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

Treasured memories

page 173

Treasured memories

We all must have memories of days or even weeks of complete happiness and contentment. For me, one such time was a Christmas holiday in 1946 which Krystyna Nowakowska and I spent in Hastings with Mr and Mrs Cantwell and their three children Norma, Margaret and Laurie. They weren't a rich family and their house was very ordinary, as were their car and truck. However, they were extraordinarily good and kind people.

Mrs Cantwell told us, and I think I understood her correctly, that she wanted us to forget the terrible times we had been through and tried to make us forget by being extra kind to us. She served us our breakfast in bed and we were told to rest until morning-tea time. She was an excellent cook and baked delicious cakes. After the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua's fare, we delighted in the meals she produced. In the evenings, Mr Cantwell would pile us all on the back of his truck and take us to watch sports. Mrs Cantwell used to take us in her car for picnics and to the orchards for apple picking. In those days, you only paid for the apples which you picked off the tree. The apples lying on the ground were free.

Norma and her friends always included Krystyna and myself in their trips to the pictures. When we walked back, we would stop at a fish and chip shop. It was the first time that Krystyna and I tasted fish and chips, and we thought it was a rare delicacy. The man serving in the shop was a Russian and when he found out that we were Polish began speaking Russian to us. We answered him back in a mixture of Polish and Russian, and understood one another pretty well. It was good to be able to communicate.

I was a teenager then and very shy, but at the same time taking everything in that was going on around me. How I enjoyed watching Mr and Mrs Cantwell going for walks holding hands. It was the first time I had seen a married couple holding hands.

During one of our trips to town, we met Adela Szłapak, a girl from the camp staying with another family. Adela's mother was one of the camp staff and Adela used to borrow romantic novels from the camp library, saying that they were for her mother. She told us about the wonderful book she had just read – Magnes Serc (Magnet of Hearts) – and lent it to us. It was all about sunny Naples with its beautiful scenery, palm fronds waving in gentle breezes, and romantic words and embraces. I was in a dream world.

page 174

Soon we had to return to the camp and the reality of life. I told one of my friends, Waleria Banasiak, about this wonderful book I read. She wanted to read it and so we went to the camp library. That day, Mr Holona, who was known for his strict discipline, was on duty. My friend asked politely for Magnes Serc. Mr Holona stared at her and said: "How do you know about this book?" "My friend told me," she replied. "Which friend?" asked Mr Holona. By that time I was shaking. Fortunately, my friend remained calm and she answered: "She has already left the camp to attend an English school in the South Island. "Get out of here," roared Mr Holona.

In a matter of weeks, I was sent to a New Zealand school. Then my father was demobilised from the Polish army, which had fought alongside the Allies against the Germans, and joined me in New Zealand. He did not know any English. I was his only child and therefore had to take on many responsibilities of rebuilding our life. My mother had died during the war.

At first, my widowed father lived in Waitara, and I attended St Joseph's College in New Plymouth and boarded privately. Then my father shifted to New Plymouth and we eventually bought a house together.

I often thought of the wonderful holiday that I spent with the Cantwell family and regretted that I did not thank them properly. I had their address but lost it almost immediately. There was only one thing I could do – I prayed for them.

Years went by. One day in 2004 there was a knock on my door. Outside was our good friend Edward Kowalczyk and he had someone else with him. "Don't you recognise me?" asked the other man. "No…" I said slowly. "I am Laurie Cantwell," he said. I just started sobbing. Over a cup of tea, we tried to cover the 56 years since we had last seen each other. Laurie knew Edward when he was still working on a farm in the Hawke's Bay. He found Edward's telephone number and visited him in Lower Hutt, where he showed him a photograph taken during our holidays and asked him if he knew these two Polish girls.

Edward could not recognise us, so he took Laurie to our mutual friends Józef Zawada and Stefania Zawada who had accumulated many photographs from the camp days and could recognise practically everyone. They looked and stared at the tiny photograph and were not sure. Then Laurie said: "One of them had a withered arm." "Eugenia Smolnicka!" was their instant cry.

Now I am back in touch with the whole Cantwell family.