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

My life in New Zealand

page 193

My life in New Zealand

We used to call the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua "the little country of our own". I was very happy there. The well-organised daily routine made me feel safe and secure, and I made friendships which last to this day. In 1946, the Polish high school at the camp was closed and our group had to leave the camp. Some of us were selected to continue our studies in New Zealand Catholic secondary schools, while others were sent to work. I was assigned to go to Sacred Heart Convent in Hamilton.

On 16 September 1946, at 2am, five of us Polish girls arrived at Frankton Railway Station. There was some misunderstanding and no one came to meet us, so we sat on the bench and waited. When the caretaker arrived, we tried to tell him in our broken English that someone was supposed to meet us. He must have understood us because he telephoned the convent and the nuns came without delay.

The next day we were separated. Three girls stayed in the convent as boarders, and another girl and I were boarded out to New Zealand families. A young man, Frank Mayer, came to collect me. He picked up my suitcase and escorted me to his car. On the way he talked to me but I did not understand him. I was scared and so very lonely. The place we were going to was about 15km out of Hamilton. On the way, we passed a dairy milk factory at Matangi, then turned towards Mr and Mrs Mayer's farm (they were Swiss people).

The house was old and there were lots of cows around it. Nobody came out to greet us and there was no one home. Some time later, a young girl, Elein, came home from school and started to prepare a meal. The rest of the family arrived later from their work on the farm. We sat round the table to eat. I remember fat grilled chops, but I was so tense that I could not swallow the food and a stream of tears came down my cheeks. I left the table and went to my room.

In the evening, I was told that we were going somewhere, but I did not understand. We went to a hospital to visit their sick mother. She was a kind, lovely lady. She stretched her arms towards me and hugged me. After a few days, Mrs Mayer came home. She took me to town and bought me my school uniform.

Mrs Mayer was good to me and treated me as her own daughter. Unfortunately, this made her daughter jealous and she did some very unkind things to me. page 194But I did not feel confident enough to say anything to her mother. Each day, I waited impatiently to go to school to meet my Polish friends.

Weeks went by. Slowly, I got used to life on the farm. I loved the early spring mornings. The beautiful scenery and fresh air made me feel so good. I often did some weeding in the flower beds before going to school and I can still see these rows of different coloured poppies, which at the time were my best friends. I longed for the Christmas holidays so that I could go back to the camp. The long summer holidays spent there were times to remember. I was with my friends again, who like myself came back from schools across the country. Everybody was wearing different uniforms, looking happy and we had so much to talk about.

After the Christmas holidays, I was sent to St Dominic's College in Dunedin as a boarder where I immediately felt at home. The building was old, but kept in good condition and very clean. The staircase, which led up to the second floor, was always well polished.

Every day at the sound of a bell we walked down in pairs for meals, singing hymns. One that I really liked was Hail Queen of Heaven, which still echoes in my ears. The discipline was very strict – silence was kept at all times. We were told never to use the words "no, Sister" even if you were not guilty – you always said "yes, Sister". When a nun walked behind you, you had to stop, bow and wait until she passed. At the time it was tough, but the convent education gave me moral values and we were taught good manners. I believe that I am a better person for it.

I remember the Saturday afternoon walks through the city wearing our complete uniforms – hats, gloves, well-polished shoes, socks up and on our best behaviour. On our return, we were given a one-hour lecture on general behaviour and table manners. Special periods were assigned for homework, cleaning, handwork, reading, music, sports and recreation. Life was full of activities. There were eight Polish girls with me at St Dominic's and that made all the difference.

In 1948, I was told that my father, stepmother and baby half-brother had arrived in New Zealand. From that time on, my father was responsible for me and had to pay for my education. But he had no money and I had to leave school. For me, that was a disaster for the rest of my life. I had not seen my father for about six years. He and my elder sisters Irena and Janina had joined the Polish army when it was being formed in Guzar, Uzbekistan. He served under the command of General Anders in Iraq and in the Italian campaign. My mother had died in Uzbekistan. After the war, my father married again.

My father had no home where I could live, so I boarded at the Polish Girls' Hostel in Lyall Bay, Wellington. Suddenly, I found myself on my own, page 195responsible for making my own decisions and having to support myself. I was frightened.

