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

The journey home

page 75

The journey home

I returned to Poland on 22 November 1948 with my brothers to be reunited with my mother. On the one hand, there was the joy that we were back in our homeland. On the other hand, disillusionment at the poverty and lack of freedom – at whose restriction we were soon made aware, because Poland was now under Soviet communist occupation.

We were forbidden to photograph anything or have contact with our kin, who were kept far away from our ship. In other ports at which we had called, it was quite normal for passengers to call out and throw down small presents, such as cigarettes and chocolates, to those they recognised below. But this was forbidden in the Polish northern port town of Gdynia, which we reached around 9am. Though it was autumn, it was a sunny day and for that time of the year very warm. Though we wore short trousers and shirts from New Zealand, we didn't feel cold.

After leaving the liner MS Batory, we were led to the Repatriation Office in a large building. There we stood in an endless queue to be repatriated. It was already dark when our turn came, with little time left until our train's departure. My brother Antoni was registered as No 60254, Józef as No 60255 and I as No 60294. We each received a document allowing us free passage on the public transport system on our way home. Each one of us also received 500 zloty.

We thought at first that we were rich, but quickly changed our minds when the time came to buy something. I remember going up to a kiosk to buy sweets and learned that the cheapest and smallest box of chocolates cost 730 zloty. We were not given very much on which to travel the length of Poland – from Gdynia in the north to Lubawka in the south.

After two hours in the train we felt really hungry, so at Warsaw we used up all our money to buy sweet buns and orange drinks. While waiting in a queue at the station in Gdynia before the train departed, we were invited to a meal. I will not forget this meal to my dying days. They gave us rusted mess tins into which they poured, or rather ladled, thick macaroni tubes. When I tasted it, I immediately realised the meaning of the warning not to return to Poland given to us by our guardian, a religious monk and our teacher in Xavier College, Christchurch. But it was too late for sorrow and grief. The return road was closed to us and that reality had to be accepted.

page 76

I quickly came to terms with my lot and looking back I don't regret my return to Poland – one has to live somewhere and survive the time given us by God. It was not as easy for my brothers, and for many years they held a grudge against me for having talked them into returning.

The train ride from Gdynia to Lubawka was long. We travelled to Warsaw in a packed train. Everything was strange and foreign to me – people's behaviour, their clothing and especially their speech. The travellers must have represented every ethnic Polish group – mountain folk, Kurps, Jews, and people from Poznań, Warsaw and many more.

I was fascinated by the strange way they spoke Polish. Sometimes I could not understand a word they said, especially the speech of the country folk. It wasn't just the words, but also the current affairs under discussion (too many things had changed since our deportation to Russia during the war). We had been away too long. I felt like a foreigner in my own land.

Our clothing was a sensation to my fellow travellers. I wore the uniform and cap of Xavier College, which made me stand out among the crowd and we were often asked who we were. When I replied that we were returning home from New Zealand, I got laughter and pity – those people in the train knew to what we were returning. I did not understand at the time that things were not what I imagined them to be, though I felt it.

In Warsaw, we changed to a day train and continued our journey to Wroclaw. I gazed out the window at the ruined landscape of my beloved homeland. It was a pitiful sight – the towns we passed were yet to rise from their ruin, and the skeletons of houses and churches.

The farm houses we passed looked very small compared to those we had seen in New Zealand or other countries we passed on the way. The roofs were made mainly of straw. It was all odd and very miserable looking.

Wroclaw, like Warsaw at the time, was a sea of ruins and ashes, though both cities showed signs of renewed activity – rebuilding and licking the wounds of war. We arrived in Wroclaw before dusk, but this was not yet the end of my journey because home was still 110km away. We travelled all night, changing trains a few times, always waiting in overcrowded waiting rooms full of cigarette smoke and odd smells.

We arrived in Lubawka about 6am. It was covered in a sprinkle of snow and it was cold. Asking the way to our mother's house, after a few minutes we were at her door. My heart beat furiously when we knocked on the door. Our mother opened the door and behind her stood our 11 year-old youngest brother Heniek. We rushed into each other's arms and the hugging was without end, especially when we were joined by our sister Elżbieta and her husband Wladek.

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Since we had found each other in 1946 through the Red Cross and made contact, I often sent my mother parcels from the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua. These were made up of things brought to the camp, such as coats, jackets, dresses and skirts. At the camp, a lady teacher was always present to give us advice on the choice of fashion and sizes to send in the parcels to our families in Poland. When asked how tall my mother was, I showed that she was a head taller than I. It was in reality the other way around, because mother was shorter and this was the greatest shock to me. I just never gave it a thought that I had grown but she remained the same.

My sister Henryka chose to stay in New Zealand. Antoni died in Lubawka on 27 February 1982. Our sister Irena never reached New Zealand – she remained in Iran, where she married and in 1952 emigrated to the US. She died in Cincinnati, Ohio, on 13 June 1999.