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

Kiwi holidays — Emilia Henderson (Sondej)

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Kiwi holidays

Emilia Henderson (Sondej)

While looking through a box of memorabilia, I came across my very first autograph book. It was given to me during the May holidays in 1945. I still remember the train ride from Pahiatua to Inglewood and a nice lady with two girls waiting to meet us.

Thinking back, my admiration for that brave woman grows with time. Not too many people would be willing to invite into their home a complete stranger from an orphanage who does not speak their language, but this lady took two of us. Actually, many New Zealanders volunteered and the train was crowded with the inhabitants from the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua. We all had tags attached to us with our names, destination and names of the families where we would be staying.

My total vocabulary of the English language consisted of only a few words. "Thank you", "please", "yes", "no", "good morning" and "goodnight" were some of them, as well as my version of the words of the song You Are My Sunshine, but I didn't know most of their meanings. My friend Władysława Węgrzyn may have had a better command of this strange new language but neither of us could speak in sentences.

After the formalities of matching tags to the recipients, our hosts welcomed us, or so it seemed, while we smiled back and nodded our heads. We were trained to be ultra polite and super obedient, but we had no social skills at all. I know that I didn't. Next, we all dispersed in different directions.

On arrival we were given a cup of tea and biscuits. That was my first tea with milk and I still like it that way. The girls' names were Anne and Sylvia, and they would have been more or less our age. They were friendly, telling us things, showing photos and asking questions, but we had great difficulty understanding and an absolute inability in answering.

Władyslawa and I had a big bed to sleep in and a whole room just for the two of us. On our first morning, we awoke when we heard someone moving in the house. Nobody told us to get up, but it seemed wrong to be lying in bed and we wanted to do the right thing. So after a short discussion, we got up, tiptoed to the bathroom, got dressed and made the bed. We did not know what to do next. We weren't given any chores to do and being away from the camp routine we were lost. After some deliberation, we decided not to leave the room until we were instructed to do so. We said our morning page 101prayers, tidied our few belongings, sat on the edge of the bed and waited, talking very quietly.

Maybe they'd forgotten about us because the house seemed quiet again. But before I could reveal my thoughts to Wladyslawa, the door opened after a gentle knock and our hostess came in with a big smile on her face, greeting us with a cheerful "good morning". Of course, we knew the reply to that but we did not know what to do with the tray laden with a mountain of toast, jam and tea that she placed on the bed. Could it be just for us or do we share it with the rest of the family? We need not have worried, and despite the language barrier she got the message across to us and from then on we were hooked on the breakfast-in-bed idea.

Later that day, Anne took us to see an old Polish lady from an earlier immigration. She was frail but interested in the fact that we were from Poland. I think she said a few words to us in Polish but I mainly remember the sad, bewildered, faraway look on her face, and while the family was telling her about us two tears rolled down her cheeks. I assumed that she was remembering things from long ago since she arrived in New Zealand as a very small child. I also often cried when I thought of Poland and my home, but only at night when it was dark. Somehow I felt good about being Polish.

Our first Sunday in Inglewood started with the Mass where we saw other Polish children from the camp. We automatically gravitated towards each other, eager to exchange a few words without having to struggle with this peculiar English language that made no sense, and for the first time in our lives we were surrounded by it. The Pahiatua camp was home to us until we would return to Poland, but at the time we didn't know that it wasn't to be.

In the afternoon our hosts had visitors and we caught a glimpse of the beautifully set table with all sorts of sweet delicacies. Right in the middle was a big sponge cake filled with raspberry jam and a thick layer of whipped cream. A light sprinkling of icing sugar on top made it a sight to behold but our shyness held us back from joining the others. We wanted to do the right thing and all those goodies on the table were tempting, but nobody told us exactly what was expected of us.

I was good at following orders but none were forthcoming. The afternoon dragged on. Eventually the visitors left and the table was cleared. I felt that in some way we had let these kind people down and expected some sort of reprisal, but none came. Soon our hostess called us into the kitchen and out of the safe produced two wedges of the most delicious, spongiest delicacy that we ever tasted. She had kept some for us and with a smile told us to eat. At the end of our holiday the girls gave us an autograph book each with entries made by each member of the family.

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There were other holidays and generous people to whom I will always be grateful and I deeply regret that I didn't maintain contact with them, but I honestly didn't know how. Maybe one day our paths will cross again.

My first year of secondary school education was not a great success. Irena Banach and I were sent to St Mary's College in Wellington. Despite the fact that we still couldn't speak English very well, we were expected to cope with the same work as the rest of the class. We also became aware that speaking in our native tongue met with disapproval. The theory being that if we spoke Polish less, we'd learn English sooner. I guess that makes sense but it didn't work for me, because in the process I was losing my identity, and all that was Polish was an integral part of me.

