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

Escape from the orphanage

Escape from the orphanage

After six days of preparation, I got up one morning before everybody else, picked up a pair of shoes out of a trunk, put on my coat and was on my way. I had pushed my bag under the fence the previous day so I could easily grab it on the way out. There was no one at the gate this early in the morning, and I had no trouble opening and shutting it after I left. As it was only a few months since I had travelled down this road, it was easy to remember how to get out of the city. Once past the houses, I was all alone on the road and glad everything had gone as I planned.

Next, a buggy came alongside driven by a man in a Secret Police uniform with his little boy and agreed to give me a lift. He wanted to know where I was going, whom I was going to see and whom I lived with in Pavlodar. I told him the name of the town where I was going, that my mother was in hospital and I wanted to see her, and that in Pavlodar I stayed with my aunt. He wasn't going my way, so I thanked them, got off and walked.

It was a warm day late in the afternoon and I was getting tired. I came to a roadhouse where I hoped to spend the night but the woman in charge only allowed me to drink water from the well. The wooden bucket was too heavy, but fortunately already had a little water in it. With a little of the bread and water, I ate my first meal of the day. The sun was still high and I continued walking for a few miles. There was no traffic, so I decided to spend the night on the steppe. I found a level spot and lay down. The earth was hard and smelled of mildew and rotting grass. The moon was out. Lying still in the dark, I became aware of a hundred night noises. Every little snap made me jump. The sounds were all around me.

Then a beautiful animal startled me a few feet away. It was a thin grey dog, shaggy and twice my size. I took out some bread and put it on the ground by my side hoping it would come nearer, but it didn't move. I encouraged it by speaking to it gently, but it bared its teeth. But I was not afraid of it, and leaving the bread on the ground I went back to sleep. The next morning the bread and the dog were gone.

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On my second day I came to a crossroad and knew I was lost. All three roads looked the same. I picked the middle one and kept walking. I was hungry and thirsty. Around noon, I reached a place with several rough huts made of clay and turf. Everything was quiet and no one was visible. In one of the huts, a dirty small window was half opened and I could see some food left on a bench. Putting my hand inside the window of a hut, I snatched a cabbage leaf.

Then I came upon a young, ragged and barefoot Kazakh boy of about 16. He didn't look normal and made lewd suggestions. The prospect of getting food, water and the answer to where the road led to had diminished. I left in a hurry, dropping and losing the rest of my bread and the stolen cabbage leaf.

Darkness fell and the temperature dropped. There was lightning and rolls of distant thunder. I curled up in long grass. On two sides of my bed I had a wall of wild rose bushes. Then the storm struck in earnest. The pelting downpour drenched my clothes and filled my shoes. Brilliant crackles of light split the black sky. I have never seen anything so magnificent before or since. The wind was so strong I had to hunch down on the ground so as not to be blown over. The rain was coming down in sheets now and the wind was howling.

For a long time I sat in the puddle in the pouring rain, my head bowed. I felt defeated. Not knowing what to do next, I said my prayers and tried to sleep. Early in the morning, wet and cold and without any sleep, I decided to get back onto the road. It must lead to people. Hours later, crazed with hunger and angry at everything that was happening to me, I got down on my hands and knees, and scooped dirt and grass into my mouth. In my haste, my eyes got their share of the dirt. Tears ran down my cheeks into my mouth and mixed with the sandy loam, which stuck between my teeth and I vomited.?

For the first time since my departure from the orphanage I lost control. I collapsed on the ground, pounded with my fists and decided it was better to endure the hunger than try that again. I must sleep, then I won't feel hungry. Can one grow accustomed to starvation? I would say so. After a while the hole in the pit of my stomach became second nature to me, a dull pain that accompanied me everywhere.

I slept the rest of the day, survived the night and in the morning I decided to continue walking. Tears were running down my face. My mouth and throat were very dry. Keeping one foot in front of another, I made myself move forward. I accepted a ride in a wagon with a kind young man. He covered me with a long coat, calmed my shivering, and handed me a chunk of bread and a piece of cheese. He told me he was married to a Polish girl and invited me to stay with them, but I wanted to get to my destination.

By nightfall, we reached a kolkhoz where his mother lived. She helped me to clean up and washed out my eyes, gave me warm food and put me to page 68sleep in a real bed. In the morning after breakfast, we were on the road again. We picked up a hitchhiker who was a Polish man in his late 30s. He had been released from a labour camp a couple of months previously and was now wandering the country looking for his family. He promised the driver he would deliver me safely where I wanted to go, as the driver was heading in a different direction. The two of us thanked him and proceeded on foot into town.

Mrs Sokalska showed no emotion at seeing me. However, when I explained that I did not want to be a burden and would move in with Marushka, Mrs Sokalska was not prepared to give me away to a Russian. After some months had passed, Mrs Sokalska advised me that I was to go to a Polish orphanage again, but this time to a place further south in Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan, near the Iranian border. The orphanage from which I escaped was closed and the children had been taken to Polish families.

Early the next morning we left the kolkhoz on foot and walked in silence mile after mile. Mrs Sokalska and I never had much to say to one another. It started to snow and I could feel pain in my joints between my hips and legs. Gradually, I began to take smaller and smaller strides. I could hardly walk and Mrs Sokalska almost dragged me for the next 80km to reach the trucks which would take me to the orphanage.

As I was getting ready to board one of the trucks, Mrs Sokalska took me in her arms and for a few minutes held me without saying anything. She had tears in her eyes. After she got her composure back, she said to me: "When you are in another country, try and get me out of here. You know my daughter is ill and will probably not survive the winter. God be with you." Then she was gone. This was the first time I ever witnessed her express any emotion.

With a group of about 40 orphans, I travelled on to Pavlodar where we boarded a train for Ashkhabad, picking up more Polish children on the way. After a long journey, we were delivered to a transit orphanage. Following a quick medical examination, we were issued grey blankets and slept on the floor, jammed 50 to a room.

A girl of 16 was in charge of 10 of us girls. One morning I fell ill and, because no one seemed to know what was wrong with me, they put me in isolation in a local hospital. To this day, I still do not know what was wrong with me.