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

Taken north to Siberia

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Taken north to Siberia

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.

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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.

The deportation

The Polish population was then subjected to a census of people and their possessions. We had a bad feeling about this and our fears were justified, because on 10 February 1940, on a bitterly cold night at 1.30am, we heard loud knocking at our door. These uninvited guests were armed Russian Secret Police and a few local Ukrainians. Some of them behaved arrogantly and noisily, and one of them told us to be packed and ready to depart in 30 minutes. My father sighed: "You will probably take us to Siberia?" Another replied that we were being taken to a safer place because we are in a border zone. But we did not believe them and our doubts were soon to prove justified.

My father was not allowed to move. My mother pleaded with their conscience to take pity on the children who were crying in distress. The men's hearts melted and we were allowed as much food and provisions as we could carry – among them freshly baked bread. I was allowed to move freely around the house to pack what I could. Some of our "guardians" helped me in this while my mother dressed my little sisters. The enemy were so touched by the children's distress that they helped us carry our provisions to the waiting sleighs.

It was almost light when they loaded us onto the second sleigh and on this cold morning drove us to the unknown. I can't remember how long it took us to reach the nearest railhead at Lesko. This part of the journey, a time of terror and uncertainty about what will become of us, was erased from my memory. Or perhaps I fell asleep?

Cattle trucks and locomotives were already waiting for us at the railway station, and we were loaded into a carriage with four other families from our village. The doors were bolted and padlocked from the outside. The train was very long. The carriage had small barred windows and a hole in the wooden page 46floor was the toilet. For sleeping, two tiers of plank shelving lined the end walls. We were packed like sardines, having to lie close together. One could only sit in a crouching position.

For many, many days we survived on the provisions we brought with us, sharing with the less fortunate who were not allowed to take much from their homes. Children were given priority. We tried cooking on a small camping pot with water from snow scraped from the small window. The train shook and rattled so that the cooking pot often tipped over and we had to avoid scalding. Because of our state of depression, uncertainty and worry, we lost our appetite.

Occasionally, the door would slam open and, under escort, one person would be allowed to go to the provisions carriage to select a few items from our own meagre rations stored there, such as a little porridge. The train would often stop for some hours far from any town and would move again before dark. One of the reasons for the long and frequent stoppages was the priority given to the movement of supplies for the Russian army. People in exile had no status – even babies who died of privation on the journey were thrown out of the moving trains into the snow.

After some weeks we reached central Russia. At a railway station, people started banging on the bolted doors with their fists and yelling out that we are not criminals or animals, that we are families with children and so on. This protest forced the Secret Police to open the doors. Hot water was brought to each carriage, and after some days we were given a bucket of watery soup with a few small leaves of cabbage and fish bones. Sometimes we were given a little bread.

Once during the journey when the train stopped in the middle of nowhere, we saw a cabbage field under a cover of snow. Someone tried to force the door and to everyone's surprise it wasn't locked from the outside. A few jumped out to grab some cabbages and jumped back into the carriage before the train moved. We also saw fields of wheat and potatoes under snow. It was a heartbreaking sight when so many people were hungry.

Once we were in the depths of Russia, the authorities felt we had no hope of escaping on foot across thousands of kilometres in the bitter cold through sparsely populated areas, so the carriages were left unbolted and many would take the risk to alight from the train at a station to buy food. The train would always restart without warning and some would be left behind. Once, my sister and I alighted from the train at some large station to look for shops and when we returned we couldn't find our train. It had been moved to another siding and we found it just as it began to move, so we had to be dragged in. My mother cried with relief and we said a thankful prayer.

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At the labour camp

As the train wound its way north, carriages were detached on the way and its human cargo unloaded to work at mines, collective farms and forests. But we continued to the end of the line. After some weeks of this journey of hunger, cold, foul air and discomfort, we arrived in the Sverdlovsk region. The rail tracks ended here. We were told that the sawmill in which we were to work was the largest in the world, with more than, 2000 workers.

