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

The Youth Club

The Youth Club

My earliest childhood memory of realising that our family's background was different to your average Kiwi household was overhearing a conversation my father had on the telephone. I heard him say: "I know what it's like to starve and I never want my children to go through that. And as long as I live, I will never let it happen." He never did, and that could explain the weight problem I have had all my life!

In my later years, he used to say: "Be careful, because of your background and foreign last name people might act differently towards you and you may not get the things in life that you want." I must admit, that did happen to my brother while he was in the New Zealand army and to my younger brother when he was at school. But to my sister and I it never happened, possibly because we were females.

In fact, it was an advantage as my name stood out in a crowd. It was a great talking point – "how do you pronounce your surname" or "I can't believe that you only have two vowels in your surname and they are both the same". People would ask me what nationality I was and I was proud to answer "Polish". In my older years, when they found out that my parents had been at the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua, they would say: "I remember those children coming to New Zealand. It must have been hard for them coming out to a strange land but they have turned out to be good people".

The only problem I had was in my college years. All my teachers, when calling out the class roll, would always call me "Smith" or "Jones". They never bothered to learn how to pronounce my surname properly, which being teachers, you would think that they would have taken the time to do. They always told me that I would marry a Smith or Jones one day anyway. That was one comment they got right.

Our family, like many other Polish children, was brought up with all the wonderful traditions and Polish cooking that our parents had been taught when they came out from Poland. Christmas Eve was wonderful – getting to open your Christmas presents before anyone else and Easter with all the coloured eggs was also a very special time, not to mention the mandatory trip to Polish Catholic church more than once during those times. Not that we complained in our older years, as it was a good time to catch up with the other youths to find out what was happening. The Polish race is a proud one, full page 226of an amazing history. Our parents brought us up to be proud of our heritage and we still are.

It wasn't until I was about 18 (1980) when I accompanied my father on a trip to Auckland, where he was taking part in a Christmas play they were putting on for the Auckland Polish Association, that I discovered there were a lot of young people around my age with the same background as me. On the way back, I discovered there was a Polish Youth Club open to all youth with a Polish background. I decided to join as it looked like fun. To this day when I look back, it was the best decision I ever made.

Because us first-generation Poles were coming into our late teens/early 20s and by then had many years of learning about our Polish heritage, I think we were at a stage in our lives where we wanted to be with people who shared the same kind of childhood. What we found was a common bond that links us together even to this day. I entered the Polish Youth Club just as it was beginning to grow and mature.

We had a proper structure of president, vice-president, treasurer, secretary and committee members. The committee began organising get-togethers for its members, such as video screenings, dances, soccer, volleyball and sports games, and parties. (For you worried parents at the time, we did not use drugs and only a minimum of alcohol was consumed. We did not need a lot of alcohol to have a good time, we just enjoyed each other's company.)

The highlight of each year was the Wellington and Auckland Anniversary weekends in January. As the Wellington Polish Youth Club was going from strength to strength, the same was also happening at the Auckland Polish Youth Club. So a challenge was set. On alternate years, we would travel to Auckland, and the following year the Auckland Youth Club would travel to Wellington. Everyone was billeted out with different Polish families. The entire weekend was spent playing sports, such as soccer, volleyball, netball and basketball. Yes, it was Auckland versus Wellington.

On the Sunday night, there was always a social in the Polish House, with the presentation of a cup to the youth club which had won the most sports games as one of the highlights. As us Wellingtonians seemed to have more multitalented sports people (and no we didn't cheat), you will find if you have a good look at the cup that it was won by Wellington more times than Auckland. In fact, I think it's still held by Wellington today (have a look in the Polish House).

These events were so looked forward to that the inevitable had to happen. Yes, some long-distance romances started between the clubs and even my younger sister had a romance with an Aucklander. Some of these even resulted in marriages.

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At the same time, a Polish dance teacher, Jacek Śliwiński, happened to emigrate to New Zealand with his wife Ania. He set about forming the Lublin Polish dance group, which most of us became members of. And so came along another very valuable learning experience of our Polish heritage – Polish ethnic dance.

It was very social for us. We practised twice a week and performed on many occasions at Polish functions in Wellington, around the country and even in Australia at one of the Polish arts festivals called PolArt. Funds were raised for materials and our wonderful mothers spent many hours sewing costumes for the group. When these were worn, the effect was amazing to see a large group of young people performing traditional Polish dances in authentic Polish costumes. After a number of years, the dance group slowly diminished as people went their different ways.

Years later, we re-established the dance group to perform at the 50th anniversary reunion of the Polish Children's arrival in New Zealand, which was held in Pahiatua. This time we were older and certainly appreciated Mr Śliwiński more – he didn't get such a hard time from us!

