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


My parents were born under tsarist Russian occupation. During the 1918 Communist Revolution, they fled to settle in a small town in eastern Poland. My father was educated, spoke three languages and was a horticulturist who successfully experimented with growing exotic fruit in glasshouses and raised a black rose. I had a very active and happy childhood. On my first day at school, a siren sounded – the Germans had dropped a bomb on a nearby town. After this, I had only two more days at school.

Russian soldiers crossed the Wilia River that ran through our town of Nowa Wilejka, and my father and I went to watch them cross the bridge. The town had some 20,000 people, and was a mixture of Poles, Jews, Ukrainians and Belarusians. Among them were Russian sympathisers. My parents were very surprised to discover that a family who had visited us often turned out to be on the side of the Russians.

When my brother Olek came home from the Polish army, he explained that remnants of the army had crossed over to England. He and my father began hiding valuables, guns and uniforms left by two Polish officers who had stayed with us earlier. Before my father died, he told me where they were hidden. Maybe someone has found our treasure by now.

The Russian Secret Police discovered that Olek was home, and an officer and three or four Jews who were communist sympathisers arrived with guns and took him away. We never saw him again. Life was starting to get very unpleasant. The shops were empty and it was wise to be on guard as even the neighbours could not be trusted. Even some of the children interrogated by the Secret Police unknowingly revealed things they had overheard the adults talking about, causing arrests to members of their own families.