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

Remembering the people

page 170

Remembering the people

The Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua was the happiest time of my life. For that, I am forever grateful to the New Zealand people, the Government and to God. I remember on arrival at the camp being given beautiful secondhand clothes – a black pleated skirt and purple jumper, a navy blue dress with a new Peter Pan collar, new edging round the sleeves, and a new pocket in navy and white polka-dot design. I felt beautiful when I wore them.

I was a child with peace and goodwill in my heart. I was friends with everybody and everybody was friends with me. And here I must mention Krystyna Gołębiowska, Danuta Łubgań and Irena Iwanek. They were brilliant – unknown and unrecognised artists. How I envied them. Irena used to draw and colour-in beautiful greeting cards for me to give to my father. Tata (daddy) treasured them and kept them until the day he died, and I never confessed the work was not mine. But I think he knew.

One of my best friends during those happy days was Krystyna Wojtowicz. She was a pretty little blonde – a lady – and a girl without a nasty bone in her body. How I missed her when I left the camp. It is difficult to mention everyone that had shaped my life, but I must mention Julia Rolińska, my very first school teacher from the Iran days. She had a beautiful voice and taught us beautiful songs. She would quickly bring me back from staring out the window with a thump on my back – but I never held grudges. She was the best teacher I ever had. May she rest in peace.

Then there was Jadwiga Żerebecka. I remember this lady from the No 6 Compound in Iran. At the Pahiatua camp, she was the principal of the girls' school and a choir instructor. She ordered me to join the choir – for what reason I do not know. But that experience was very rewarding and I felt so important. I almost became obnoxious. She returned to Poland and I felt a dreadful emptiness in my heart.

I remember when our beloved priest Father Michał Wilniewczyc left the camp. I knew him from the No 6 Compound in Iran. After a farewell at the camp gate, he walked down to the main road to catch a bus that would take him to Wellington. It seemed my heart would break. I thought he was old at time but he was then only 36 years of age.

This is my last opportunity to acknowledge all those New Zealanders who opened their hearts and invited us to their homes for the school holidays and page 171for years to come. In May 1945, there was great excitement in the camp when we all received brand new brown suitcases (I still have mine), and name tags attached to our collars which showed our destination and the kind people we were to stay with for the holidays. We boarded the train at Pahiatua and the conductor had to sort out our stops.

Here I must mention the people I stayed with during some of the school holidays – Mr and Mrs Summers in Masterton, Mr and Mrs Hodgins in Hastings, and Mr and Mrs Linton of Richmond Road in Carterton. What wonderful people. I stayed friends with them for the rest of their lives.

In June 1946, I was reunited with my father who arrived in New Zealand after the Polish army-in-exile was demobilised in Britain. It was a wet dark winter's morning when my brother Stanisław came to get me from the girls' barracks. I was ready and dressed, and so I walked out into the porch. My brother took my hand and we headed for the barracks where the returned soldiers were housed. After a few minutes, he said: "Are you scared?" "Yes," I replied. And he said: "So am I." Yes, we were happy he was alive – but also very apprehensive. We hadn't seen this man for a few years, but he turned out OK. He gave each of us a watch. I panicked and said: "I can't tell the time," and he said: "Then I will teach you." From then on we were the best of friends.

He worked in Woodville and every Sunday would pedal his bike to visit us at the camp. I would wait with my girlfriends by the gate, and he would bring us chocolates and lovely kids' books (not comics). The one I still remember and loved was Ben and Bella – it was about two yellow ducks. Tata was then 40 years old. Why did I think he was so old?

In August 1948, he took over the responsibility for my care and I had to leave the camp. I thought I would die. My English teacher wrote this in my autograph book: "Wishing you a very happy and prosperous stay in NZ and best wishes for the future" – Patricia Sloan, Polish Camp, 8 July 1948.

And so life in New Zealand treated me well. Thank you Miss Sloan. If it was possible to go back in time to the days of no responsibility, security, happy days, togetherness, lasting friendships and camp meals, I would say: "Take me back to the place once called the Pahiatua camp."