Part 3A - In New Zealand
When we left Basra we were all quite used to hardship but we found the journey quite exhausting. We were accommodated in what appeared to be empty holds with no bunks or hammocks. Each hold had piles of mattresses and the children would drag them up on deck each night because it was too stuffy to sleep below.
One of the first English sentences that we learnt on that boat was: "Six o'clock! Washing deck! Washing deck!" Nobody quite understood the words but their meaning was certainly made clear by the sudden appearance of a sailor with a bucket and a mop in his hands. Anyone a little tardy in removing himself and his mattress was likely to be woken up with a splash.
The children's main pastime on the voyage was to sit and watch the ship's gunners practising.
We reached Bombay about a week later and boarded an American troopship, the General Randall. It was carrying about three thousand soldiers on their way back from the battlefront to have leave in Australia and New Zealand.
The General Randall was almost a luxury vessel in comparison with the merchant ship. There were canvas bunks, plenty of wash basins and showers, plenty of excellent food and above all the kindness of the soldiers to the children.
They carried all the luggage onto the ship at Bombay and unloaded it again in New Zealand. During the hot days they gave their ration of fruit drinks to the children. This was a real sacrifice in the tropical heat.
They tried to break the monotony of the journey by entertaining the children with films and playing sports and games with them. It was a pleasure to see soldiers hardened by the experience of war turning skipping ropes for little girls.
Few will forget "Uncle New Zealand" and many others whose names the children did not know but whose kindness they remember to this day.
As the weeks went by, in spite of all the kindness, both the children and adults became more and more tired and apathetic. Frequent alarms, either for practice or because of real danger, forced us to stay below the decks where the air was hot and stuffy.
The enormous halls where we slept accommodated a few hundred persons each. The lack of fresh water for bathing caused sores on some people's skins. Many were worn out by seasickness and there were recurring attacks of malaria. It was difficult not to complain.
Most of the children were not aware of the danger the journey presented but the ship's master, Captain Von Paulsen, spent many a sleepless night worrying about the safety of those entrusted to him. It was because of the ever-present danger of Japanese mines and the likelihood of encounters with Japanese submarines that the ship was escorted for a long time by two small warships. As an additional safety measure the ship navigated a zig-zag course.
After a month of sea travel we sailed into Wellington harbour on November 1, 1944. The sun burst through the clouds and shone on the new country.
Everybody tried to squeeze in as near to the rails as possible to get a better view. We saw masses of tiny, colourful houses perched on the green hills surrounding the harbour with the taller buildings of the city lower down on the flat.
After the dry, barren and yellow countryside of Persia, New Zealand appeared a real fairyland.
The New Zealand Prime Minister, Mr Fraser, the Polish Consul-General, Count K. Wodzicki and his wife, Countess Wodzicka, who was the Polish Red Cross delegate in New Zealand, all came on board to welcome the children.
One of the chief supporters of the idea of bringing Polish orphans to New Zealand, the Prime Minister's wife, Mrs Janet Fraser, was unable to welcome the children herself, as she was seriously ill at the time and was to die soon afterwards.
The author of the idea to bring Polish children to New Zealand had been Countess Wodzicka when a ship carrying a few hundred Polish orphans from Persia to Mexico stopped in Wellington for a few days in 1943. She talked to Janet Fraser about the possibility of a similar scheme for this country and the idea soon became a reality. Through innumerable speeches and meetings the countess inspired the people of New Zealand to this most noble undertaking.
After being invited to join the "Polish Children's Hospitality Committee", Countess Wodzicka became the chief champion of the whole cause and devoted an enormous amount of time to advising the committee and directing its operations.
In the afternoon of our arrival there was a loud welcoming whistle from the Polish ship Narwik which was anchored in Wellington at the time.
The following day there was a surprise awaiting us at the Wellington Railway Station. There were hundreds of smiling Wellington school children waving New Zealand and Polish flags as a gesture of welcome on the platform from which we were to leave for Pahiatua. The singing of the national anthems and gifts of flowers made the occasion even more moving. It was the first direct contact between the children of the two nations. A brief meeting which was to change into a deep and lasting friendship over the years.
There was another big, friendly welcome at Palmerston North, and all down the line, even at places where the train did not stop, there were groups of children gaily waving flags and handkerchiefs.
We had a final welcome on the platform of Pahiatua Station. Then the New Zealand soldiers helped us onto some army trucks and took us to our new home.
The official name at the entrance, "Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua", cheered our hearts enormously. A place of our own in a distant land.
