to him. He smiled and said: "This is for you Polish girls." In the envelope was a £10 note. In those days you could buy a lot with £10.

page 90

It was while working in the hospital that I met my future husband, Mr Biesiek, who came from a family of early Polish settlers who had already integrated completely into the New Zealand society. We married in 1946 and lived in Inglewood. But I was not yet quite ready to live among New Zealanders all by myself. Worse still, in 1949, my four sisters left New Zealand to join our father in France.

In the early days, not all New Zealanders were tolerant. I remember one time when I was employed in a clothing factory. Myself and another Polish woman spoke in Polish to each other during morning-tea time. The manager called me into his office and told me not to speak Polish because he'd had complaints from the staff that we were talking about them. In helpless anger, we gave each one of the workers a name such as "cow" and "bell". Even my husband told me off when I spoke in Polish to one of my friends when she visited me: "This is an English country and you speak English."

We had four children and things got better. I also visited my family in France and the US. Sixty years later at the age of 80, I am leading a quiet life. I am grateful for my life – the good and the bad of it, the happy moments and the sad.

With fellow staff from the camp's hospital and a young patient. (l-r) Stefania Jasionowicz, Sister Johnson, Janina Duynhoven (Kornobis), Sister Leaming

With fellow staff from the camp's hospital and a young patient. (l-r) Stefania Jasionowicz, Sister Johnson, Janina Duynhoven (Kornobis), Sister Leaming