New Zealand's First Refugees: Pahiatua's Polish Children
[Troubles with Language]
I was 12 when I first arrived in Wellington from the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua in early 1948. The choice of Wellington was influenced by my two elder sisters, Rozalia and Krystyna, who were already working there.
I was taken by tram from the railway station to my destination in Courtenay Place. The station at that time was the largest and most imposing building in Wellington, though small in comparison to today's skyscrapers. My wonder at this first tram ride was indescribable and each subsequent ride was an adventure in itself – the clang and rattle, the open doorways to jump out of when still in motion, the "all fares please" call of the conductor, the breakdowns, the three-penny fish and chips treat wrapped in newspaper and tucked inside the raincoat while waiting for a tram in a howling southerly, and the city life passing by.
Few buildings were higher than four storeys but to me they were like huge skyscrapers. Until now, I had only seen one large city – Isfahan in Iran, which was built in the Eastern style with low buildings. So Wellington was the first high-rise city in my life, even though by then I had travelled halfway across the globe to the end of the world.
From the rolling farmlands of my home in eastern Poland, through the limitless emptiness of Siberia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, through dry Iran, and the empty waters of the Indian Ocean and Tasman Sea – I remember mostly flat. Wellington was a complete contrast – all hills and greenness, bright little houses perched miraculously on steep slopes without falling down, like a colourful painting freshly sprayed with clean rain. I couldn't imagine how one could push a bike up those steep streets.
I was met off the train by Mrs Ellinor Zaleska, the official guardian of the Polish children in New Zealand. She was Scottish by birth and widow of the representative of the Polish Government-in-Exile. She spoke beautiful Polish with a slight Scottish accent, and encouraged us to speak good Polish and learn proper English. This was rare encouragement indeed, when soon enough we were to hear all around us exhortations to "speak English or go back to your own country you bloody foreigners", which was one of the more polite expressions used.
We got off the tram in Courtenay Place, walked up to Roxburgh Street and up a steep fenced path to my new lodgings – a two-storey house beneath page 147the imposing redbrick St Gerard's Monastery with a panoramic view of Wellington Harbour. At the door we were met by the lady of the house, the widowed Mrs Parker, and her sister called Auntie Birdie who lived in the bottom flat. They looked down at me with kind eyes, but with surprise and a little disappointment. I was told later that they had expected a strapping youth to do handy work, such as mowing the lawns and other chores, but found only an unimposing and embarrassed lad standing there.
Too soon, Mrs Zaleska left me to be alone for the first time in my life among strangers who did not understand a word of my own language or my culture – I had only a few of their words and none of their culture. The first of many misunderstandings with the English language began. New words were learned quickly, but an understanding of the proper cultural meaning hidden behind them came after slow and painful experiences.
Though it was three years since the end of the war, butter rationing was still in force. But coming from a camp environment, I knew nothing of this. First thing, Mrs Parker asked me for my "ration book". I was surprised and a bit annoyed that she expected a "Russian book" from me. After all, we had just a few years earlier escaped from the horrid Russian forced-labour camps and did not want anything more to do with them.
Annoying me even more, she then rummaged in my carton suitcase and extracted the book of ration stamps she wanted, but which meant nothing to me. I had morbid thoughts that Mrs Parker was using Russian Secret Police tactics in searching my few possessions and tried to say as much with my few words of broken English. She must have thought me rather odd. But I at least had learned a new word and concept.
They were a kind and peaceful Catholic family, tolerant of my English and, to them, my strange ways. The house was sunny and pleasant, with a small lawn (thankfully). I was shown into the back bedroom which was to be shared temporarily with their adult son Kevin. I missed him when he soon married and left, because he coped with the handmower on wet grass which was now my lot and showed me how to do things, most of which I didn't understand.
The language problem was an ego deflator. At the camp in Pahiatua, we had only one or two hours of English language each day, for which I came first-equal in our class with Ryszard Sierpiński. The prize was a children's book edition of The Adventures of Robin Hood. I was very proud to have more or less understood the first few pages until I came across "Marian" and couldn't understand why the word "she" was used for a man – Marian in Polish is a male name. This confused me, so I never finished reading the book. Thinking the book must be wrong, I still thought myself well placed in the new language. But, after being left alone without assistance in this strange page 148and overwhelming society, that illusion soon evaporated, adding to my feeling of insecurity and alienation. My two elder sisters, still struggling with the language, also needed help. They were underpaid seamstresses, working long hours and were undernourished on their hostel's skimpy fare. I seldom saw them.
I became used to people being surprised, annoyed or thinking me silly because I would not understand them better if spoken to loudly and slowly. But I never got used to people being angry and telling us off for speaking our own language in public. The phrases "speak English" or "go back to where you came from" were heard so frequently that we called the New Zealanders "szpiki" – a twist on the word "speak". I am sure that we would have become more proficient in English and spoken less Polish without that pressure. It was a matter of pride – we considered our culture no worse, if not better, than New Zealand's. We were proud of our language, culture and interesting history, which gave us confidence.
It was a two-stop tram ride up Cambridge Terrace to St Patrick's College, which in those days stood opposite the Basin Reserve before it was moved to Kilbirnie to make room for a motorway (which was still not built 50 years later). The college was a Wellington landmark in those days – a real grey stone castle with towers and a prominent statue of St Patrick near the top.
