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

It was paradise

page 109

It was paradise

At the beginning of 1945, mail began arriving for the children whose fathers were in the Polish army-in-exile. This created great excitement as we'd had no word from them for many months. It had already been explained to us that mail from the war zones was censored before being sent on and therefore took a long time to reach us.

Some of the children in the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua received mail and they were very happy, knowing that their fathers were alive and well. But for those of us who didn't get a letter, we had no idea what could have happened to our fathers, and so we were worried and upset. We were told that the mail could have been lost, as many ships carrying mail were torpedoed and sunk by enemy submarines. We were told not to be too upset, but to be patient because the officials who had our particulars were looking for members of our families.

In the mail that came there was money for the children, which caused great excitement and a trip into town was organised for them to go shopping. The children from my dormitory who'd received mail and had gone shopping came back with all sorts of wonderful things, including pencil sharpeners, new pocket knives, little clocks and of course lollies. They also brought back stories of the wonderful shop that they had spent their money in. They said it was a very big shop, with long, long counters filled with all sorts of goods. Later we knew the shop to be Woolworths.

The rest of us could only look forward to the time that we would have money to spend there, and as it turned out we didn't have long to wait. We were told that those of us who hadn't received any money would be given some so that we could go shopping. I remember going into this brightly lit shop with all the different items on display and not knowing what to buy. I noticed all of the pretty girls behind the counters smiling at us, but I don't know what they thought of us – about 30 young boys, all wide eyed, and walking up and down the aisles looking at everything in amazement.

I decided on a pocket knife, but as I couldn't understand the money or its value all I could do was show it to the shop girl and point to the knife. She shook her head and so I knew that I didn't have enough to buy it. Then she pointed to a cheaper one, but then I shook my head and pulled my old knife from my pocket to show her and she just laughed. I was determined to buy page 110something and I finally settled on a small magnifying glass because I knew other boys who had them that were using them to start fires, so I thought that this would be a very useful thing to have when we were making little fires by the river. Up until then, we had been given matches by the soldiers for our adventures in the bush.

Films were shown regularly in the camp's hall, and we were fed a diet of cowboys and Indians, and pirates, as well as lots of cartoons. I remember Popeye the Sailor Man with his spinach. Sometimes we were also shown war documentaries. After seeing the films, we boys began making our own weapons – guns made from bits of wood, and swords out of tree branches, and we'd take turns at being "goodies" and "baddies".

This caused lots of arguments about who was supposed to be alive or dead, and whose turn it was to be the baddies, because the baddies always lost and nobody wanted to be on the losing side. The games even involved some of the older boys who made rafts from driftwood by the river and re-enacted pirate fights. From what I remember, they all ended up falling in the water because their "ships" were very unstable.

My time in the camp was mostly happy and developed in me a lifetime love of the countryside, hunting and fishing, and outdoor life. After the hardships we went through before arriving in New Zealand, it was paradise.

Józef Jagiełło, age 18, on the road to Wellington during a trip with his friends

Józef Jagiełło, age 18, on the road to Wellington during a trip with his friends