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

My family's journey

page 185

My family's journey

When I was six, my mother died after the birth of our baby sister Lusia. It was a very cold winter in 1940 and the country was at war. I remember how we cried all the time and missed our mother. Then on 10 February 1940, only eight days after her funeral, the Soviet militia burst into our farmhouse at 2am, searched my father for any weapons, and ordered him to pack his children and take whatever clothes and food we could take with us.

We were taken in that severe winter night to the nearest railway station, which was close to the Russian border. There we were loaded – shoved and pushed – into cattle cars and taken north to Siberia. There were thousands of people on this train, one of the many from eastern Poland, in this first ruthless deportation of the Polish citizens from their country.

Women tried desperately to help crying children and our baby sister was fed by other breastfeeding mothers or given boiled water, which was shared when guards allowed us to collect it at various stops on the journey. But the baby died soon after we arrived in the remote mountain place past the Ural Mountains. Many died on this journey… the constant travel for three weeks!

I remember that our father worked, like all other men and young people, in the mine. My sister Stanislawa, then 14, worked unloading the trolleys of copper ore on the surface. If people didn't work they were not given bread rations either for themselves or their families. My eldest sister Misia was a housekeeper. Maria, 12, was a nanny in a Russian family and the two youngest, myself and my brother Kazimierz, had to go to a Russian school.

We often went to the markets to sell whatever we could spare to buy food. We walked miles to potato fields at harvest time to glean some after the big combines had left. Then we would enjoy feasting on potato and onion soup, potato pancakes and hot potatoes with salt. There was no guarantee of salt, sugar or food necessities in local stores and supplies would be disrupted, especially when Russia was invaded by its former ally the Germans.

We were then freed and made our way south, eventually arriving in Iran. Half starved, ragged and ill, the women and children saw that sticking to General Anders' newly formed Polish army in Russia was their only chance of survival.

General Anders bravely decided, against Stalin's preferences, to take as many civilians as possible with the Polish army being evacuated through the Caspian page 186Sea to Iran. The fishing boats were overloaded and it was standing room only. Dead bodies were thrown overboard. It was a similar situation earlier when we travelled to Kazakhstan to be near the Polish army where we were looking for our father who had already joined it. We crossed on primitive boats on the mighty and freezing Amu Daria River in Uzbekistan. Many died on that short journey, especially children, and their bodies were thrown into the river.

For us that survived and arrived safely in Iran in March 1942, the hunger was over and the sick children got hospital treatment. We were clean, warm and fed at last, and joined various transit camps in Tehran. From there, the five children in my family were separated. My two elder sisters joined the Polish army to go to Palestine where they hoped to find our father. We three younger ones, Maria, Kazimierz and I, were taken to the Polish schools in Isfahan. Hundreds of girls were looked after by the French Sisters of Charity, where they learned French and promptly forgot Russian, which had been imposed upon them in the Soviet forced-labour camps. A hundred boys were also placed with the Salesian Brothers. Both groups were sponsored by Pope Pius XII.

We were very happy there but soon another shift awaited us. This time through the big and mighty ocean to New Zealand. From Bombay, India, we travelled on the USS General Randall. The American crewmen and New Zealand soldiers were very good to us, spoiling us with chocolates and sweets, and played games to make us happy. We also began to learn more English. Then, on 1 November 1944, we docked in Wellington.

I remember our train journey from Wellington to the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua. At all the stops we were greeted by people and school children waving New Zealand and Polish flags and banners. They gave us ice cream and small change. We saw beautiful colourful houses on hills, so different to those in Iran. And in Pahiatua we had a great reception, with the army band playing and photos taken with smiling, friendly people. Happiness was everywhere and we felt very welcome.

At the camp, we were divided into classes and housed in army barracks, with a bed and a chest of drawers, each nicely made up. Young New Zealand girls and boys tried to teach us tap dancing and took us to visit their homes or to the pictures in Pahiatua. I was lucky to be befriended by a young mother of three who later corresponded with Misia, my eldest sister, and who helped her and her husband to come to New Zealand from London.

Later, I attended college in New Plymouth and again was very lucky to be "adopted" by a kind and happy family with five children. I became their sixth, and to this day I treasure their friendship and keep in contact. In November 2002, I came with my Norwegian husband Loyd all the way from Norway to page 187see them – my sister and other school friends, both Poles and New Zealanders. We had a great time laughing, singing and talking like we were young again.

Time marches on and it's 60 years later, but the carefree childhood in Pahiatua that the New Zealand people gave us is still much appreciated and celebrated by the Polish Children's Reunion in 2004.

Our father died in a Tehran hospital six months after our evacuation from Soviet Russia. He was very sick from typhoid and malnutrition, but we learned from the Red Cross nurses that he died happy because he knew that his children were safe and in the care of the Polish army.

Józef and Stefania Zawada found his grave in the renovated big Polish cemetery in Tehran when they were there for the official consecration of the grounds in May 2002. They also took a photo, which is a great memento for all our family. The Zawadas also visited many other Polish cemeteries on Iranian soil looking for relatives of the Pahiatua camp orphans who are now New Zealand citizens.

Regina Villmo (Zielińska) with Peter Dobson in Devon Street, New Plymouth, New Zealand. This was the first year that she stayed with the Dobson family while attending Sacred Heart Girls' College

Regina Villmo (Zielińska) with Peter Dobson in Devon Street, New Plymouth, New Zealand. This was the first year that she stayed with the Dobson family while attending Sacred Heart Girls' College