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  • Faithful to my Homeland, the Republic of Poland
  • PAHIATUA CHILDREN

  • By Mr Stanislaw Manterys

     

    Source of information

    This article has used excerpts from the book: New Zealand's First Refugees - Pahiatua's Polish Children, written and published by the former children of Pahiatua. The book describes their personal experiences.

     

    Introduction

    Pahiatua is a small provincial township situated some 160 km north of Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand. Nearby the township, in the years 1945-49, there stood a settlement which carried the name of: "The Polish Children's Camp of Pahiatua". Because of this, the former inhabitants of that camp are generally known as "The Polish children of Pahiatua" - or simply "the Pahiatua children".

     

    Why did they come here?

    After the invasion of Poland by the Russian Red Army from the east on 17 September 1939 (nearly three weeks after Nazi Germany invaded from the west, which began World War II), Eastern Poland was annexed by Russia, the former the Soviet Union.

    The invaders began systematic mass arrests and deportation to forced labour camps in Soviet Russia, under a policy of "ethnic cleansing" of Polish citizens.  Because whole families were so deported, among the approximately 1 5000 000 exiles were many children. Among them were the future Polish Children of Pahiatua.

    Descriptions of the conditions prevailing in the forced labour camps, and the fate of its Polish inmates, can be found in an ever growing literature on the subject.

    The Book List at the end of this article shows some of the titles which describe the fate of the Polish children.

    Most of the exiles would have perished (which was Stalin's plan), but the invasion of Russia (the former USSR) by Germany on 22 June 1941 intervened. Stalin was caught by surprise at this attack although warned of it by the British.

    In the confusion caused by the retreating Russian Red Army, the secret police (the NKVD) attempted to eliminate all traces of its executions and criminal activity. They hurriedly murdered Polish prisoners of war and political prisoners. The survivors were forced to march east, away from the advancing Germans. Those prisoners who were unable to carry on were shot.
    One of the unexpected results of Germany's invasion of Russia (its ally before the invasion) was the renewal of diplomatic relations between Russia and the Polish Government in Exile on 30 July 1941. This agreement resulted in the release of the Polish deportees and allowed the Poles to form an army on the territory of the Soviet Union, which was intended to fight against the now common enemy, Germany. That is how the Polish Army in Exile was formed, which joined the British Army, which itself was in alliance with the Russians. Stalin ordered that a portion of the Polish ex-prisoners were to remain in Russia, whom he later formed into the Polish People's Army to fight alongside the Russian Red Army. The released civilians' return to Poland was blocked by the war front.
    77,000 soldiers of the Polish Army in Exile, malnourished and suffering from illness (without arms or equipment) were evacuated to Iran, accompanied by 43,000 civilians (including 20,000 children), no less malnourished and ill. From there the army was sent to the Near East where it received weapons and equipment from the British.

    Among those who were left behind in Iran were many children whose parents died in the Russian forced labour camps or because of privation during their escape to the south of Russia. Some of the children had fathers who after their release from the slave camps joined the Polish Army in Exile.

    The Polish Government in London appealed to the League of Nations for help in finding temporary refuge for the Polish civilians and children. Only a few of its members offered to take them, among them New Zealand. The rest of the civilians and children were sent to various parts of the British Empire.

    In 1944 the coalition government of New Zealand, whose Prime Minister was Peter Fraser, invited a group of 733 children and 102 caregivers to New Zealand for a temporary stay until the end of the war.

    In February 1945, as the war drew to an end, the victorious the Allies held a conference in Yalta, at which the United Kingdom and the United States agreed to Russia's annexation of Eastern Poland and for it to take control over Eastern Europe. In "compensation" Poland received a smaller territory from Germany.

    Poland became a Russian satellite, and the Polish Government in Exile ceased to be recognized by its former allies. Most of the Poles who refused to return home were regarded by the communist government as traitors. Those who did return were treated with suspicion because they had come from the "rotten, Capitalist West". Life was made difficult for them. Many were arrested. The new government in Warsaw was aware of the Polish children in New Zealand, and made efforts to have them returned to Poland.

    The government of New Zealand proposed to care for the children until they grew up and were be able to decide themselves whether to remain in New Zealand or return to their native Poland. Unfortunately, after the Yalta conference, the Polish territories where the children lived before the war were annexed by Russia's Soviet Union and for them there was no return.

