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

Working hard for privilege

page 249

Working hard for privilege

After World War II, my parents chose New Zealand (over Argentina) for emigration because two of my aunts had been included in the group of 733 Polish children refugees sent to New Zealand in 1944. Thus I, Krystyna Anna, was born on 18 May 1950 in Lower Hutt to Bernard and Bronisława Rosner, a Polish couple struggling desperately to re-establish their shattered lives in this peaceful country, but one alien to them in both language and culture.

Some years later, I was to discover that officially I was never a Krystyna but in fact always a Christina. Same difference I suppose, but as I reflect on my childhood (from an era where one sometimes craved to be "un-Polish" like one's peers) to now (where even my own children have found that it's considered "trendy to be ethnic"), I would have appreciated the correct spelling of my name on my birth certificate, just as my parents would have no doubt appreciated being understood all those years ago.

But back then things were very different. There were no social services of any kind to assist immigrant families from war-torn Europe resettling in New Zealand. And, until New Zealand's own servicemen began returning home with their foreign wives, accents other than the Kiwi twang were not readily tolerated.

Thus, especially during my formative years in primary school at Sacred Heart in Petone, I tried desperately to be socially accepted by my peers. For the most part there weren't many problems, though Polish school on Saturdays was always a bugbear. Having to attend those classes ruled us Polish kids out of a lot of extracurricular school activities, especially sport and the fellowship associated with it. However, as our family lives were so involved in maintaining our Polish language, culture and traditions, in our household there was never any question of priorities because all spare time outside normal work and school commitments was automatically dedicated to this cause.

Church also played an important part in our lives, with weekly trips on Sundays to St Anne's Church in Newtown for Polish services. But these never seemed as tedious as Polish school, because after Mass my dad often shouted his "girls" (mum, my elder sister and myself) to a treat somewhere in Wellington. Inevitably, this was either hot apple donuts at the local Newtown coffee bar or cappuccinos in the city's Casa Fontana coffee house – both delicious extravagances for that time.

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Obviously, the sole purpose of my parents' "rebirth" here in New Zealand was to escape the oppression befallen their beloved homeland after the war. Consequently, my sister and I, as their only offspring, became the focal point of their existence and the main purpose for their ambition to do well here in their adopted country. This was eventually reflected in the fact that the Rosner girls were always well dressed, well fed, well housed and, to other children, appeared to have everything to excess (such as piano and accordion lessons, and cars eventually).

And yes we did. However, every privilege within our household was always considered just that and had to be earned. Because our parents worked tirelessly, both alongside their fellow Kiwis and among the Polish community, as we got older my sister and I had our own set of chores to complete regularly to ensure these privileges continued.

But it was only as I grew older that I began to understand why I was the recipient of such privileges and why my parents wanted nothing but the best for me. With them having been robbed of everything – their homeland, roots, families and even youth – they were determined that neither my sister nor I, if they could help it, should ever suffer the same fate.

Hence, I'm sure, the reason for their strong drive for success (which they
Christina and Maryla Rosner perform on stage at the Polish House, Wellington, in the 1960s

Christina and Maryla Rosner perform on stage at the Polish House, Wellington, in the 1960s

page 251not surprisingly achieved) and incredible ability to assimilate so totally into the New Zealand way of life. To be able to do this and not at the expense of their "Polishness" still amazes me today, and perhaps remains one of the most important factors that contributed to my own relatively uncomplicated upbringing within both the Kiwi and Polish communities.

Of course, there will always be times when I recall with some resentment the seemingly never-ending stream of Polish concerts that always required a compulsory recital from me, be it in the form of oratory, national dance, accordion or piano. And the occasions in the school playground when I would've "killed" for a regular lettuce and marmite or jam sandwich, instead of the usual salami and mustard, or liverwurst and pickled cucumber ones I was always sent off with. And why didn't the ground open up when Polish was spoken to me in front of my friends. How my parents' honourable philosophies were wasted on me during those times.

As adulthood neared, my late-teenage years saw my own social and work activities broaden my horizons beyond the realms of my parents, as is in accordance with nature. And when my future husband became an important part in my life, I sensed that my parents – as they had earlier done with my sister – readied themselves for the inevitable acquisition of a second Kiwi son-in-law. This ultimate sacrifice on their part was perhaps foreseen by my parents, because within our Polish community any eligible boys (through years of close association) had grown to be more like brothers and cousins to us girls, rather than prospective husbands.

Either way, their sincere and unconditional acceptance of my marrying a Kiwi will always be, to me, one of the greatest testaments to my parents' total permeation into New Zealand's way of life. Fortunately, my husband Gary immediately proved to be a great Pole, and has always been supportive of my family's Polishness and the many traditions we maintain to this day. Our children Simon and Helen have also walked a similar path to my own within the Polish community. They have attended Polish school, sung in the children's choir, danced for the Lublin dance group and were actively involved in the Polish youth group.

Perhaps it is these second-generation half-Polish, half-Kiwi kids who now best reflect my own upbringing and pay tribute to my parents' efforts at their second chance of life here in New Zealand.