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

A case in point

page 182

A case in point

"Do you see yourself as a Pole or a New Zealander?" a friend asks me.

"How do you see me?"

"Polish," my friend laughs.

"Well…" I laugh back.

So, let's think…

I speak and write in both languages with similar ease, celebrating the challenges of finding the most appropriate words to express my ideas. I experience delight and satisfaction in manipulating the Polish Latin-rooted complexities of grammatical conjugations and declensions, and relish having the privilege of being able to delve into the inexhaustible riches of the English language.

And thinking? I think in both Polish and English according to whether the subject of my thoughts stem from or relates to a Polish or an English-speaking context. Understandably, most of my adult insights and ideas were acquired in the English language but, on the other hand, I can do quick multiplication tables only in Polish.

And praying? My private prayers are in both languages. But my inner, reflective dialogue with God is conducted exclusively in the English language.

But what about the language of love? That would be telling…

And what happens when I am in Poland? When in Poland, I feel Polish and, though I know I am different from the Poles in Poland, I feel a part of the Polish world around me and everything that makes up Poland – its culture, history, people, countryside, cities and buildings – I identify as "my own". Yet, when I speak with Poles about New Zealand, I say "home" and when I discuss New Zealanders, it's "we".

So, how do I feel about New Zealand? I am proud of New Zealand's and New Zealanders' achievements both in New Zealand and abroad. I think with nostalgia of the times when the door to one's house could be always left open and when I knew I was safe on the streets in Wellington even when coming back from Victoria University lectures and dances very late at night.

But it's especially after a trip overseas that I am conscious of how much I belong to New Zealand. It is also then that I realise the extent to which New Zealanders are "my people". They are the people I know, understand and feel close to. They are my friends, they are members of my family, they are page 183the people I have worked with, and respect and trust. So, am I the same as New Zealanders? No. I am different from New Zealand-born New Zealanders because of my Polish background, the repercussions of which carried over into who I am in my adult life.

Throughout the years of our professional life, my husband – also a Pole, a former World War II participant in the Polish underground army, a prisoner of three German concentration camps and educated at the University of Paris – and I have always had the opportunity of working in professions of our choice: Czeslaw as a technical researcher and later a technical executive in a major corporation, and I in the fields of marriage guidance, child and Maori welfare, social work, post-primary teaching, and community advice and development.

But what of our children? Czeslaw and I have a son and daughter, and from the very beginning we knew that our children would be considered by other New Zealand-born Kiwis to be different also. We understood that we had to use every means we had therefore to equip our children with a strong feeling of their own identity as well as with a pride in their parents' heritage. Thus, Polish became the first language our children learned at home. And when they were eight and six years old respectively, we took them on a three-month trip to Poland. It was this trip that helped our children realise that there was a
The polonaise dance group at a concert in Wellington, 1953. (l-r) Krystyna Niedźwiecka, Irena Niedźwiecka, Marcin Babczyszyn (also the Polish choirmaster), Teresa Czochańska, Krystyna Skwarko

The polonaise dance group at a concert in Wellington, 1953. (l-r) Krystyna Niedźwiecka, Irena Niedźwiecka, Marcin Babczyszyn (also the Polish choirmaster), Teresa Czochańska, Krystyna Skwarko

page 184country and a people with a rich and longstanding history and tradition that their parents and they themselves had a claim to. We were very lucky – our children had many unexpected but momentous and never-to-be-forgotten experiences during our visit.

But growing up in an environment where one's parents have a strange name and speak with an unusual accent, lead "discussions" instead of "conversations" at the dinner table, use garlic in cooking and have Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve and not on Christmas day, was not easy for our children. Both have coped well, as even taking to school salami sandwiches that no one wanted to exchange for vegemite-and-lettuce sandwiches did not seem to have damaged them permanently. Both have become well-adjusted individuals and are high achievers in their chosen fields – Krzysztof in law and Nina in human resources and demography.

So what about our grandchildren? Yes, as could be expected, they are also "different". On her last day at her local kindergarten, Ariana was asked to do a presentation on the subject of "where does the name Tomaszyk come from". The then five-year-old Ariana had no problem with the assignment. She told her friends that her "babcia" (grandma) and "dziadzia" (granddad) come from Poland, pointed out where Poland is on the globe and then demonstrated her Polish national costume that she inherited after her Mama. Ariana joined a Polish national dance class at the Polish House in Auckland, while Ethan and Samuel are growing into the shoes of two boys with a Polish background.

Yes, New Zealand is one of the few countries, if not the only country, in the world where being different is an advantage instead of a disadvantage for us, our children and grandchildren. And finally, my baptismal name is the same as my mother's, Krystyna. In English, I prefer to use the name Krystine.

I celebrate diversity.