     

    Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua

    Some 3 km north of the Pahiatua township, on State Highway 2 of the North Island, a race track was established in 1901. 42 years later, during World War I, an interment camp was built on the site to accommodate enemy nationals. In 1943 the port of Wellington was visited by the USS Hermitage, a United States troopship carrying American soldiers home. On board were also 706 Polish refugee children evacuated from Iran. These children were being taken to Mexico for the duration of the war.

    Whilst in port, they were visited by Maria Wodzicka, wife of the Polish Consul in New Zealand. She conceived the idea of bringing a similar group of Polish orphans from Iran to New Zealand. She shared this idea with Janet Fraser, wife of Peter Fraser, New Zealand's Prime Minister. The New Zealand Government invited, as temporary guests, a group of 733 Polish children and their 102 caregivers.  The following year, on 1 November 1944, Prime Minister Peter Fraser welcomed this group of children in the port Wellington, on board the United States troop carrier, the USS General Randall.

    Alongside the ship stood two trains which took the children to the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua, specially prepared for them, on the final stage of their almost five year epic journey.

    They were greeted along the way by crowds of local children who were given time off school for that purpose. From the railway station near Pahiatua the children transported by 33 army trucks to the camp, which was to become their temporary home.

    Volunteer groups of New Zealanders from the neighbourhood prepared beds, decorated the barracks with flowers, cleared the grounds and helped in the preparation of the first meal for the children. Because the children were intended to return to Poland after the war, classes at the camp were held in Polish. Even the street names bore Polish names. The administration of the camp was Polish and self governing. The camp had a Polish primary school and a Polish secondary school, a Polish priest and Polish Scouts. The camp was called "Little Poland".

    Before it ceased to be recognised by its allies, the Polish Government in Exile possessed appropriate funds to pay for part of the cost of living of the children and their Polish caregivers. Later the full responsibility for the camp was taken over by the New Zealand Army.

    After classes the children helped with housekeeping chores around the camp. At the end of 1946 the new government in Warsaw sent its representative to New Zealand to check on the conditions at the camp. She returned home fully satisfied.

    After the demobilisation of the Polish Army in Exile, some of its soldiers arrived in New Zealand to join their children or siblings. In 1948 the ex-soldiers formed the Polish Association with headquarters in Wellington. The Polish children of Pahiatua became the nucleus for the small Polish community here.

    Gradually, as they completed their Polish primary education at the camp, the children were sent to New Zealand secondary schools. The children of working age were released to take up employment. The Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua was closed on 15 June 1949. The remaining youngest boys were placed in the Polish Boys' Hostel in the town of Hawera.

    The youngest girls were taken into care by the Ursuline Sisters at the Polish Girls' Hostel in Wellington. That hostel was closed when the nuns were recalled to Poland in 1958.

    Some of the older boys stayed at the Polish Boys' Hostel in Wellington till 1952. Other children and older youth were sent to Catholic Boarding schools around New Zealand. Some of the eldest were found employment in towns and farms around the country.

    When the last group of children departed, the camp was turned into temporary housing for stateless Displaced Persons, who were the former forced labourers in Germany. Some of them were Polish nationals who feared returning to a Poland occupied by Soviet Russia. The camp was finally closed in 1952.

    Buildings and barracks were sold and taken to other localities, where they served as barns on the farm, meeting rooms and holiday houses. Some still exist today. The land was turned into a farm.

    The only remaining trace of the Polish children was a small grotto, build from river stone, in honour of the Virgin Mary, erected by the children in their early years in the camp. With time, it became a ruin.

    In 1971 a group of the former Pahiatua Polish children formed a committee to seek erect a new monument. The owner of the farm granted a small piece of land next to the highway where once stood the back gate to the camp. The Pahiatua Council converted ground it into a roadside rest area. The monument was unveiled at an official ceremony on 22 February 1975. Some of the stones from the old grotto were embedded in the monument's pedestal. The stylised form represents a mother and child on a sailing ship. In 1994, on the 50th anniversary of the Polish children's arrival in New Zealand, a permanent display board describing the camp was erected, in Polish and English.

     

    In the New Zealand Parliament

    Parliamentary session 10 November 2004. Motion by the Minister of Foreign Affairs:

     

    I move that this House commemorate the 60th anniversary of the arrival of 733 Polish children and 100 of their guardians to New Zealand on 1 November 1944; recognise the contribution the Polish community has made to New Zealand life; and reaffirm its desire for the continuation of friendly and cooperative relations between New Zealand and the Republic of Poland. The refugee children and adults arrived in New Zealand in November 1944 after enduring quite remarkable hardships: first the invasion and then deportation to Soviet labour camps. They came to New Zealand at the invitation of the wartime Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Peter Fraser. We welcome the contribution that this community and its children have made to New Zealand, and the richness and diversity that they have given to our society. Yesterday's refugees have become today's New Zealanders, while retaining a strong pride in their culture and origins. I know that other parties will join with me in welcoming the commemoration of this occasion.

