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Polish refugee children’s 60th anniversary

Polish refugee children’s 60th anniversary reunion of arriving in New Zealand

This Labour Weekend, the former Polish refugee children will hold a grand three-day 60th anniversary reunion in Pahiatua, Silverstream and Wellington for all former Polish refugee children and their descendents.

At the start of World War II, 1.7 million Poles were forcibly removed (or ethnically cleansed) from their homes in eastern Poland to forced-labour camps throughout Siberia for two years before fleeing to Iran for another two years. They were then invited to New Zealand by Prime Minister Peter Fraser. (See below for the full history.)

On 1 November 1944, a group of 732 Polish children/orphans and 102 guardians arrived in Wellington and were temporarily settled in the Polish Children’s Camp in Pahiatua for up to five years. They were New Zealand’s first refugee group.

Most of them stayed and grew up to become self-sufficient and law-abiding citizens, made careers, and became a social and economical asset to New Zealand – contributing to society, not taking from it.

They have reared two new generations of similarly useful citizens, remain a well-known group in the nation, and are active socially and culturally. The group is a good example of how to start a new life without knowledge of local language or customs.

Date – Labour Weekend 2004

Saturday 23 October – Tararua Hall, Pahiatua Lunch, Polish singing and dancing concert, and gathering at the former camp monument

Sunday 24 October – St Patrick’s College, Silverstream Church service Lunch and gathering

Monday 25 October – two locations Wellington mayor Kerry Prendergast will unveil the plaque on Wellington foreshore’s Frank Kitts Park, 1.30pm. This will mark the spot where the children landed in the harbour Farewell get together at the Polish Association, 257 Riddiford St, Newtown

For press interviews or more information, please contact Stan Manterys. email: manterys@paradise.net.nz

New book New Zealand’s First Refugees: Pahiatua’s Polish Children has been published to coincide with the reunion celebrations. Its 416 pages feature:

100 personal stories of the former refugees, their guardians, the first and second-generations, and New Zealanders who had contact with them in those early years. With photos 48-page glossy photo section History, background, facts, statistics and a complete list of all the refugees’ names

Not only will it be useful for historians, educators and sociologists as a document to enrich New Zealand’s historical heritage, but a fascinating and poignant personal history told by the former refugees, which read like non-fiction short stories.

New Zealand’s First Refugees will be available at all reunion events (except the plaque unveiling), can be ordered from polishchildren@paradise.net.nz and will eventually be made available in selected bookshops. Cost is $40, plus pp.

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Historical background

The arrival in NZ of 733 Polish children – war refugees in 1944

An extract from the National Archives

The story of the Polish children who found a refuge and in most cases a permanent home in New Zealand starts with the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, which started WWII and the Russian occupation of the eastern part of the country two weeks later. Many of the fathers of the refugee children were deported to Russian prisons or labour camps in the arctic regions of European Russia, the northern slopes of the Ural mountains or northern Siberia as far east as the frigid Kolyma peninsula. The death toll in these camps from cold and starvation was very high during the following winter. Some wives and children were deported to the Archangelsk region but most to various places in the huge expanses of middle Siberia. In these internment centres, the women and older children were forced to labour in the fields and forests and suffered from cold, hunger and exhaustion.

On August 31 1941, ten weeks after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, General Wladyslaw Sikorski negotiated an amnesty with Stalin for some of the Polish citizens being detained in Russia. The Russians released part of the men from prisons and labour camps for service in a Polish army which General Wladyslaw Anders was organizing at Orenburg close to the southern Ural Mountains. Soon the nucleus of this army was moved to the Tashkent - Samarkand area of Uzbekistan. (Transcriber’s note: - At that time it was not known that one year earlier many thousands of Polish officer prisoners of war were executed by the Russians in the Katyn Forest and other places of mass murder, whose graves continue to be discovered 60 years later).

At the same time that the men were freed for military service, the women and children were released from internment. The children whose mothers had died before the amnesty had been put in Russian orphanages. After the amnesty the Polish Embassy created Delegates offices and orphanages to which were brought not only those children without mothers but also those children whose mothers could not maintain them.