Irena lived at the boarding school and I was boarding in a private home. We were both lonely and missing our familiar environment. The camp gave us a sense of belonging and security, but that was taken away from us. All in all, it was a bad year for me. The next year followed in the same fashion but Irena was no longer in my class.

Though people were kind to me, I did not feel like I belonged in this new environment. The family that I was living with the previous year moved away from Wellington so another home was found for me. Again, I was learning how to fit into a new situation. I was still missing my Polish friends and the fragile security of the Pahiatua camp. After all, it was the only home I had since we were deported to Siberia and later separated from our parents.

Despite the well-meaning people around me, I felt very unhappy and there was no one that I could turn to. I wasn't making much progress at school and so any self esteem that I may have acquired during my last couple of years at the camp completely evaporated.

One day I was sent out of the classroom because there was someone to see me. It was a priest I had never seen before. After a polite "good morning, Father", I timidly stood to attention and waited. Then this kind and cheerful-looking man introduced himself as Father Joe Leahy. He was taking over Father Kavanagh's work with the Polish children.

He gave me my usual 10s pocket money for the month, looked me up and down, and said: "You are a tragic sight. A holiday on the farm will fix that." I said "yes, Father" and "thank you, Father", and forgot all about it. A few days later, Father Leahy returned to school with a train ticket for me from Wellington to Eltham, with some instructions on how to get the bus to Opunake. It seemed straightforward because all I had to remember was to ask the driver to drop me off at Pat Leahy's house, where I would spend the first week of the school holidays. Pat was Father Leahy's brother.

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Soon enough I was on the train, clutching my crocheted string bag that I had made myself. My bedraggled suitcase was in the luggage compartment and I was concerned that it might not be intact by the end of the trip as the lock on one side didn't work. It was a five-hour journey, and at various stops people got off to get a drink and something to eat.

Tea was served in the white, solid china railway cups, conspicuously branded with "New Zealand Railways" in large black letters. Saucers matched the cups and the lot would be left on the train to be collected by the railway employees at some later stage.

I didn't get off because I was worried that the train might leave without me. I still remembered the Russian railway system where trains stopped for no apparent reason and left with no warning, leaving people stranded and never to be seen by their families again. The countryside was more familiar to me now since my first visit to Inglewood and I knew the names of the stations, but I remained alert so I wouldn't go past my stop.

This time I recognised the station before I saw the sign and, as Father Leahy predicted, I found the bus stop across from the station. The bus driver had a pleasant face and when I gave him my instructions as to my destination, he grinned and said: "You must be the Polish girl that Father Joe sent."

Soon after we left Eltham, I could see in the distance ahead to my right the beautiful Mount Egmont (Taranaki), with its peak shrouded by a cloud. It was a fine day. On either side of the road, the green undulating countryside spread as far as I could see and the sun was sliding towards the west. I knew that it would take about an hour to get to the Leahys' farm, but I didn't own a watch so I had no idea of how long we had been travelling. Most of the people got off the bus along the way so I assumed that soon it would be me.

I loved the rolling, green hilly paddocks with some farm houses near the road and others well in the distance. The milking was finished and the cows seemed to know where they were going with little human intervention. The sun was lower now and the memory of another sunset from a long time ago, still in Poland, came back to me.

Sunsets had spelled security, warmth and a sense of belonging. But then came the day in Kazakhstan in 1942 when my mother put us on the train with the other children bound for orphanages and survival. It was afternoon. As the train moved away from the station and mother's tear-stained face vanished into the distance, my sister Stefania and I kept on sobbing. Leon, our elder brother, tried to be brave but with little success. Stefania was thirsty and pleading for a drink of water in between her sobs, but there wasn't any and we didn't know what to do.

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As the afternoon dragged on, exhaustion set in and we must have dropped off to sleep, because the next thing I remember was seeing the sun low on the horizon and Stefania's crumpled tear-stained face between me and the window. That is still the worst moment of my life because I really knew then that mother would no longer be around for us.

The older boys in the carriage behind us were singing O Mój Rozmarynie, Rozwijaj Się. It is a Polish song about rosemary, war and rejection, and every time I hear it I am transported back to that day. The train was passing through a settlement with mud huts along the railway line. They represented families, warmth and safety. Outside a hut a little boy was crying and, as the train sped past, a young woman dressed in the typical Kazakhstan attire (with the head cover slipping down to her shoulders) rushed out of the hut, scooped him up and hugged him. The sun had almost disappeared and I knew that no one would hug me tonight.

