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

My life after polio

page 81

My life after polio

I was five years old when I arrived at the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua. In the camp's centre there was a play area with swings, seesaws, a shallow swimming pool and a fire-hose pump. The pump was not part of the playground equipment, but it looked like a horse and we loved playing on it. The children of kindergarten age were often taken to this play area, which was always a treat, and it didn't worry us if we were told off for climbing "the horse".

One day, the youngest kindergarten children, and I among them, were taken to the play area for a swim. I was not allowed to go into the water because I was ill, so I stood on the edge of the pool watching others. I was a sickly, scrawny child. Some older boys ran past and accidentally pushed me into the water. The boys jumped in to save me and the other children began to scream. Some time elapsed before my mother could get me (I was one of the very few children who had a parent at the camp). It is possible that as a result of this experience I caught a chill, which resulted in pneumonia. I was then admitted to the camp hospital.

While there, I woke up one morning feeling very stiff from my neck down. Nurse Maria Sawicka came to help me onto the potty. She lowered the side of my cot and asked me to sit up. I tried but couldn't move and told her so. Nurse Sawicka looked disbelieving and repeated her request a few more times. I kept replying defiantly that I couldn't. I could see her temper rising and she smacked me on my legs. By then I was terrified and started to scream, and could not stop. Another nurse rushed in to find out what was going on. She then called our camp doctor Eugenia Czochańska, who checked me over and sent for my mother. My mother was distraught when she found I was paralysed from my neck down. She reacted by screaming at everyone for not doing what they should have done, but in her heart she must have known that no one was to blame.

A doctor from Palmerston North was called for and he diagnosed poliomyelitis. An ambulance took me to Palmerston North Hospital and I stayed there for six or seven months. I lay flat on my back. During the day I was strapped to my bed, which was raised to nearly vertical position. At first, no one was allowed to visit me, not even my mother. There must have been a crisis because I was given the last rites by the camp's Polish priest Father Leon Broel-Plater. My mother and some other people who were there prayed page 82over me for a very long time. In conclusion, Father Broel-Plater said: "Now it is up to God." I pulled through and the very first word I said was "mama". Long weeks of recuperation followed. In the process, I forgot to speak Polish and began to speak fluent English. During her visits, my mother taught me to speak Polish again.

When it was decided that I had sufficiently recovered, I was put in a ward with other children. I could not walk then, but moved around on my bottom. Every effort was made to get me to walk again. My legs were strapped with irons, and I was coaxed and encouraged to walk. I fell over a lot because I kept looking at my feet – it was nearly impossible for me to look ahead.

I was then transferred to the Otaki Children's Health Camp. By then, the Polish Children's Camp was closed. My mother was living in Wellington and could not visit me very often as she was working as a housekeeper. I must have spent at least two years at the health camp. There was nothing likeable about me, either in appearance or character. I was uncoordinated and my hair had to be shaved because on arrival at the health camp I got infected with lice. I had a terrible temper and I was always in trouble.

While there, I was supposed to recover my health and build my strength. Unfortunately, I did not cooperate. For example, when I was given a dose of cod-liver oil, I would hold it in my mouth, then slip outside and spit it out. I liked porridge though, but my portion wasn't enough for me. Occasionally, I would slurp up what I was given, take a clean plate and walk up to the serving bench and say that I did not get any. They knew they had already served me and told me so, adding that there was none left. This triggered the worst in me and I would throw myself on the floor yelling and screaming. To appease me they would end up giving me more.

During the holidays, the parents of the children at the Otaki Children's Health Camp would come and take their children home. My mother was working very hard and living in cramped conditions, and sometimes could not take me home. On such occasions, I was transferred to the staff quarters. Most of the staff had families living with them and I would be taken to visit their relatives for Christmas dinner. Still, I felt very lonely.

