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

The camp's craftsman

page 162

The camp's craftsman

At the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua, there was a group of mainly older boys whom we used to call the "shoemakers". They were put into the group for various reasons, including some misunderstandings. They used to do various jobs, but mainly they were taught shoemaking by a New Zealand soldier who was also a bandsman. It was like an apprenticeship for these boys and they received a bit of pay with which most of them eventually bought bicycles.

They had their own separate table in the dining room, which held between 200 and 300 people, and each table seated 12. Each table was expected to clear after itself and at our table we took turns. For some reason, the shoemakers' table was not cleared regularly after each meal and the chief cook, a Kiwi soldier, got fed up and banned them from the dining room, which of course meant no meals.

I had a friend in this group and I couldn't let him go hungry, so after each meal I would make a big sandwich and take it to him. After one particular meal, just as I was about to hand the sandwich over, I felt a powerful hand gripping the shirt at my back. It was the chief cook. He took me and the sandwich straight to Mrs Krystyna Skwarko, who at that time was in charge of the children. She grabbed me by the arm and proceeded to smack me on the backside with the other hand (which I think was mainly for the benefit of the chief cook), but I could feel she was not putting much force into it and was secretly pleased that I was helping my friend. But that was not the end of the episode.

I was quite good with my hands and made all sorts of things in the camp – mainly swords, bows and arrows, crossbows and various guns (including ones that fired 22 bullets). I also carved chess sets with my pocket knife for which I once received first prize at the chess-making competition organised by the camp authorities.

Not long after the sandwich episode, the chief cook decided to move on. Because he was quite popular with everyone, the Polish camp authorities decided to make him a presentation and chose to give him my chess set. Imagine my great embarrassment when I was told to make the presentation after dinner in front of all the people. We both pretended that nothing had happened earlier and parted best of friends.

On a fairly regular basis, we were treated to what we called "cinema" in page 163the main hall of the camp. We didn't understand much English at that time, but we let our imaginations run loose and enjoyed the cinema immensely, especially if it was a cowboy story.

Well, after one such cinema, Mr Białostocki, who was in charge of our barrack, came to me and said: "Rajwer, come to my office, I have something for you." I followed him wondering what it could be. He reached to the top shelf of his cupboard and produced a handmade gun. Immediately, I smelled a rat. He said to me: "Is that yours?" I said: "No, it's not mine", which was the truth. He said: "Are you sure? The boys told me it was yours." I said that I was sure it was not mine. "Well," he said, "if you don't want it then I will give it to someone else." I shrugged my shoulders and said: "Do that."

As I later found out, one of the boys went rabbit shooting with a homemade gun and came across a farmer with his little daughter. The farmer, being a friendly chap, asked the boy to show him his gun, which he thought was a toy and even pointed it towards the little girl. The boy got concerned, took the gun back and showed him it was loaded with a 22 bullet. Well, the farmer nearly fainted from shock, and grabbed the gun from the boy who now saw no future in staying around and fled. The farmer had no chance of catching him. And besides, he could not leave his daughter.

Of course, there was a lot of trouble over this and the authorities wanted to find out who the rabbit hunter was, hence my involvement as being one of the camp's gun makers. After this incident, the camp authorities promised us range shooting with real guns. They promised us other things too, just as long as we stopped making our own guns, but none of these promises ever eventuated. Instead, more rugby and cricket were introduced in which a lot of the boys took part and did well in competition games with local schools and clubs in the Wairarapa.