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

Scouting in the camp

page 322

Scouting in the camp

Shortly after Lord Baden-Powell founded the Scouting movement for boys, it was wholeheartedly embraced by the Polish people. No distinction was made and both sexes were called Scouts. That happened in 1911.

Poland at this time was partitioned (until 1918) and the new Scouting movement encouraged patriotism, allowing the Poles to express themselves, as well as being a youth organisation that was fun and character building. Therefore, it is not surprising that as soon as the Polish children arrived in Iran after fleeing the forced-labour camps in the USSR, Scout companies were formed even before schools were established. When they arrived in the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua, three-quarters of the children were in established Girl Guide and Boy Scout troops, Brownies and Cubs under the great leadership of Scout troop leader Stefania Kozera, and the older girls and boys who helped her.

In the camp, Scouting was a big part of the children's lives. At first, it filled a void because of the lack of extracurricular facilities and equipment (there were no musical instruments in the camp's early days and only one radio). But even after the sports teams were organised and the camp became more established, Scouting was a mainstay. It was a great leveller and a main form of entertainment.

At school, it was often only the extra bright children that were particularly noticed. But in Scouting, almost all could excel at something. Whether an individual had a particular talent for fire lighting, an especially beautiful singing voice, leadership qualities or the ability to teach others a skill, all of them had the opportunity to shine and develop very close bonds with the other children.

There were many Scout campfires. The first one was dedicated to all Scouts and people who had lost their lives in the unsuccessful Warsaw uprising, so it was a very moving occasion. Those gatherings around the campfire mirrored the children's emotions. To ease their terrible bouts of homesickness, they organised "excursions around Poland", with lots of singing, poetry and regional dancing, and celebrated Polish national days, religious days of importance and various anniversaries. For example, the anniversary of the Polish army's victory at Monte Cassino was a joyous evening which filled us with great pride.

It didn't take the Polish children long to befriend New Zealand Scouts and Girl Guides. Many New Zealand children had lined the tracks and greeted page 323them as they travelled by train from Wellington to Pahiatua, while others had welcomed them at Palmerston North Railway Station. Girl Guides from Pahiatua had also helped prepare the camp for their arrival.

The friendships, ignited on the first day in New Zealand, continued to grow. Troops met on many occasions to participate in various "drives" and activities, the most important being the blessing of the Polish Scout flag. Guides and Scouts came from Pahiatua to the camp for the day. Kiwis and Poles took part in activities, shared meals, joined ranks to march in parade past New Zealand and Polish Scout and Guide officials, and bowed their heads together for the blessing of the flag. On another occasion, a group of older Polish Girl Guides went to a Girl Guide leadership training camp in Waipawa.

The New Zealand Girl Guide Commissioner was not only present at that camp but led several of the more challenging events. The New Zealand Girl Guides and Boy Scouts accepted the Polish children as fellow Scouts, and helped them to find their feet in this new land through friendship and shared experiences. It is because of this that they are remembered with such warmth and one of the reasons why the Polish children recall their Scouting days with such joy.

As the children grew older and moved to different parts of New Zealand to continue their education or take up jobs, the Scouting movement in the camp grew smaller and eventually ceased to exist. The camp was closed and the children dispersed. In 1965, Stefania Kozera died and the records of the Polish Scouting days in Pahiatua, such as the minutes of meetings, were lost.

But various photographs remain, including a photo of Lady Baden-Powell's visit to the camp, the original of which is in the archives in the Polish Cultural Institute in London, along with many other photos of Polish Scouting activities in New Zealand. There is also an account of the Polish Scouting movement in New Zealand in the book Harcerki w Związku Harcerstwa Polskiego (A History of Girl Guides in Poland and Throughout the World) by Władysława Seweryn Spławska.

Official documentation may have been lost but, more importantly for the Polish children, the warm memories of challenges, adventures, badges earned, songs sung around campfires and the friendships formed remain. The Scouting experiences helped to mould them into a large "family" and also into the adults they later became – patriotic Poles and hardworking New Zealanders with a great love of God and country.

"Czuwaj!" "Be Prepared!"