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Pahīatua's 'Little Poland' - roadside stories

Dubbed 'Little Poland', a camp outside Pahīatua was home to over 700 Polish children displaced by the Second World War. The young refugees, mostly orphans who had survived the harsh conditions of camps in Siberia, arrived in 1944. Although it was expected that they would later return to Poland, most stayed on and made new lives in New Zealand.

Transcript

Archival audio: Extract from interview with former residents of the Polish refugee camp at Pahīatua.

Polish refugee (actor’s voice): On the 31st of October 1944, we sailed into Wellington Harbour and saw all the small houses on the slopes. They looked like little doll’s houses. Like all the other Polish refugee children, I was very excited.  Prime Minister Peter Fraser, who had invited us to New Zealand, came aboard the ship. There were speeches and we were given sweets by kind ladies, and then we were taken in the train to our camp at Pahīatua.  

Narrator: The quiet country town of Pahīatua in the northern Wairarapa seems an unlikely place to find a reminder of the horrors of the Second World War. A white sculpture on its outskirts marks the site of ‘Little Poland’, where Polish children and their adult caregivers found much-needed rest and recovery during the latter part of the war.

The memorial on the site of the former Polish Children’s Camp was erected by the Polish community in appreciation of the shelter given by the people of New Zealand to the Polish children.

In 1940, after the German invasion of Poland, the Soviet Union expelled large numbers of Poles from their homeland to Siberia.  

Polish refugee:  We were always cold and hungry. There were bugs and lice everywhere, and many people died of starvation and disease.

Narrator: The deported Poles were expected to die there, but Hitler’s surprise attack in 1941 against his former ally, the Soviet Union, forced Stalin to release the Polish prisoners. Unable to return to Poland where war was raging, they instead formed a Polish army in the Soviet Union.

When the Polish army was needed in the Middle East over 40,000 Polish civilians travelled with it to Iran and Iraq, including many orphans.

A number of countries offered the Poles shelter, including New Zealand, thanks to the efforts of Countess Maria Wodzicka (“Wodjeeska”), the wife of the Polish Consul in Wellington, and the New Zealand Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, and his wife. 

By the time over 700 Polish children arrived in Wellington in 1944, most were orphans. Many had seen their parents and siblings die in Soviet camps where starvation, hard labour, disease and the freezing cold took a terrible toll.

The children and their 102 guardians arrived in Wellington on the first of November aboard an American battleship [troopship]. They were taken to the Pahīatua camp where conditions proved to be infinitely better than the camps in Siberia.

Polish refugee: In Pahīatua we got into a routine where we knew we were going to get three square meals a day and anything we wanted. We then started really recuperating.

Narrator: The camp closed in 1952. The children had been taught in Polish during their stay, in the expectation that they would return to Poland after the war. But Poland’s post-war communist regime, and the dominance of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, made that prospect unattractive to many Polish refugees. As a result, most stayed in New Zealand, where some were joined by relatives.

While in the camp, the children had worshipped at a grotto shrine they made with rocks from the Mangatainoka River. But by the early 1970s this had deteriorated.  A Polish Children’s Memorial Committee called for designs for a new public monument and accepted one proposed by the Wellington sculptor, Tanya Ashken.

The monument, which incorporates stones from the original grotto in its base, was built by members of the Polish community in the 1970s. Its simple abstract shape, suggestive of a protective embrace, recalls the shelter the children found in Pahīatua and the contribution they went on to make to New Zealand as adults.

Credit

Manatū Taonga - Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 2011. Part of the Roadside Stories series

Archival audio sourced from Radio New Zealand Sound Archives, http://www.soundarchives.co.nz/. Sound files may not be reused without permission from Radio New Zealand Sound Archives (Reference number: sa-t-5087-pm).

How to cite this page

Pahīatua's 'Little Poland' - roadside stories, URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/video/pahiatuas-little-poland-roadside-stories, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated