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

A teacher's pride

A teacher's pride

I was appointed to the English staff at the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua in May 1946 and left when it closed in Christmas 1949. Joan Hay and I joined the other English language teachers Margaret Storkey, Ruth Neligan, Marian Parker, Frank Muller and Andy Nola. Mr McKinnon was headmaster. Margaret and Ruth left, and were replaced by Mary Sergent and Alexander Henderson. When Marian Parker left, Pat Sloan arrived. At first, we lived in army huts and later graduated to the luxury of the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) quarters behind the officers' mess, where we (the women) ate while the men belonged to the sergeants' mess.

Because we lived in the camp, we were available and actively involved in most aspects of its life. To begin with, we taught English classes only and to all ages – children through to adults. Our resources were minimal – our tools of trade were imagination, improvisation, a sense of humour, endless patience and the ability to cope with the unexpected.

One day, there was a knock on the classroom door and in came Prime Minister Peter Fraser with camp officials and retinue – he was very proud of "his Polish children" and always anxious for their welfare. On other days, it could be the Apostolic Delegate, bishops, archbishops or other dignitaries who loved to visit.

Soon, physical education and sports became part of our brief, which were the highlights for many. From the very basic siatkówka (volleyball) with a couple of poles and a rope or net set up on any small patch, we graduated to baseball, basketball, soccer and rugby. Lack of knowledge or language was made up for by enthusiastic participation and the teams competed very well against the local ones. Girls will remember the "elegant bloomers" of the first basketball teams.

Camp social life was ongoing and there was any excuse for a party – imieniny (name days), dancing in the hall with Miss Merwid at the piano playing her heart out with the help of a sherry (You Are My Sunshine and Pokarekare Ana), the Masses and church singing, and the national dances that were danced with such patriotic fervour.

As staff members, we would hitch a ride on an army truck into Pahiatua to go to the pictures, a rugby match or party. On one such occasion, we were at Ned Barry's after-match party. Ned was the local police sergeant and an ex-All page 281Black. The fire sirens went (Pahiatua had a volunteer fire brigade), and the locals rose as one and left. Soon after, someone started screaming: "Come on you lot – the camp's on fire!"

The closer we got to camp, the more we could see how close the fire was to our quarters. In fact, it was the old grandstand behind the camp, which was used by the boys for such things as keeping chickens, stashing away their treasures and having a secret cigarette. I remember the poor chickens squawking madly, scattering to escape total incineration and some locals, who had come to watch, chasing and catching them to take home.

Other memories

  • • The wonderful parades – Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, Lady Baden-Powell's visit, the wreaths, flags, music, pomp and ceremony. I remember parade leaders such as Irena Wierzbicka and Janina Ratuszna (short legs, long strides). One day, Lady Baden-Powell came and after the parade was entertained to tea – we weren't invited, so we had our own parade while Frank Muller and Alexander Henderson stood on the be-flagged dais and solemnly took the salute in true Scout style.
  • • Your love of being photographed – you'd pose for a picture anywhere, anytime.
  • • After lunch on a hot, sultry, summer afternoon – children turning up to class with the "great treasure" of a half-finished lump of garlic (stuffed under the desk lid to save for later), the ensuing stink so unbearable that it called for instant evacuation. It was probably a good excuse for one of those long walks or a swim in the river.
  • • The polio epidemic in the summer of 1948, when we were all confined to the camp.
  • • The nightmare of taking groups on trains to deliver to holiday homes or new schools.
  • • The sadness throughout the camp when a group left for Poland – but later the great happiness and pride with which family members welcomed returning soldiers and others from overseas.
  • • The two doctors Dawidowska and Czochańska – their kindness to us, hospitality and wit, and the many laughs we had.
  • Sister Johnson in the hospital – so starched and white, and so kind.
  • • My friend Mrs Tietze – we exchanged Polish/English lessons late at night and always over a drink or two (one for each leg and one for the head) as it improved the fluency. My Polish involved learning all the words and phrases necessary to understand what was being said behind my back, such as swear words. page 282• My bicycle – the line up to ride it straight after school and the persuasive methods used by Czesława Jackowska, Maria Najbert, Irena Wierzbicka and company to regulate rides.
  • • I particularly remember the ingenuity of the children to make something out of nothing, especially boys like the Niedńwiecki brothers, Jan and Kazimierz, who cadged, picked up, "found" or borrowed bits and pieces to make their own bike – their pride and joy.
  • • Finally, my most enduring memory – the success you and your families have been as a group in New Zealand and the great contribution you have made in so many fields of endeavour. Not least the way you have kept alive the practice of your Catholic faith and Polish culture.

My hope is that this will endure for generations to come while being ever mindful of the courage of those who started it all – the Polish children of the Pahiatua camp.

The Polish Children's Camp's female New Zealand teaching staff, 1947. They were pioneers in teaching foreign children. (l-r) Mary Sergent, Mary McAllister (Eising) and Joan Hay

The Polish Children's Camp's female New Zealand teaching staff, 1947. They were pioneers in teaching foreign children. (l-r) Mary Sergent, Mary McAllister (Eising) and Joan Hay