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

Relentless search for my family

page 133

Relentless search for my family

Without doubt, the worst loss that children can suffer is the loss of their families. It is a tragedy that would be difficult to comprehend for those that were fortunate not to have suffered such tragedy. It proved difficult for me because I came from such a wholesome and caring family in a secure village environment where all lived in harmony, shared their work and seemed to know each other.

With such treasured memories constantly in my mind, it was challenging to accept and adjust to the strange environments forced upon me by our deportation to Russia and which reshaped my life. First, I lost my father, whom I idolised as my first mentor and indestructible provider. Then I watched my two slightly older brothers die one after the other, within days of one another, in the same bed beside me. I was fully aware that the same fate awaited our only sister.

Watching the pain in my exhausted and broken-spirited mother's face was heart-rending in itself, without the added misery of being separated from her and my two remaining elder brothers Henryk and Mietek. Little did I realise then just how this loss would affect the rest of my life. Not only was my childhood disrupted, but also in my youthful years I lacked the vital role models, which left a void in my life. What I missed most from my senior brothers was guidance, a sympathetic ear when I needed someone and to remind me of the values our parents would have wanted us to live by.

From the time we arrived in New Zealand, I took every opportunity to try to find the surviving members of my family through the Red Cross. But each time I was unsuccessful, probably resulting from the unsettled conditions in war-ravaged Poland. This left me with the thought that all my family had perished in Russia or simply weren't aware of my search.

Finally, with desperation in later years, I took the matter into my own hands and wrote to the manager of Radio Ukraine. I corresponded with him in the hope that he might at least point me in the right direction, since that area of Poland which was my home is now in the Ukraine. After contacting the area where I was born, he informed me that there were no more Polish people living there.

More recently, as a last resort, encouraged by a longstanding friend who was successful in tracing his own relatives, I applied to the Ministry of Defence in page 134London. I stated all my family's names, which I had memorised in the correct order, with a brief description of their situation before World War II. It wasn't long before I received information from that office that both of my senior brothers had been searching for my whereabouts since as early as mid-1957.

The information I received from the Ministry of Defence confirmed that the family names I had imprinted in my mind were correct. From their records I also learnt my mother's maiden name. From that time on, my hopes were raised higher. Suddenly I felt inspired and pressed officialdom to move faster on my behalf.

I stressed the urgency because of my elder brothers' ages and urged the helpful ministry officer to short-circuit the bureaucracy and provide me with my brothers' whereabouts. By return mail, I was overwhelmed to discover that one of my elder brothers, who had served in the Polish forces under British command in Italy, lived in Canada. I became fed up with all these earlier hindering policies, secrecy and non-disclosure nonsense – to hell with the bureaucracy, I thought, I wasn't going to be deterred by them any longer.

On 4 July 1999, I phoned Ontario, Canada, gave my brother's name to a telephone operator and asked to be connected to him. Unfortunately, there were a number of similar namesakes, so the kind operator offered to send me all these addresses. In due course, I wrote to all 13 households. With bated breath I waited for a response. I was overjoyed with the results of my letter. I not only found my family's favourite brother Mietek, but also a family friend and well-respected neighbour from our village, and our first cousin who happens to live near my brother in Ontario.

On receiving my brother's "letter of a lifetime", where he briefly outlined his life after the break-up of our family, I was overcome with heartening emotion. I read it over and over, and treasured each word as if it were holy. No longer was I an orphan, a lost soul in this wide world. Now I had the proof that I came from a caring and wholesome family!

I immediately phoned him and we talked for six hours non-stop. Next, together with my wife, we wasted no time in arranging a visit to meet him and his family. Meanwhile, we exchanged photos and became reacquainted through correspondence. My flight to Ontario was spent in anticipation and excitement. At the airport, we had no difficulty in recognising each other and, almost forgetting our wives' presence there, we hugged each other in the traditional Polish style to the strange glances from the onlookers.

The two-hour journey from Toronto Airport to his farmlet was spent in recollections, such as: "Do you remember this and do you remember that?" Amid Mietek's and his wife Mary's generous hospitality, there were signs of the difficult life he had endured, with evidence of the hardship he suffered in page 135the army and during the war. My daughter from London also joined us there and between reminiscing we visited some places of interest, which included the Canadian National Tower and Niagara Falls. It was fulfilling for me to meet his grown-up children and their lovely families. Throughout our stay, I was filled with that satisfying feeling of belonging to an ever-increasing family.

