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

Pros and cons

page 238

Pros and cons

My earliest memories show no real issues, as with all little kids I made friends with the neighbours and we played well together. The innocence of youth has a lot to say for itself. I think it was only when I was progressing through primary school that I first noticed that some things were different.

The first, and most constant, was that nobody wanted to pronounce my name correctly and I had to endure many years of this. It is only in recent times that people in this country have made an effort to pronounce names correctly. It wasn't that easy starting at a new school at the age of nine with a strange name, and from that time it was mispronounced more often than not. At work, most people call me by my anglicised name, but many make an effort to call me by my proper Polish name and that is well appreciated.

Christmas was always good, because our family celebrated it in the Polish tradition on Christmas Eve. This meant heaps of presents well before all of your mates. Then, if we were lucky, there might be some more on the day itself. After we moved to Wellington from Auckland, Christmas day started with a Mass at St Mary of the Angels cathedral. The place would fill up with people and the sound of the Polish choir singing made it special – and knowing that we were off to a traditional Christmas lunch afterwards helped as well. I really enjoyed the traditional Polish cooking and have always looked forward to the times when there will be such dishes as bigos (cabbage stew), pierogi (Polish dumplings), goląbki (cabbage rolls) and barszcz (beetroot soup).

Another lasting memory was the polite bigotry of parents of my school friends – you could just sense that they considered us outsiders and would have preferred that their child had chosen a more suitable friend. There were times when I heard myself being referred to as "that child" down the road. Some New Zealand parents were very cool in their manner towards me and that is one memory that makes me a little sad. I think that this may be one reason why all my childhood friends that I still keep in touch with are of Polish origin. When I was a teenager, we had a very active Polish Youth Club and I was on the committee. We planned many fun events, including sporting trips to Auckland and social events.

I recall with pleasure one year at school when my teacher Mr Henderson, who had taught my father in the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua, could speak some Polish and understood the culture. That was a very pleasant year. page 239Saturdays and Sundays were good, as I remember many visits to other Polish families where there lots of other children with whom to play. Polish School on Saturdays was a drag, and now I realise that the curriculum was not set up to keep us children interested. It was cool to play with all the other kids though.

Considering the fact that my parents had to start from scratch and had no real network to fall back on, they tried hard to instil their culture, values and beliefs. Considering what they were up against, I think they did very well. So I have no time for people who do nothing and complain about how hard they have it. It really makes you think about how many opportunities there have been for people who were born into established families and how many of them still complain that life has dealt them a bad hand.

I can only imagine the difficulties of setting up a life in what sometimes appeared to be an intolerant society, and people would have to have been very strong willed to survive. It is a good thing that the situation has changed over the years and we now live in a racial melting pot.