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

Jack of all trades

page 138

Jack of all trades

My classmates and I had to leave the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua in 1947. Those who were considered too old to continue with their schooling were found employment. Myself and six other boys from my class at the camp were enrolled at the Marist Brothers' High School in Greymouth.

We were given board with New Zealand Catholic families and placed in the same Form 3 class. We were and looked older than the New Zealand boys. I was 17 years old. Some of my friends settled reasonably well – one of them was brilliant at maths, which gave him confidence in himself, and Tadeusz Rozbicki and another Polish boy played rugby well, which gave them immediate acceptance.

We didn't get any extra tuition to help us to master the English language and the oral instructions made no sense to me most of the time. As a result, we weren't learning anything. We felt frustrated and unsettled. The camp was still in existence then, so I wrote on behalf of all of us to the camp's Polish Delegate Mr Zaleski advising him of our plight. At the end of the school year, I was sent a ticket for the interisland ferry to Wellington. I was going to become a joiner.

In Wellington, I was assigned accommodation at the Polish Boys' Hostel in Island Bay. Olga Łaszkiewicz, the Polish welfare officer for the Wellington region, introduced me to all the local joinery manufacturing firms. But none of them would take me on because I was already over 16, which meant they would have to pay me 3p an hour more than the other apprentices. I wasn't worried because plenty of other work was available.

One of the boys at the hostel told me about International Paints in Miramar, so I applied and was accepted. It was my very first job. Very soon I realised that the smell of paint was making me very sleepy. A bloke who was working on another tank fell asleep one day and awoke surrounded by a sea of red paint. He panicked, tried to jump over the puddle and fell into it. The boys at the hostel and I decided that there must be better jobs.

Kazimierz Walczak told me about his job at the post office, so I worked there delivering telegrams. A car went with the job and that was a great attraction. However, first I needed a driver's licence. The post office arranged for a test at the licence issuing office, which I passed no problem.

I thought nothing of changing jobs often. Sometimes the reason was that a page 139friend of mine was working at that place and sometimes because the pay was better. In the process I acquired many skills. I must have made a career out of changing jobs. I tried my hand at being a storeman at General Motors, a clicker at the Hannah's Shoe Factory and a labourer on the wharf. The years I spent in the USSR, the orphanages in Iran and the Pahiatua camp made me very resourceful and hardworking, for which I got much praise.

But the only problem with changing jobs so often was that each time I had to report to the police to have a new entry made in my Certificate of Registration (which was required under the Aliens Act 1948).

However, there was one job I left not because there was something better to go to. That was working on a patent slip (an inclined plane on which ships are built, repaired or cleaned) in Evans Bay, Wellington. Marian Tarasiewicz and I applied for labouring jobs. The boat was pulled onto the slip, and Marian and I had to go into the bilge (the parts of the vessel between the lowermost floorboards and the bottom) and clean out the sludge. No equipment or protective clothing, but terrible stink. We left.

A group of us Polish boys applied for jobs with the New Zealand Forest Service in Golden Downs, Nelson. We coped, and I quite enjoyed working in the tree nursery, pruning and collecting seeds. Then the pull of the Polish community in Wellington must have been too great, so I returned to Wellington and got myself a job driving trucks with New Zealand Railways.

I often talked to Mrs Rudnicka, my former teacher at the camp. Her two sons had settled in Taupo and she was always full of praise for the place – its beauty and the easy availability of land. So I bought a bit of land there and planned to build my own home. At Taupo Concrete Products, I learnt to make foundation piles, chimneys, power and fence posts, and was involved in every part of manufacturing. With all of this experience I accumulated over the years, I was able to build my first home before I got married.

Seven Polish boys in Marist Brothers' High School (with teachers in the back row), Greymouth, 1947.Middle: (l-r) Edward Kukiełko, Artur Gawlik, Tadeusz Zioło Front: (l-r) Jan Turkawka, Kazimierz Depczyński, Tadeusz Rozbicki, Jan Sajewicz

Seven Polish boys in Marist Brothers' High School (with teachers in the back row), Greymouth, 1947.
Middle: (l-r) Edward Kukiełko, Artur Gawlik, Tadeusz Zioło Front: (l-r) Jan Turkawka, Kazimierz Depczyński, Tadeusz Rozbicki, Jan Sajewicz