A lucky man
I was only two years old when World War II broke out, so I was too young to remember the horrors of my family's deportation to the forced-labour camps in the USSR. However, what was related to me by my parents, and from documentaries and books about that era, has taught me how fortunate we were to arrive in New Zealand.
My stay in New Zealand was a very happy one. We had food, we played, we laughed and above all, we were free, though the concept of freedom meant very little to me at that time. I would like to share with you the following memories, which are still vivid in my mind. I remember going for a picnic in the forest near a river. The whole Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua seemed to be there. We had fun, and when it was time to go back some of us decided to stay behind and camp out. I must have been about eight, but I was only too glad to tag along with my older "protectors" who seemed to know what they were doing. I am sure we didn't tell our teachers or supervisors.
We stayed behind, caught some eels and cooked them, and slept under the stars. The next morning we made our way back to camp as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I can't remember that we got into much trouble but some questions must have been asked. Imagine that happening these days. Imagine the commotion.
I recall once when we were paired off and sent to different destinations for a holiday to experience life with New Zealand families. I forget who my friend was, but I suspect he was as scared and mystified about the whole thing as I. A group of us arrived by train in Wanganui and we waited at the station for our New Zealand hosts to pick us up. My friend and I were the last ones to be collected. We snuggled into a corner and waited. It was dark and we weren't too sure how long we had to wait.
Eventually, our hosts identified us by our tags and we were taken to their homes. They were lovely, hospitable people who fed us well and looked after us beautifully. They showed us off to their friends and we generally had a great time. Our command of the English language was very limited at that time but we must have managed to communicate. These holidays were repeated a few times and I am very grateful to our New Zealand hosts for their generosity.
After leaving Pahiatua, my parents Katarzyna and Jan, and my siblings Danuta, Józef, Zenona and I settled in Ruakura, a government research farm page 144near Hamilton. I joined the Marist Brothers and taught in their schools for 12 years. In 1968, I married Teresa Wiśeniewska and now we have a lovely family of five children – Renia, Stefan, Andre, Roman and Maria. In 1979, we left New Zealand to settle in Australia where we now live. During the hot Australian summer months, we dearly miss the cooler temperatures of New Zealand.
My life's dream became a reality when I visited Poland with Teresa and my youngest daughter Maria. Imagine visiting my place of birth after an absence of almost 60 years. A lot of emotion and adrenalin flowed through my body. I was delighted when people complimented me on how well I spoke my mother tongue. Teresa and I always made sure that our children knew their roots, and we tried to pass on to them our love and pride for our native land. We stayed with our relatives and visited many historical places. The Panorama Racławicka in Wrocaw made a great impression on us. We, of course, made a pilgrimage to Jasna Góra in Częstochowa. This place still holds many special memories for us.
Every non-citizen in New Zealand was obliged to have a Certificate of Registration under the Aliens Act 1948. This had to be presented within 14 days after change of abode, place of employment or occupation. The visits to the police weren't pleasant experiences as the refugees felt that they were truly treated as "aliens"
Suddenly, some dogs began to howl and bark. Porch lights went on and a few doors opened. However, I had waited 60 years to do my "thing" and I continued to gustily sing those songs I learnt at the Pahiatua camp, and those I learnt at home while my parents were alive. I would love to have heard the comments made by those who poked their heads out to see what caused the commotion.
After spending 45 years in education, I have at last put away my "chalk and duster" and am enjoying my retirement near Brisbane, surrounded by my extended family and four grandchildren. The concept of freedom that meant so little to me then means much more to me now. I hope that my children never experience the horrors of war and that they always value freedom.
A big mystery for me is why we were spared when millions of others in similar circumstances perished. I suppose it will always remain a mystery but my prayerful thanks each day is: "Dear Jesus, thank you for bringing my mum and dad and our family out of Russia into this part of the world."
I am indeed a very lucky man.