     

    Extracts from statements made by the members of all political parties:

     

    • To the New Zealand families descended from those Polish refugees today, I say that their families' triumph over cruelty and disaster is an inspiration to us all, and we salute them.
    • We endorse the Minister's comments and sentiments.
    • We congratulate the New Zealand Government of the time on accepting that first important batch of refugees.
    • Those children became upstanding citizens. It is interesting that there were 733 children, with 100 adults, and our annual quota of refugees is now just 750.
    • In those 60 years the influence of those children and their families in New Zealand has been such that just about every single one of us can recall some form of interaction.
    • I come from Pahiatua and can remember the young Polish children being guests to our place. I think it is a wonderful thing we are doing today by honouring their arrival. As Speaker of the House accept this motion.

    Source: New Zealand Parliament 2004, Parliamentary Debates (Hansard) vol.621, p. 16781 - summarised

     

    A commentary

    Gerald O'Brien, President, the Association of Former Members of the Parliament of New Zealand, 2003-04:

     

    With the arrival in 1944 of the Polish children refugees at the behest of Prime Minister Peter Fraser, this nation of immigrants that is Aotearoa-New Zealand was significantly enriched.

    The duty of peoples towards each other (being our brother's keeper, an attitude fostered in New Zealand notably from 1935 onward until today's global outlooks overtook it) was further stimulated by this event. It had its echo in New Zealand's moral position at the founding of the United Nations and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which this country's contribution to both far outweighed its small population

    That young children torn from their homes and families by the totalitarian forces that bestrode Europe would become a catalyst for good was certainly not foreseen by the perpetrators. Yet in the nature of these children, with their strange sadness which turned into joy as the years progressed, that is what their coming to New Zealand came to mean.

    The Polish character melded well with that of New Zealanders. They humbly and freely offered to New Zealand their rugged Polish character, that "vital spark of heavenly flame", adapted to New Zealand's way of life and contributed to it grandly in all walks.

    As Fraser's electorate secretary and chairperson, then later as treasurer of the Polish Hostel Board, I was fascinated to closely observe just how elated he was with the prize he had won for humanity in these children. And over the years, his expectations have been fully honoured. His commitment is confirmed in a 1945 letter to the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua's administrator, in which Fraser wrote: "With myself, the interests of the children have been the paramount and decisive consideration."Looking back over 60 years, the desire of New Zealanders, who are all descendants of earlier immigrants, was that to the best of their ability they had met the expectations of the children in the provision of care, education and social wellbeing in a peaceful environment. When the reunification of families took place in New Zealand after post-war demobilisation, it added to national enrichment. That so many remained over the years in New Zealand has been gratifying.

    Perhaps, as with the earlier Polish immigration to New Zealand in the late 19th Century, that may be attributed to a yearning for peace and justice after a history of three partitions of their homeland. Responsibility and social order could be readily found in 1940s New Zealand. This country was said to have legislated for morality, or "applied Christianity" as it was called, in the true sense of social justice. After all, it was those inherent understandings which inspired in Poles their fiery independence of spirit.

    Many New Zealanders have happy memories of aiding in the children's upbringing, participating in their Easter Sundays, Christmases and singing of Polish songs, and enjoying the welcome that they give in their homes.

     

    Selected comments by former children

    A selection of quotes from the book N.Z.'s First Refugees - Phiatua's Polish Children:

     

    - We then knew that there was no return to Poland and for me it marked the end of a dream to study medicine. It was mental anguish not knowing what will happen or what to do. Our Polish guardians were in no better state. Their own world had collapsed around them - they were stranded in a foreign land, not understanding the language or the culture. Their advice to us was contradictory and they were sorely in need of guidance themselves. Classes for the oldest children were stopped. We feared our departure to New Zealand schools - it was like a second deportation.

     

    - All these people were most generous and good to me. I was heartbroken to leave the camp when I had to go and live in Wellington.

