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

Invitation to New Zealand

Invitation to New Zealand

Then came an invitation from New Zealand's Prime Minister Peter Fraser for a group to come to New Zealand. The news of our departure was a shock. What is happening? Instead of getting closer to Poland, I am actually getting even further away from my homeland to the very ends of the world!

On 27 September 1944, we left in buses for Sultanabad where the American army had a camp and we received a warm welcome. We then travelled by train, and after a short two-day stay in Ahwaz we continued through the beautiful countryside to the Iranian port of Khorramshahr. We boarded a ship which was most uncomfortable. The stench from the lower decks, along with the heat and poor food, caused most of us to be seasick. Because it was too hot below, we slept on the open deck but had to move smartly in the morning when they got sluiced with seawater.

On 5 October 1944, we sailed into the Persian Gulf and then into the Arabian Sea. Another week later, we reached the Indian port of Bombay. Because this was wartime, we weren't allowed to leave the ship. From there, we were transferred to a US troopship the General Randall, which was already carrying New Zealand soldiers home on leave. They made us feel welcome, looked after the children like their own and showered them with sweets. They had fought alongside our own Polish troops in all the theatres of the war in Europe and Africa, and they extended their friendship to us.

The accommodation on the General Randall was luxurious compared to the earlier ship. Everyone had a hammock-type bunk, and there were hot showers, page 58mess halls and plenty to eat. We continued down the Arabian Sea and sailed into the Indian Ocean. The heat became even more unbearable as we reached the equator on 24 October. But this began to change as we sailed south. We were escorted part of the way by a convoy of smaller armed ships protecting us from Japanese submarines which fired torpedoes at us. There was gunfire from our ship's heavy artillery and much fear. The soldiers on board said that the ship was saved by the children's prayers.

Our priest, Father Micha³ Wilniewczyc, also a refugee from the Siberian camps, held Mass on deck and we received the sacraments. We sailed into Melbourne Harbour. For two-and-a-half years, we had seen the dry landscape of central Iran and then the limitless emptiness of the ocean. But now our eyes feasted on the green scenery. A few days later, on 31 October, we were in Wellington Harbour and saw before us a fairytale land. Though it was cold, everyone ran up to the decks calling out: "Come see, this is New Zealand." The scenery was truly beautiful and we marvelled at the multicoloured houses perched on green hills. "God smiled on this land," we said.

The next morning, a reception committee was waiting on the wharf, all pleasant welcoming smiles. Polish and New Zealand flags were everywhere. Prime Minister Fraser came on board, together with the Polish Consul Count Wodzicki and his wife. Women from the Red Cross, soldiers and Boy Scouts marshalled us into the waiting train carriages, and gave us food. The local people waved handkerchiefs at us in greeting, and bouquets of flowers were handed to us. We were warmly greeted at every station during the six-hour journey to Pahiatua. The countryside was unbelievable – everything bright and colourful, and the pleasant smell of fresh grass! We arrived in Pahiatua where we were taken by army trucks to the Polish Children's Camp, which had been arranged and provisioned to perfection by the New Zealand army and volunteers.