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Pahiatua Polish Children - 75th Anniversary

75 years after arriving in New Zealand as the country’s first refugees, the Polish children of Pahiatua and their descendants are commemorating the event with a weekend of activities in Wellington.

732 Polish children and their 102 caregivers were welcomed to New Zealand during World War Two on 1 November, 1944.

They were among displaced Poles who had been deported to Siberian work camps by Russia when Poland was split under Russian and German control, and later evacuated to Iran under an amnesty reached with Russia in 1941.

Many of the children had lost their parents during the harrowing deportation, or harsh labour camp conditions, or their fathers were fighting for the Polish Army.

In 1944 New Zealand’s Prime Minister Peter Fraser invited the group to stay under humanitarian grounds, and they became known as the Pahiatua Polish Children; the country’s first refugees.

The Polish community has remained strong with Polish Associations in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch hosting regular social occasions with the Polish language, culture and food playing a central role.

Tereska Lepionka-Carroll from the Pahiatua Polish Children Reunion committee says this year’s commemorations in Wellington 1-3 November 2019 are very special, as the numbers of the original group dwindle.

“The bond that these children shared is unique; they experienced traumatic journeys and extreme hardship, before arriving in a country that welcomed them with open arms,” says Mrs Lepionka-Carroll.

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“Their memories of arriving in Wellington and travelling by train to Pahiatua with hundreds of people waving and welcoming them is forever etched in their minds and hearts”

“They grew up together, and navigated being new to this country with a different language and culture, at a time when speaking a different language was unusual,” says Mrs Lepionka-Carroll.

“New Zealand quickly became their home, but they’ve retained a strong sense of being Polish and love of their homeland, which is celebrated through language, food and culture whenever they meet with one another.”

For Stanislaw Januszkiewicz the 75th anniversary will be about celebrating the opportunity the children were given to settle in New Zealand.

“It was a real blessing for us to come here and be able to stay. It means a lot to many of us who grew up in Pahiatua”, he says about the camp that was effectively an orphanage, “where we felt like one big family.”

“Because we shared barracks with children the same age, in some ways we were closer than ordinary brothers and sisters; we were the same age as one another so we were going through the same experiences - good and bad, so we got to know each other very well”.

Mr Januszkiewicz says although there are regular get togethers in the Polish community the anniversaries of their arrival are a special time “to reunite and remember what connects you”.

“We’re encouraging anyone associated with the Polish community, the Pahiatua children and their families to also come along, as it’s a great opportunity to commemorate the journey the Pahiatua Polish Children shared”, says Mrs Lepionka-Carroll.

The weekend activities include a trip to Pahiatua hosted by the Mayor of Tararua Tracey Collis, and in Wellington, a luncheon, cultural programme and Polish mass.

The Polish Ambassador to New Zealand, Zbigniew Gniatkowski, will also be taking part in the Pahiatua events.

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