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

End of childhood

page 34

End of childhood

We lived in Volhynia in eastern Poland, now in the Ukraine, where my father had settled as an invalid from World War I. He instilled a sense of patriotism, hard work and self sufficiency in his four girls – Bronia, Halina, Dioniza and Bogda. Later we would joke that our lullabies were war songs and our food the politics heard from adults' conversations.

We listened on the radio about German bombardments and fleeing civilians, and heard war planes overhead. But to us the war was something distant – until columns of the Russian army reached our village. Curious Polish children stood in silence as the columns marched past but the local Ukrainians welcomed them gladly. That night I heard yelling, gunfire, the neighing of horses and dogs barking.

They came for us, five unknown armed men banging on the door with rifle butts, shouting to be let in. They searched for arms, threw the contents of drawers and scattered bedding on the floor, broke jars of preserves and emptied the contents of bags full of provisions. My father, and a neighbour who earlier sought refuge in our house, were ordered to dress and go with them. He told us to be brave before he was taken away. Shortly, we heard gunfire, a dog barked, then one final shot and deafening silence.

Half an hour elapsed but to me it felt like eternity. In the morning, we dressed for church and awaited our father's return. Armed men on horseback arrived instead, ordered us outside and searched the house again. They aimed their guns at us and threatened to shoot us. After a while they left.

We were still paralysed with fear when a neighbour's son ran to us crying, grabbed my elder sister's hand and led us to the garden where we saw blood, our father's and neighbour's bloodied hats, and a bloodied handkerchief. A shot dog lay close by. We followed the trail of blood to the village centre to search for the bodies, but we lost the trail on the crossroads. We then went to a neighbour to share our news and learned that most of the Polish settlers who did not manage to hide were killed, including the school principal and director of the milk factory.

To us, this was a day of horror and no words can describe how we felt. We gladly accepted the neighbours' offer to sleep on their floor, which was the only available space. The neighbour's wife prayed before an icon that we fall asleep and never wake from this nightmare.

page 35

I remember well my moment of defiance – I will not pray like that, I will await the war's end, a Polish victory and a return to our normal life. But I knew that for our family and all the Polish people in eastern Poland, the war had only begun. In later years, I saw official documentary photographs of Polish children tied with barbed wire to a row of trees, dying slowly and horribly maimed, plus photos of burned churches full of maimed children and adults burned alive.

The next few months were days and nights of constant fear. I dreaded going to bed, and hid under the bed clothes and cried into the pillow – the nights were full of mental anguish and no rest. Poles continued to be caught and killed. At the end of October, the school was reopened with Ukrainian as the official language, which we already spoke fluently.

Our father, a well-educated man, had always insisted that his daughters follow suit and to be prepared for whatever happens in the uncertain future. We therefore returned to school. The eldest sister Bronia was due to go to high school but stayed behind to help look after the family. But there were few lessons or any curriculum, because most of the time was taken up with idolatrous reciting and singing of communist propaganda.

The local Ukrainians sided with the Russian invaders and turned against us. My best friend now refused to sit next to me because I was Polish. Other Ukrainian classmates humiliated us. The headmaster was murdered and many teachers did not return to school. All of our 40 beehives were taken by antagonistic people. Another time, we found the Ukrainians pillaging our storeroom where my father kept his well-oiled farm equipment, helping themselves to everything and fighting over the spoils.

I record here what I saw, but I know from others that similar scenes took place everywhere. Some people lost everything, including the farm animals. The hardworking Ukrainian family who leased our farm and part of our house guarded their property around the clock.

One day after school I found the body of my godmother, Mrs Kucharska, only partly covered with snow and frozen earth. She had no children of her own. Some years earlier when our house had burned down for unknown reasons, I stayed with her and she pampered me. I loved her with all my heart. She kissed and hugged me more often than anybody else in the world. In those days, people did not generally show their emotions. She was an exception. She now lay dead and battered, and I could not help her. I sat by her body, meditating and crying. I was now 11 years old and aware of everything around me, but I could not grasp this change – why is this happening? After all, the neighbours were good people – how did they deserve this fate?