When it became known among the liberated Polish women that general Anders was forming an army, thousands of them, many with children whose fathers were already in that army, joined the army in the South. During the journey south to Uzbekistan and the neighbouring provinces of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, and once with army, which shared its meagre rations with the civilians, scores of women and children perished with malaria, typhus, and other diseases caused by malnutrition. Starvation and disease also ravaged the ranks of the Polish army. It was during this period of great privation and hardship that most of the children lost their parents. In April of 1942 the first detachments of the Polish army along with a small number of women and children embarked from the Caspian Sea port of Krasnovotsk for Iran and its capital Teheran. The main body of the Polish forces, accompanied by 30,000 women and children, followed in August and September 1942. Part of the children who later came to New Zealand were among this group. However, most of the New Zealand refugee children were trucked from Russia to Teheran via Ashhabab, Turkmenistan, and Mashed, Iran, between September 1942, and June 1943. Once in Iran the children were placed in Polish hostels and schools in the town of Isfahan.

The New Zealand government offered hospitality for a number of refugees to the Polish government-in-exile in London. The Polish government accepted this offer. As soon as agreement could be made a party of approximately 730 children and 110 adults sailed from the Iranian port of Khurramshahr on an English vessel on 1 October 1944. At Bombay the party transferred to the American ship George Randall V.

Landing at Wellington on 1 November, the refugees were transferred to Pahiatua Camp, where some would live until the camp was closed five years later.

The New Zealand government agreed to provide accommodation, food and clothing for the refugees, and the Polish government gave an assurance that it would pay the salaries of the Polish adults, the pocket money of the children, and incidental expenses. With the decline of the Polish government in London, an interim treasury committee on Polish affairs, consisting of representatives of the United Kingdom government and of certain selected Poles, was established in London. Although the committee assumed the financial obligations of the former Polish government, the funds which it distributed presumably came from the British Treasury. In this way the Polish government of National Unity, formed on June 28 1945, though recognised, was ignored in matters affecting Polish refugees in New Zealand.

The first camp commandant was directly responsible to the Prime Minister’s department and supervised only the New Zealand personnel who were engaged in servicing and maintaining the camp. A delegate of the Polish Ministry of Social Welfare and Ministry of Education in New Zealand, directed Polish affairs in the camp. He was responsible to the Polish government-in-exile for the care and welfare of the Polish adults and children in the camp as well as the education of the children.

The Supreme Court appointed a board of guardians, eight in number, in 1945. Although the board’s functions were never defined and the board played but a minor role as a guardian, it had full legal control over the orphan children. On the other hand, the Catholic Church in New Zealand, without legal guardianship, controlled those orphan children who were attending schools or working away from the camp.

The London Polish interim committee agreed to transfer 11,359 pounds sterling in official funds, which the Polish delegate had on deposit, to the New Zealand government. In addition, the government decided to recover another 11,000 pounds from the committee for the expenses it would incur on behalf of the refugees up to May 1946. After that date the New Zealand government would accept complete and administrative responsibility for the Polish refugees in its care. This burden was not light. A report for March 1946 estimated that 9,750 pounds a month was spent to maintain these refugees.

At this time too it became clear that because of a communist government in Poland, only a few would return to their native land. Now the education of the children was directed to preparing them to live as New Zealanders.

Enrolment at the Pahiatua camp peaked at about 740 during the first two years, 90 of whom had a father or mother in camp and another 220 of whom had parents overseas. The remaining 425 children were orphans.

From 1 April 1949, the Child Welfare division of the Education department assumed the responsibility for the children’s placement and care and costs involved. Much of the supervision of the children was in the hands of Catholic authorities in consultation with a Child welfare officer. In 1955 the division still maintained 31 children, 30 of them students and one an invalid. Between 1944 and 1955 four children died and 82 left New Zealand. All the refugees upon reaching the age of 21 were given the opportunity of returning to Poland.

Child welfare returns for 1955 showed that a total of 62 children had by then obtained school certificate, 41 university entrance, and three university degrees. Most boys had gone into trades. Girls were doing housework, sewing, teaching and nursing.

During the 1959-60 school year the last four children became independent of the support of the Child Welfare division.

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