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

Coming full circle

page 156

Coming full circle

I remember the big welcome awaiting us as we sailed into Wellington Harbour and the tiny coloured houses that dotted the surrounding hills. It seemed like one big Disneyland. From there, I remember the train journey to Pahiatua and having a feeling of such anticipation and excitement that I almost wet myself, but didn't tell anyone.

For most of us, the years spent in the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua would be the happiest of our lives. Compared to the multitudes who died in Russia, we were the lucky ones who survived and thanked the Lord for our chance. The camp was well organised and run by supervisors who tried their best to look after us. The atmosphere was great and we all felt like one big family, experiencing much laughter and tears together. Sometimes we would be too wild for our supervisors and two Polish returned servicemen were brought in to supervise us. Though their style was quite tough, they soon put us right. Looking back, that discipline helped develop our characters in many positive ways.

I hold a great deal of respect for all the supervisors who looked after us and will never forget the time when one supervisor, Mrs Powierza, playfully grabbed me and gave me a motherly cuddle. It was as though an electric shock passed through my body. This is how it must have felt to be cuddled by our own mothers, whom we all missed so much.

Suddenly we were no longer children but growing teenagers. As with all teenage boys, we started to become curious about girls. Occasionally, we would try to spy on them through the drainage hole in the showers, but unfortunately all we caught were glimpses of their legs.

Life in the camp was full of adventure and fun, which helped us to deal with some of the unhappier memories of our childhood. We would perform our duties after school, such as cleaning the camp, tidying up the dormitories and tending the gardens. These chores taught us about responsibility and physical work while keeping the camp clean and tidy. Camp life boomed in all aspects of education, music and theatre, with sporting activities proving very popular. Our New Zealand teachers introduced rugby, a game that was new to us but it caught on like a house on fire – we loved it.

After the camp closed in 1949, a group of about 45 boys was transferred to Hawera where we lived in a pleasant and well-maintained hostel, and page 157continued our education at the technical high school. Our supervisors, Mr and Mrs Tietze and their supporting staff, took good care of us. It would require a separate book to write the full story about the great bunch of boys growing up together in Hawera.

After two years, I moved to Wellington to continue my engineering studies at Wellington Technical College, while at the same time completing an apprenticeship with an engineering company. I lived with my sister Janina and her husband Stanislaw Kowalczyk. I am grateful to them for taking care of me and making sure my life went in the right direction.

By then, the Polish community in Wellington was thriving. There was a Polish girls' hostel in Lyall Bay and a hostel for boys in Island Bay. We spent our weekends visiting the girls' hostel for social activities. The girls looked so beautiful that I had trouble choosing a girlfriend, as I liked them all.

The Polish House in Newtown, which was established in 1949 by the Polish Association in New Zealand, was a great place for us to meet and chat. It had the feeling of one big family, all very much alive. I remember one evening at a dance function when a friend smuggled a bottle of liquor into the hall and a few of us tried it – this was in the days when alcohol was forbidden in gatherings which were open to the public. I had one little sip and was sick as a dog. I was then 19 and would be 23 before I accepted another drink.

In 1961, after finishing my apprenticeship and studies, and having worked for a while, I saved some money and went to Poland to visit my mother and the rest of my family. During the confusion of our escape from Russia in World War II, many parents became separated from their children and I hadn't seen my mother or the rest of my family for 18 years. It was a very emotional meeting and I felt strange because I was now a grown man and hadn't seen them for most of my life. There was a fantastic party in my hometown Grajewo and I had my first taste of vodka in true Polish tradition.

I then made my base in London and at first was homesick for New Zealand. I went to Poland a few times and the communist regime became suspicious of my frequent visits. My intention was to return to New Zealand, but a US petrochemical company, specialising in oil refineries in the Middle East, hired me. With my engineering qualifications, I was offered a job in the projects and design office.

Soon after, my manager called me into his office and asked: "John, how would you like to go to Iran?" I nearly fell off my chair and exclaimed: "Iran? I was there as a kid!" He said: "That's even better, you probably speak the local lingo". Within two weeks, in October 1969, I was off to Iran. Since then, I have visited there many times – the last time in 1995.

When there, I had the opportunity to visit Isfahan and my taxi driver took page 158me through memory lane, places which I could no longer recognise, but the driver knew the area and remembered the places where Polish children were stationed all those many years ago. He even recalled some Polish swear words. I had an interesting job working on construction projects and made friends with lots of the Iranian staff. They used to say to me: "Mr John, you are a nice man, but me no like the Americans."

Tehran was a fascinating city. While there, I had the opportunity to meet a few of the Polish women at a concert party given by the Tehran Symphony Orchestra. As young girls after their escape from Russia, they had remained and married Iranians. They were very pleased to meet me and the following day I was invited to a function following a Polish Mass. That evening in 1978 was a historic moment – Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope and became Pope John Paul II. We all went crazy with joy.

It was also a time of political unrest in Iran and a 6pm to 6am curfew was imposed – we had to stay awake until the morning because there was no sleeping accommodation in the function room. Not long after that, the Shah was deposed and the rest is history. By now, I was well established in London, but spent many working assignments in other Middle Eastern countries, with a period in Iraq with my wife and two-year-old daughter – our son was born in Bahrain.

In the mid-1960s, we had a Pahiatua boys' mini get-together of those who worked in London and those visiting. There was Franciszek Kubiak, Tadeusz Tietze, Ryszard Gołębiewski, Kazimierz Zieliński, Regina Zielińska, my brother Kazimierz, Bronisław Węgrzyn, Krystyna Dygas from Coventry, Mikołaj Gliński, Andrzej Dawidowski, and Zbigniew Dziki from the US. We all went to see the Moscow State Circus and afterwards had fish and chips washed down with a pint of beer – good old times. I also met Dr Wodzicki and his son Jontek.

Another particular friend from the Pahiatua camp whom I came across was Henryka Holender in the early 1970s. She was a talented girl, especially in music and theatre – I saw her performing on stage with the New Zealand Players Company.

We all went in different directions in life, but I will never forget my life and upbringing in New Zealand. My sincere gratitude goes to the Polish and New Zealand people who looked after us, and to all those who gave us a wonderful start in life. God bless you all.