New Zealand's First Refugees: Pahiatua's Polish Children
There were five children in our family – all girls. I was the eldest and the youngest were twins. We lived in Pawlokoma, a village on the San River in the province of Lwów in what was south-east Poland until World War II and is now in the Ukraine. A quarter of the population in the village was Polish and the rest were Ukrainians. With the very fertile soil of the region, my father was a prosperous farmer.
While fighting for Poland's independence during World War I, my father was taken prisoner by the Russians and deported to the Archangelsk region of northern Russia, where the long winter darkness of this part of Siberia is broken only by the polar lights.
After three years of cruel toil in the slave camps, he escaped with a friend. In rags, racked by hunger and exhaustion, he returned home. He said that of the 5,000 prisoners, only 300 remained alive. He was ill for the rest of his life. He could never have imagined that a second world war would erupt and he would find himself once again in the Siberian slave camps, but this time without any escape.
My mother was very religious. She would sing the morning prayers while busy in the kitchen and I followed in her example. She was concerned about our spiritual wellbeing and led us by example. She assisted the poor. But my father was not interested in this. In 1939, the quiet and regular family life came to an end. I was 16 and the twins were only two.
The autumn that year was beautiful, but full of foreboding and worry about the future. We could hear the drone of aeroplanes and the echo of bombardments. In the nearby village, the invading Germans were murdering the Jews, some of whom tried a futile escape by boats across the San which was in full flood, only to die under a hail of gunfire. The Germans herded some 200 Jewish men into a synagogue in the town of Dynów, locked them in and set the building on fire. The stench of burning flesh reached our village 5km away. The remaining Jews tried to escape east and my mother supplied them with food for the journey.
Soldiers, remnants from the defeated Polish army, were in flight from both the German and Russian invaders, and tried to cross to other countries. We gave them all our help, but many fell into the hands of the Ukrainians and met a cruel end.page 45
While we were digging potatoes, a messenger came running up with instructions for my father to report to a given place. Nearly all local Polish men were already gathered there. They were ordered to line up against a wall and the Germans aimed a machine gun at them, intending to execute them all. But after the intervention of a Ukrainian teacher who could speak German, they abandoned this shameful deed. After further interrogation, the men were set free (maybe our prayers saved them). But that freedom did not last long.
We soon found ourselves under Russian occupation. Until the signing of the formal friendship pact between the invading armies on 9 August 1939, our region was interchangeably under the control of the Germans or Russians. The local Ukrainian population, which sided with the invaders, sought the help of the Russians to be rid of us.