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

A caregiver and refugee

A caregiver and refugee

While in Isfahan, Iran, every effort was made to help the children catch up with their education which was interrupted by World War II. However, I was in my late teens and considered too old to continue going to school. So along with 16 other girls, I was given an opportunity to learn traditional Persian carpet weaving. An Iranian was employed to teach us. He was very demanding but an excellent teacher. If a mistake was made, he was the only one capable of correcting it. No wonder he hated mistakes.

Sometimes the situation was nerve wracking, like the time we had to make a rug to present to a visiting Polish official. We worked by lamplight well into the night. Black and navy colours were hardly distinguishable in the poor light. Mistakes were made and when our Iranian teacher arrived in the morning he was most displeased. Some of the rugs we made can be seen in the Sikorski Institute in London. One of them is on the front cover of the book Isfahan – City of Polish Children.

In August 1944, I was transferred to Home No 10 to work as a caregiver to the kindergarten-age boys. I may have been chosen because my youngest brother Bronislaw was there, but also at that time final preparations were being made for our journey to New Zealand. Stanislawa Lewandowska was appointed in charge and I as her helper for the journey.

We travelled by train to the Persian Gulf and boarded the British cargo ship Sontay. I was responsible for keeping the children fed and clean. I don't remember what sanitary facilities we had on the ship, but I do remember that I had to bring a bucket of water down to the ship's hold to give the children a wash at night. I was so busy that I did not have time to find out if my three younger sisters Józefa, Wladyslawa and Franciszka were on the boat with me.

We disembarked at Bombay, India, and boarded the troopship USS General Randall. We now travelled in comparative comfort and the meals were served in a dining room. My load of washing increased because the children only had one change of clothes with them, the rest being stored in the luggage, so the washing had to be done instantly. To keep on top of my work, I began staying behind when the children were taken to the dining room and kept hunger at bay by eating chocolate.

It was a long journey and the children got used to their surroundings. The page 199more energetic ones would run away up the steps onto the deck and Mrs Lewandowska would spend hours looking for them.

At night, I was asked to sleep next to Zofia Matula who suffered from pain in her chest and back. She cried and groaned during the night. To this day, I can't understand why nothing was done to help her. When the ship tilted to one side (I believe it was a tactic to avoid the mines), the children would panic and start crying. It was not easy to calm them down.

We received a wonderful welcome in New Zealand. I remember the boys covered in ice cream and the screams on the train as it passed through Manawatu Gorge on the way to Pahiatua. Upon arrival at the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua, I carried three huge bundles wrapped in sheets of dirty washing to the laundry, and with the help of soap and a washing board I slogged away for two days. No matter how hard I tried, I found it impossible to wash out the rust from the metal buttons on the children's Sunday uniforms. During the journey, the children's clothing had been stored in damp conditions.

From the moment that we arrived at the camp, a new routine set in. I was reappointed to my job as a caregiver, Mrs Lewandowska was the house mother, Mrs Tietze was responsible for administration and Mrs Rubisz was appointed as the kindergarten teacher.

The preschoolers were assigned to one block, which typically had 56 beds. The block was partitioned in the middle by separate rooms for the caregivers. The girls slept on one side of the partition and the boys on the other. I had a room of my own but out of necessity slept in the boys' dormitory. On the whole, they were a healthy group of boys but many had chilled bladders and had to be taken to the toilet when they woke up at night. To this day, I am still haunted by the memory of children crying in their sleep.

It was very helpful to have a routine to stick to even though the job engulfed me. I would wake the children in the morning and lead them to the washroom, and some still needed help with dressing. During the winter months, the boys wore stockings with socks on top. The stockings were kept in place by rubber garters and it was quite a job in itself to keep track of all the garters. The boys then lined up in two rows for their morning prayers where we sang Kiedy Ranne Wstają Zorze (At the Breaking of Dawn), then they walked to the dining room in pairs. Half an hour was the limit for a meal. Some of the children just sat and stared at the plate. I was not always successful in getting all of them fed.

