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

Palmerston North Railway Station

Palmerston North Railway Station

This experience was a focal point in my life, which is why I can vividly recall it years later.

It was 1944, World War II was still raging in Europe and I was a 12 year-old schoolboy living in Palmerston North. Our citizens were very patriotic and it was normal practice for everyone to be involved in raising money for the "boys overseas". It was important to me as I had two older brothers who had served in the army abroad in Europe. One had died in December 1943 and another was a prisoner of war. Our pennies provided comforts, such as free envelopes, writing paper and other necessities which the Patriotic Society used the money for.

Our school raised money for food parcels for the needy children in England. Classes competed with each other to have their class read out at daily assembly to see who had raised the most cash. Then one day, there appeared a very strange request from the Government and Palmerston North city mayor. They requested that all city schools give their pupils time off to go to Palmerston North Railway Station at an appointed date to welcome a group of Polish children who had come all the way from Iran.

Well, there was soon a mad scramble to find out how on earth children from Poland could have come from Iran. It seemed so far away from New Zealand and totally disconnected from us or the war. Out came the maps, and there was endless speculation and excitement. We wondered what Polish people looked like. Would we actually be able to speak to them? Any holiday from school was also a welcome relief as our lives were fairly dull and boring, so why not take the offer and go down and meet these people as they passed through our city on the way to the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua.

At that time, the railway line ran right through the middle of Palmerston North (it has long since been shifted) and so those citizens who could not make it to the station were asked to go to the railway line at the time that the train would pass to wave a welcome to these people.

Because the Russians were our allies at the time, little had filtered out here about their atrocities, such as the Katyn Forest massacres and mass forced deportations of whole groups of people.

All we knew was that the Poles were also our allies, and that our forces serving in the Middle East had found them very reliable and friendly. Many page 278prisoner-of-war stories had filtered out detailing the sacrifices that some Polish people had made hiding our own Kiwi escaped prisoners of war in Poland. As I mentioned, one of my elder brothers was a prisoner of war at that time in German captivity in Poland, and it struck me and many others that we could have some small opportunity to say thank you to these Polish children who had come to share our country. We all made a special effort to find whatever object we could take and give to them at the railway station.

Excitement grew as the day arrived and we all set off for the station. Some people rode bicycles, some walked and there were even a few horse-drawn vehicles! Petrol was still rationed, as was food, and a lot of private cars had simply been sequestered by the army. So apart from the local dignitaries, there wasn't too much vehicle traffic.

When I arrived at the railway station, it seemed as though half the city population was there. I had to push and shove to get anywhere near the front. It seemed as though even the children from the farming towns were there – what a throng. One could hardly talk due to the babble of voices and the excitement.

At long last the word came: "The train is coming!" It reached Longburn and then came up Main Street (later renamed Pioneer Highway, where I was to live some years later with my wife and family). The excitement was at fever pitch and then it arrived. One of the biggest and longest trains we had ever seen, jam-packed with its cargo of children and guardians.

The excitement abated as we saw them. Their faces bore a look that we had never seen before and never experienced. A look of sadness, bewilderment and shock. Their faces showed that behind them lay endless suffering, pain and deprivation which we could never know. It was written there for all to see. The shaved heads, the khaki clothes, but most of all it showed in their eyes. The looks seemed to say: "What is it going to be like here? Will we be safe? Will we be accepted?"

For a short while we just looked at each other. We couldn't speak Polish and they couldn't speak English, but as we handed them gifts of toys, food and sweets, the ice began to melt. The smiles began to appear and then the sheer surprise of it all began to show. It was as though Easter, Christmas and their birthdays had all come at once. The reserve disappeared as the New Zealand children grabbed the Polish children and said any word to let the other ones know that they were welcome in New Zealand.

The train was only supposed to make a brief stop in Palmerston North, but so huge was the welcome that it remained for some considerable time. In fact, the townspeople were so moved by the pitiable condition of this trainload of children that many of those who lived closest to the station actually raced page 279home to collect more of their hidden goods to give to them. When it was finally determined that the train simply had to leave, many friendships had been created and the townspeople began to realise the true extent of war and who the real sufferers were.

Truly it had been a great day, the day that we learned about the suffering of the Polish people, first at the hands of the Germans and then the Russians. Little did I ever think that one of the boys on that train, Jan Jarka, would have a son Michael and that I would have a daughter June who would become married years later. Life is so strange, isn't it?

Later, one of the girls from the train, Franciszka Skierewska, boarded with my sister for a while. And one of the boys, Michał Gliński, taught me art at Palmerston North Technical College night school. In life, it seems nothing is strange and nothing is impossible.

Palmerston North flocks to the railway station to see the Polish children refugees pass through their town on the way to Pahiatua, 1 November 1944. Showing the true extent of the townspeople's welcome, this photo was taken almost a mile away from the railway station

Palmerston North flocks to the railway station to see the Polish children refugees pass through their town on the way to Pahiatua, 1 November 1944. Showing the true extent of the townspeople's welcome, this photo was taken almost a mile away from the railway station

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