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

Journey into the unknown

page 125

Journey into the unknown

The first three months in the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua for six secondary-school girls was a time of intensive study which had begun in Iran and was rewarded by receiving a Polish School Certificate from the camp's school. After the initial joy of arriving in the camp came a time of sadness, because after only three months there the first six girls, including myself, had to leave its safe and secure life for the unknown once more. What will it be like? I felt like a young bird that had to leave its nest for new horizons.

Three Catholic boarding schools made places available for two girls each. Jadwiga Brejnakowska and I were chosen for Sacred Heart College in Lower Hutt. It was a completely new environment. The language barrier was very evident, but I was determined to cope and learn, and be grateful for the opportunity. Jadwiga and I were appointed to different groups. There were fears at night and lonely moments of prayer in the school chapel, but there were also happy moments and new friendships were formed.

By a strange and significant coincidence, while there I met Claire who came from Norsewood and I was surprised to be invited by her parents for the Christmas holidays. Initially, I didn't want to go (I just wanted to stay with my friends in the camp) but I had no choice. It was to be a completely new experience.

Claire's family opened their home and hearts for my little sister Ewa and me, and offered kindness and friendship. However, Claire's brother Charlie didn't know how to cope with the foreign girls in his home and wouldn't come out from his bedroom when I was in the room, not even for his meals. He just watched us through the small gap in his door.

Not being able to communicate well was frustrating for me. Sometimes in translating from Polish to English the meaning would change, for example "I don't mind" into "I have no mind", which created confusion. Other times it created laughter and I wondered why. On one occasion, Michael, a guest visiting from Auckland, tried to impress me with a Polish word he had learned from the boys holidaying on a farm – świnia (pig). I was not impressed, just shocked and offended, thinking that he was calling me a pig and Michael was puzzled at my reaction.

Then I met Bill Kane, a friend of the family who was understanding and helpful, and we got on well together. It was Bill who took me to my first page 126dance in the village on the back of his motorbike. I was holding on tight, not wanting to fall off. The hall was festively decorated with balloons, flowers and greenery, and the band played tunes unfamiliar to me. The people there seemed to know each other, and I, a stranger, felt that all eyes were on me. But meeting lots of young people there put me at ease. The girls all sat together by the wall and made room for me. When the music started, the boys chose their partners. There were mostly more girls than boys.

All was well and I danced with Bill until it all started to change on the dance floor. When Bill's friend tapped him on the shoulder, he let me dance with him, then with another friend and another and another. I was so embarrassed. I thought I danced badly, but I still continued and pretended to enjoy myself, all the while searching with my eyes for Bill. When he finally came to my rescue, I asked: "What is wrong with me?" "Why?" he asked. "Nobody wanted to stay and dance with me," I replied. Bill laughed and explained that it was an "excuse me" dance, and that all the boys wanted a chance to dance with a foreign girl. What a relief.

The band played on for yet another dance and a guy with a red tie kept asking me for something while dancing with me. I did not understand what he was saying, so when in doubt I always said no. And so it went on – he kept asking and I kept saying no. Bill explained that I was being asked for a supper waltz and was pleased that I said no. Bill and I had supper together.

"Yes" and "no" were two very important words to me in my journey into the unknown.

The holidays ended all too soon. After I left my friends in Norsewood, Bill came to the Pahiatua camp looking for me but I had already gone to Auckland with Helena Wiśeniewska to train as nurses in Mater Misericordiae Hospital. Caring for people appealed to me, and I was eager to learn and acquire practical skills for a life of independence, and to contribute here and later in our free Poland. To return to Poland was always my expectation but it didn't happen. God had other plans for me.

It has been said that when one door closes, another door opens, and it did open for me for another new chapter. Bill and I were married in 1949 and our first home together was in Norsewood.