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

A basis for tolerance

page 213
page 215

A basis for tolerance

I am the son of a Polish refugee mother and an Anglo-Saxon New Zealand father. So it is indeed fitting that, being the son of a refugee, I find myself working as an immigration and refugee lawyer to help other refugees and immigrants settle into New Zealand.

My earliest childhood memories are of my mother preparing delicious hot Polish meals and Kiwi roasts on Sundays, and caring for us while my father was away at work. She was the mainstay of the family. She nurtured us, taught us decency and compassion for others, and told us stories about Poland, her motherland. Hearing about peacetime Poland filled me with excitement but her stories of World War II shocked me. I wondered how she had managed to cope after losing her family in such tragic circumstances.

Our mother is a special person in many ways. She was different from the mothers of the other boys at school and I liked her ways much more than those of my friends. Whenever we were ill or hurt, she spoiled us and sometimes let us miss school longer than we really needed to. You could feel her warmth in the home and I liked to listen to her speaking Polish on the telephone.

I found that I understood other races more easily. I could easily relate to boys of Dutch descent and couldn't comprehend the parochial attitude of some of my contemporaries. Even in the face of adversity, our mother always insisted on tolerance, a virtue that I will always cherish.

I sometimes get asked whether I am Russian. My appearance suggests I have Eastern European blood and I am proud to tell people that I am half Polish. I have met a few other half-Polish New Zealanders over the years and found plenty to talk about. But not knowing Polish, I always felt like I didn't really belong to the Polish community. Neither do I feel I am a true Kiwi, whatever that is.

It must have been difficult for my mother to raise us with a knowledge and understanding of the Polish culture and language. My father did not speak Polish for a start. Our mother showed us pictures of Poland but I could not relate to Poland and so my "Polishness" became something inherent but non-interactive.

When I began socialising with members of the opposite sex, I found Kiwi girls the most difficult to get along with. There was nothing wrong with them but they spoke, acted and behaved differently to the way my mother would. page 216I began to seek out girls who possessed the warmth that my mother has and frequently these individuals were themselves migrants to New Zealand, though not necessarily Polish.

Many New Zealanders are not at all familiar with Poland and being half Polish sometimes had an isolating effect on me. I can recall blank looks from many people when the subject of Poland came up. Often they did not want to know about Poland and when it came to bonding with other Kiwis, I found I had less in common with them because of who I am.

Paul Coates graduates with a law degree in 2004 and is pictured with his proud mother Irena Coates (Ogonowska)

Paul Coates graduates with a law degree in 2004 and is pictured with his proud mother Irena Coates (Ogonowska)

page 217

Which team do I support?

Though I speak with as much of a Kiwi accent as any other New Zealander, I have always been identified as "the Polish guy". I mean, with a name like Piotr Gawor, what else could one expect? That I was born in Wellington Women's Hospital made not a jot of difference. So how has being a second-generation Pole in New Zealand affected my life?

I have found that my Polish heritage is a strength rather than a weakness. It could be termed a point of differentiation (though that wasn't my strong point in calculus). The fact that I spoke two languages by the time I went to school was something that a lot of my classmates had yet to master.

However, being Polish wasn't always plain sailing. Not only can your teachers not pronounce your name correctly (I have had variations on Piot, Pitter and Poitre), neither can your friends (Piot is the accepted variation in this case). I must say that it is definitely a relief to come home and finally have your name pronounced properly.

History lessons were also a major subject of contention. In particular was the matter of Poland being invaded or the fact that it was still in the horse age when Germany came along with tanks. Now this is not to say that I did not come back with clever retorts, such as Poland was one of the largest countries in Europe before your little empire was even in its infancy or that Poland had the first constitution in Europe. But this mattered little to my fellows who just laughed-up Poland's sad story of the past 100 or so years. It is a pity that the New Zealand curriculum does not concentrate more on world history and chooses to focus solely on the history of England (but that is another topic for another day).

Though I seem to fit suitably into the second-generation category, I must confess that I find myself between two categories and could be described as one-and-a-half generation Polish. My maternal grandmother came to New Zealand as a refugee with the Polish children in 1944 and my maternal grandfather Piotr Łącki came to New Zealand from a German prisoner-of-war camp. Like many others, he didn't wish to return to a Poland controlled by a totalitarian regime. As a displaced person, he was accepted by the New Zealand Government and made a new life for himself here. My father made the same decision 30 years later when he chose to leave Poland.

At home, Polish and English can be exchanged without a problem. But this page 218does not mean that Polish is the predominant language in our household. No, quite the opposite. English is the main language, with Polish being used when the parents wish to tell their children off without alerting the Kiwis around them. It is certainly a useful tool to have, but out on the streets of Wellington not many people converse in the Polish tongue so its usage in the wider community is somewhat nullified. Polish culture above all has had a big impact on my life. Whether it be through food or traditions, all have been passed down ably from my family who look upon this as an important part of my upbringing. Tradition allows for our family to reflect on where we have come from. I also remember that when I was little I was one of the most envied children in the class because I got my Christmas presents about nine hours earlier on Christmas Eve.

I would like to take this opportunity to talk about Polish food (and I hope people can forgo the silly comments about the Polish sausage). Polish food to me is simply a joy with its variety of flavours and textures, such as bigos (cabbage stew) and barszcz (beetroot soup) at Christmas. Family, though touched on earlier, is the most valuable asset that my Polish heritage has given me. I have a large extended family and network of friends just because of my "Polishness". It is these connections that are not only valuable but also enjoyable and give me a new outlook on many of my world views.

Having said all this in favour of Poland and being Polish, I can't escape the fact that I strongly identify myself as a Kiwi. This provides positive opportunities (when Poland and New Zealand play at any sport I can't lose) as well as negative (I have two teams that people can laugh at when they lose horribly). I believe that through my life I have been able to manage the two cultures in such a way that each makes up an equally important part of my life.

It must be said that to be Polish in New Zealand is not easy, just as it could also be said that any foreigner has a hard time in this country. So it is not exclusively a Polish problem. But being Polish has exposed me to riches that have and will continue to affect my life in a positive way. I wouldn't have it any other way.