Part 4 - Return to Pahiatua
The years go by quickly. Quite suddenly we find that it is 1969. The 25th anniversary of the arrival of the Polish children in New Zealand on November 1, 1 944, began to draw near.
In order to bring together from both islands as many of the former children of the Pahiatua camp as possible two committees, one in Wellington and another in Auckland, were elected to plan and take charge of the celebrations.
Those elected in Auckland were S. Wolk as chairman, Wanda Power, Wieslawa Schwieters, F. Jaskiewicz and M. Nowacki.
The Wellington Committee included Father B. Wegrzyn as chairman, E. Brooks, P. Przychodzko, P. Kilczewska, A. Lakomy, Z. Piotrkowski, M. Polaczuk, I. Mroczek, T. Christensen and H. Wypych.
In both cities thanksgiving Masses were celebrated for deliverance of the children from Russia, then wreaths and flowers were laid on the graves of those who had died in New Zealand. Among those remembered with flowers were T. Ostrowski and M. Gmyterko in Pahiatua and Mr and Mrs Peter Fraser and Countess Wodzicka in Wellington.
As well as the church ceremonies, jubilee balls and concerts were organised in both cities.
At the Auckland ball they danced the gay Polish dance "Krakowiak", prepared by Mrs W. Powers and in Wellington the stately "Polonaise", led by Mr P. Wojcik.
The climax of the celebrations was the pilgrimage to the site of the former camp in Pahiatua.
More than a thousand people, including children, came to Pahiatua that day from even as far as the South Island by boat, train and car.
On the platform at Pahiatua Railway Station the people on the train from Wellington were greeted by the Mayor of Pahiatua, Mr J.L. Terry, and the man who was mayor in 1 944, Mr S.J. Judd, together with the people of Pahiatua. They welcomed the pilgrims with flowers, just as they did 25 years earlier.
There was a Polish flag flying on top of the train.
But the pilgrims were no longer children. Now they were mature adults, often with a sprinkling of greying hair, accompanied by their children born in this country. With them came the former members of the staff from Persia.
It was a tremendous pleasure to see our New Zealand friends again including both the former army and civilian staff at the camp. People like the former teachers, Miss Eising, Miss Nelligan, Mr Henderson and Miss Storkey and the nursing sister, Miss P.S. Johnston.
Other honoured guests were those who had looked after the Polish children right from the very beginning of the camp-Bishop J. Kavanagh, Monsignor W.J. Heavy and many others.
The reunion began with a Mass celebrated by Father B. Wegrzyn-one of the youngest of the former camp children-who gave not a sermon but rather a review of the sad childhood of those present and of thousands of other children, with special reference to the cruel years spent in Russia, where they watched the death of their parents and siblings.
There was an atmosphere of spontaneous friendliness and excitement. There was no end to greetings and reminiscences. Some had changed a great deal in their appearance. Many had not seen each other for 22 years.
There were endless questions about home, work and family. The conversations were brief, broken, and chaotic as each tried to talk to as many people at once as possible. It was obvious that the reunion did a great deal of good to those present.
After dinner in the Town Hall the pilgrims left to look at the site where the camp once stood. There are no buildings left now, only green paddocks. Yet all the visitors felt that somewhere in the distance under the great branches of the trees their special place-a grotto built by their own hands under the guidance of Father Wilniewczyc-still exists there. A statue of the Virgin Mary stood in this grotto years ago and the children used to gather round it to pray for a safe return to their homeland. The engraved cross and the White Eagle Polish emblem still remain on the wall of the grotto but they are the only reminders to the former inhabitants of the place where they prayed together.
There were many other touching moments. Everywhere one could hear small children speaking in their mother tongue. Young New Zealanders talking in Polish.
The hall resounded with applause at a concert put on at Tararua College when four pairs of Krakowiaks danced onto the stage with the gay colours of the costumes illuminating the hall.
A gay medley of songs and dances followed in quick succession. Songs in English, Maori and Polish and ones that used to resound in the camp. They were songs like "Plynie woda", "You are my sunshine", "Trojak", "Idzie deszcz", "Jak dobrze nam", "Mazur", "Okrety poplyna do Gdyni", "Po kare kare a na", "Polka", "Goralu czy ci nie zal" and "Choc burza huczy wkolo nas".
The songs were sung not by a trained professional choir but by a group of happy people, straight from the heart. There were tears of emotion on the faces of Poles, Maoris and other New Zealanders in the audience. It was a feeling of sadness and happiness at the same time.
The concert ended with "Now is the hour".
Children from far-away towns where there are no Polish Saturday Schools were enchanted when they saw the national costumes for the first time.
Those who could not speak their parents' native tongue felt deprived of something that they could learn.
The reunion was both worthwhile and its value inestimable. It proved that the Polish people have not lost their spirit, that they are strongly united and active but that they still have a great deal to accomplish.
The wording on the commemorative plaque in the Pahiatua Town Hall stressed the heartfelt feelings of the Polish people to the New Zealanders who were their hosts in this country.
"At the commemoration of the 25th anniversary celebrations held on 1st November, 1969, the Polish people in New Zealand wish to express their warm and lasting appreciation and gratitude for all the kindness and hospitality extended to them over the years since their arrival at Pahiatua in November, 1944.
YOU GAVE US SHELTER WHEN WE WERE HOMELESS."
The Mayor, Mr Terry, told the Poles that if there were any thanks due to the local people for the help given in those early days then what they had seen on the day of the commemoration compensated for it more than sufficiently.
A Pahiatua councillor, Mr J. Browne, added: "How is it that although so many different nationalities lived in the camp and received help, it was only you Poles that came back to say thank you?"
Other gratifying comments came later.
Bishop Kavanagh said in his sermon in Wellington on November 2, 1969: "We should take example from you Poles."
Archbishop J.M. Liston said at a Mass in Auckland: "What a blessing the Polish children who were invited by the good Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, have brought to us with their strength of character, warmth of heart, ability to bear suffering, beautiful traditions, wisdom, together with a deep loyalty and a boundless love of God and His Blessed Mother. Our country became richer because of them and their exemplary lives."
There were also many articles and photographs in the leading newspapers of the cities and towns describing the jubilee celebrations.
The 25th anniversary celebrations not only consolidated a quarter of a century of the life and work of the former children of the Pahiatua camp it also strengthened Polish-New Zealand ties. It brought an awareness that it is possible to have unconflicting simultaneous love and loyalty to two countries: the one where one is born, and the other where one grows up and finds fulfilment.
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