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

Breaking the language barrier

page 128

Breaking the language barrier

After miraculously surviving the Siberian forced-labour camps, and spending two years in Iran, I didn't know what to expect at the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua. But what we found was a heart-warming welcome. The beds were beautifully made and there were flowers in the rooms. I almost felt the love of the people who had prepared it all. I finally felt safe again.

After leaving the camp I went to Auckland to Sacre Coeur College to study. I was anxious because my vocabulary consisted of only a few words – "OK", "thank you" and "please". How envious I was watching little New Zealand children speaking English with such ease. I wondered if I would ever master this new and difficult language. To help us along, the nuns at the convent were kind and understanding, and gave us extra tuition.

We learned a lot that first term, but I waited with longing for the school holidays so we could go home to the camp. The years haven't dulled the memory of the excitement of packing a full suitcase of books to study in the holidays. But the suitcase was never opened as there was so much to do – seeing my sister, nephew and friends, playing games, biking, swimming in the river, dancing to the music of the piano in the evenings and the joy of talking Polish throughout the holidays.

The memory of my first job is very vivid but wasn't happy to begin with. After finishing Auckland Business College and getting a job as a shorthand typist, I was full of apprehension but also excitement when I arrived at the office. The people who worked there were kind. Unfortunately, I was told that my boss was on holiday for two weeks and was asked whether I would take over the telephone exchange. I had no choice but to agree, not knowing a thing about it. There were eight lines and sometimes they would all ring at once. It didn't look too difficult – until I started answering.

Did I think I had mastered the English language? I thought so. Evidently not enough because I had never learnt business English, but with help I learned quickly. Not only did I answer the telephones all day but also all night in my sleep! Those two weeks were endless. Later, when I was happy again doing my secretarial work, I realised how beneficial my crash course on the telephones had been.

I have written of some happy and some sad times, but my most recent and precious memory is with me every day. It is sad, because my husband died, page 129and happy because I have treasured, lovely memories of our life together. He was a New Zealander but very proud when the children learnt some Polish. I met Tom when I was a bridesmaid and he the groomsman at my Polish girlfriend's wedding. When our children were young, we read them bedtime stories. How they enjoyed it when their father read from a Polish book – his pronunciation had them in fits of laughter. Not the best bedtime reading but it was fun.

What my husband and I started 53 years ago, the family still continues – celebrating Christmas Eve, and singing Christmas carols in Polish and English. We raised three children and three grandchildren who are all together with me on Christmas Eve. My home is and always will be in New Zealand. I love the country and the people I have met, but my thoughts very often return to those precious days as a child with the family I lost during World War II.