The first job I had was at the Karitane Factory in Melrose. I used to walk to work and back, up the steep hill. The job was very hard. I had to keep up with the machine, which was pushing the tins out with great speed and I had to stack them at the same time. By the end of the day I could hardly walk back to the hostel. I survived there for two months. My second job was at the Government Printing Office opposite Wellington Railway Station. I liked it there and my work was interesting. After a short while, I was promoted and put in charge of posting the Police Gazette. I was proud of myself and happy.

I was not prepared for the next upheaval. The Pahiatua camp was being closed and a group of girls, all orphans, were coming to live in the hostel. There were not enough beds. I had a father, so I was asked to move in with him in Wallaceville, Upper Hutt.

Army service in World War I, then deportation to the USSR, then army service again in World War II and finally shattered hopes of returning home to Poland took its toll on my father. He seemed to be angry all the time. Also, I could not communicate with my stepmother because she only spoke Italian. I did my best to learn Italian and we coped, but she did not like me talking to my father in Polish.

Soon after, my brother Józef (Ziutek) came to live with us and we became very close. He was still attending college and bringing home very good results. How he managed that I do not know, because he never had time for homework. My father made him work hard around the place, sometimes until very late
Helena (right) with her brother Józef Wypych (left) and father Józef (middle) in Tehran, Iran, 28 September 1942

Helena (right) with her brother Józef Wypych (left) and father Józef (middle) in Tehran, Iran, 28 September 1942

page 196at night by the moonlight. To help out with the finances, on Saturdays I had to work in the kitchen at St Patrick's College, Silverstream, walking there and back.

The house my father lived in was badly in need of repair. Each night after work he worked on it until late at night. The banging was terrible and the baby could not sleep. One night, I asked my father to stop the banging and let the poor baby sleep. He just glared at me and promised me a thrashing the next day. I was terrified and that night decided to run away. I asked Ziutek to help me. We packed my belongings and the next day I took my suitcase to work with me. After work I went back to the Polish Girls' Hostel to seek shelter. I was accepted but for a very short time. My father was very angry with me and could not forgive me for a long time.

After a short time my brother also left home. He boarded with a New Zealand family, Pat and Nancy Stanaway in Kilbirnie, and attended St Patrick's College in Wellington. However, when he became 16 he had to leave school and found a job as a labourer on the Wellington waterfront.

The time came for me to leave the hostel again. A lady from work offered me a room in her home. Then I shifted into a boarding house in Kensington Street off Abel Smith Street and shared a room with my friend. For the first time, we had to learn to cook for ourselves, which most of the time was a disaster. Many times we ended up buying fish and chips, but we did not care what we ate – we were young, free and happy.

My future husband, Konstanty Wypych, told me that he spotted me for the first time when I was singing with the Polish choir at the Polish national day celebrations. After several weeks, we met at a 21st birthday party. He sat next to me throughout the evening, and took me and my friend home. He scribbled down my telephone number and rang me the very next day asking for a date.

Our first date was on Sunday evening at St Mary of the Angels church in Boulcott Street. I used to go there every Sunday evening to attend the Benediction. On the way there I thought to myself "he won't come", but he did. He was there waiting for me at the foot of the steps, which later led us to the altar on 10 April 1950. From the first moment there was a feeling of belonging to one another. On the day we got engaged, we celebrated with a fish and chips meal. We were married in the same church where we had our first date.

Konstanty had a similar background to mine. His family experienced deportation to the Soviet Union. He, his father and his three brothers joined the Polish army, which was being formed in Russia from the former Polish prisoners and deportees. He fought at the battle of Monte Cassino, where he page 197gained the highest Polish military award for bravery – the Virtuti Militari. He was tall and handsome, all that a young girl could wish for.

God gave us five wonderful children (Stanislaw, Jan, Zofia (RIP), Stefania, Barbara) and nine lovely grandchildren (Haydn, Oliver, Adela, Jessica, Thomas, Spencer, Paige, Stefan, Billie). My dearly loved husband, loving father and grandfather passed away on 12 June 1993

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