My father had to be carried to the barracks because his legs were paralysed. The bags of flour and porridge we brought with us had been stolen by our fellow travellers, leaving us with the remains of some corn flour a neighbour returned. In these difficult times of exile, dignity and neighbourly love turned into selfishness. I helped my mother with the children. It was easier for the other people to cope because there were few children among them.

Our family of seven was given a small room in large barrack dormitory, with only one iron bed between us. I can't remember how we managed – suffering has deleted that from my memory. The barrack was enclosed by a high barbedwire fence and we were surrounded by the vast taiga forests. The daily food rations were a weak soup and 200 grams of doughy bread which couldn't be eaten without first drying into a hard crust.

My mother and the other Polish exiles were transported under armed escort by truck to work in the sawmill. My father was seriously ill and there was no medicine. In desperation we prayed often and intensely with novenas, and applied holy water from Lourdes which we had brought with us from Poland. The children's almost non-stop prayers were heard and we were overcome with joy when the miraculous cure came, because the paralysis and illness disappeared and my father could walk unaided. The next day, he went to work in the sawmill.

The commandant of this forced-labour camp was surprised and angry that he was given families with children and old people to work in his sawmill. He was promised convicts and criminals. He helped us as much as he could with food and protected those who could not work due to illness, because without a medical certificate the ill people would be dismissed from work or sent to places unknown. The Secret Police got to know of this leniency and after two months the commandant was replaced by a diehard communist from Moscow.

The Russian population understood our fate. Many of them were Ukrainians deported like us to Siberia from the Kiev region and were left to their own fate without a roof over their heads. I saw others living in dugouts, with only a chimney pipe sticking out from the ground as evidence of people living inside.

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The conditions were dreadful and gnawing hunger was always present. Bedbugs were a continual harassment – they were everywhere, brought diseases and killing them was useless. There were also plagues of lice. The Polish exiles began to suffer from typhus, bleeding dysentery and other contagious diseases. We heard the cries of dying children who were our neighbours from Lachy in Poland. Soon, their mother also died in much pain, leaving only the father and two other children.

One woman's punishment for not turning up for work without a medical certificate was deportation to an unknown destination. She was not heard of again. This also happened to other families. We were treated as slaves, to be used until we dropped because replacements were cheap. The cries of the suffering and dying were endless, and each day corpses were placed in coffins of raw sawn planks and buried in the taiga forest. Families were being decimated and the living waited for inevitable death. There was no hope of escape from this virtual extermination camp.

Some months later, the camp authorities issued us permits to go to the nearest settlement to buy some food in exchange for our clothes. A few times, my father managed to buy a little porridge in exchange for my clothing.

My job was looking after the younger children and to stand in the bread queue with our ration cards. The stronger ones would push their way in, sometimes breaking the bones of the weaker ones in the crush and pushing them to the back of the queue. There would be no more bread by the time my turn came. I would go back to the barrack empty handed and in tears. My mother would often lament at the injustice of the children suffering. People visiting us would comment about how peaceful, clever, pretty and smiling our little twins were, even in this horrible place. I think God's mercy shone through their innocence and above the prevailing evil in people's hearts. We were helped at the most critical times by people of goodwill. Sometimes we would receive a small food parcel from our relatives in Poland and once we received 200 roubles from our old neighbour there.

Even working three shifts, my parents struggled to feed us. They would also have to pay fines for not sending us to the Russian school. My father would say that he would not allow us to be raised as communists and it was decided that it would be preferable for me to work at the mill instead. I was dismissed a month later for not meeting my quota, because the work of stacking wet planks was beyond my strength. I went back to minding the children and waiting in the bread queue. I knew my parents were hiding something from me – they had stopped going to work on medical grounds and were receiving a small sickness allowance. I soon learned that they were suffering from typhus. I can't remember how they recovered, perhaps with the page 49help of some kind-hearted Russians. Anyway, none of the children caught the sickness from them.

