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

Visiting Soviet Poland

page 159

Visiting Soviet Poland

After World War II, Poland was incorporated into the Soviet communist bloc. Though not officially part of the Soviet Union, it was its puppet state.

The Soviets oversaw Poland's internal affairs and the Soviet military forces exercised direct military control. Based on a political dictatorship supported by a large Russian Secret Police, it was supposed to be a classless society but in effect it was dominated by the Communists. Soviet socialism existed on suppression of all individual freedom, persecution of religion, strict censorship, collectivisation of property, strict summary punishment of those who dared to oppose it and an inhuman bureaucracy. Even judges were under Party control. The state of the bankrupt economy was hidden by false reports. Citizens were fed on false propaganda and individual citizens had no say.

Czesława Panek visited her brother in what historians call the second post-Stalinist phase (1953 to 1960). By then, the Communist Party had dropped several keystone repressive policies. Forcible collectivisation was halted, and opposition Party leaders and the Primate of the Polish Catholic Church were released. However, at the time of Czesława's visit, it was still too early for these changes to reflect in the community and the average citizen would not have noticed much difference.

My brother Mietek was away at college when our family was put on the trains to forced-labour camps in Siberia in 1940. When he returned, my aunt met him at the station and gave him strict instructions from my mother not to go anywhere near the trains. He remained in Poland, while I survived deportation to Siberia and found refuge in New Zealand.

I was determined to see Mietek again and spend a Christmas with him. In the meantime, I led a quiet life and by December 1961 had saved enough for a trip to Poland. I was afraid to visit Poland, as I was unsure whether the communists would allow me to return to New Zealand. I would have been one of the first of Pahiatua's Polish children to travel to Poland.

In December 1961, I sailed to Europe and from Holland by train to East Berlin where the temperature was -32°C and the carriages were unheated. All I had with me was a rug, as my luggage was still with customs in Holland. The train was six hours late, arriving late at night at Łańcut railway station in page 160south-eastern Poland. Only one taxi was waiting and the driver didn't appear to be familiar with the part of town where my brother lived. He just dropped me off in the town centre and disappeared. I wasn't even asked for the fare, which was strange.

In desperation, I ventured into the police station. By that time it was past midnight. When I told them who I was and who I was looking for they just burst out laughing and rang my brother to come and get me. My brother explained that he'd been rushing between Łańcut and Rzeszów, the nearest railway stations, trying to find me but had to give up.

I looked at Mietek and he was a stranger to me. The last time I had seen him he was just 15 years old and a college student. Now, 21 years later, I saw a man in his mid-30s with a wife and two sons. I stood there holding a rug without luggage or money. The money transferred through the bank arrived a week late. That was their introduction to what they called "millionaires" from the West.

Also, I felt like a stranger and rebelled against what I considered the new Poland's unfair compulsory government regulations. I got round having to purchase the compulsory hotel bonds by applying for a visa for one month only, and then trying to extend my visa in Poland while there. The exchange rate for the hotel bonds was only a third of what I could get elsewhere. When I applied to have my visa extended, I said that I wished to attend the skiing championships in Zakopane. There was no accommodation available, and I got the flu and missed the championships. My luggage arrived in February – just in time to take it back with me to London.

On my next visit to Poland in the summer, I thought I was much better organised. After quite a lot of hassle with the Polish Embassy in London, I received a dispensation from paying a bond for one month's visit. After a month elapsed, I went to the police station in Rzeszów hoping to extend the visa for another couple of months. I was interrogated: "Why did you not attend the skiing championships when your visa was extended last time?" and so on. I kept explaining, but in the end got into a bad temper and left banging the door behind me. They were probably hoping for a nice big bribe, which wasn't forthcoming from me.

My brother Mietek managed to get my visa extended somehow – probably with a bribe, he never told me. From what I heard, the militia had about a twoinch thick file on me. I don't know what they found to write in it. My every move and perhaps every word I said must have been recorded.