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


A selection of memories

New Zealanders remember
A need for resourcefulness

New Zealanders are renowned for their resourcefulness. Give us a shilling, a piece of binder twine and number-eight wire, and we can fix anything. How good were we? Myself and a couple of mates from Pahiatua District School learned a thing or two one day on a visit to the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua.

We passed the hat around our class and gathered enough money to buy such things as oranges and bananas to take to the Polish kids at the camp. The idea was to make them welcome and generally fraternise in a friendly way, such as playing ball games and trying to make each other understood. It was great fun as I remember.

However, one Saturday we biked out to the camp, gave our gifts and went out to enjoy our usual games. After a couple of hours it was time to return to Pahiatua but one of our bikes was missing. We searched the camp with the help of the staff and the kids, but alas no joy. The whole matter had become serious and discussions were being held on the appropriate action to take, when somebody announced that the bike had been found.

The discovery was amazing. It was found between the mattress and the frame of a bed totally stripped to the last nut and screw – very impressive. This was a sombre comment on the resourcefulness developed in their need to survive under their conditions in forced exile. I always remembered this and it is a major factor in my respect for these people who are now valued citizens of New Zealand.

Inspiration to us all

When my husband Jan Mokrzecki left the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua, he attended St Patrick's College in Wellington. He achieved high marks for entry to Victoria University of Wellington and completed an architectural degree. During his studies, he took on numerous manual jobs, such as dishwashing. We met while he was on holiday in New Plymouth, fell in love and were married two years later and had four children. Having graduated from university, they have each gone on to carve successful careers.

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In Jan's spare time, while working fulltime, he was asked by the late Monsignor Minogue of New Plymouth to design a classroom block and other projects, which made the news in the Taranaki Herald. He also did up an old farmhouse with 8½ acres of land, in which I helped.

In later years, Jan had a bad run of health problems. In the mid-1980s, stomach cancer took a heavy toll on him and despite not having a stomach, we owned and operated a hospitality venue. Also, a heart infection during that period necessitated a valve replacement. On selling the property and business, we bought a large home in Waikanae. After five years and lots of money spent on completely re-landscaping and other cosmetic changes, Jan said: "Let's sell and start to travel."

This man, against all adversity life has thrown at him, owns a one million dollar-plus freehold property, having started from zero. I'm sure all his Polish countrymen and women will, on reading this, be very proud of Jan, as our whole family is. He is an inspiration to us all.

Pahiatua remembers
Polish Children's 50th Anniversary, 1994

Labour Weekend in October 1994 was not only a memorable weekend for the Polish children of 1944, but also for the Pahiatua Committee which was able to assist in the preparations. It was a moving occasion.

More than 1,100 people came by buses and cars to celebrate 50 years since the arrival in New Zealand of 733 Polish children and their 102 caregivers on the USS General Randall. What a wonderful day – tears and hugs for those who hadn't seen one another since their days in the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua, and many having travelled long distances to be present at the reunion.

Months of preparation for the reunion came to fruition and it was enjoyed by everyone. The arrival of Governor-General Dame Catherine Tizard, Prime Minister Jim Bolger and other dignitaries set the tone for the day at the Pahiatua Sports Stadium. The opening ceremony began with a thanksgiving Mass led by the Papal Nuncio, and assisted by bishops and priests. Welcome! Welcome! Welcome! These words still ring in my ears as the chairman ofthe Pahiatua Community Board Peter Tourell addressed the packed stadium. It was a wonderful invitation for those returning to their first "home" in New Zealand.

Dame Tizard spoke in a similar vein and unveiled a model of the former Polish Children's Camp. This model was then presented to the Pahiatua and page 296District's Museum Society, where it now takes pride of place along with a pictorial history of the Polish children's journey from Poland to Pahiatua.

The packed stadium was treated to Polish dancing, so rhythmic and colourful with all participants dressed in their national costumes. After lunch, those present spent time reminiscing, visiting the Polish memorial or taking a walk across the green pastures which were once the site of their camp. The day in Pahiatua concluded with fond farewells, along with many revived memories of 50 years ago.

