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

Returning to Poland

page 91

Returning to Poland

On 10 February 1940, I was deported with my aunt Zofia and many other Polish citizens to far away Siberia, about 150km north-east of Bernaul. We were housed a number of families to each hut among the never-ending taiga forests, with severe cold and deep snow. To survive, my aunt had to work very hard in the forest and sawmill.

Our next journey of exile took us south to Kirghizia. Weakened by hunger, malaria and dysentery, we waited for the worst. But thanks to God's Providence and the help of the newly formed Polish army-in-exile who took us under its wing, we recuperated. We were then evacuated to Krasnovodsk, a port on the Caspian Sea. In the second half of 1942, we were transported with the Polish army by sea to Pahlevi in Iran. The army went west to the war fronts of Africa and Europe, my aunt went to Africa and I, with other children, was taken to Isfahan.

In the autumn of 1944, we were taken to New Zealand, and I came to share in the story of the Isfahan and Pahiatua children. In the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua, we were assured of very good care and livelihood, thanks to the magnificent New Zealand Government, and also our Polish teachers and guardians.

My character was formed under these auspicious conditions and I gained an education up to the fifth year of primary school. My religious upbringing is due to the good priest Father Michał Wilniewczyc. I remember the freedom we experienced there, thanks to which I believe we were able to catch up with some of our lost childhood. Much could be written about the camp, such as the care given by the staff. I am very grateful for those years in particular.

My mother Michalina died in 1939 in Krzywice near Borszczów, which is now in the Ukraine. My father Stefan was called up by the Polish army in 1938 and later taken to the front. He survived the war and imprisonment. After the war, he returned to his native village near Miechów in the Kraków province. He traced me to Pahiatua and decided to bring me home. I was carefully prepared for the journey by my relatives at the camp, especially Krystyna Manterys and her brother Stanislaw, and on 17 April 1948 with other returning children I boarded the Rangitata, which sailed through the Panama Canal to London.

In London, we boarded the Polish liner MS Batory and reached Gdynia page 92(north Poland) on 31 May. I then travelled to Kraków with Mrs Sygierycz, a teacher from the Pahiatua camp. There I was met by my father and we travelled to Miechów, and then by horse cart to my birthplace in Zarogów.

It was the wet season, so the wheels got stuck and slithered on the muddy road, and the cart teetered from side to side. I thought we would sink in the mire. After an hour of this, we at long last arrived home where we were met by my stepmother (my father remarried in my absence) and a small half-sister Basia. For many days and weeks afterwards, the local people would come visiting, curious about me and how I looked and behaved. I was asked to speak and sing in English. Some were impressed, others simply joked about it. I was a foreigner among my own. I ignored this and after a while was absorbed into my new surroundings, though my behaviour was very distinct from those around me.

In September 1948, I was enrolled in Standard 4, even though I had a certificate of having attained Standard 5 in New Zealand. Having checked my knowledge, after two weeks my teacher sent me to Standard 5.

In the aftermath of the German and Russian invasions, the country was in ruins. The classes were held in an old and cold building. The village was overcrowded and rather poor – there was no electricity, and the houses and roads were in poor condition. In summer, the roads were dusty, in spring the mud made them impassable and in winter the rutted surface was frozen solid. Snow storms would cut off the village from the town and the only doctor in the district. There was also no farm machinery – all work had to be done manually with back-breaking toil, assisted only by horse power. Water was drawn from wells. The people led a quiet life, maintaining their age-old traditions.

There was also the mass exodus to the cities (which were rising faster from the ruins than the countryside), mainly of the young people to the coalmines of Silesia where work was more plentiful. So the villages depopulated.

I made slow but steady progress at school and was slowly absorbed into the community, though I still had few friends. I learned to work very hard. We had no money and my father didn't own land, but he was willingly hired by farmers who gave him work in exchange for other services. After a time, my father found a piece of no-man's land from a former aristocrat's landholding. We demolished the old stables and pigsties by hand, filled in the old fishponds and cut down an abandoned orchard. We did all this hard work in our spare time. We then planted potatoes from which to live and for spare cash. My workload and responsibilities increased.

Four more sisters were born from my father's second marriage. I was their elder brother, mentor and guardian. It became more difficult to study and I page 93completed seven years of primary school with some difficulty, though I could now choose my career according to my means and ability.

In 1951 I turned 14 and wanted to be a sailor, so I applied to the maritime school in Gdynia. But because I had spent time in a foreign country and a capitalist one at that, I was rejected (the totalitarian communist regimes thought staying in a capitalist country tainted that person with capitalism). I then applied to a technical school of building in Kraków, but this time I pointed out in my application that I did not know how I got to New Zealand and omitted my deportation to Siberia (we had to keep quiet about that for fear that we would be accused of anti-state propaganda). I was accepted and stayed there for a year until forced to leave from lack of funds. I returned home to help my father on the farm and around the surrounding farms. Because of my age, I couldn't find a permanent job.

I then witnessed many changes in the rural economy. The first was the building of power lines, and the connection of electricity to houses and farm buildings. One day a switch was turned on and all was light and bright. Life was different. A fixed one-station radio was also installed in each house, which broadcast the state-controlled station from morning to evening. Work soon began on an asphalt road. All the farmers joined in the heavy labour, shovelling and carting dirt, and levelling the road. The surface was then firmed-up by hand pounders and the asphalting was paid for by the local council. Thus ended the nightmare of boggy roads and our village was drawn closer to the town.

The farmers began renovating the buildings and erected some new ones. The next stage was establishing a bus route through the village. At first, the local people were sceptical of who would use the buses, but soon it became obvious how necessary they were for the village and their frequency increased to 14 buses per day. Mechanisation of farm equipment was the next stage in making village life easier. Horses ceased to be the sole mode of power and their numbers declined. The village people began buying home appliances, such as refrigerators, washing machines, radios and later TVs. The difference between village and town life became less pronounced. The transformation was completed by the installation of water pipes from an underground well to the houses and farm buildings.

In the spring of 1953, I was called-up to the State Youth Movement for compulsory and unpaid work in rebuilding Poland. While working there, I passed my driver's licence. We were disbanded after a year. I then migrated from the village, and worked in paid employment as a driver's assistant in Będzin and later as a driver. The pay was poor, so I moved to Sosnowiec and worked in the railways stores loading and unloading wagons.

page 94

I was 20 when, in 1956, I married and lived in my wife's small apartment. To avoid military service, I took a job in a coalmine and worked below ground at the coal face, loading coal onto a conveyer. The work was hard and dangerous, but I enjoyed it. After three years, I returned to the railroad stores. In the meantime, our two sons Mieczysław and Andrzej were born.

Working and gaining experience, I was promoted to storeman and later to store manager. My wages were less and it was difficult to keep a family of four. So to improve my financial situation, I went to Myslowice and worked as store manager in the coal industry. I attended evening classes and obtained the essential qualifications which I had lacked up until now. I worked there until my retirement in 1992.

This is a short description of my life and achievements, mainly based on hard work which often went to the limits of my endurance, with never any time for "blowing-off steam" or youthful entertainment. I was entirely self sufficient and started everything from zero. I am sure that all the Pahiatua children also worked hard to achieve anything and have great satisfaction from their efforts.

Henryk Dziura (with beret) shortly before returning to Poland, 1948

Henryk Dziura (with beret) shortly before returning to Poland, 1948