And so we lived from day to day awaiting death. One day seemed like a year. After some months, having decided that the Polish prisoners were not criminals but industrious and well behaved, the Russian authorities decided to transfer us from the communal barracks. We were given unfurnished, barrack-like, one-family, single-room accommodation with a stove big enough to bake bread and a wooden shelf for sleeping. The walls were thin and draughty, but at least vermin free. The Russian workers had little plots of land in which they grew a few potatoes and carrots in the short growing season. In the Siberian climate, the severe winters last for nine months and temperatures can fall to -50°C (in this temperature, air expelled from the lungs turns into tiny ice crystals which fall tinkling to the ground).

We were 5km from Tauda, a small town of 5,000 people in the taiga forest by the river of the same name, where the Polish exiles cut and felled trees. The timber was floated down this river to the sawmill. Severe penalties were imposed on anyone taking firewood from the forest – better for it to rot than for us to have it, we were told. We were continually watched by the Secret Police.

For firewood, the workers were given some poor-grade planks not suitable for transport. Melted snow was used for water. The families of the camp garrison lived in a block of flats in the town. For privacy, we hung blankets on the windows and sang religious songs. Day followed day in drudgery and misery. I also remember the river in flood when all the houses were halfway under the water and there were floating corpses.

Fostered to a Russian family

My mother came to know Anna, a Russian bookkeeper, who took me home to look after her newborn baby. She also hired another woman for laundry and cleaning. She treated me as her own daughter – we went to her private steam bath, wore good clothes and had plenty to eat. Her husband was a Secret Police agent and was the terror of the town. But I was allowed to speak freely on any subject in their home. In private, they did not support Stalin's rule of terror, but in public, fearing for their jobs, they terrorised their neighbours and subordinates.

In their bedroom, hidden behind flowerpots, they placed an icon of the Blessed Mary of Perpetual Help and a beautiful picture of Jesus was hung behind the door of the pantry. The pantry was filled with an ample supply of provisions, because as members of the Communist Party they received not only a high wage, but also three-monthly supplies of flour, porridge and sugar. page 50It was all done in secret and supplies were locked away in chests. This woman preferred to throw away the old supplies than distribute them to the needy – I couldn't understand that.

The Party members were afraid to speak openly to each other. They all had home stills for making vodka and on free days would get drunk. When my employer's husband was drunk, I would lock myself in my room and did not believe Anna's assurances that he was harmless. Though I now lived comfortably and was treated well, I felt unhappy at not being able to help my family who went hungry while food here was being wasted.

After a few months of my stay there, the baby fell ill. We took her to the doctor whose suggested cure didn't work and this beautiful child died at the age of 10 months. This was the woman's tenth child to have died from the same disease and none of them survived more than two years. She loved children, but was left only with her nine-year-old son. I secretly christened the child before she died. The woman told me that she took each newborn child 500km to Sverdlovsk where she had them secretly baptised by a Russian Orthodox priest to avoid punishment by the Secret Police for doing so. After the child's death, I was asked to stay on and look after the house. One day she asked me if I prayed. When I said I did so in secret, she ordered me to continue like I would have done at home, though I was Catholic and she was Russian Orthodox. We said our prayers together each day and sang religious songs, longing for public worship which was forbidden by the State.

The long flight from Russia

Then one day the news came of an amnesty for the Polish exiles in Russia. Nothing was certain, but it was decided to return to Poland. My parents began packing and my mother came to take me with them. Anna wouldn't let me go and wanted to adopt me, but my mother would not hear of it. It was an emotional parting because I had come to like her.

All was ready for the journey in a third-class rail carriage. But we soon learned that we were misled by the Secret Police, who did not want us to return home, and our train was ordered in a different direction. On 15 September 1941, our exile began anew. The train shook and rattled terribly.