Every three days, I had an extra duty supervising the older boys washing the dishes after 180 children had left the dinning room. Sometimes they would give me the slip and I finished the job myself. When it was done, the cook would inspect the dishes. If he found a greasy plate, the whole lot had to be page 200done again. That was a real burden because in the dormitories there were beds to be made, floors to be swept and washing to be done.

After lunch, the children had to rest for an hour. That was the time Mrs Lewandowska had a break and I supervised the boys. Some wanted to sleep but others would stay awake and continue to make noise, so it was an exhausting time for me to try and keep them quiet. In the evening there were always a few children who needed a bath or just a wash, and some had to be helped with getting into their pyjamas. In the corridor, all their shoes were waiting to be cleaned and polished.

It would appear that I wasn't entitled to a free day. But when the children were taken to the hall to watch a film, I stayed in my room and enjoyed a period of complete quiet doing some embroidering. I needed permission to go shopping in Pahiatua.

As the older boys reached primary-school age (which was seven, because the camp followed the Polish system), they became reassigned to a different caregiver. After one and a half years, all my children commenced proper schooling and there was no longer work for me at the camp. On 6 February 1946, two boys and six girls in their late teens (for me it was the year of my 1st birthday) were sent to Wellington to work. The boys Tadeusz Mazur and Leon Sondej were boarded out privately. The girls Wiktoria Wypych, Maria Wojciechowska, Maria Zazulak, Janina Krystman, Zofia Kornobis, Rozalia Manterys and I were given board in a hostel in Oriental Bay, Wellington. Things were not easy for us. I earned £210s a week. For board, I paid £110s, and the weekly tram fare to work and back cost me 5s. We were now fully responsible for ourselves.

Some foods were still being rationed in New Zealand. At the hostel, we also were kept on rations. For breakfast, we were given two slices of bread and a very small portion of butter. For lunch, we could take two slices of bread with a filling, and for an evening meal we were served with a piece of meat and vegetables. We were always hungry. One of the girls could not adjust to her new life, cried all the time, got sick and was sent back to the camp. Eventually her father, who managed to settle in France after being demobbed from the Polish army, asked for her to be sent to him.

Some nights we worked until 8pm because we were also attending a course in pattern drafting. I was very interested and always enjoyed sewing, but I did not know enough English to grasp what I was being taught. However, dressmaking came to me naturally. All my life, I was considered a skilled dressmaker. I worked in the trade and also made clothes for myself and other people, including my children and grandchildren.

The Catholic Church took an active interest. Father Tottman organised page 201meetings for us on Tuesday evenings. Mr Scott, who helped him, invited young New Zealanders to the meetings for us to meet. However, the New Zealanders stood on one side of the room, we stood on the other and that was about all. It was so difficult to communicate.

Monika Wodzicka, the daughter of the Polish Consul to New Zealand during World War II, organised us into a Polish club where we met on Sunday afternoons. Those that attended included Teresa Czochańska and Krystyna Wołyncewicz, who were boarders at Sacred Heart College in Island Bay; Wanda Rzepko and Krystyna Wojciechowska, who were working as nurse aides at a private hospital; the Polish boys working in Wellington; and we girls from the hostel. The club rooms, which belonged to the Red Cross, were in Lambton Quay across the road from Kirkcaldie & Stains. During the war, the Red Cross ladies used it for storing materials and packing parcels for the soldiers serving overseas.

The board at the hostel was guaranteed for only six months. As other girls from the camp arrived, some of us had to look for other accommodation. For a short time I boarded with an older lady in Miramar, but both of us had to move when the airport was being built. I was learning fast to cope in my new environment.

At the hostel, Wiktoria Wypych and I shared a room. She got a letter from her brother Jan Wypych who was still with the Polish army and asked me to write to him. There was nothing unusual about it. When I was still at the camp, I was given a letter from a Polish soldier and asked to write to him. Many children in the camp also received letters from Polish soldiers because the Polish army kept in touch with them. I continued corresponding with Jan. In 1948, he arrived in New Zealand to join his sisters and brother. His sister Genowefa and I met him at the wharf in Wellington, and two years later Jan and I were married.

We had to work very hard to get ourselves established in a home and to educate our five children. Our children wanted a better life for themselves and they achieved it. Now I am watching my 20 grandchildren grow up.

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