We were met at the gate by the Camp Commandant, Major P. Foxley, Count and Countess Wodzicki and their two children.
The camp was run at the expense of the Ministry of Defence and was under its supervision. It was divided by tar-sealed streets into four main sections.
The first section contained the administrative building, then four dormitories for the boys, a canteen, a recreation hall for the army staff and a dining hall for the younger boys.
The second section had detached family cottages for the staff with families, a dormitory for the preschool children and another for the younger school boys. Further down there was a library, a large recreation hall with a small chapel (used on Sundays for church services), a gymnasium, a hospital and another dining hall for the older boys.
The third section contained the dormitories and a dining hall for the girls, and some more family cottages for the staff.
The school buildings were in the final section. This also contained a long building divided into separate rooms for the single staff, some huts for the army staff and a clothing store.
Altogether, it was a well-planned place.
As soon as we arrived, we divided the children into age groups and sent them with their supervisors to the various dormitories. There they found the beds neatly made up, a mat beside each bed, and even flowers on the tallboys. All this work-it was not an easy task to prepare more than 700 beds was done by the women of the Pahiatua Red Cross Society, with Mrs J. Tuckwell-Herbert (Wairarapa Centre) as commandant, the late Mr D.C. Pryor as president, Miss Marion Tylee, secretary, Mrs H. Hickman, treasurer, Mrs M. Guy, Pahiatua commandant of the V.A.D., Mesdames S.K. Siddels and A.W. Bisset in charge of sewing, Mrs E. Sinclair, Red Cross transport commandant and Mrs A.A. Vaughan, junior Red Cross.
The Red Cross organised the preparation of the dormitories but invited all other women's groups such as the Country Women's Institute, the Women's Division of Federated Farmers, and Guide groups to help them. These were split up into teams which were each led by a trained Red Cross Volunteer Auxiliary. The older women arranged dozens and dozens of posies for each tallboy and the dining tables.
On either side of the corridors that linked the dormitories there were bathrooms, showers, toilets and wash-basins.
Each dormitory also had a separate room for the supervisor.
After making sure that each child had been assigned to a bed the supervisors took their groups to the dining halls for their first meal in the camp. The army cooks had prepared an excellent dinner. The tables were decorated with flowers and everything looked clean and tidy.
The cottages which had three small rooms and a bathroom, had not only their own furniture and bedding but everything necessary for daily living.
That first evening our meals were brought to us by the friendly members of the New Zealand Women's Army Corps.
We were greatly helped in finding our way round the camp by the Wodzicki's two children, Monika and Jontek. As none of us could speak English fluently, they served as interpreters and guides round the large camp, always ready to assist anyone.
From the very beginning of our arrival we were surrounded with an almost astonishing kindness and courtesy.
The following day the Delegate of the Polish Ministry of Education and Social Welfare in London, Mr J. Sledzinski, arrived by plane. He was to be responsible for the children's education and welfare.
At a meeting of the existing heads of schools, teachers and supervisors that evening, Mr Sledzinski told us about the appointments made in the administration, health resort, educational personnel and supervisors.
The following day we had a good look at our new surroundings. The children were overjoyed with all the open space. They rushed around, played games, explored every corner and generally had lots of fun.
As far as the eye could see all round the camp there were paddocks, bush, hills and a river. It was enough space to satisfy even the most demanding boys. It was the sort of place where the children would be able to forget their unhappy childhood.
The girls were satisfied with the Girl Guide activities organised by their chief guide, Mrs S. Kozera, as well as sports, netball, embroidery and singing. But for the boys that was not enough.
They needed more room to spend their energy. After being cooped up for several years in buildings surrounded by high walls and then close confinement on the boats they were bursting with eagerness to rush into the open.
They organised their own kind of amusement with one craze after another.
It was slings first of all with the girls' ankles as the target for the missiles. Then they had fun rushing around as they pushed an iron hoop with a stick. Next they began to build all kinds of little huts in various distant corners of the camp and on tall trees. This was followed by the construction of home-made guns and before long there were escapades out to the river and onto the neighbouring farms. Some fascinating things, such as tractors, could be found there and the temptation was too great. They just had to find out how those things worked. So one tractor was partially dismantled by the boys-screws, nuts, bolts, everything. It was easy work but how to put it all together again?
The incident seems almost comical now but not so then because during the war it was almost impossible to import a new tractor or the necessary parts.
