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

Youngest boys in Hawera

page 167

Youngest boys in Hawera

My earliest memories go back to 1939, the year World War II broke out. As a four year old, I vaguely remember that my father was arrested and we were eventually deported to the Semipalatinsk region of Kazakhstan in the Soviet Union. From there, we were eventually evacuated to Iran.

Unfortunately, our salvation came too late and my mother died in Pahlevi, Iran, just a week after we were evacuated there. The terrible time and other hardships of our enslavement took their toll. I have always remembered my mum repeating to me over and over to never forget my name, date of birth, and that I was Polish and Catholic. Shortly after her death, I was taken to a Polish orphanage at Polish Civilians' Camp No 5 in Tehran to join hundreds of other orphans. Suddenly being alone among all these orphans was a very difficult time for me. Mum gave me a small photo of herself and I often looked at it so I would not forget what she looked like. I have kept that photo to this day.

Providence was good to me and, as it happened I, together with a group of 733 children, was selected to go to New Zealand in 1944 for the remainder of the war. After that journey to New Zealand, we settled down to a stable and what seemed like a carefree life at the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua. Shortly after, my sister Helena found me through the Red Cross.

Everyone fell in love with Wellington and the beautiful countryside in Wairarapa. The camp became a home away from home – "our little Poland". Even the camp's streets had Polish names. Most of us look back on those years at the camp as some of the happiest in our lives. Unfortunately, most good things come to an end. In 1949, we were told that the camp was closing down and that it would be used as a transit camp for displaced persons arriving from post-war Europe.

The last of the children to leave the camp were the 42 youngest boys. I was among them and it was a disrupted school year for us. For the first school term of that year we travelled by army trucks to Mangatainoka School. For the second term, we were sent to live at Linton Military Camp in Palmerston North and then to Marist Primary School. At the end of the second term, we left Palmerston North and were sent to our new home in the Hawera Polish Boys' Hostel, from where we attended St Joseph's Primary School until the end of the year. Then we attended Hawera Technical High School.

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Hostel life was different from the camps. We felt closer to each other, we marched to school and church, and in the church we always sat in the front so everyone knew we were the Polish boys. As time passed, we managed to save some money and purchase bikes – can you imagine all those boys on bikes coming out of the hostel gate at once? What a sight.

Talking about bikes, I would like to share with you how I purchased my very first bike. During the 1949-50 summer while on school holidays at Mr and Mrs Kirby's in Fitzroy, New Plymouth, one of their sons was getting married and they took me along to the wedding. At the reception during the speeches, the priest mentioned how nice it was to have so many different nationalities and that among us we have a Polish boy who lost his parents during the war. This seemed to touch me and I just had to leave the hall. I ran into the toilet and cried my heart out. Next, I heard a knock on the door and a Jewish man said: "Tony, come out. I will give you £20. I know how you feel. I have been through the same thing." Well, of course I came out and received the money. But that was not the end.

Next Sunday after Mass, the priest stopped me and apologised for what he had said and gave me another £8. My new bike cost £27. When I arrived at the hostel with my brand new bike, the housemaster wanted to know where I had got the money from to purchase such a bike. I have not revealed my secret until now. I must also mention that the businesspeople in Hawera were very generous towards us by bringing us such things as leftover cakes and "ice creams.

We had a horse, cow, sheep and three dogs on the hostel's premises, as there were acres of land at the back for us to use and we sure did make good use of it. We were allowed to keep chickens, so a local lady of Polish descent brought us 40 chickens and we had to build a chicken house in a hurry to accommodate them. It was real fun. There were two lakes close by which we visited often and I have some fond memories there. I even saved a young girl from drowning.

We had a large garden which we dug up and later planted. I was amazed at how everything grew. We were also rostered to attend to the boiler (which supplied us with hot water). On one particular day, the boy who was in charge wanted to join us all in a game so he decided to load up the boiler and came out to play. Next thing we knew the boiler house was on fire. We were not very popular.

In 1950, we started Hawera Technical High School. The teachers and pupils treated us kindly. We enjoyed sport and some of the boys did very well in their schoolwork. I only spent two years in the school and went on to do an apprenticeship as an electrician, serving my time with JJ Peacock Electrical, page 169which I enjoyed. I made lots of friends in Hawera and am still in contact with some. In general, the New Zealand families welcomed us into their homes, especially during the school holidays. We helped out on the farms and earned a little pocket money. After finishing my apprenticeship in 1957, I left Hawera and went down to Wellington where I married, had five sons and now have 11 grandchildren. I have been back to Poland but have no family there. New Zealand is my home now and I love it.

Just one last thing I would like to mention, as I'm getting older and think back – my grandparents are buried in Poland, my father in Katyn, Russia, where he was shot, my mother in Iran, my sister in the US and I will be buried in New Zealand.

A reason to smile – a proud Antoni Rybiński with his school sporting trophies

A reason to smile – a proud Antoni Rybiński with his school sporting trophies