On the way to collect his invalid pension, my father would buy letter paper page 36and envelopes, and instead of going out for his Sunday walk would write letters for the illiterate people and help them with officialdom. On other days, he taught them crop rotation, pruning and grafting – for this he was repaid with savagery. In a spirit of rebellion, I wrote in large letters in the snow "Long live independent Poland!" and felt a little better.

Marko, a Ukrainian who was a leader of a secret communist organisation before the war and now the big boss with unlimited power, forbade the search for bodies or holding of proper funerals. He now freely admitted burning down our home, the murder of the cooperative's manager and many acts of terror on the Polish population.

Soon after, we again heard battering at our door and the order in Russian "sobieraysia" – get ready to leave. They deported my mother, myself and my four sisters, with many other Poles, to the Archangelsk region of northern Russia. Thanks to Providence, our disciplined home life and the help of good people, we survived and reached the safety of Iran. The story of our deportation to Russia is told by others in this book.

In 1998, 59 years later, I revisited my home region in Volhynia. In a big park in the town of Łuck stands a gigantic monument topped by a huge star in remembrance of the Soviet soldiers. Close by, a plaque announces the death of 65,000 murdered Poles in this undeclared war, in which every Pole was treated as an enemy. According to Polish sources, twice as many were killed there.

I met a neighbour from those old days who cried and was overjoyed to see me. She said that she was convinced not everyone had perished in the deportations, and that she would once again see some of us. She took me to another woman who remembered that my father's body was later found with others in a turf field after the snow had melted in the spring.

This is the first time I have committed this tale to paper in such detail. The horror of these events will never leave me.

The life after the deportations to forced labour in the Soviet Union is covered in detail in the subsequent stories by Sister Stella (Józefa Wrotniak) and Halina Morrow (Fladrzyńska). Dioniza continues with a description of the journey from Iran to New Zealand.

After deliverance from Soviet bondage, our life in hospitable Iran continued to be full of surprise and rapid change. Rumours of an invitation from New Zealand's Prime Minister Peter Fraser for temporary refuge in his country circulated for almost a year. Ever prepared, our guardians compiled lists of the mainly orphaned children for relocation to New Zealand, cautious not to separate siblings who had already lost their parents or were separated from page 37them, though not always succeeding. My sister Bogda and I were on this list.

Getting volunteer staff to accompany us was not easy, as the war was drawing to its end and everyone wanted to return home to Poland. Few adults relished the idea of a journey into the unknown through the Japanesepatrolled southern oceans. However, 102 adults with a sense of patriotic duty did volunteer.

In July 1944, our secondary school began a series of lectures about New Zealand, of which we knew nothing. They were like Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales of a paradise with democracy, excellent climate and rich soil with two harvests in one year, and plentiful fruit, cattle and sheep. Only the earthquakes were worrisome. After the inhumanity of our Soviet oppressors, we were told of gentle, honest and hardworking New Zealanders who never locked their doors (and most people here did not lock them in those days). It was unbelievable.

Luggage for the trip was not a problem as everything we had fitted into our small suitcases, which, together with such things as toilet requisites, were bought from our pocket money of nine Iranian tumans per month given to us by our Polish Government-in-Exile. Each child was obliged to carry a few books on the journey to form a Polish library on our arrival in New Zealand.

The group departed from Isfahan, Iran, on 27 September 1944. We were gathered in a huge hall where we were given our travel instructions on how to behave as worthy representatives of our country. It was a sad day parting from our friends, who were the substitute for the families we had lost. My mother had died three weeks after our evacuation from Russia to Iran, my two elder sisters joined the Polish army in the Middle East and my younger sister was in a different orphanage. We promised to write to our friends and many lasting friendships have survived to this day, even though continents continue to separate us.

The younger children with their guardians were settled into buses and the older ones into army trucks, bunched together on hard benches. After a cold and dusty trip over the desert, we arrived in Sultanabad (now Arak) the next day in an American army base camp. The hot showers were most welcome. We visited the camp, saw short American films, and the soldiers handed out sweets and nibbles. One soldier knew no language barrier and managed to entertain us until we rolled with laughter. To them, we were their children back home and to us it was a memorable experience.