I was lucky enough to be elected onto the Wellington Polish Youth Club committee, and spent two years as secretary and the third year as president. My aim as president was to have at least one different activity a month that
The Polish Youth Club membership card

The Polish Youth Club membership card

page 228everyone could come to. I found that this wasn't hard as it was a very busy year for us. As the Youth Club was going strong, I think most times we gathered together virtually every second weekend and on the other weekend smaller groups seemed to get together at each other's places.

It also happened to be a year where we decided to do a lot of extra things. We planned a ski trip, which meant a lot of extra fundraising activities. The fundraising started off with catering for the New Year's Eve ball in the Polish House. Some of the boys had formed a band and played for us that night. It's a pity they didn't carry on with the band as they were pretty good.

Each member that attended the ball that night was required to spend half an hour doing some kind of kitchen duty, with the roster being set by me. As a result, the band dedicated the song Whip It to me that night – I don't think I was that bad! The night was a success thanks to everyone's hard work, so our finances were off to a good start. We did other fundraising activities, such as bottle drives, fancy dress dances, normal dances, video nights and a casino night. As a result, the Youth Club members went on the skiing trip to the National Park and had a wonderful time with no one breaking any legs.

The hardworking committee of that year also decided to take on an extra organisational nightmare. We put a proposal to the Auckland Youth Club that the annual sporting event between Auckland and Wellington could be a two-weekend event, the first weekend being on Wellington Anniversary in Auckland and the second on Auckland Anniversary in Wellington. We did it and it was fantastic. It was a lot of hard work for both committees, but it was all well worth it – I think it turned out to be a draw.

On top of all this hard work, it was the year the Food for Poland Appeal was organised by the Polish Association to help raise funds for aid and relief to Poland. The Youth Club recognised that we also needed to contribute towards this appeal. So a 24-hour sportathon was organised and held in the grounds of Hutt Valley High School. We were sponsored by work and school associates, friends and family, and worked hard playing all different types of sports over that 24-hour period.

I remember the dinner provided by some of our mothers that night and I can still picture a Youth Club member (whom I had better not name) eating virtually a whole tray of my mother's baked potatoes. Our contribution was then proudly presented to the committee of the Food for Poland Appeal with their gratitude.

To top the year off, it was a milestone year for both the Wellington and Auckland Youth Clubs as it happened to be a year where a lot of us were turning 21. Therefore, 1st birthdays were being celebrated almost monthly, and this meant a lot of travelling between Auckland and Wellington for page 229all of us. My 21st was also one of those and I remember mentioning that I had counted 11 of us turning 21 that year. I did have to ask the question of our parents what they were all doing 21 years ago. To this day, no one has answered that question.

Sadly, the youth clubs slowly diminished as we all grew older and moved overseas doing our big overseas-experience trips, and others got married and started families. Now many of those Youth Club members are in the Polish Associations and have become actively involved in their activities. Slowly, their children, the second-generation Poles, will learn from their parents all the Polish traditions and then also become proud of their heritage. Then hopefully they will revive the Polish Youth Club when they enter their teenage years and the cycle will begin again.

I, hopefully, am speaking on behalf of all the past Youth Club members of both Auckland and Wellington when I say that this stage in our lives was one of the most memorable and enjoyable times for us all, and one that we will never forget. We had everything anyone at that age could ask for.

Two Polish girls with their twin Kiwi husbands who were also part of the Lublin Polish dance group at the 50th anniversary celebrations in Pahiatua. (l-r) Bela and Peter Jones, Paul Jones and Adela Jones (Wypych)

Two Polish girls with their twin Kiwi husbands who were also part of the Lublin Polish dance group at the 50th anniversary celebrations in Pahiatua. (l-r) Bela and Peter Jones, Paul Jones and Adela Jones (Wypych)

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Socialising, a place where we could all meet and base ourselves, people to talk to who understood each other because we all had the same background, and experiences and trips away in New Zealand and overseas.

Some were lucky enough to have romance and, of course, we all shared the bond of friendship. Friends of Youth Club members would sometimes come along and join in our activities. I am sure they wished that they could have belonged to a cultural group as strong and social as we were.

I can honestly say that the friendships and experiences we all shared have never been repeated in my life since. It was an incredible and special time, and one that I will always hold dear to my heart.

So what, for us, is there now you ask? Well, our parents began having their Pahiatua reunions at 5 years. I can still remember going to it as a little girl. If my calculations are correct, the fun we had with the Polish Youth Club was about 33 to 24 years ago. So in 2005 or 2006, a reunion for all the members of both Polish Youth Clubs at 25 years may happen…

I would like to dedicate this article to my father Piotr Przychodźko whom we all miss now more than ever. Hopefully, my small contribution has helped to keep his memory alive. If he were with us today, I know that he would have wanted to be a part in helping to put this book together, so I wish to thank all those people who have worked so hard in doing so. It will be a wonderful record for us first-generation Poles to keep and a wonderful reference for all the future generations of Poles to come.