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

Finding dad's roots

page 242

Finding dad's roots

My father and I arrived in Poland on 1 September 2002 to "find his roots" using old family letters and recollections of family members. We spent a week living in Warsaw's Stare Miasto (old town) and were overwhelmed by the restoration since its destruction in World War II, the immense feeling of patriotism, and the struggle and bravery of the people. Standing on the banks of the Vistula River, we could really appreciate the history of this city.

We drove to Kalisz and Łódź to find some family history, but without success. We then stayed in Kraków, which is a beautiful city and unlike Warsaw was almost untouched by the German army in the war. A visit to the Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz made us feel sick. Our next part of the journey was to travel into the Ukraine and visit Rivne (previously Równe) where my father was born. The drive from Kiev to Rivne (west towards Poland) was like a journey back in time – horse and cart, primitive farm machinery and communal farms.

Formerly in Poland and now in the Ukraine, Rivne was occupied by German forces in 1939. We managed to find German military and Russian maps of when this region was still part of Poland. These maps were to prove very useful because place names had changed over time. In Rivne, with the assistance of a driver and an interpreter, we talked to some elderly locals about the area before the war. We even managed to find the ex-Polish Red Cross hospital where my father was born – which is now used by the Ukrainian military.

We also visited Rivne railway station where his family, after being made to leave their farm with minimum belongings, were herded onto cattle trucks by the Russians and sent east to the forced-labour camps in 1940. The Pleciak family had a 14-hectare farm in the Hallerowo settlement near the town of Tuczyn. This land had been given to my grandfather as a veteran of World War I. When Józef Piłsudski had reclaimed Poland's borders (which hadn't existed for 123 years) after that war, he gifted his soldiers land in eastern Poland. They were known as the combat colonists.

We then visited Tuczyn and found the marketplace where my grandfather would have sold produce and also a church site in Horyngrod where the Polish families attended (the church was demolished during the war).

After talking to some locals in and around Tuczyn, we were directed to page 243an 81 year-old woman who lived alone on a farm in the middle of a field. To our joy and amazement, she remembered the Polish families living in the area before the war, the Hallerowo settlement, the local Polish school and, incredibly, our family. She pointed to where the farms were, which are now just barren fields. It was a very emotional and special moment – my father had finally found his roots, and it made me feel closer and proud of him. I could only begin to appreciate how he, his sister Zofia and other fellow orphans had survived to arrive in New Zealand on the other side of the world to start again and begin a new life.

It is a moment I will never forget – and to have a person still alive that linked my father with his past made our journey so worthwhile. While we were in Poland, our relatives made contact via the internet. We are now in regular contact with my father's cousin. Neither side of the family knew the others existed. This has given us even more reason to travel back to Poland.

On the first day at the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua, a New Zealand soldier carries Witold (Victor) Pleciak to the dining room

On the first day at the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua, a New Zealand soldier carries Witold (Victor) Pleciak to the dining room