In the evening, we were farewelled with speeches we did not understand but we applauded vigorously the learned speech by one of our girls. We boarded specially adapted wagons to carry the children, with benches on one side and sleeping platforms on the other. For the little children, the platforms were page 38covered with netting to stop them from falling off. We older ones had the duty to settle in the little ones before going to bed.

The train shook and rattled on bends. We counted more than 150 tunnels on the way, and the acrid smoke from the locomotives permeated everything and made breathing difficult. The children's stomachs began to revolt against the unaccustomed overeating of sweets at the American camp and many of the little ones were ill in the carriages. We arrived in Ahwaz (which in Iranian means hell), where temperatures reach over 50ºC. We were taken to a transit camp which formerly housed the Iranian cavalry's stables. We placed our possessions in the mangers and slept on benches. We spent our time writing letters, which were never posted. Religious services were held outdoors early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day.

After six days, on 4 October 1944, we departed by train for the port of Khorramshahr at the estuary of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers where I saw palm trees. This was the embarkation point for the refugees travelling to India, East Africa and other countries.

Our group boarded the cargo steamship Sontay. In disciplined ranks, we went below to a huge, smelly and dark cargo hold with scurrying rats. The only furniture was piles of smelly mattresses. I was horrified. Having been ill with malaria and the resultant anaemia with fainting spells, how would I survive here? We discovered that the hold would be our bedroom, dining room and living room. Food was brought from the kitchen in buckets. Parts of the floor were flooded with murky bilge water. Sleeping was unbearable in these conditions, so we lugged our mattresses onto the deck and slept under the stars, feeling sorry for the little ones who were not allowed on deck at night. Our male teachers, Mr Kotlicki and Mr Olechnowicz, tried to answer all our numerous questions.

The ship had several British officers and a Portuguese crew. From them, we learned two English words "Washing deck! Washing deck!" when the crew unceremoniously sluiced the decks with seawater early in the morning as we scurried away with our mattresses. After breakfast, an Englishman with a life jacket on his immaculate white uniform demonstrated the emergency drill. We were not to tie the metre-long tape hanging from the life jacket so as to allow a lifesaver to grab the drowning person. But he did not notice as one of the girls tied his own tape behind his back and was most embarrassed when asked to explain why his tape was tied as we roared with laughter.

We sailed down the Persian Gulf. One day, a severe storm broke and everyone was ill. There was nothing with which to clean up the mess. The children, used to a hard life, did not complain but lay pale and ill on the deck. Our guardians were also feeding the fishes. We cleaned up later. The page 39worst part of the journey was the terrible heat and unsanitary conditions with nowhere to wash our filthy clothes.

One day, we became afraid when an escort of two ships suddenly appeared at our sides and a small plane accompanied them. Some of the crew ran to secure the portholes. This lasted a few hours and then the escort left us. After six days, our priest Father Michał Wilniewczyc said a thanksgiving Mass on the deck for our deliverance to date. That same day, on 10 October 1944, we sailed into Bombay harbour. We did not berth immediately because the port was congested. Here, I became severely ill with a recurrence of malaria, with shivering, nausea, vomiting and high temperature. I refused to be taken to a hospital, though our own Dr Eugenia Czochańska insisted.

A year earlier, I was on the list of children with my sister Bogda to go to South Africa when I had a similar attack and was taken to hospital. On my return, I found 50 empty beds and all my friends, who had been my family for the past ten months, had already departed and I was alone again. I was shattered and cried for weeks. At my request at the time, I was transferred to another group of older girls, but they were later inducted into the Polish Army Cadet Corps and I lost my friends again. I promised myself never again to be parted from my friends and refused to be left behind in a hospital in India.
The captain (far left) on board the Sontay with the Polish children, guardians and crew members. Wacław Sumicz (left of captain's hand), Mieczysław Bieniowski (below captain's elbow), Andrzej Dawidowski (front left) Bolesław Żygadło (behind Dawidowski), Sister Monika Alexandrowicz (far right bottom), ship's officer (left of Sister)