The only food we were given was a ladle of weak soup – sometimes. Occasionally, when the train stopped, we would buy a little bread or a melon. One could buy a piece of bread for any old clothing. At times we were told to leave the train and wait for another. We would sleep for days in the stinking waiting rooms at various stations in overcrowded conditions. We felt that the Secret Police had some secret plans regarding our future. We also thought we would never get out of this nightmare and waited for inevitable death.

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One day, we were told to board a train which was obviously going south – though Poland was in the west. We passed the towns of Chimkent, Tashkent, Leninabad and Samarkand in Uzbekistan. The train then took us to Kazakhstan and back to Tashkent. Three times we made this circular journey. Some people were ordered off the train in Kirghizia and others in Uzbekistan. The rest were taken back to Kazakhstan.

When it was our turn to leave the train, we were ordered to walk the rest of the way. I don't remember how long this journey on foot lasted, but we used up our last reserves of strength when we came to a river (which was so wide that we could not see the other side) where huge floating rafts waited for us. Whole families were herded onto them like cattle with no room to move. Some had to sit on the sides with their feet dangling in the water. Our father feared that we would never return alive if we boarded these rafts (we learnt later from witnesses that some of them did sink and that the survivors were taken back to forced-labour camps). Luckily, there wasn't enough room to fit the great mass of people waiting on the shore, and we had to return to the railroad and once again travel by train into the unknown.

I cannot remember how long this journey took. On the way, the train's human cargo was gradually unloaded, a few families (or their remnants) at a time, in Kirghizia and Uzbekistan. The rest were scattered in groups of threes or fours every 15km over the arid vastness of Kazakhstan in the Dzhambulska region.

Six weeks later, at the end of October, we were taken by oxcarts to the Lugovaya region, and given a mud and wattle hut with a straw-covered roof. When it rained, the hut was awash with water, which was not often because of the arid climate. We slept on a bed of dry prickly weeds strewn on the bare earth floor. The hut was so tiny that we had to sleep squeezed together like sardines. We drew water from a small stream in which the local Uzbeks washed their clothes (without soap, which was available only to the Communist Party members).

With the unsanitary water and lack of food, many of the Polish families were decimated by epidemics of typhus and typhoid fever, dysentery and other diseases. Within two months, a number of families had ceased to exist. The young men escaped to the Polish army, which was rumoured as being formed in the south. Their places were taken by a new influx of young men on their way to join the same army. This situation lasted a few months.

At the beginning of May, I went to work 6km away in vegetable gardens assigned for the benefit of Communist Party members. An Uzbek gave me a light weeding job. Ukrainian guards stood watch over us to ensure we met our quota and to prevent theft. For a full day's hard work, we were given a page 52small quantity of flour. Lacking vitamins, my sisters contracted nyctalopia (night blindness), which causes blindness from late afternoon until morning. I was free of that because of my better diet while in the employ of the Russian woman many months earlier in Siberia, and was able to lead the girls around when they could not see.

We were saved by the young Polish men mentioned earlier. One of them gave us liver from an unknown animal and told us to cook it, waft the steam on the open eyes and then eat it. They also gave us some lard from a dog. In a short while, the illness passed and the girls could see. I returned to work. In the evenings we prayed the rosary. I was very upset when I lost my rosary and prayed intensively to the guardian angel. In the morning, I knew exactly where to find it.

The countryside was covered with wheat and cotton fields, though much of it was dry steppe covered in dry grasses with snakes. The Kazakh men wore distinctive clothing, with heavy sheepskin coats and woollen caps, which kept them warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The women wore pyjama-like garments with turban-like headwear. Their language is related to Turkish and we could not understand it.

We lost our appetites due to the chronic shortage of food, and without salt all food was hard to swallow. We were still homesick for our country and churches. Only three of us were to come out of this alive. My mother became ill and I went to work by myself. When I saw a strange man in my path, I would change direction, only to be confronted by snakes – I didn't know which way to run. The time passed in constant stress and fear. Each day seemed like a month and we longed for death, which seemed the only escape from this hell.