That first day there was another blow to my self esteem. Some local boys stood around the entrance dressed in proper school uniforms. I felt like a country yokel, still wearing the army surplus kit we wore daily at the camp – a battle-dress re-dyed navy blue from its original khaki, too big for me, grey shirt, grey army socks and heavy boots. Some odd looks came my way. I expected jeers and laughter, but the boys must have been too well brought up and only gave odd glances.
I asked directions in a few words of broken English but got only stares of incomprehension. Then a group of Polish boys appeared, all dressed in the same army surplus manner – all was now OK, and there was laughter and relief. I was not alone. St Patrick's had an invasion that day of some 30 Polish boys and for most it was also their first day. We happily milled around the school yard together for protection, not sure what to do and trying to ignore the locals.
After the assembly, at which we formed a distinct group, the Polish boys were sorted into classes, with one of the older hands acting as an interpreter. Someone had to fill a vacancy in the French class, so my camp classmates volunteered me because of my English language prize in the Polish school in the camp. The rest of them were to take up bookkeeping. I tried to resist because surely, I thought, bookkeeping is looking after and binding books in page 149a warm heated library where one could cook sausages over the electric glueheating pot? I cursed my bad luck and envied the rest.
After two weeks in the French class, the teacher gave up trying to teach French to a boy with little English and who could only say "Toto looks at the door" in French. I happily moved into the bookkeeping class with the other Polish boys. To my disappointment, we never got to bind books and instead the teacher spoke a lot about a "Mr Purchases" and many "Debits", "Credits" and "Accounting" – whoever they were? To make it more interesting to the class, the teacher spoke about things as if they were people, which confused us completely.
At the end of the year, I had no idea what bookkeeping was about and dreaded it. When in my final year a career in accounting was suggested, I chose law instead. This choice was a mistake because I soon found the legal language and its concepts were very different from the English of literature which I was currently learning. Ironically, I later made a belated switch to an accounting career. Perhaps if Mr Purchases had been just plain purchases, my future life might have been so much easier?
Of the 30 pupils in the class, 0 were Polish. We were happy with this arrangement, but it must have been very difficult for the New Zealand boys and the teachers. We could not have been an easy group to teach. We were the first non-English-speaking refugee group to reach New Zealand and there was no precedent to guide the education system as we all bumbled along. But we inadvertently set a precedent for future generations of refugees. The college was run by the Order of Marist Catholic Priests. In those days, private schools operated without any government funding. All the teachers tried very hard in this new situation and as a measure of their success they were able to get us Polish boys through School Certificate, the then major national qualifying exam.
We wore our distinctive army-issue clothes for many months and were an attraction around town until the college rector put pressure on our guardians, the education authorities, to outfit us with proper school uniforms. We were now a little less conspicuous around town.
Towards the end of the school year, a place was found for me in the Polish Boys' Hostel in Island Bay where the Church of St Francis de Sales now stands. It was two sections by tram to school. The only other transport was by bicycle or motorbike, which were owned by only a few of the older boys. The staff was all Polish – some from the Pahiatua camp, and some who were recent arrivals from the German forced-labour camps and were also finding their way in this new country.
The older boys were already working, had gramophones and music Records, page 150chatted-up the local girls, went to the Island Bay beach, and read comic books about cowboys and Indians. I would bury myself in the borrowed comics and the Westerns. Captain Marvel comics and Zane Grey Westerns were the best, though much of it I did not understand.
There was a friendly stationery shop in Majoribanks Street, which I visited regularly to read a Classic Comic The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne, though I understood little of it at the time, which only added more to the mystery. The shopkeeper was a kind man and didn't chase me away – there were very many kind people like him about in those days. This intensive spurt of adventure reading gave me an incentive to read other books and unintentionally advanced my confidence in written English. I wish the same were true of my pronunciation.
My ever-vigilant elder sister Krystyna, who had been instructed by our dying mother in Uzbekistan during our evacuation from Russia to look after myself and our sisters, thought that life in the hostel was too distracting and that my schooling was suffering. So she prevailed upon our guardian Mrs Zaleska to transfer me far away to a boarding school the following year to St Kevin's College in Oamaru. I did not regret it because the four years at that college were my best, and the teachers of the Christian Brothers Order gave me a good education and insight into the New Zealand character.
When it was my turn to make a formal speech in front of my class as part of the English curriculum, I learned by rote the subject matter given to me without understanding many of the words or knowing how to pronounce them properly. The speech was a complete failure because no one understood what I was talking about. Not normally shy on stage, this experience made me forever uncomfortable in front of an English-speaking audience.
In 1990, I travelled in the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian Railway in the opposite direction to our deportation route in 1940 and in comfort as a tourist. I visited the graves of my parents in Uzbekistan and finally laid some ghosts of the past to rest. I never take wellbeing and security for granted.
During all my years in New Zealand, I was considered to be and felt like a foreigner. It was not until after I returned from spending seven years in a now free Poland with my wife Halina before my retirement in 2000 that I truly felt like I belonged here. Though my roots are in Poland, I consider New Zealand to be my home.