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

Finding lost and loved ones

page 283

Finding lost and loved ones

In the late 1980s, I attended a course run by the Department of Internal Affairs on citizenship work and one of the instructors was Stefania Zawada. During our course, she enquired where we were all going in the world. When I said Iran, she made a quiet mention of the fact that her husband's brother had died there but that the family did not know where he was buried. I made a promise to look for him.

Stefania came back the next day with a small piece of paper, which said: "Claire, my husband was overjoyed that you might be able to locate his brother's grave. My husband's brother died in Tehran mid-1942. A photo of the grave would be appreciated."

So, armed with that small piece of information and some knowledge about the Polish children, the story unfolded as set out in my letter to her from Tehran on 14 November 1987:

My dear Stefania,

No, I have not forgotten you, and it is with my most happy thoughts to you and your husband that I write.

Today I went on an adventure. I went with one of the Armenian drivers from the embassy (Eddie, whose help and company was invaluable) and together, yes you have guessed, we found Ludwik Zawada. We sat together at his grave. I thought of you both and cried, and my tears were for all those years you have all been parted and the sad story behind Ludwik being where he is and you where you are.

I said it was an adventure so I must share it with you, as even as I write, the full events of the day are only just forming solidly in my mind.

Eddie did some research as to where we could start our search. We went to a convent first where the nun we spoke to remembered the story of the children coming from Poland, and we talked a while of the journey and troubles they had during that time. She told us of a Polish cemetery in Tehran, but first suggested we talk to an Italian priest who may know more of registers and names. So we set off again through Tehran to find this man. Another small miracle – we found him. He could help and even gave us a map to the cemetery.

Now, as you have probably guessed, Tehran is not easy to navigate and we page 284were getting a little bit lost, so Eddie stopped a taxi to ask the way. Such good fortune. The driver said he was going exactly that way and that we should follow him. And he then proceeded to lead us at breakneck speed to the cemetery. He was like a guardian angel. Several times we thought we had lost him, only to turn a corner and find him waiting.

Then we found the cemetery. By this time I was getting the feeling that Ludwik was near, but trying not to get excited in case of disappointment. An old man greeted us and directed us to the Polish part of the cemetery. Here was my real shock – row upon row of small grey headstones lying in the earth, all well cared for and clean. But Stefania, so many small children, so many short lives, so much pain. I really felt it all.

We started to look. I thought to myself to take it easy and that this may just be the start, when suddenly Ludwik's name just jumped out at me. I shouted: "Here he is!" And then I could do nothing but sit by him and cry. So we put some flowers there and I have taken many pictures for you and will send them as soon as they are ready.

If there are any more of your friends I could help with this, please let me know. I am filled with sadness, happiness and joy, but yet feel strangely peaceful. (My first two months here have been a very difficult settling-in time but now I know it is going to be different somehow.)

With much love, Claire Ny

My postings took me all over the world. Stefania and I kept in touch by exchanging Christmas cards. Then one day in early 2002, when my latest appointment took me back to Wellington, I got a telephone call from Stefania to tell me that she and Józef were going to Iran. "I have a friend in the Tehran Embassy, Bronwen Williams," I said. "She will look after you." Then I promptly got in touch with her.

Bronwen joined them at the Dulab Cemetery in Tehran in a ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of the Polish refugees' arrival in Iran.

"It was a sunny spring morning when we drove to south Tehran to the cemetery," wrote Bronwen. "Many people were there waiting for the plane to arrive from Warsaw carrying Polish soldiers, the Catholic bishop, the patriarch of the Orthodox Church and a representative of Warsaw's Jewish community. The religious dignitaries based in Tehran were also there. Just as the Mass began, so did the call to midday prayers at the nearby mosque."

Throughout the ceremonies, Bronwen sat next to Stefania and Józef, and later Stefania said to me: "It was as though the whole of New Zealand was with us offering support."