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

Mother and children refugees

page 127

Mother and children refugees

My brothers Stanislaw, Roman, Jan and I could be considered lucky because we had a mother with us when our boatload of Polish refugees crossed the Caspian Sea and landed in Iran in 1942. But then came long periods of separation from each other while Stanislaw joined the Polish army cadets and my mother was appointed a caregiver of a group of Polish orphans.

My mother was asked if she was willing to become a member of the staff responsible for the group of 733 Polish orphans going to New Zealand. We came with her. At the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua, she was assigned a job in the kitchen and worked there from 1944 to 1949. Within a year or two of our arrival, Roman was placed in St Patrick's College in Wellington and in 1948 Jan joined him. I spent a lot of time as a patient in Silverstream Hospital, Upper Hutt.

When the camp was closed, my mother came to Wellington, found employment in the Wellington Public Hospital laundry and boarded with the Gazdowicz family. I was at a boarding school and spent my holidays with our New Zealand friends. My mother had to contribute towards our education. She had no hope of saving enough money for a deposit on a home and keeping her family together, yet she still managed to keep in touch with us. The disadvantages she had seemed insurmountable.

The only time we lived as a family was after my brother Stanisław joined us in the late 1940s. He married and bought a house, and invited us to live with him. By then we were all working. Soon I got married, as did Roman, and Jan went overseas. My mother moved from place to place and at one time she lived with me.

But she never complained about her tough life, nor her gnarled hands from years of hard labour. She cried when things looked hopeless but never gave up hope. Neither did she demand help. It was Gerald O'Brien (the Prime Minister's electorate secretary and chairperson, treasurer of the Polish Hostel Board and who was involved with the welfare of the Polish children refugees) who decided to help her. Thanks to him, she was able to move into a council flat – her first permanent home after being forcibly deported with her family at the beginning of World War II.