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

New Zealand is home

page 97

New Zealand is home

My first recollection of life was in a high-walled complex in Iran in one of the nobility's summer palaces. Life was good there and we had plenty to eat, including grapes and pomegranates. My brush with reality was the hungry people begging for food at the gates of the complex. I would go to the kitchen, get slices of bread and give it to the beggars. In return, some of them gave me round balls or pellets that when thrown at a wall would explode on impact – I thought it was fun. But all of this changed one day when I found our friendly dog, I think it was an Alsatian, with a slashed throat. This had a huge impact on me and I stopped going near the gate. It was my first experience of seeing the dark side of humanity.

Upon arrival in New Zealand, we were greeted by a huge crowd of people who were giving out small gifts. As we were shepherded to the train for the journey to Pahiatua, someone in the crowd handed me some candy. As I recall, it was shaped in the form of small biscuits in different colours and tasted heavenly. This was my first taste of candy.

After Iran, I could hardly believe that strangers could be so kind. I think this restored my belief in humanity. Then we were established in the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua, which to a young kid was a paradise. We made our own toys and our surroundings were a magic land – a river, native bush and the surrounding farms which we raided for turnips and were often chased away by the farmer.

On our holidays, we were billeted out to New Zealand families and I was sent to a farm. The experience was unforgettable – animals, orchards and the general smell of the farm. The farmer was very kind, and he took me and Jan Lepionka to the town in his car and bought us ice creams in a cone. I thought I was in heaven. The farm was such a fun place. Even today, when the stresses of life get too much, I transport myself mentally to this farm and this helps me to handle life.

After World War II, my father (a Polish army ex-serviceman) located me through the Red Cross. He arrived in Pahiatua in 1947 with a large group of Polish ex-servicemen who came to claim their children. He was told that he had three days to make arrangements to take me out of the camp. When he broke the news to me I burst into tears and said I didn't want to leave. I was not ready to leave all my friends who were like an extended family. I didn't page 98realise at the time that my dad didn't have a place to stay himself nor a job to support me. At the time, he was living in temporary shacks in the Newtown showgrounds in Wellington. He somehow managed to place me in St Thomas' boarding school. It was a convent run by nuns in Naenae, Lower Hutt, and was also a small farm.

In the beginning it was very difficult as my English was very poor. But within a couple of months I was able to communicate with the kids at the school. It's amazing when placed in that situation how rapidly one learns.

I liked St Thomas' except for the food. For breakfast and lunch, it was bread and butter, plus tea. For dinner, it was mashed potatoes and tripe. I couldn't stand the smell and taste of tripe. The nuns tried their best to persuade me to eat it, but as soon as their backs were turned I tossed it out the dining room window.

To make up for my poor diet, I volunteered to help in the chook house, which involved taking food scraps from the kitchen to the chook house and mixing it with mash, collecting eggs and raking up chicken poo. For this, I was rewarded with a boiled egg at the end of the week. Soon I realised that mash was quite tasty, so that became part of my diet, combined with plants that were edible, such as nasturtium leaves and flowers. Scottish thistle when stripped of its exterior has a small white fleshy piece the size of a one-cent piece – it wasn't a big meal but it was tasty. I also found a crab-apple tree and though the fruit was bitter, for me it was superior to tripe.

In winter, I volunteered to feed the cows and lay out the hay. The farmer would get molasses, mix it with hot water and then drench the hay with it. Apparently, it increased the milk output. Molasses was a treat for me. By the way, the nuns were not trying to starve us – this was a couple of years after the end of the war and most food was available only on ration cards.

My dad got a job in Hannah's Shoe Factory and visited me regularly on the weekends. Then one day in my second year at St Thomas', he didn't arrive to visit me. He came a week later and explained that he had an accident at work and lost half of his index finger on his right hand.

He received compensation of £108, so with this money he had enough for a deposit on a house. He bought a property in Seatoun Heights. It was an acre block of land with a derelict house in the middle. This land encompassed the border of Seatoun Heights Road and Sinclair Street to the cliff face. It had an uninterrupted view of the Seatoun wharf and Wellington Harbour heads – a million-dollar view. He paid £850.

The whole section was overgrown with deadly nightshade creeper. To gain access to the house, he had to use a sickle to hack his way in. The locals called this property a ghost house and it lived up to its reputation. The tin roof was page 99mostly rusted away. Two bedrooms had no flooring, and the floor boards and joists were rotted away. Lots of the windows were broken. In short, the place was fit for a bulldozer to level and start again. Money was tight and all dad could afford was secondhand materials to restore the house as cheaply as possible. It was back-breaking work, but bit by bit we managed to make it liveable.

Dad enrolled me at Marist Miramar, so it was a daily walk over the hill come rain or shine. It kept me very fit. During school holidays, my dad gave me numerous chores to do while he was at work. Apart from all the chores at home, I also got a job at the local grocer delivering groceries on a pushbike and saved enough money to buy a new pushbike. That was handy as I was able to bike to the city when I started high school at St Patrick's College.

The joy of the land far outweighed the back-breaking work. In springtime, the land became alive with wild freesias and was intoxicating with the pure sea air. Coming home, my head would be woozy. When I reflect on those times, life was hard but at the same time gratifying. I have children and often they complained about being bored. However, in my recollection I cannot recall one single day when I can honestly say I was bored. In those bad old days, I had only a few personal possessions and life was hard. But I was happy so maybe those bad old days were really good old days.

I have travelled the world in the merchant navy, on working holidays in various countries and to Poland three times, but New Zealand remains in my heart as home. I moved to Australia only for health reasons. The cold, damp Wellington climate has affected my joints so I needed to move to a warmer climate in Perth, but New Zealand has been good to me and still remains as number one in my mind.

In 1947, Ryszard Gołębiewski was reunited with his father who arrived with a group of Polish ex-servicemen to claim their children

In 1947, Ryszard Gołębiewski was reunited with his father who arrived with a group of Polish ex-servicemen to claim their children