Fifty years ago, Wanganui provided the first large-scale direct contact with the New Zealand way of life for 225 children from the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua. They stayed from 17 to 31 August 1945. With the help of the army, along with charitable and church groups, Wanganui became a huge holiday camp.
When the Polish children came here by special train, each had a tag with their name and host. With junior Chamber of Commerce members on the platform calling out instructions, it was a bewildering introduction to the river city for the war victims who were aged from five to about 15.
Józef Zawada, then 12, said: "I vividly remember standing on the station platform, and someone announcing over a loudspeaker my name and the people who were taking me for holiday." As none of the children could speak much English, communication was a challenge, but with goodwill on all sides it was overcome. Friendships were made which last to this day.
Piotr Przychodźko had heartwarming memories of his Wanganui sojourn. "I and my friend were taken for holidays by a family which had three sons with whom we became friends straight away. The mother of the boys was trying to please us in every way, especially with food as she knew that we had been through starvation. A year later we were invited by her again to spend two weeks' holiday in August. Our English had vastly improved, so we were able to tell her and the family a bit more about ourselves. As we were treated like members of the family, we were sorry when the holidays ended and we had to return to the camp."
Piotr kept in touch with that family but when he was sent to high school in Auckland he lost contact. Some 30 years went by, and he, his wife and their four children went for a ride to Wanganui. "We stopped at Kowhai Park and had a lovely time. Then, while I was buying ice cream and drinks for the kids at a nearby dairy, I remembered that it was the dairy where we used to get ice cream and milkshakes when on holidays in Wanganui.
"So I asked the shopkeeper if she knew where 'so and so' lived. She did and told me. When I knocked on the door an old lady came out and asked who I was. I said: 'Don't you remember me?' She looked and looked, and asked me all sorts of questions. 'Well, I said, if you don't remember me then I will tell you who I am.' I said: 'Remember the Polish boys who holidayed at your place page 190in 1945?' 'Oh Peter, my son, my son,' she gasped, as we hugged and kissed. 'Well,' she said, I remember now, but you have grown up now and look altogether different.' She invited me into the house and we both had tears in our eyes. It was like a mother and her long-lost son being reunited."
Her husband had died some years ago, the boys had gone their ways and she was living alone. "Then she asked me what I was doing all those years. Have I got family? Yes, I said, and she invited my wife and children, and we had a wonderful time recalling wartime years and our holidays in Wanganui. My children took to her like to a grandmother."
Twenty years after this reunion, Piotr still has the fondest memories of that family and Wanganui.
Among the Wanganui people who remember the Polish children was Jean Healy. She hosted two Polish boys, who she said were lovely children. "We enjoyed having them." Mrs Healy recalls them playing with a walkie-talkie set and was amused to see one chewing on gum and then handing it to the other for a turn.
One night, the elder sister of one of the boys came to tea but she wouldn't speak. Mrs Healy said that Catholic priest Father Stapleton told her the girl was still affected by seeing her mother and father shot. The boys returned for a holiday with the Healys on a later occasion. Years later, one of them approached Eric Healy who had bred and raced horses for the Pahiatua or Woodville races, and reminded him of their Wanganui holidays.
Fay Shaw remembers having two Polish boys with the family. She was nine at the time and they were about the same age. "It was one of the few times we went to the pictures at the Duchess," she said. The family had offered to have the boys after a request for homes, especially on farms. At the time, they had a few acres at the top of Roberts Avenue. She recalls the boys teaching the family a few Polish slang words, and though she learnt them and the meanings she can no longer remember them. "I often wonder what happened to them, though my father said that Nowak went back to Poland. I don't know if I ever knew their surnames."
Stella Scoullar remembers a small Polish boy staying opposite her in College Street. She said the only word which seemed to be in common between them was mouse, because it sounded similar in both languages. He was delighted with this small communication.
The Wanganui Chronicle reported that the children thought New Zealand was a fine place and their only complaint was it rained too much. All were looking forward to returning home to Poland. But with the advent of Soviet occupation, New Zealand became their permanent home.