I then wasted no time in planning the search for my elder brother Henryk. Now that I had learnt he was in the sunset years of his life, it demanded additional urgency. I was determined to see him alive. The helpful records officer in London's Ministry of Defence gave me all the information that he held and really there was nothing more he could do for me, other than to speed up the process by forwarding my tracing information directly to the Polish Red Cross in Warsaw. I must admit that it proved most instrumental in the eventual happy reunion with Henryk and his adorable wife, whom all referred to as babcia (grandma).

When my wife and I were making arrangements to attend a reunion of the former Polish children of Isfahan in London during May 2002, where we planned to visit my daughter and take in some London sights, we were woken up at 2am by a phone call asking for me. "What inconsiderate soand-so could be ringing at this hour?" I thought. To my astonishment it was my eldest brother Henryk from Szczecin in Poland. He could not wait when he heard that I was still alive and searching for him, so he phoned me there and then.

We couldn't talk for as long as I had with my Canadian resident Mietek, but long enough to get reacquainted and exchange all necessary information, addresses and telephone numbers. During that conversation, I was visibly trembling with excitement. What a blessing that was. I felt that God was finally rewarding me for all that I had missed out on in my life. How lucky can one get?

I couldn't go off to sleep that night, with my mind racing from one thought to another. Now I had yet more family. How will we be able to juggle the two reunions at such a short notice? Suddenly a trip to Poland to visit my brother in Szczecin became all important for me and all plans revolved around that. In the meantime, much informative correspondence was exchanged between us, as Henryk and Mietek were also reunited.

On arriving at Szczecin railway station, we were met by all my brother's immediate family. Then followed the most memorable and overwhelming welcome for myself and my wife. In Polish tradition, she was presented a bouquet of fresh flowers by my brother's granddaughter Ewelinka. Henryk's daughter Dorosia and her husband Mirek then drove us to reunite with my 135 page 136eldest brother Henryk and to meet babcia, the matriarch of the family and my brother's loving wife. Henryk was waiting patiently outside his front gate in anticipation.

Needless to say, the meeting between us was most emotional and we could hardly contain our tears of contentment and intense joy. We found ourselves so engrossed in past memories that we almost forgot to introduce our wives. Now we were all one wholesome family again, with brothers, wives, uncles, in-laws, aunties, nephews, nieces, grandchildren, cousins and so many nice relatives that made this life worthwhile again. I never imagined that I would ever be called wujek (uncle) and least of all dziadzio (granddad). However, I was so pleased that my wife was instantly accepted and it was music to my ears when the younger ones called her ciocia (auntie) Maja.

Surprisingly, both the family and London reunions merged successfully, with the last fortnight spent with my brother's family. It was heartening to see that everybody in each family that we visited not only approved of my wife but also welcomed her warmly with genuine acceptance. Ewelinka and my nephew Radek spoke excellent English and played a busy entertaining and interpreting role for their new ciocia, while Henryk and I caught up with some of our life stories during barbeques and over drinks.

I was overcome by the size of the family and the amicable interaction between them all. There was an apparent respect between them, especially for babcia and my brother. Despite the real hardship Henryk had suffered during the war and the many years that followed, he preserved our family's values and traditions. This, together with his gentlemanly disposition, patient listening ear, non-judgemental attitude and acceptance, made me feel humbled that I had not lived up to our family ways. I envied his popularity and the traditional respect with which people of all walks of life greeted him.

The strength of the family was reinforced by the industrious son-in-law Mirek. He was a busy man, running three separate businesses with the help of managers and responsible helpers who all happened to be members of the family. This alone was an admirable commitment on his part to promote our family's welfare and closeness.

At times, I felt infuriated that I was cheated out of a lifetime of contact with my brothers and their families. The breakdown in communication between the various organisations to which I had directed my enquiries in the earlier days left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

It later came to my notice that these inquiries may have been filed directly into the rubbish bin. Who the hell had the right to keep us apart for so long? What a cruel and mean-spirited policy that was. Did they really think that time would heal these wounds? Or were they so afraid of the claims that we page 137would make in lieu of our suffering and casualties in a war in which the Polish people were the innocent victims? Now that we were reunited, it only brought to mind how much we had missed out on and what we could have achieved united with my brothers. How can that be redressed?

Ever since the reunions, we have continued corresponding in whichever way is suitable for each age group – email with the young members and good old-fashioned letters with the seniors. Never forgetting birthdays, special occasions and holy days, I have kept my commitment to phone my brother on the third of each month to commemorate our reunification, but not at 2am in the dead of night.

A group of friends from the Polish Boys' Hostel in Hawera. (l-r) Bronisław Gmyterko, Kazimierz Krawczyk, Antoni Rybiński

A group of friends from the Polish Boys' Hostel in Hawera. (l-r) Bronisław Gmyterko, Kazimierz Krawczyk, Antoni Rybiński