I was not an easy child to look after. I would run away, climb a tree and refuse to get down. Sometimes I would incite other children to come with me outside the allowed boundaries. On one occasion, I was responsible for leaving a gate open and the cows got out. I was even chased by a bull and only just managed to get away by climbing a pine tree. I always felt angry, but never scared. They must have wondered how so much anger came out of this "splitpin" as I was called.

In the end, my mother was informed that nothing more could be done for 82 page 83me. I was placed in a Catholic boarding school in Otaki. Here they tried hard to build up my character by lessons in religion, and cure my bad temper and rebellion by threats of no biscuits at supper time, straps on my hand and once on my bottom when I refused to eat the leeks. The threat of no biscuit at supper never helped, because as I was a skinny sickly child I always got my biscuit anyway. I was constantly getting sick. On arrival at the boarding school, I was diagnosed with pyorrhoea (inflammation of the gums). My front top teeth had to be pulled out and I was given a partial plate. I was not learning very much – reading, writing, sums and catechism. Anyway, I had great difficulty with learning because I had bad recall. There were two other Polish girls from the Polish Children's Camp at the school (Leokadia Kołodzińska and Maria Mokrzecka) but I kept my distance. This could have been because my Polish was very poor.

When the boarding school closed, my mother placed me in the Polish Girls' Hostel in Lyall Bay, Wellington. I shared a room with a group of girls whom I already knew from the Polish Children's Camp. We were all enrolled at St Patrick's Primary School in Kilbirnie, Wellington. I was accepted by the group and enjoyed their friendship and companionship. Here I met Maria Litwinow who became my best friend. Maria and her mother came to New Zealand as displaced persons. Her mother worked as a cook at St Patrick's College, but no children were allowed to reside there, so Maria was boarded out to the Polish Girls' Hostel. She always stood up for me, helped me with my homework and we always got into trouble. One day, Sister Monika Alexandrowicz, who was the Ursuline nun in charge of the hostel, looked at us in a bemused sort of way and asked: "I wonder which one of you is the bad apple?" "Not I," was my reply.

We used to sneak butter from the kitchen, rub ourselves over and then sunbathe to get a nice tan. When I was on kitchen duty cutting blocks of butter into little squares and then rolling them into balls in preparation for the breakfast table, I sneaked some butter out. Maria and I rubbed ourselves over and went to the back of the hostel by the clothesline to sunbathe. We both got badly burnt and didn't dare to have a bath that night. Sister was very suspicious when she smelt the butter on us, but we got away with it. Maria Litwinow and I are still friends, and I feel a bond of friendship to all the other girls from the Polish Girls' Hostel with whom I was growing up.

It was at the hostel that I became truly scared for the first time. I now realise that the older girls were playing pranks on us, but at the time it was very real. We were told that the hostel was haunted and that during the night a "Lady in White" visited the rooms – one night we did see a white figure move in the distance. There was also a piano in our room and during some nights its page 84strings seemed to play by themselves, but no one was brave enough to get up and check. I swore that I would never sleep in that room again, but what could I do?

We had so much fun together. When the lights should have been out we would pull the mattresses onto the floor, sit in a circle, and talk, laugh and dream of what we were going to be when we grew up. We made promises that we would always keep in touch. At any sound, someone would call "Sister is coming", which was a signal to heave the mattresses back on our beds and try to make them in a hurry.

In 1958, the Polish Girls' Hostel was closed and I went to live with my mother. She was working as a housekeeper for an employer who owned many different houses and so she had to move often. There was no peace between us. She could not understand my rebelliousness and for that matter neither could I. So I decided to leave home and live in Christchurch. Then I moved to Dunedin, then Ocean Beach in Invercargill and then Dunedin again. After that, I decided to return home to Wellington. I was going to catch the Wahine ferry at Easter, but missed a train and hence the boat, which never reached Wellington but sank at the entrance to the harbour.

Eventually, I returned home and got married, but the marriage did not last. Much later I met my present partner. I worked for 34 years until retirement with Amcor Cartons in Moera, Lower Hutt. My life is now happy and stable.