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

A long-forgotten letter

A long-forgotten letter

Stanley Jemioło, a descendant of Polish immigrants to the US, was a Polishspeaking sailor on the USS General Randall that brought us refugees to New Zealand. On the ship, he befriended two Polish boys (my future husband Stanisław Wołk and Stanisław Manterys) because they shared his first name. Once settled in the camp, the boys wrote to him at his request but never received a reply and all was forgotten.

Stanley's tour of duty kept him at sea for another two years, by which time his elderly mother back home in Massachusetts had simply forgotten about the letter. In the process of destroying old books after her death, a neatly wrapped envelope fell out of an old Bible with an unopened letter written by Stanisław Wołk 35 years earlier. In the intervening years, Stanley had searched page 211for the boys through New Zealand sources, the Red Cross, and Polish and US embassies without success.

So 35 years later, in possession of an address from the old letter, Stanley wrote to the mayor of Pahiatua seeking any trace of the two boys. The mayor knew another of the former refugees, Bronisław Wêgrzyn, and so contact was made and the original letter was answered at last.

There was joy and surprise on both sides. Stanley came with his wife to New Zealand on his birthday where he was welcomed by the boys' families in Auckland and Wellington, and other former Polish children refugees. A birthday cake turned up, gifts were presented and a resounding Sto Lat (Happy Birthday) greeting was sung in his honour – in gratitude to a man who in his youth reached out to the children with love and humour, and who took such an effort to be reunited with them so many years later. The Wołk family later visited the Jemiołos in Springfield, Massachusetts, and the two families became very close.