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

My QSM was for all of us

page 115

My QSM was for all of us

I arrived with my sister Jadwiga at the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua with very few material possessions but with great expectations that our stay in this country would be short, World War II would soon be over and we would be on our way home to Poland to rejoin my surviving relatives.

My family was reared in the principles of honesty, justice, fair play and discipline, as well as charity and humanity – virtues which I still value. My mother died in 1936 before the war and my father (who was a highly ranked police officer in Białystok, northern Poland) was executed in Katyn Forest in 1940, together with thousands of other Polish officers. I still have the last postcard I received from him before he was killed.

From the Pahiatua camp I went to St Kevin's College in Oamaru for two years and then to Auckland, where Catholic Social Services took our future wellbeing into their hearts by ensuring that no child entered the workforce without adequate and proper qualifications. I became an accountant, and finished my working life with the then Commercial Union Fire and General Insurance Company. Another Polish orphan from the Pahiatua camp, Anatol Karpik, also worked there as the chief fire underwriter. I retired in 1989.

In 1958, I married Stella Rose Wilkinson, who to this day is often taken for a Polish girl. It was a good choice, as both my sister Jadwiga and I have been accepted by the large tribe of Wilkinsons, with happy associations to this day. Our daughter Rozalia was born with a serious heart defect and after two heart operations passed away, aged 39. Our son Michael gained a Bachelor of Arts and is a teacher, and our youngest daughter Elizabeth was a Hansard reporter for the New Zealand and UK Parliaments, and later for the New South Wales Parliament.

During my accounting career, I met a lot of nice people whose friendships I treasure to this day – one of them was the solicitor David Lange. When he was the Prime Minister of New Zealand, we had a private discussion on the need for a closer approach to the needs of Polish immigrants by appointing Polish-speaking people as Justices of the Peace. On his suggestion, I was sworn as a Justice of the Peace in 1990.

I enjoy the busy work in the community at large. I am now retired and can devote more time to this. I am available at any time of the day and sometimes evenings too. In my church work, I served on the Parish Pastoral Council, page 116parent/teacher and finance committees, and parish finance committees. Since 1975, I have been a Minister of the Eucharist. I also assisted with the building of the new St Anne's church complex, which used the foundation stone blessed by the Polish Pope John Paul II during his visit to Auckland in 1986.

I have been involved in the affairs of the Polish community since 1949. We held meetings to enable us to practise our traditional national songs and dancing, maintain our native language, and to meet and make new friends among the New Zealanders. Auckland's Polish Association was registered in 1960 and it purchased an old house to serve as clubrooms. Later, the new Dom Polski (Polish House) was erected to cater for an increase in Polish migrants. This project was financed by using voluntary labour and each member contributing $500 ($100 each year for five years) as a repayable loan.

I served as president a number of times and on the committee for almost 30 years. I was president during the Pope's visit to Auckland in 1986, whom we welcomed in the traditional Polish way. I also advised the Auckland archdiocese on Polish traditions to make him welcome, such as greeting the guest with bread and salt. During the Papal Mass, we presented the gifts of a Krakowski hat with peacock feathers and an old 1880 Polish prayer book of the early Polish settlers in Taranaki. Meeting His Holiness was a thrill for me because I had always hoped to meet the Pope.

My interpreting/translating career began as a result of an emergency court session when two Polish citizens were caught travelling in New Zealand on illegal passports in the late 1970s. I am now an accredited interpreter for many institutions and government departments, and became a founding member of the Auckland Ethnic Council in 1985, which looks after about 40 different ethnic groups in Auckland.

In 1993, I was privileged to receive the Queen's Service Medal (QSM) for voluntary and unpaid community work for the previous 30 years. I feel that this award was given to all the Pahiatua children who have given much to this country and who grew up to be good citizens.

With my wife Stella, I have twice visited the country of my birth where I met my relatives in very emotional reunions. I visited my mother's grave and was given her portrait, which now hangs in our sitting room. I don't regret the choices I made over which I had control because, despite the difficult beginnings, I have had a marvellous life thanks to my family and the friends I have made over the years. I thank you all.