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

Freedom and opportunity

page 252

Freedom and opportunity

My five aunts – Anna, Maria, Stanisława, Stefania and Wiktoria Zazulak – were at the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua. I arrived in New Zealand with my parents in 1952. Though my early experiences before arriving here were different to those of my aunts, there were similarities in growing up as an alien child in this country.

While my grandparents and my aunts were deported to Russia during World War II, my father was taken prisoner by the Germans and spent the war there. After the war, a letter from the Relief Society for Poles, dated 30 December 1946, was received by my father at the Polish Displaced Persons Camp at Westfalen, Germany. It was to advise that both of my grandparents had perished in the USSR in 1942 and that my aunts were now located in New Zealand. The letter went on to say that there was no knowledge at that time of my uncles Józef and Antoni.

However, this was the start of my parents' dream. And so, six years later, of which I remember very little, the family, consisting of my mum, dad, brother Jan, sister Janina and myself left the small coalmining town of Vucht in the Flemish province of Limburg and via Switzerland arrived in the Italian port of Genoa. The journey by sea began in April 1952 and, after transit stops in Fremantle and Sydney, we disembarked in Wellington on June 1952. We were now in New Zealand and officially registered as "aliens" under the Aliens Act 1948.

Our first home in New Zealand was to be with my aunt Wiktoria and Kiwi uncle George. From there, it followed a very short stint on a farm in Hunterville, and then on to Titirangi to stay with my aunt Maria and uncle Bolek. Finally, we moved to a rental home in Penrose, Auckland, courtesy of Cashmore Bros who had offered dad employment in the timber yard. It was here that my sister Elizabeth was born and a few years later in 1956 we built our own home in Mount Wellington.

As a young boy growing up in New Zealand, there were no problems to speak of. The English language was unusual, but for a young child it was not a problem to learn, and very soon I was able to speak and understand it. Not so my parents and therefore my interpretation skills were often called upon. I recall the many times I would accompany my mum or dad, or both, on another journey into the unknown to translate. It must have been quite page 253frustrating for them. I know it was for me and also quite embarrassing, as unlike today there were not that many foreign-speaking people around and we stood out as a result.

All that aside, we really were in a land of milk and honey, and though making ends meet financially was always hard, we never went without. Our large property provided fruit and vegetables, and the chickens provided eggs and plenty of roasts. We quickly made friends with the neighbours and it would be fair to say that at that time the average Kiwi was always happy to give a person a fair go. We did not sense any hostility as long as we made the effort to assimilate into the New Zealand way of life.

It was not so long ago that the war had finished and, while it was never openly discussed, one did not broadcast the fact that mother was German. The anti-German sentiment was understandable, but certainly misdirected, and we did not allow it to become an issue.

We were fortunate as children to have had parents with strong religious beliefs. Belonging to the parish community, together with the Catholic schooling, certainly made our assimilation into New Zealand much easier. We were never made to feel we were foreigners throughout our entire time at school and apart from the unusual unpronounceable surname, we were no different to the kids next door. However, this did change once I started work. There was always that feeling that one had to work just that little bit harder to gain acceptance. The adult world was a different world to that of the child.

When I left school in 1965 just before my 17th birthday, I applied for a job my mother had cut out of a newspaper advertising a career in insurance at South British Insurance Co (now New Zealand Insurance). Neither my mother nor I knew what insurance was. Unlike my Kiwi counterparts, we did not have any mentors because my parents had no commercial experience whatsoever, so it was very much trial and error in a lot of things.

Having said all that, the job was just what I needed to groom me for the future and without reservation I can say that those seven years were very happy times. The only blight was when I was looking to apply for another position in another company. Upon arriving for the interview, I was told by the manager that he did not employ foreigners. Fortunately, he was very much the exception, but it did bring back the insecurity which was always in the subconscious.

I do not wish to take anything away from the people of this beautiful country, but I guess it is only natural that those who consider themselves to be the indigenous people of a country will always show preference to their own. When I look back over the years, I saw this to be the case with my father throughout his working life, though he would never say so. But in my own page 254case, I sensed this to be so. This is partly the reason why almost 20 years ago I made the decision to become self employed.

No longer do I sense any discrimination, but perhaps we have all moved along and got on with the more important things in life. We have all married and have wonderful children who are in turn contributing to New Zealand society, and in some cases to the countries overseas where they in turn are on their own voyage of discovery as we were more than 50 years ago.

This country offers plenty of opportunities to anyone who is prepared to put their hand up and do the hard yards. Sure, the early days were tough for "aliens", but for us as first-generation New Zealanders and for our children, this is certainly the land of freedom and opportunity.

An untold number of similar replies to searches for lost relatives from the war kept the world's postal services very busy. This letter from 1946 tells Joe Zazulak's father Jan that his five sisters had been found in the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua

An untold number of similar replies to searches for lost relatives from the war kept the world's postal services very busy. This letter from 1946 tells Joe Zazulak's father Jan that his five sisters had been found in the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua

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