     

    - In a way, I consider myself lucky. What I experienced during my younger years taught me how to survive, and it made me stronger both mentally and spiritually. Sometimes I think about my years as an orphan and how little life meant to me in those days. I felt strong anger at something, the whole world I guess. This led me on occasions to ignore the rules. My regret is that I am unable to apologise to those who were involved in my welfare at the time. Now I understand, admire and respect people that help those who are less fortunate.

     

    - In my retirement, I live on my memories of hard work and achievement, and of the many people I met who came to pick their own year after year. I was a Polish orphan child refugee without even a distant relation that I could say I belonged to, but now I feel I have earned the right to belong here in New Zealand.

     

    - Very soon after arriving, we were offered our first New Zealand meal. I felt absolutely stunned to see so much food. This was because I remembered always being hungry, always looking for food. My reaction was to hide this food because I thought there might not be any more after this wonderful offering. But our Polish teachers circulated among us, encouraging us to eat and promising that tomorrow there would be more.

     

    - I will always pray and thank God for all the wonderful graces He has bestowed on me.

     

    - I could hardly believe that strangers could be so kind. I think this restored my belief in humanity. Then we were established in the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua, which to a young kid was a paradise.

     

    - We began to feel sorry for ourselves being so far away from Poland. We hoped that at the end of the war we would return to our homeland.

     

    - In 1949, I was sent to a boarding school. Life there was difficult, and I was lonely and uncomfortable. Being separated from my friends at the camp and seldom hearing my own language was also a problem. From a confident and a bright student I became withdrawn, shy and reluctant to talk in case I said the wrong words. And of course my accent showed me up immediately. Life was difficult then. But I have had a good life and I am proud of what I have achieved.

     

    - While on the train during our flight from the Soviet forced-labour camps with my mother, one of my sisters got off the train to buy some food and the train subsequently left without her. She remained in Russia. After 30 long years we met in Poland. I could only recognise her from the photographs she had sent me. She could not speak English and I could not speak Russian, and we did not always understand one another when we spoke Polish. Russian had become Maria's first language.


    Book list

    • New Zealand's First Refugees - Pahiatua's Polish Children. Written published by The Polish Children's Reunion Committee, Wellington 2004. On-line version: www.nzetc.org/tm/scholarly/tei-PolFirs.html
    • A Bouquet of Thoughts and Reminiscences, the Polish Women's League, Wellington, New Zealand, 1991
    • A Strange Outcome-The Remarkable Survival Story of a Polish Child, John Roy-Wojciechowski and Allan Parker, Penguin Books, Auckland, New Zealand, 2004
    • An inspiring story of survival and determination, Alina Suchanski, Te Anau, New Zealand, 2012
    • An Unforgettable Journey, Maria van der Linden, Dunmore Press, Palmerston North, New Zealand, 1992
    • Essence, Krystine Tomaszyk, Dunmore Press, Palmerston North, New Zealand, 2004
    • Exiled Children, Exiles Photographic Archives Foundation, Warsaw, Poland, 1995
    • Gulag: A History, Anne Applebaum, Penguin, London, England, 2003
    • Heart of Europe: A Short History of Poland, Norman Davies, Oxford University Press, New York, USA, 2001
    • Isfahan-City of Polish Children, Association of Former Pupils of Polish Schools, Isfahan and Lebanon, Sussex, England, 1989
    • Journey Without a Ticket, Zdzisława Krystyna Kawecka, Nottingham, England, 1994
    • Katyn, Triumph of Evil, Louis Fitzgibbon, Anna Livia Books, Dun Laoghaire, Ireland, 1975
    • One Man’s Odyssey, Józef Jagiełło, Nelson, New Zealand, 2005
    • Orphans of the Empire, The Shocking Story of Child Migration to Australia, Alan Gill, Random House Australia, NSW, Australia, 1998
    • Socio-Political Characteristics of Polish Post World War II Immigrants and their Assimilation to NZ, TM Krystman-Ostrowska, Department of Sociology, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand, 1957
    • Stalin's Ethnic Cleansing In Eastern Poland, Tales of the Deported, 1940- 1946, Assoc of Families of the Borderland Settlers, London, England, 2000
    • Stolen Childhood: A Saga of Polish War Children, Łucjan Królikowski, Authors Choice Press, Buffalo, New York, USA, 2001
    • The Invited, The Story of 733 Polish Children,Who Grew Up In New Zealand, Krystyna Skwarko, Millwood Press, Wellington, New Zealand, 1974
    • The Poles, Stewart Steven, Collins-Harvill, London, England, 1982

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