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

Pani Konsulowa

Pani Konsulowa

I consider myself privileged through my marriage to Jan Wojciechowski to have experienced an appreciation of the Polish people, and to have gained an insight into their character, faith, history, culture and country.

I first saw Jan striding across the lobby of the building where I had just begun my first job. Though he could have come from any one of a number of offices, I knew immediately that he must be the Polish accountancy cadet my new employer had told me about. I immediately felt his sense of purpose and determination – a trait I would later find in other Poles.

I knew then he was someone special and hoped that some day he might be special to me. Later when I met the rest of the Wojciechowski family, I was impressed by their neat, comfortable and welcoming homes which stood testament to their hard work and zeal. I was very aware of their closeness and deep sense of family. It was comforting to be accepted and made to feel part of it. They have always been very good to me and willingly helped in any way they could.

Soon I had my first taste of Polish foods – salami, pickled cucumbers, bigos (cabbage stew), gołąbki (cabbage rolls), zimne nogi (jellied trotters), babka (a cake) and real cheesecake. It took a while to acquire a taste for some of these new foods but they are now long-time favourites.

I met Jan's lively friends and Pani (Mrs) Kozera at whose home they would all gather on a Sunday afternoon. There was animated conversation, more often than not in Polish, with Polish folk music and singing, while Mrs Kozera kept up a continuous supply of open sandwiches the like and quantity of which I had never seen before.

During the two years before Jan and I were married, I boarded at the Polish Girls' Hostel in Lyall Bay, which was another completely new experience. My two brothers were much older than me and I didn't have a sister, but now I was surrounded by girls my own age, and older and younger. I enjoyed being part of this exuberant family.

The Ursuline nuns who cared for us were very kind and down to earth. They teased me by often making me ask for my meals and clean linen in Polish. I had Polish lessons from Sister Alexandrowicz but to my everlasting regret never kept them up. It was so much easier to retain the words I learnt then, than those I have tried to learn since. To be honest, I have given up on page 289being able to have a conversation in Polish. I feel pleased just to sometimes know what a conversation is about.

In the first few years of our marriage, before we became too busy with our own family, Jan and I would join his family for Wigilia – the traditional meal held on Christmas Eve. I was unable to contribute to this meal of 13 different dishes, all very different to the roast pork, vegetables, green beans and peas to which I was accustomed. I was also in awe that after all the labour involved in producing this Christmas Eve meal, my sisters-in-law would then prepare a New Zealand-style dinner for Christmas Day. But then everything about my sisters-in-law and Polish women in general fills me with awe – their talents for housekeeping, cooking, sewing, knitting, handwork and gardening are to be greatly admired.

Jan's application to his career, long hours at work and our growing family kept us from the Polish community for many years, except for visits to his family and occasionally with friends. Sometimes I would be quite startled to hear him speak in his own language, but the rest of the time he was just involved in becoming and being a regular Kiwi. It was also many years before he began to tell me of his family's experiences before they came to New Zealand, their home in Poland, their time in the USSR and Iran, and even in the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua. All of it I learned in little snatches and I am still learning today.

Jan retired in 1994. And having his life back, he made the decision to get involved in all things Polish. He started by offering funds for a course in Polish history at Auckland University. We began to attend Polish Mass every Sunday when we were in Auckland. Because I like to participate fully, I began reading the responses and prayers in Polish. I believe I do not do too badly in pronunciation and it is becoming easier. I am just beginning to know what I am saying as I go along – until now, I have had to just concentrate on each difficult word. I enjoy singing the Polish hymns – they are lovely and somehow it is easier to sing than say.

Over the past few years, there has been a steady pouring of Polish books, videos and music cassettes into our home. I began to record the books in a database as some are rare and precious, and we wanted to keep track of them. Just as it is hard for hands used only for writing in English to be made to write Polish words, so it is for them to type them. The brain must tell my fingers "that combination of letters is wrong" and they struggle to contradict that message. But I persevered, typing letter by letter, sometimes not knowing (when I came to titles with just two words, particularly biographies) which was the title and which the author.

When we established the Polish Literary Club, I set up a database of the page 290members, sent out invitations and co-hosted the first meeting at our home. I also had to test my computer skills in designing a newsletter, complete with reviews of books we felt would be of interest to members.

Later, I designed the membership cards for the Sybiraki Society (those deported to Siberia) and the invitations to the annual dinners. To make mailouts easy, I set up databases of Sybiraki Society and the Polish groups around the country, and then began to convert the list of the 733 former refugee children to a database. Luckily for me, Józef Zawada and Stefania Zawada have made a wonderful job of that and I have made much use of it. I admire them for the research they carry out to keep track of all the former Polish children refugees and for the work they are doing for the Polish community.

I was thrilled when Jan was offered the position of Honorary Consul for Poland. It was a great honour and well deserved. The long drawn-out processes that such an appointment required made me more impatient than it did Jan and I sometimes couldn't believe it was really happening. In that time, I also gave thought to the responsibilities that such a position would entail, and how I could help and encourage him.

Finally, on a beautiful March day in 1999, family, dignitaries and friends gathered in our garden. Dr Tadeusz Szumowski, the Ambassador for Poland in Canberra, with his wife Agata, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs Don McKinnon came for the occasion and made the formal appointment. We were entertained with music by a three-piece ensemble who played, after a very short rehearsal, the Polish national anthem along with God Defend New Zealand. It was a memorable day.

The following day, the Polish community welcomed Jan as their consul at a gathering at the Dom Polski (Polish House). There were speeches by the ambassador and new honorary consul. The ladies contributed Polish food to a beautiful lunch and the children performed Polish recitals, songs and dances. On the Sunday, Father Wrona celebrated Mass for the intentions of the new honorary consul, which was attended by the ambassador and his wife before they left for their home across the Tasman.

