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

To New Zealand

To New Zealand

On 7 September 1944, we left Isfahan with its warm and sunny climate, which had helped us to regain our strength and health. I will never forget Iran – a country of mosques, palaces, gardens, and shops full of decorative silver and copper.

The journey by sea was very exhausting. On board the Sontay to Bombay, we were accommodated in holds with piles of mattresses and no bunks. But it was too hot down in the hold, so we dragged our mattresses to the decks at night and slept under the stars. In the morning, the sailors woke us up by swishing water across us and shouting: "Washing deck! Washing deck!" I did not know then what the words meant. For breakfast that morning we had Persian flat bread and salty cheese, which made us very thirsty. Later, we lined up in front of a large container with water which tasted oily, but we encouraged one another to hurry up and drink it.

A week later we reached Bombay and boarded the troopship USS General Randall, which was a luxury vessel in comparison to our previous one. Most of us were too young at the time to be aware of the danger that the journey presented. It was because of the suspicion of Japanese mines and also the likelihood of their submarines attacking that the ship was escorted for a short while by US destroyers.

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During the voyage, we became concerned with what would really happen if the ship was attacked by the enemy. One of the soldiers explained to us that the ship was partitioned into three sections. If one or two of them got hit, a third section could operate on its own, so we should not worry too much. I am not sure if he had any knowledge of such things. Perhaps he was trying to give us hope of survival in case of the inevitable.

Finally, on 31 October 1944, we sailed into Wellington Harbour. After a month at sea, we were pleased to see land again. We all came up on deck to get a good glimpse of the capital of New Zealand. The colourful roofs of the houses fascinated us and we could see green hills. This was very new to us after all our time in the barren and dry country of Iran.

The next day, we docked at the wharf and were taken by trains to the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua, where it was good to be in school again – we had to make up for lost time. I had a happy life at the camp. From time to time, I broke some rules and was punished by not being able to see a film. But gradually, I became older and a little wiser.

I remember our first English lessons. At that time, I am not sure who was more nervous, the teachers or us. Many years later when I met my New Zealand teacher and we discussed life in the camp, I discovered it was just as difficult for them as it was for us children. They had no experience in
Halina (second from right) and Ernie Morrow (right) represent New Zealand at the 1984 World Field Crossbow Championship in Wolverhampton, England

Halina (second from right) and Ernie Morrow (right) represent New Zealand at the 1984 World Field Crossbow Championship in Wolverhampton, England

page 71teaching foreign children and we had no idea how to learn the language, which was so different from ours. English is a language in which the grammar is simple and easy to learn, while the pronunciation is difficult, irregular and inconsistent. The Polish language has a complex, yet largely regular grammar, but pronunciation is consistent and easy.

The teacher began the first lesson by telling us there were only five vowels with 18 distinct sounds between them, which had to be recognised. Then she wrote on the blackboard the examples and explained the consonants. We had no idea what she was saying and it must have been very uncomfortable for her when she was speaking to us, knowing well that we could not understand her yet still being expected to learn. We did not know how to learn to pronounce and spell correctly, and did not make much progress. For a spelling test, we memorised the words the way we pronounced them in Polish and then wrote them down.

My attention was drawn to the older girls who by that time were working in factories or similar places, and were stopping occasionally at the camp. They seemed happy, had lovely clothes and the stories they told about life in the cities were very appealing. But I was told to stay in school because an education would give me better opportunities later in life. Geography, maths and sport were my favourite subjects, and I was good at writing essays. But English words did not appeal to me. It required too much effort, so I learnt enough to show the teacher that I had studied but not enough to remember. The New Zealand families we stayed with during the school holidays were wonderful to us. Some wanted to keep in touch, but I became very shy and my lack of English prevented me from writing.

On completing Standard 6 of Polish school, I was sent to a college in Gisborne with three other girls from the camp. We realised that we needed more help with the English lessons before handling other subjects. We soon discovered that the three of us had a better knowledge of geography and arithmetic taught in our class than the New Zealand girls. We were taught typing and represented our school in basketball championships.

But we had difficulty conversing with anyone. One woman joked about the way we spoke English instead of correcting us. Not to be ridiculed, we began speaking more Polish and avoided conversations with her. About this time, I realised that because I was not getting help with English in school, it would be impossible to accomplish my dream of becoming a veterinarian.

I started work in a bookshop's printing department in Gisborne, and learnt to print wedding invitations and bind accounts books. Then I worked for State Fire Insurance, attended night school and learned shorthand, which I liked. In normal circumstances, I believe I would have been very good at it, page 72but again I found my lack of English was a barrier to me. On transfer by my employer to Wellington, I went to live in the Polish Girls' Hostel in Lyall Bay. I enjoyed being with the Poles again, but I was rebellious and didn't like the rigid hostel rules.

One day, my friend Aniela and I made plans to travel overseas. We found a cheap bedsit in the centre of the city, took secondary jobs and had our main meals in town. We were young and strong. To save for our boat fare, for three months I worked at three jobs daily and on Sunday mornings at Wellington Hospital. Then I found out that the Transport Department was paying women almost a man's wages, so I left my lesser-paid jobs with the longer hours and became a conductor on the trams, and worked fewer hours. At first I liked my new job, but the six o'clock swill was not fun. The trams were crowded with intoxicated men anxious to get home. I quit the trams after nine months and went back to work for an insurance company.