How much effort was needed to look after you, dear boys! How much worry for your safety. How much checking at night to see that you were safely asleep and not somewhere on an escapade.
At first the change of climate adversely affected some of the children. They had left Persia during the hot season and arrived in New Zealand during a damp, rainy month. it was not surprising that many became ill with influenza. But to everyone's joy the New Zealand climate completely cured all those suffering from malaria.
After a few days' rest we resumed our school work from 9 a.m. to noon and from 1.30 p.m. to 3.30 p.m. We began our work with eagerness because both staff and the children were longing for a normal, regulated life.
We had to get used to the rules and regulations of the camp's administration, acquaint ourselves with the customs and traditions of the land to which we had come and get used to our new environment.
On the one hand the camp was under the authority of the New Zealand Army, with Major Foxley as the Commandant and all the army administrative and domestic staff took orders from him. In parallel with this there was the Polish administration with Mr Sledzinski, the Polish Delegate, as its head. The Polish staff, including the school teachers, received their instructions from him.
The New Zealand Government assured the children and the staff a place to live and their keep for the duration of the war. On the other hand the Polish Government was to pay the salaries of the Polish staff and provide pocket money for the children. This was to be paid into their Post Office Savings Accounts.
Delegate Sledzinski represented two Polish ministries, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Social Welfare. His deputy, Mr F. Bala, was to look after the internal affairs of the camp, and Mr J. Holona became Inspector of Schools. Both were to co-operate with the rest of the staff to create the best possible conditions for the education and upbringing of the children.
It was intended that after the war all the children and staff were to return to Poland. But when the political situation of Poland unexpectedly deteriorated on the world scene we became more and more dependent on the Government and people of New Zealand.
We were not familiar with the language and the customs of the country and it would have been easy to offend and estrange such hospitable people. So we had to be careful.
We were also aware that we should save as much as possible for the moment when we would have to be independent. We taught the children to do the same.
We were instructed to control the children's spending and to make sure that they did not waste either their pocket money or the money sent to some of them by fathers who were in the Polish Army.
It soon became apparent that the inhabitants of the Polish Camp in Pahiatua were not destined to live an idyllic life.
After the Allied Conference in Yalta there was a threat that the Polish Government in exile in London would lose recognition at any moment.
It was to cope with such an eventuality that the Consul-General, Dr Wodzicki, after consultation with the Polish Government and Delegate Sledzinski, asked the New Zealand Supreme Court to appoint a Board of Guardians to ensure legal care for those Polish children who were complete orphans. Those appointed to the board were: Countess Wodzicka, Dr E. Czochanska, Mrs D. Riddiford, Father M. Wilniewczyc, 0. Sygierycz, Mr J. Sledzinski, and Mr W. Jacques.
The New Zealand Government also consulted the Metropolitan of the Catholic Church, Archbishop O'Shea, about secondary education for those children who wanted to continue their schooling. At that time Catholic children in New Zealand were obliged to attend only Catholic schools run by various religious orders. Being Roman Catholic the Polish children had to comply with this ruling of the Church.
Soon after this the first group of girls had to make a decision about leaving the camp. They had completed the course at the Polish High School but wanted to obtain the New Zealand School Certificate and therefore had to attend a convent school. So as early as February, 1945, the first "Chicks" left the "nest" at the Pahiatua Camp.
As well as the four high school girls, three other younger girls decided to go to a New Zealand school so that they would learn English more quickly. Three of the seven went to the Sacred Heart Convent in Auckland, two to the Sacred Heart Convent in Wellington, and two to Saint Mary's Convent, also in Wellington.
Following the precedent set by these girls, more and more young people began to leave the camp to live in the New Zealand community.
Regardless of all these departures life at the camp continued as usual. We still had to care for the 830 people who remained, including the 22 children who arrived later to join their families. Among them were Marysia and Olek Tarasiewicz, whose father, a doctor, was one of those killed in the Forest of Katyn.
When the Polish authorities became aware that the cost of a small country like New Zealand of keeping such a number was enormous, Mr Sledzinski decided that we should try to lower the costs by taking over the work of the army staff. He directed the Polish staff to take over the running of the kitchens, the cultivation of the vegetable garden, and the laundry.
It was not very difficult because we still had the domestic staff who had come with us from Persia. As well as this there were some girls in the 16 to 18 age group who did not want to go on with their secondary schooling and gladly took jobs at the camp to earn some money.
In another move, Mr Sledzinski announced that none of the Polish staff was allowed to leave the camp in order to settle elsewhere but must remain in their positions and fulfil] their obligations towards the children.