Family deaths

It was December 1941. My four-year-old little twin sisters had measles. One night one of them, Teresa, wanted to go outside. I followed her but she changed her mind and came back inside. She lay in my arms, breathed a deep sigh and died. I thought she was asleep and we lay like this all night. In the morning, her body was still warm and supple. She looked alive. We wrapped her in a sheet and buried her out in the steppe. Three days later, her twin sister Weronika died. In death, she too looked alive and pretty. We buried her with the help of the young Polish men.

My father's first exile to Siberia in World War I caught up with him. His legs deteriorated and he couldn't work, became ill and developed a heavy cough. He began to yearn for the unattainable homemade bread and our return to Poland. There was no medical help available and no one bothered about us page 53– the unwelcome foreigners. He had a painful and lingering death in March 1942 at the age of 50.

My mother warned me not to accept any favours from men, especially the collective farm manager who took a liking to two of the Polish girls. On a few occasions, he gave me some vegetables which I refused. As punishment, he sent us to do heavy work which was beyond the means of even strong men and threatened us with beating. We prayed and awaited the worst. Then we had a bright idea and told the manager that we would write to Stalin himself, who had us under his personal protection and who would punish him for treating us like slaves. The gullible manager believed this, or gave us the benefit of the doubt, and sent us back to the relatively easier work in the cotton field which was under a different manager.

My mother became ill but continued to work in the cotton fields. Because I also had to work, she would take her other two daughters with her, afraid to leave them alone. Somehow, she managed to get into the local hospital a few kilometres away. I visited her with my younger sister Maria. My mother developed a craving for milk and butter. I peddled our clothing from hut to hut and could only buy mare's milk and a little butter, which my sisters would then bring to her. But unable to eat, she would leave them untouched. The food became rancid and reluctantly we had to throw it away. When I was peddling, the local Kazakh people in one hut invited me to share their noodle soup, which I couldn't accept because I was in a hurry. One day, on the way back from the hospital with my sister Maria, we were attacked by two horsemen but were defended by some local Kazakh women working in a cotton field.

Though still ill and unable to walk unaided, my mother was discharged from the hospital and in this state we walked her back the few kilometres to our hut. She was too weak to eat, had a fever and spat blood – she was once again ill with typhus and bleeding dysentery. It was a miracle that none of us three children caught these contagious diseases. She willed herself to keep us alive.

We were so depressed that we did not want to live, let alone eat, even when sometimes people would bring us a little food. Once, my younger sister Maria sat on the grass and began screaming for help. An adder had wound itself around her foot. A workman removed the adder, but my sister, though not bitten, was ill for some days. Everyone was very surprised that the adder didn't release its venom and we all thanked Providence.

Then one day, three Polish men arrived with the unbelievable news that we were to be set free. They first checked our documents to see if we were in fact Polish. They then loaded our weak mother and meagre possessions onto an page 54oxcart, and took us on an unknown journey. We boarded a train at a station and in the heat of the sun we arrived in Dzhambul, Kazakhstan. There we found a large gathering of Poles who were also waiting to be taken on the next leg of our journey.

Medics in white coats checked our state of health. When they saw my mother lying on the ground, one of them said that she was dying and she was carried on a sheet to the hospital – we were in agonies of grief. She could not eat, drink or speak but understood all that was said to her and she said goodbye with her eyes. From her neck, she removed her meagre savings and gave them to me – I gave the lot to a woman who was our newly appointed guardian of the orphaned children. I thought I would also die. People slept in the open air, but we orphans were taken into a shelter where we spent the night half-sitting. In the morning, I was taken to the hospital, but my mother was no longer there and no one wanted to show us where she was taken – we knew she had died.