Constructing the camp

Jock Aplin of Dannevirke recalls working on the site of the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua in 1942. Before the Polish children arrived, he was employed as a labourer by Gillespies, builders of Dannevirke, who worked for AV Swanson contractors of Wellington. Many subcontractors were local people who were involved in turning Pahiatua Racecourse into an internment camp for "foreign nationals".

The land at the time was very wet. With all the transport carting in the timber, cement and polite (a type of weatherboard), it was a quagmire. Tractors
The Pahiatua Polish Jubilee Committee on the porch of the Pahiatua Museum, 17 September 1994. The museum features many photos of the Polish community and the scale model of the camp. Standing: (l-r) Józef Zawada, Helena Wypych (Chwieduk), Dorothy Ropiha, Elaine Perry, Marge Bentley, Jean Eddie, Don Selby, Alistair MacDougall, John Burns Sitting: (l-r) Eugeniusz Szadkowski, Piotr Przychodźko

The Pahiatua Polish Jubilee Committee on the porch of the Pahiatua Museum, 17 September 1994. The museum features many photos of the Polish community and the scale model of the camp.
Standing: (l-r) Józef Zawada, Helena Wypych (Chwieduk), Dorothy Ropiha, Elaine Perry, Marge Bentley, Jean Eddie, Don Selby, Alistair MacDougall, John Burns
Sitting: (l-r) Eugeniusz Szadkowski, Piotr Przychodźko

page 297were required to pull out the trucks, which became stuck in the muddy conditions. Jock said that the labourers were housed under the grandstand so as to live on the job and the Ross family catered for the employees under the second grandstand. In 1942-43, he entered the army, only to return when the "internees" were removed from the camp. After their removal, the army helped to prepare the camp for the Polish children's arrival. The children and adults occupied the camp until 1949.

In 1950, it provided a temporary home for boatloads of displaced persons from war-torn Europe. Today, the land has returned to pasture and there is no sign of what used to be the camp. Only the Polish children's memorial marks the area where the camp was located.

Polska! Polska!

Countess Wodzicka, the wife of the Polish Consul to New Zealand, told the representative of The Herald that the Polish girls joyfully anticipated their day out at the gala. All were excited as the day approached and long faces greeted the sound of falling rain in the morning. But the rain must have cleared because the gala did take place at the Pahiatua showgrounds.

The main events at the gala were marching team displays. The Pringles team in the inter-house marching contest wore a red and white costume, and on their hats was embroidered a "P" for Pringles. As they passed the Polish children, the youngsters gave them a special round of applause, calling out "Polska! Polska!" Because white and red are Poland's national colours, the children thought that the "P" was for "Polska", the name of their beloved country Poland.

Before the second section of the inter-house marching competition, the Polish secondary school girls were assembled in front of the grandstand by their lady teacher. They sang two Polish songs and their sweet singing was loudly applauded by the crowd. Later, the girls were invited to stage a counterattraction behind the grandstand. A large section of the crowd was delighted with their singing and folk dancing. During the spell between the marching displays, the Polish girls were offered sandwiches and drinks.

Another time, a story went round about the Palmerston North Civic Band visiting the camp one Saturday afternoon. Such was the rush of the Polish youngsters to follow the band hard on the heels of the pipers, that hundreds of Polish children had to fight for positions. Near the camp hospital, the children were crowded off the roadway, little feet sinking deep into muddy patches. Everyone knew about the spotless camp dormitory floors, so the results of these feet rushing into the dormitories left little to the imagination.

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The phantom boys

I was then 10 years old and living on Masterton Road, about halfway between the camp and Pahiatua. I can remember the army trucks going past our gate with the Polish children and accompanying adults, who had that day arrived in the country, huddled in the back. The boys wore jackets and short pants, some with caps and close-cut haircuts. The girls were in their overcoats and hats, as were most of the adults.

After the children settled down in their new environment, they were taken to town accompanied by an adult. They walked in twos, singing their Polish songs and greeted us with "hello" in their language. I have since forgotten the word, but we picked it up at the time.