The captain (far left) on board the Sontay with the Polish children, guardians and crew members. Wacław Sumicz (left of captain's hand), Mieczysław Bieniowski (below captain's elbow), Andrzej Dawidowski (front left) Bolesław Żygadło (behind Dawidowski), Sister Monika Alexandrowicz (far right bottom), ship's officer (left of Sister)

page 40So Dr Czochańska put me into the ship's clinic to rest and gave me quinine. Ill as I was, from the clinic's window I observed the most beautiful sight I had ever seen – the orange and violet of an Indian sunset.

After four days, our ship berthed close to the navy troopship the USS General Randall, which had a capacity to carry 7,000 people. It now carried 3,000 American soldiers and a group of New Zealand soldiers on their way home from war. We were glad to hear this was now "our ship". Hugging our suitcases to our chests, we followed a crew member up the steep gangway to our new temporary home. The crewman Chester Wisniewski was our guide and translator. He was of Polish descent and had a good understanding of our language. His assistant was Joseph Dutkowski. We were ushered into a large hall with tiered hammock beds. The boys and the younger children occupied similar halls.

There were two meals a day – breakfast and a 4pm meal. We lined up, took trays from a stack and were served by a line of cooks, each one ladling out a tonne of different food which even a wrestler could not handle, let alone children. Leftovers were put into special containers. After our years of malnutrition and our Polish culture of not wasting God's gifts, we could not understand this huge wastage of food. The children, full of activity on deck during the day, were ready for the evening meal and could drink their fill of milk provided by the hospitable ship. The American crewmen gave away their chocolate rations. Some children grew fat on this windfall but others were too shy to accept these gifts.

The girls wallowed in the plenty of the ship's hot water, washing their grimy clothes and enjoying the bliss of unrestricted hot showers. This was the best medicine for our rashes and skin ailments, which were caused by a week of exposure to salt water on the earlier ship.

At 9.30am on 15 October 1944, I awoke to the ship's vibrations. The motors fired and we were on our way on a long and dangerous journey down the Indian Ocean. We said our communal prayers. During the journey, two nuns (Sister Monika Alexandrowicz, and Sister Imelda Tobolska who was the boys' guardian), who shared our fate in exile, were our closest companions and support.

We spent our days playing with large balls provided by the ship – seven went overboard. Some soldiers taught the boys boxing and applauded the budding talent of Tadeusz Ostrowski, who unfortunately did not reach adulthood as he developed a brain haemorrhage and died soon after in the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua.

The New Zealand soldiers, hearing that we were travelling to their country, also took us under their wing, played games on the deck with the boys and page 41taught them English. One brave guy even taught the older girls to sing his national anthem, which they later sang at the station in Palmerston North to the surprised and welcoming New Zealanders, who said, through our interpreter Leopold Hartman, a lecturer at Victoria University, that most of their own children did not know the hymn. We came to admire the words of that hymn when we learned its meaning.

Wearing life jackets was compulsory. They were uncomfortable and hot, and some girls complained they did not look nice in them. We had regular safety drills and were introduced to the crew responsible for our safety in case of an enemy attack. Each soldier was to look after one child, which made us feel safer. The ship was heavily armed, with anti-aircraft guns and torpedoes on deck. Some were covered and guarded. One day a plane appeared towing what looked like balloons and without warning deafening gunfire erupted from our ship's guns. We were terrified.

This was war time and our ship was zigzagging across the Indian Ocean to avoid torpedoes. Until we reached Melbourne in Australia, our ship sailed in convoy with a sister troopship, identical to ours, carrying Australian soldiers. Each day began with an exchange of signals between the ships. For safety, the ships were made invisible at night by extinguishing all outside lights and covering portholes. One night we awoke terrified to a big jolt, the breaking of crockery in the kitchens, the scurrying of the crew and much speculation. Later, in Wellington, Captain Van Poulsen revealed that a torpedo had grazed the ship's side, though we had already heard the rumour the next day.

