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

Eternal hope

page 240

Eternal hope

All New Zealanders can justifiably claim to have come from somewhere else, and in doing so have created a society of different peoples and colours. From the mid-19th Century until today, while exporting our primary produce to every other part of the world, as migrant New Zealanders we have imported our culture – our favourite foods, stories, songs and customs from all over the world.

Everyday we witness and experience elements of different cultures in every part of our lives. Whether we are of Asian, European, African or Polynesian descent, we have had an innate Kiwi ability to accept all people as they are. Therefore, it has always intrigued me that as a geographically isolated group of islands, we have a noticeably weak sense of a common nationhood and that as a country comprising diverse cultures, New Zealanders can generally be somewhat hesitant to celebrate their past.

We often hear that minimal wealth and low income are the underlying reasons for social discord, and that they are attributable to the government. Considering New Zealand colonists' shoestring existence, it seems we have forgotten that "nothing great was ever forged without sacrifice and struggle".

If ever there was a pointed example of those who came to this land of plenty with nothing but turmoil and tragedy as their passports, and yet who have dramatically succeeded beyond all but their own expectations, I need look no further than my own mother – one of the former Polish children refugees. As one who can be proud to claim my Polish heritage from those turbulent beginnings, I can never attempt to understand the sense of loss created through the state-sponsored terrorism of Stalin who ingenuously stated: "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." However, I can only but try to emulate the personal qualities that emerged from that formative fire, which are demonstrated by my mother in her daily life.

I sometimes surmise that national identity can become too closely entwined in cultural cliches. For example, the haka as representative of New Zealand or McDonald's as the ubiquitous flag-bearer for the US. These types of outward demonstrations of cultural identity make recognisable statements for many, but do not necessarily reveal the true attributes of a homogenous group of people.

Therefore, if I were to attempt to describe my own sense of "Polishness", page 241it would not start with an intimate association or intense familiarity with these types of outward signs. Rather, it would begin with the qualities I've witnessed and experienced directly in my own life from the Poles around me – starting with my own mother and how she raised her four children, and educated hundreds of others as a school teacher.

More recently, I have spent time tracing the origins of my mother's family back to her homeland. In doing so, despite the difficulties establishing a link between the past and present, I have discovered that there is something peculiar in the arrogance of the oppressor to the oppressed.

Between 9 February 1940 and 20 June 1941, large tracts of eastern Poland were effectively depopulated by the Russian Secret Police. While obviously disregarding the humanity of those it was removing from their homes and livelihoods, the Secret Police was strangely meticulous at keeping detailed information on each individual member of the families deported. It is almost as if statistical satisfaction was derived from consigning the deportees to an existence of poverty and hopelessness.

To date, around 180,000 of those records have been released from the Russian archives. It was from this source that I came across the history of my mother's family from their deportation on 10 February 1940, incarceration in an Archangelsk province forced-labour camp on 29 February 1940 and their subsequent release on 5 September 1941. The Russian name of the camp in which the family was detained was "Jeglec", the Russian name for the primrose – a flower which grows profusely in Siberia in the short spring. This flower is a fitting emblem of hope, reflecting the lives of those who have cultivated beauty and success from the seeds of tumult and oppression.

Three generations of Teresa Noble-Campbell's (Ogonowska) family collect their Polish passports at the Polish Embassy in Wellington. Back: (l-r) Alexander, Gordon, Jayne Front: (l-r) Lachlan, Teresa, Thomas

Three generations of Teresa Noble-Campbell's (Ogonowska) family collect their Polish passports at the Polish Embassy in Wellington.
Back: (l-r) Alexander, Gordon, Jayne
Front: (l-r) Lachlan, Teresa, Thomas