He asked the staff to teach the children to respect physical work and to organise duties for the older children to help in the kitchens and keep the camp tidy.
The staff accepted and carried out all these undeniably necessary instructions by Mr Sledzinski with understanding and co-operation. The army staff was withdrawn and the Polish took over the work.
The children did their duties outside the school hours. They cleaned the camp, they washed the dishes, they tidied their dormitories and washrooms and worked in the gardens.
Not only did the supervisors see to it that the duties were carried out but they set a good example by joining in the work to show the children how it should be done properly.
The children were proud of their work and happy to show off a tidy camp to any visitors.
We had our first visitors when Captain Niefiedowicz and the crew from the Polish. ship Narwik visited the camp a few days after our arrival in Pahiatua. To commemorate the occasion the captain handed a replica of his ship's flag to Mr Sledzinski.
Soon after we had a visit from the descendants of Polish people who had settled in New Zealand in the nineteenth century. Among them were the Lewandowski, Kaminski, Kowalski, Dudarski, Stachurski, Drewicki and Wisniewski families of the Taranaki district.
The Poles who had settled in New Zealand in the years 1872, 1874 and 1 877 took up farming, after first clearing the bushland allotted to them. They made a good name for themselves by their hard work and are remembered in the history of New Zealand as pioneers of this land.
Hundreds of other New Zealanders visited the camp nearly every Sunday after that. All were interested to learn about the customs and traditions of the new arrivals. There was always something new for them to see. Such things as folk dances, a Christmas tree decorated entirely with beautiful handmade decorations, a handmade crib, the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament during Holy Week, the painted Easter eggs and the blessing of the food on Easter Sunday.
We even had a concert put on for us once by a group of Maori performers. Their songs and dances, some enchanting in their beauty, others frightening in their ferocity, fascinated the children and adults alike. The children danced Polish dances and sang some songs for their visitors in return.
We had our first visit from that most solicitous and beloved pastor, Archbishop O'Shea, on January 10, 1945. He won the hearts of all his listeners that day by his ardent speech in which he showed a great understanding and love of the Polish people.
When he was giving his blessing tears flowed down his noble face.
The Archbishop became a great friend of the Polish people and was really attached to the children.
Not long after, on February the 17th, our next distinguished guest was the New Zealand Prime Minister, Mr Fraser. He was the man responsible for the great humanitarian deed that had brought the 730 Polish children to New Zealand. With him came six of his Ministers together with Count and Countess Wodzicki.
The Prime Minister and the other guests inspected the schools, the dormitories, a display of drawings and handcrafts, the sewing room, the carpentry workshop and the shoe repair workshop. There was also a display of gymnastics and games on the camp's field in the afternoon followed by a visit to the library and the hospital.
Later the children entertained the Prime Minister and his party in the recreation hall. The choir sang a medley of Polish songs and another group danced some national dances.
In his speech the Prime Minister assured the children that the New Zealand Government would take care of them, give them the education needed, provide them with work and if it became possible, would even help them to return to Poland.
His speech was paternal, straightforward and full of solicitude for the future of the children. The Polish children reciprocated with deep love and gratitude.
The Governor-General, Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Cyril Newall and Lady Newall visited the Polish Camp in the same year. They were greeted by the children forming a guard of honour on both sides of the road.
Subsequent events were to cancel any plans of returning to Poland for a long time to come.
Poland did not regain her independence completely after the war but became a satellite of the Soviet Union. The Polish Government in London was no longer recognised.
It was because of this that the Delegate of the Government, Mr Sledzinski, asked the adult community in the camp at a special meeting held on July 10, 1945, for support to continue to act not only on behalf of the Government in exile but on their behalf as well. He told us that he had received an assurance from the Polish Minister of Education, Mr Folkierski, that the necessary money for the care of the children would be supplied.
Mr Sledzinski's view was that the best way to become independent was to purchase a farm. This would not only support the people but provide work for some of the staff and the older children.
The Polish Minister of Education instructed that the students' from the high school in the camp were to be transferred to New Zealand convents so that the older children could obtain an education in English as soon as possible and be ready for employment. Accordingly, Mr Sledzinski advised the closure of the remaining first grade in the high school. But it was difficult for the rest of the staff to decide on such a move so the first grade class remained open until the end of 1945.
There were endless discussions on whether to continue with the Polish High School, or whether to follow the suggestion of the Polish Ministry of Education in London and send the children directly to New Zealand secondary schools, on completion of standard six.