We had to hurry because the train was waiting. The carriage had wooden benches on one side. The small children were placed in nets which were slung like hammocks on one side of the rail carriage and others had to sit on the floor. A guardian was in charge of each carriage with children. Some of the latecomers jumped on when the train was already in motion. We then travelled west through Central Asia – Chimkent, Tashkent, Leninabad, Samarkand, Bukhara, Chargan and Ashkhabad – and then left the train at the seaport in Krasnovodsk on the Caspian Sea. I suppose we were fed on the way but I can't remember, though I do remember Polish soldiers sharing their meagre rations with us.

After we disembarked from the train hungry and thirsty, we were taken to the steam baths in groups, where we were disinfected and our hair washed and shaven. All our possessions and documents were taken away, leaving us only in what we wore. We looked like slaves – emaciated, pale, sad and scared.

At last we boarded a cargo ship, where we were squeezed together in a tight space with standing room only. One woman was trampled to death in the crush and her body was thrown overboard into the sea. Two latecomers attempted to board ship when it was leaving the wharf. They jumped into the water and tried to scramble up some dangling ropes, but were too weak and drowned.

Moaning from sick young girls came from below deck, but we weren't allowed to go near because of typhus and other contagious diseases. Our guardian wetted our lips with cotton wool because it was so hot that our tongues stuck to the roof of our mouths.

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Safety and food in Iran

On arrival at the Iranian port of Pahlevi, we were stood in rows and the English Red Cross checked our condition. The sick went to hospital and the healthier were taken to Tehran. The three of us were taken to a convalescent centre in Pahlevi, and were cared for by young and sympathetic soldiers from the Indian army who also cooked our special diets. We were in quarantine, slept in army tents and sunbathed all day long because everything was done by the soldiers.

When we grew stronger and gained a kilogram in weight, we boarded army trucks for the long journey over the Elburz Mountains to Tehran. The trucks were driven by expert Iranian drivers over the precipitous, tortuous and boulder-strewn bends. We were crushed together in the heat and the dust. Having at last arrived in Tehran, we lived in tents. Many people were located in a huge hall, and slept on the floor with one blanket and a pillow. We had no appetite and couldn't eat because our stomachs were contracted and dried up from hunger, and our livers were diseased. Here, I met many friends from my home village in Poland.

On November 1942, after some months in Tehran, we were transferred to Isfahan, the ancient capital of Iran. Here, the children were located in various old palaces and houses formerly occupied by the rich elite of the city. We stayed in Compound No 6 in the suburb of Dzhulfa with 300 other girls. We were now separated as my younger sisters went to different compounds, according to age. Boys were also in separate compounds around the city.

We looked awful – I weighed only 35kg. But this was the beginning of a stabilised life. Schools were opened, but because of a shortage of teaching materials we wrote our first lessons on sand. Vitamin deficiency caused me embarrassing memory lapses, but I managed at school.

Our compound was surrounded by a high wall whose gate was always locked and guarded by an elderly doorman, though some of the guard duty was done also by the older girls. We were not permitted to go out alone because of the real danger of abduction – one girl was abducted and a year later thrown out into the street with a baby. We received a little pocket money which we would save up to buy sandals.

The compound was next door to a beautiful Armenian church where we attended prayers and services. Representatives of the British armed forces and consulate would visit and pray with us. Back in Poland, our spiritual life was rich and full of prayer. This continued throughout the years of exile in Siberia and now Iran. There were always girls praying in the church, alone or in groups – prayer was our strength and kept us going in the darkest hours of our lives.

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I was free from any serious illness during the years in Siberia – there must have been Providence's purpose in that. Now free from any responsibility, my body succumbed to all types of illnesses. I was confined to a hospital bed for two months with inflammation of the joints. Then came malaria with delirium, followed by mumps. I was so thin and pale that girls would run from me thinking I had the dreaded tuberculosis. Together with my sister Maria, I was transferred to a sanatorium run by Ursuline nuns where I stayed for six months.