My dad had a poultry farm. When the boys were allowed more freedom, they came over in groups of six or seven and followed dad when he fed the poultry. At that time, the soldiers stationed in the camp would come to buy fresh eggs to take home when they had leave. Eggs were still rationed then. One particular soldier who came for eggs was in charge of the garden at the camp and the teams of boys who tended them. He was telling my mum about his "phantom (nowhere to be seen) gardeners", when half a dozen appeared with my dad. They were the "phantom boys" and they got quite a shock when they saw who was talking to my mum.

The Pahiatua locals welcome the Polish children as the trucks pass through town from the railway station to the Polish Children's Camp, 1 November 1944

The Pahiatua locals welcome the Polish children as the trucks pass through town from the railway station to the Polish Children's Camp, 1 November 1944

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I still have my mother's address book. Listed there are Mrs Perkowska, Richard Patulski, Kazimierz Krawczyk and boys whom she knew only by their first names – Joseph, Antoni, Laurence, Richard. I also have a white handkerchief crocheted round the edge and my initial "B" embroidered in one corner. This was done by one of the Polish ladies whose name I can no longer recall.

Meeting of two Polish waves

My family is descended from Polish immigrants who arrived in New Zealand in the late 19th Century. Every Sunday afternoon, my mum and dad (George and Rose Treder), Barbara, John and I (the youngest children), and our babcia (granny Treder) would visit the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua. Dad and babcia enjoyed speaking to the people in the camp in Polish, while mum would sit and listen to their English reading. She would often take flowers from her garden to give to the Polish ladies.

The children from the camp were often invited to the Treder farm in Konini. These were happy times in a big family atmosphere. The children would enjoy riding bikes, and my brother George would take both adults and children around the farm on the old Model T truck. What fun.

At the age of eight, I proudly wore the Polish national costume to a fancy dress at Mangamaire School. It had a brown velvet vest with a beautiful sequined butterfly on the back. My sister Barbara looked so Polish that one day she was reprimanded by a Polish adult who thought that she was one of her charges. My brother Bernard and his cousin Pat Connor spent many hours learning Polish so that they could communicate with the girls when they biked to the camp to visit them.

When some of the children returned to their homeland, the Treder family kept contact with many letters and food parcels. Others who stayed in New Zealand have also kept in touch. My husband Paul and I, and some of our children, have visited Poland and feel privileged to have put our feet on Polish soil.

A peaceful environment

As a young girl aged 16 years, living on Masterton Road, I recall the arrival of the Polish children to Pahiatua. I was very sad to see the convoy of trucks transporting the children to the Polish Children's Camp. Those dear little souls, so thin that their heads looked like pumpkins on top of their bodies. They were riding on the decks of big GMCs, which were heading for their page 300future home (which was the old Pahiatua Racecourse) south of Pahiatua on the main road to Masterton. They were a pathetic sight, but hopefully would soon be thriving with all the tender loving care the New Zealanders would offer them.

They could not speak English then, but the young ones were remarkably quick to learn our language. I think that to be safe and live their days in a peaceful environment was their salvation. As time passed, one could hear them singing and giving much pleasure to everyone.

The Voluntary Aid Division was a band of local women who were attached to the nursing side of the army. They had prepared the beds for the children with sheets on them, and were able to help out with driving vehicles and be of general help where needed. I have great admiration for that very gallant band of ladies who all "helped to win the war".

Polish children at Mangatainoka School

Approximately 15 children arrived at Mangatainoka School in 1949, only to stay two terms. As they had been taught English at the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua, some were better than others, but you could still have a good conversation with them by using signs and a little patience.

They joined in playing bullrush at playtimes and then rugby, as they had been coached at the camp by their teachers Frank Muller and Andy Nola. At the school seven-aside tournament at Rugby Park, our team had five of the Polish boys playing for us who were a wee bit older and larger than us. They were also good runners and knew where the try line was.

Two of the Polish boys I became friendly with told me how their parents and sister had been shot in a cow bail. The boys were thrown into a cattle truck and railed through days and nights of ice-cold conditions to forcedlabour camps in the USSR. For me, it was difficult to take in.

They learnt very quickly on the sporting ground and their English improved vastly. The army truck would drop them off in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon. I spoke with some of them at our last Mangatainoka School Jubilee. Some of them had passed on but they had all done very well for themselves.

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