Experience showed, however, that the younger pupils who had left in February, 1945, to attend convent schools were making much better progress than the older ones. The older children found that without sufficient knowledge of English it was difficult to keep up with the standard of the classes.
Sometimes it became necessary to take these students from the convents and apprentice them to trades.
We were told, at that time, that in New Zealand the trend was more for education in the trades than in the academic subjects. Though the New Zealand Government promised Polish orphans who were sufficiently interested that it would pay for their secondary and higher education, we still had to be strict in our selection. Performance and diligence were the only guidelines used.
The Catholic bishops came to our aid and promised that beginning with the 1946 school year they would find a place in the various convents for as many Polish students as necessary. The supervisors of the Catholic Schools, too, readily invited our children to their convents.
However, in 1945 we were only able to send those children who had already expressed the wish to go in February of that same year.
We had to do a great deal of careful planning and searching to find guardians for groups of children who were going to attend those convents that were not boarding schools. It was necessary also to find board for those who wanted to learn the various trades.
These mounting problems were dealt with at the camp by Mr Sledzinski and outside the camp by Father Kavanagh and Father Delargey.
The two priests were appointed by the Catholic hierarchy to look after the affairs of the Polish children once they left the camp.
The New Zealand system of apprenticeship differed from the European system. As a rule, the apprenticeship was paid for by the employer on the condition that the apprentice worked for him for several years, attended night school and passed the official examination in his trade at the end of his term. The employer was not obliged to provide accommodation. We had to take all these things into consideration.
The frequent visits of Countess Wodzicka at that time helped enormously to keep up the spirits of the older children who were beginning to worry about their uncertain future. She was an invaluable source of information for them about courses of study and choice of careers. Her ready sympathy and friendliness helped restore the children's confidence and hope in the future.
At the beginning of February, 1945, several New Zealand teachers were appointed to teach English in the Polish schools and at the evening classes for adults. The first arrivals were Miss Parker, Miss Storkey, Mr F. Muller and Mr Nola. They were followed by Miss Eising, Miss Hay, Miss Nelligan,
Mr Henderson, Mr Neilson and Mr McKinnon. Mr Thompson was appointed physical education instructor.
The teaching of English in the primary schools greatly helped the children to make better progress in New Zealand schools later and to obtain trade and higher education.
The adults studied English even more keenly than the young people. We greeted the arrival of the New Zealand teachers with genuine relief and gladness. We had all felt a real need to learn English as quickly as possible. We longed to be able to settle our own affairs with the authorities, do our own shopping and talk to the guests visiting the camp without the aid of an interpreter.
Our first attempts at communication must have had some odd results. The shopkeeper must have had a real shock when he heard "Half a thousand eggs, plees" instead of "half a dozen". How do you explain that you want ham when the only word available is "szynka"?
The local people dealt with us with infinite patience in the shops, government offices, the post office and the bank. But there were frequent delays and confusion because we did not understand the language.
In July, 1945, we had a change of New Zealand command in the camp. Major Foxley retired and was replaced by a professional soldier, Major E. Finney.
A month later, at a meeting on August 16, Mr Sledzinski gave us some depressing news. He had received instructions from the Polish Social Welfare Office in London that every Polish settlement outside Poland had to become self-supporting. Our camp was to organise itself accordingly.
As the Polish Army was already being disbanded and scattered throughout the Commonwealth, Mr Sledzinski thought that there might be a possibility of bringing some of the children's relatives to New Zealand. He asked for accurate lists of families and suggested that the children express in their letters the desire for their relatives to come to New Zealand.
September was marked by many changes in the camp's personnel. Mrs Tietze became principal of the Girls' Primary School and Mrs Surynt took charge of the preschool children.
Shortly afterwards Mr Sledzinski left his position at the camp and in his place the Polish Government in London appointed Mr S. Zaleski who was living in South Africa at that time. Until his arrival the camp was run by an Interim Committee elected at a general meeting of the camp's staff. The three members of the committee were Father M. Wilniewczyc, Mrs S. Surynt and Mr R. Laszkiewiez.
It was about that time as well that after consulting the Polish Government the New Zealand Government drew more than 20,000 NZpounds from the Bank of New Zealand. The money had earlier been sent by the Polish Government in London to its delegate in New Zealand. In return the New Zealand Government undertook to pay the staff salaries and children's pocket money and to bear the cost of secondary and higher education of the children who had no parents.
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