Our life in Iran was peaceful, ordered and free from stress. In 1943, I joined the Girl Guides and began English lessons. Isfahan was a beautiful city, with irrigated gardens. We discovered the best of what Iran had to offer. Twice a week, we were taken to swimming pools and steam baths. The archbishop hired seven buses and we were shown the old city and its environs in all their splendour. Time passed in lessons, Scouting, choirs, amateur theatre, learning national dancing, Christmas plays and religious festivals. We were also often visited by dignitaries – Polish, British and even once by the Shah of Persia.

Sister Stella (3rd from left) receives family and guests at a Warsaw convent during her 50th jubilee celebrations of life as a nun of the Nazarene Order

Sister Stella (3rd from left) receives family and guests at a Warsaw convent during her 50th jubilee celebrations of life as a nun of the Nazarene Order

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Then one day came the shocking news of the death of General Sikorski, the Polish Premier and Commander-in-Chief of the Polish army-in-exile. We cried desperately, because with his death in a suspicious aeroplane "accident" we lost all hope of ever returning to our homeland. We were up to date with all the news from the war fronts – even the clandestine news from the Warsaw uprising. The failure of that uprising was another bitter blow to us, like the last nail in our coffins. The only bright bit of news for a while was the victory of our Polish soldiers at Monte Cassino.

After two-and-half peaceful years of temporary asylum in Isfahan, it was time to move on. In 1944, the children were being evacuated to South and East Africa, Mexico, India and Canada. The last group was evacuated to Lebanon in 1945. I was listed on the third transport to leave Iran for Africa, but because my sisters had trachoma (an infectious eye disease), I had to stay behind and wait anxiously for the next transport. There seemed no place for us to go because all the British colonies were now full with Polish refugees and we weren't sure what would happen to us.

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.

A new life

My first holiday in New Zealand was with the Morgan family in Wanganui, who tried to make every day a pleasant one for me, including a trip on the beautiful Wanganui River and the countryside. I saw beautiful lakes, some of which I was told were so deep that they reached all the way to Japan! I spent my annual holidays with other local families at no cost to me. All these people were most generous and good to me.

I was heartbroken to leave the camp when I had to go and live in Wellington on 20 September 1946. There, I boarded with four Polish girls and 76 of other nationalities in a girls' hostel in Oriental Bay. I started work three days later as a seamstress with three other Polish girls, travelling there by bus. Our page 59employer was pleased with our work and showed us up as an example to the other workers – he increased their work quota based on our performance. We lived below St Gerard's Monastery in Mount Victoria and attended Mass there regularly. Some of the local girls, indifferent until now, followed our example and became regular churchgoers. We became friendly with some Samoan, Maori and Chinese girls. After a few weeks, they joined us in the church choir.

During my holidays, I spent a week with the Davis family in Te Kuiti and visited the enchanting Waitomo caves, a hydroelectric power station and pretty Hamilton East. I also saw the sights of Auckland.

I was always drawn to the religious life and wanted to join an order of nuns among my own people. So I decided to leave New Zealand to study in Rome, closer to my native land. Father Broel-Plater, the Polish priest, made all the arrangements for me. I spent my last Christmas in the Pahiatua camp with my two sisters. I asked them if I could leave them and they replied with sadness that yes, if this was to make me happy.

Some children were returning to Poland to rejoin their parents who were parted from them during the escape from Siberia, so arrangements were made for me to accompany the group. On 7 May 1949, we sailed on the Rangitiki. Our little group was under the care of a Polish woman who was seasick all the way, so I had to take over the role of guardian. I enjoyed the voyage on the ocean. In Panama, I collected letters from my sisters and New Zealand friends. I became homesick for New Zealand and wished that the ship would turn around and take me back there. But I kept my resolve and all the way on the long voyage to Rome I met good and kindly people, and I thank God for all His blessings on me.