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

A fortunate life

page 164

A fortunate life

In February 1994, after spending several weeks in our place in the Bay of Islands, my wife Valerie and I took our daily walk to the beach at Te Uenga Bay. It was a beautiful morning, the tide was in, the sea was blue and the beach deserted.

The next day I had to go back to the office. Then I suddenly thought: "Why do I have to go back – why is it that I have chosen to continue working when there is no need for me to do that?" So we made a decision that I would go back to Auckland and hand in my resignation from the position of chief executive of Mainzeal Group and executive chairman of Mair Astley. I finished my working career that year.

So here I was, heading towards the age of 60, after a successful career in commerce, not wanting for anything, a lovely home in Auckland, another in the Bay of Islands, a large luxury launch, a luxury mobile home, six grownup children, and a successful and happy marriage. I now had time to enjoy those gifts – to enjoy the company of my wife, to retire together and enjoy a new life because the decision to retire was made by us jointly. During my working career, I guess I spent half of my time being away on business – certainly not many early evenings at home and certainly not contributing much to the cooking, cleaning and raising of our large family. So how did this fortunate situation happen to me?

I was born in the village of Ostrówki, near the town of Drohiczyn in the Polesie region of eastern Poland. Soon after the German invasion of western Poland in 1939, our part of Poland was absorbed by the USSR. The land, about quarter of all Poland at that time, is now part of Belarus, the Ukraine and Lithuania. Russians, Ukrainians and other USSR subjects have since resettled the land, now mostly emptied of Poles. Everything to do with Poland – Polish books, churches and institutions – was destroyed and forbidden to be mentioned. To this day, I'm not able to get a copy of my birth certificate, nor is it possible to get any certificates for births, deaths and marriages from eastern Poland – they simply do not exist.

My father was caught and shot by the Russian Secret Police before our deportation to Siberian forced-labour camps. There, the Russian political prisoners told us that we were here for life and that there was no way of ever escaping. But we did escape. In 1944, I came to New Zealand as an orphan page 165with the group of 733 Polish children. After a two-year stay in the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua, I was fortunate to be sent to St Patrick's College in Silverstream where I spent five years. It was a Catholic boarding school that produced many notables in all spheres of life – a number of Catholic bishops, judges and some notable businessmen, including Sir Pat Goodman and Sir Michael Fay. It also produced a number of sporting heroes.

I arrived there when I was 12 years old, the only Polish boy in the school and with just a smattering of English. I was put into the third form. To me, it was just another institution. I had lived in institutions for most of my life. However, the difference here was that I couldn't speak the language.

The boys were cruel, because foreigners were not accepted in those days as they are today. The staff did not appear to be as loving and caring as our substitute "mothers" who had looked after us in Iran and the Pahiatua camp. However, I was determined to overcome these obstacles and by the fourth year I was top of the class in a number of subjects. In the fifth year, I was accredited University Entrance and by then had a reasonable command of the English language. I made many lasting friendships in Silverstream.

After completing my five-year stint there, I stayed with my sister in Wellington to attend Victoria University, where I chose an accounting and commerce degree. I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to work for Bowden, Bass & Cox, and a small accounting firm where I was exposed to a variety of business and had my own clients. I made some great friendships among the young men and women who worked there, and it is where I met my wife Valerie.

After qualifying as a chartered accountant, I was offered a position with W&R Fletcher and then with GH Mooney & Co, where after four years I became the company secretary. Wishing to progress, I joined the General Electric Company as its financial manager and one year later joined the board as financial director. I later became the managing director for Charles Begg & Co – importers of musical instruments.

Early in 1980, I went out on my own as a consultant, company doctor and chartered accountant what-have-you. I was hoping to have a bit of a break but was asked to manage another company. So I began to manage companies in crisis, the development of successful businesses and investments.

Having completed a successful career as an executive, industrialist, investor, property developer and being appointed Honorary Consul of the Republic of Poland, I can ask myself: Was it all worth it? What would have happened if the Russians had not attacked Poland, and taken me and my family to Siberia? Is the wealth that I was able to create in New Zealand ever able to compensate for the tragedy that happened to me and my family? I have never page 166known my mother. I have never known her love and her warmth. I don't remember her teachings. I don't remember my father. I don't know whether he was strong, whether he was stern, whether he loved. I have no recollection of the first seven or eight years of my life.

There are blurred memories of my home in Poland. I remember the smell of the lilac tree by our front door. I remember that we had two dogs. But I couldn't find the place if I wanted to today because the whole village was destroyed and replaced by a collective farm. Would I swap the life I have here in New Zealand for these things that I've never known? Who chooses what form of life one should lead?

Jan Roy-Wojciechowski signs a copy of his biography A Strange Outcome – The Remarkable Survival Story of a Polish Child, published in 2004

Jan Roy-Wojciechowski signs a copy of his biography A Strange OutcomeThe Remarkable Survival Story of a Polish Child, published in 2004