We had not been aware that being a consul meant you were part of the Auckland Consular Corp – a wonderful group of people, some born in the countries they represent and others born New Zealanders. The members of the corp and their wives, and sometimes husbands, are down to earth and incredibly friendly. We have wonderful get-togethers for national days, or kings', emperors' or presidents' birthdays.

Highlights have been the 80th birthday dinner of the corp where we were asked to dress in 1920s' costume or our own national dress. Jan and I opted for the latter, borrowing our finery from friends. For me, putting on Polish page 291dress for the first time was akin to putting on my wedding dress so long ago. We were greatly admired for our colourful outfits – and, being asked why we had not worn Polish costumes before, we immediately sent away to Warsaw for our own. We have already worn these to another occasion – the dinner to mark the accession of Poland and nine other countries to the European Union. There was also a celebratory Mass held in the cathedral and celebrated by Cardinal Williams the following day.

I have visited Poland several times, the first in 1990. Jan had visited a number of times before that, but had felt no inclination to subject me to the rigid bureaucracy he always had to endure before Poland regained its freedom in 1989. Plus, I still had children at home. In fact, I had always been anxious each time he went. It seemed to me that it was too possible for some political upset to occur and with his Polish name for him to become caught up in it. I always asked him to phone me when he had left the country.

My first impression of Warsaw, our city of entry, confirmed the only picture I had in my mind of Poland – that of a dull, grey country which had been under the influence of Russia and communism for 45 years. There were still signs of that occupation in the very basic airport, stark hotel in a dull part of the city and warehouse-like shops.

However, it was not long before I sensed something special and extremely difficult to express in words. It was the indomitable spirit of the Polish nation that pervaded the whole of the country, and was so tangible that it seemed you could cut out a chunk of it and take it with you. And take it with me I
Enjoying retirement, Jan and Valerie Roy-Wojciechowski on board their yacht in Auckland Harbour

Enjoying retirement, Jan and Valerie Roy-Wojciechowski on board their yacht in Auckland Harbour

page 292did, into my heart and understanding of what it meant to be a Pole and to survive all.

As we moved around Warsaw, Kraków, the little villages and beautiful countryside, it was apparent that Poland was certainly not grey and dull. The beautiful architecture of the cities; the monuments, especially those of Westerplatte where, at the beginning of the World War II, the Poles held off the Germans for four weeks and at Gdańsk where Solidarity was born; the amazing number of stately churches; the quaint little villages, still as they had been for hundreds of years; fields of ripening grain sprinkled with cornflowers and poppies; and wonderfully fragrant lilacs in bloom.

At the shrine of Częstochowa, because we had come so far to see it, we were given a space near the icon of the Black Madonna as it was unveiled to a fanfare of trumpets. This ceremony, epitomising the tremendous faith of the Poles in God and Our Lady, Queen of Poland, and again demonstrating their unconquerable spirit, was incredibly moving.

In 1998, we took all six of our now grownup children to Poland. I was overjoyed to learn that they felt completely at home and part of it – their father's country, their country. We had a wonderful time, seeing everything it was possible to see in a mere two weeks, and when Jan and I dropped exhausted into bed each night, our family went "on the town" to mingle with other young Poles in bars and clubs.

One memory of Poland represents for me my ever-growing feeling of being accepted and becoming as part of the Polish people as a New Zealander of British heritage could be.

We were strolling along the main street of Zakopane, thronged with happy people in holiday mode. Suddenly, we heard the slow clip-clop of horses' hooves and tinkling of many little bells. All stopped to see what was going on. Soon the riders and horses came into view – the former in regional dress, the latter gaily decorated with tiny bells, red bridles and tassels, and pulling carriages. In the first were a young man and woman in regional dress, and we realised they were a bridal couple. In the following carriages sat couples that could only be the proud parents. Then came a cart in which rode the musicians with accordions and violins.

The whole scene took our breath away and we had left our camera with our driver back down the street! The procession came to a halt quite near us and we saw that the party was going into the photographer's. Would we have time to get our camera before they came out?

We tore back down the street and got back just in time to see them emerge. We snapped our pictures while they got back into their carriages. As they moved away, a wonderful thing happened. The crowd, long-halted to enjoy page 293this lovely encounter, began to sing Sto Lat (For They Are Jolly Good Fellows) and this New Zealander from the other side of the world, moved by the whole experience and feeling at that moment just like any other Pole, was able to join in the singing of it.

It was also a wonderful experience in 2004 seeing Jan's biography A Strange Outcome: The Remarkable Survival Story of a Polish Child come into existence. The launchings in Auckland and Wellington were fulfilling, as have been Jan's talks and signings around the country. He has enjoyed the positive responses to these and to his book.

Now I am enthusiastic about "our" Polish museum, which Jan and I have been planning for some time. And it is our museum in that I hope every Pole in New Zealand comes to share in our enthusiasm to make it a success by contributing to it. Every item donated is carefully recorded so that the donor's children or grandchildren can identify the contribution and claim it back if that is their wish. With this assurance, I hope that Poles will be encouraged to allow their precious mementoes to be put into the museum. We hope it will draw Poles and other New Zealanders alike, the latter to learn about Poland as I have and especially the children.

I enjoy all my contacts with the Polish people and the times that I spend with them. I am lucky to be part of this wonderful family of Polish people in New Zealand and hope I can continue to make my small contribution by being a supportive "Pani Konsulowa" as Jan likes to call me.

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