A damp sensation on my cheeks jolted me back to reality, and I became aware that I was still travelling along Eltham road to Opunake towards my holiday on the farm. I was the only passenger on the bus and the driver was slowing down, so I filed my memories back into the past and with more than just a little apprehension I looked around me.

When the bus stopped outside a gate, four little faces turned towards the road and all activity ceased. Out of the house a slim, smiling, dark-haired woman rushed out towards the gate saying to the children: "Emilia has arrived." Little did I know then that the Leahy family would become part of my life from that day on. Soon the so-called tribe of kids that Father Joe told me about became David, Terence, Maurice, Margaret and Brian, the baby in the pram. From our first meeting, Terence, who must have been about six or seven years old, accepted me as a likely pupil and took it upon himself to show and tell me everything.

It was getting dark, so we couldn't venture far, but we managed to see the chooks and I was told that in the morning they would take me to look at the cowshed. After dinner there was another treat for me. We all filed out of the house, except for Pat who was reading the paper and Brian who was asleep. We climbed a little hill and one of the boys shouted "Look, Emilia, the Opunake lights!" And so they were. Not many, not bright and far in the distance, but the only few lights that I could see. Pat was amused by our expedition and laughing, said to me: "Now that you've seen the lights of Opunake, you've seen it all."

Within a few days of my arrival, I slipped into the Leahy routine. Simplicity and absolute informality at all times and in all things suited me just fine. The page 105children accepted me being around. Even Margaret, a gorgeous, serious-faced, curly headed toddler, seemed to be firmly attached to my hand wherever we went. Actually, we are still good friends and so is the rest of the family. But I am ahead of myself.

During that first week, I discovered that it wasn't important to be good at cooking, sewing or at anything else for that matter. Mary seemed to have enough confidence for the two of us and took everything in her stride. She didn't praise and she didn't criticise. In fact, it never occurred to her that I may not know how to do something, and before long I was producing stacks of biscuits and cakes, which were quickly consumed by the family.

One day, the scones turned out a good bit on the solid side. I felt concerned as my inferiority complex was a mile long and I craved approval, so I tried to do everything well. Mary looked at the latest culinary offering and told me that they were just like hers and suggested that I should put a little extra blackberry jam on them because that's what she did. A day later, Mary and I packed the children into the car and set out for the Opunake beach. First we went to the shops where I met most of the locals and discovered that a lot of them were related to Mary, or so it seemed at the time.

I was introduced as the Polish girl that Father Joe sent, and that, going by the reaction of the locals, was in my favour. It was obvious that they already knew all about me and, since some of them were related to the descendants of the Polish families who arrived in Taranaki during an earlier immigration in the 19th Century, it was enough to almost qualify me as a soulmate.

Eventually we got to the beach to eat the sandwiches that Mary prepared before we left home. It was pleasant in the warm sunshine, sitting on the sand, and listening to the waves breaking on the shore and receding with a swish, while Mary was talking to yet another friend. The conversation must have been suddenly directed to me, as Mary was saying: "Do you really need to go back to Wellington so soon, Emilia. Would you like to stay another week?" In those days, I didn't know that I was allowed to have a choice, so I explained that I already had the ticket and the family I was boarding with would be expecting me back. That didn't present a problem to Mary and soon we were on the way home to make new arrangements.

Pat rang Father Joe and in the blink of an eye my plans were changed so I stayed on the farm for another week. My visits to the farm continued and Father Joe's work with the Polish children finished, though the friendship remained. After college, I went nursing and each time the exam results appeared in the paper a congratulations note from Father Joe would arrive. From time to time, he would ring with a message from Mary and to see how I was coping.

After I was married, he was a frequent visitor in my home, as were all page 106the members of the Leahy family, including the youngest two, Patricia and Gerard, who were born well after my first visit to the farm. Now Gerard and his wife Delwyn with their two lovely teenage children, Kate and Simon, live very close to me and the friendship conceived more than half a century ago, before any of them were born, continues.

Father Joe, Pat and Mary are dead now, but not in my memory. I fondly remember the times we spent together and the various occasions that we shared. Above all, I value their simplicity, generosity and sense of humour.

I remember one evening the four of us standing by the window in the house in Korokoro, Petone, looking at the lights in Wellington Harbour spanning from Oriental Bay all the way to Day's Bay and the Hutt Valley. It was a spectacular sight. In silence, we watched as the Picton ferry, all lit up, slid away from the quay on its way to the South Island. Father Joe said: "It's magnificent!" Pat was quick to reply: "Just like the Opunake lights."

Emilia Sondej (left) with Pat and Mary Leahy, 8 March 1953

Emilia Sondej (left) with Pat and Mary Leahy, 8 March 1953