The weather cooled as we sailed south. The regular announcements to reset our watches for the time difference were wasted on us because we had none. Pity we had no cameras to record this unusual voyage. Our sister troopship with the Australian soldiers berthed in Melbourne and we sailed to New Zealand alone without convoy.

At last, on 31 October 1944, we sailed into Wellington's harbour around 8pm with sufficient daylight to see the scenic city with small houses perched on its slopes. The next morning was sunny as the ship berthed at the wharf and was welcomed by three bands. The happy New Zealand soldiers, many with bandages and some on stretchers, trooped down the steep gangways to welcoming families.

For us children, this was to be our last refuge before our return to a free Poland. We believed this would be soon. Prime Minister Peter Fraser, who had invited us to his country, boarded the ship. After the smiling greetings, official speeches, press interviews, flashing news cameras, and handing out of sweets by kind ladies and their helpers, we boarded two waiting trains by the ship's side and departed on the last leg of our long journey.

page 42

On the way, groups of school children waved to us and a big welcome greeted us at the Palmerston North station. We disembarked at Pahiatua from where New Zealand soldiers took us in army trucks to the Polish Children's Camp, which was an impressive sight. The presence of barbed-wire watchtowers caused some unease but they were soon taken down. This had been an internment camp for foreign enemy nationals but now it was "our little Poland", with a school, church, small hospital, dentist, Scouts movements, kitchens and dormitories, all staffed by Polish personnel who arrived with us. In addition to our dedicated Polish teachers, we had young New Zealand teachers for English lessons.

I have grateful memories of friendly Ruth Neligan, who with her lists of English words and their Polish equivalents patiently taught us the secrets of the New Zealand way of life. My admiration and gratitude extend to the hundreds of New Zealand families who welcomed the children into their homes for school holidays. It could not have been easy to look after children from another culture, emotionally damaged by the war and who did not understand their language. I often remember my first holidays with the Scanlon family of 6 Dustin Street, Wanganui, the Canyon family of Upper Hutt and Daphne Byrne of Dunedin with whom I still keep contact.

I was deliriously happy, because after two years of being ill with malaria and the side effects of mountains of tablets of all types, too weak to climb stairs, constant hospitalisation and having to catch up on missed classes, I was at long last healthy. I could now climb hills, swim in the river and play netball. I became a normal teenager. But dark clouds gathered around us again. Our sustaining dream of a return to a free Poland was shattered. The Yalta Agreement signed by our allies ruled everything out. Eastern Poland was annexed to the Soviet Union and our allies handed the rest of Poland to communist rule.

It got worse. At the victory parade in London, only the Polish airmen who defended London and lost 1,300 of their pilots were invited to take part. The Polish army, which had fought and died beside the Allies to free Europe, was not invited, so the airmen refused to march in the victory parade. A few months later, the Polish Government-in-Exile ceased to be recognised by its allies and its funds to pay our way in New Zealand were frozen. To reduce the cost of our upkeep, the Polish staff took on additional duties, and the older children had to work during the week and study on Saturdays to catch up. We also painted Polish motifs on wood for sale in Wellington shops.

We then knew that there was no return to Poland and for me it marked the end of a dream to study medicine. It was mental anguish not knowing what will happen or what to do. Our Polish guardians were in no better state. Their page 43own world had collapsed around them – they were stranded in a foreign land, not understanding the language or the culture. Their advice to us was contradictory and they were sorely in need of guidance themselves. Classes for the oldest children were stopped. We feared our departure to New Zealand schools – it was like a second deportation. Many of the older ones were forced out to work.

A few of the lucky younger children were able to complete their higher education. I lowered my sights from a medical career and completed a three-and-a-half-year course in nursing with very good results. These children are now senior citizens with their own children and grandchildren, to whom we stressed the need for an education and work ethic.

Dioniza Choroś (Gradzik) on her graduation as a nurse at Wellington Hospital's Nurses' Home in 1951

Dioniza Choroś (Gradzik) on her graduation as a nurse at Wellington Hospital's Nurses' Home in 1951