Beginning Life In New Zealand
Rejoice with your family
In the beautiful land of life.
The Polish Children's Camp was located a few
kilometres from the Pahiatua township. Here the Skwarko
family extended a very warm welcome to us In their small
home unit. The healthy appearance of the Polish orphans
at the camp impressed us immensely, as did the
friendliness of the staff there. The food was excellent;
rich, creamy milk, butter, cheese, plentiful meat, fresh
fruit and vegetables were In abundance. This was surely
the 'land of milk and honey' we had been dreaming of! We
were unaccustomed to such a rich diet. On arrival we were
extremely thin, having been seasick during much of our
long voyage and we really enjoyed the wholesome new diet
provided at the camp. We remained with the Skwarko family
for a week. This enabled us to adjust to our environment
and made the transition to a new life less traumatic.
We were introduced to various staff members at the camp,
including Major Finney, who was then in charge of the
Polish Camp. Since we spoke fluent English, it was
decided to send us to New Zealand schools in Pahiatua.
Alek, now 12 years old, attended the St. Joseph's
Catholic Primary School there, while I was enrolled at
the Pahiatua District High School. At 16 years of age I
was placed in Form 5 to become accustomed to a New
Zealand school. As it was now mid-October I was not
expected to sit the School Certificate Examinations
scheduled for November. Indeed, the following two months
were to be a period of readjustment for us both, from an
English education system in India to a new New Zealand
We traveled to Pahiatua on a school bus which picked up
children from the nearby rural area. I can still recall
the first comment of a New Zealand boy on the bus. He
looked me up and down, then shook his head saying,
'You're much too thin for my liking'. Indeed, both Alek
and I looked emaciated on our arrival in this country. We
lacked the robust healthy appearance of the New
Zealanders. It was to take us about six months to regain
our strength and increase weight.
The Polish Camp was very well organised, clean and
comfortable. There was much laughter everywhere. The
children seemed happy and well-adjusted. In the primary
school at the camp, Instruction was in Polish. English
was taught as a second language by New Zealand-trained
teachers. This equipped the older students for secondary
schools beyond the camp. Indeed, all senior Polish pupils
attended New Zealand high schools, usually Catholic
boarding colleges scattered throughout the land. Each of
these schools took a number of Polish students. Mr. and
Mrs. Skwarko's daughter Krysia was at one such college In
Wanganui, so we were unable to meet straight away.
The Pahiatua Polish Camp had a happy family atmosphere.
Many had shared experiences in the USSR, Isfahan in Iran,
and in New Zealand since their arrival in 1944 as Invited
guests of Peter Fraser's Labour Government. We eagerly
exchanged memories of our exile in the USSR and our
subsequent experiences, with Mr. and Mrs. Skwarko. So
much had happened to us all since our pathways had parted
over eight years ago in Poland In SokOlka. We learned of
Mr. Skwarko's arrest by the Soviets In Poland In April
1940, and his deportation with other Polish prisoners to
the USSR to work in a mine. Mr. Stanlslaw Skwarko had
been a judge In Sokolka in Poland. On 19th June 1941 Mrs.
Krystyna Skwarko and their two children Krysia and Stach
had also been deported to the USSR, as we had been over a
year earlier. They had been resettled on a collective
farm in the Krasnoyarski region. We compared details of
While we had been exiled in Kaztsic for two years, their
liberation came within three months of their arrival in
the USSR. After the Polish amnesty on 30th August 1941.
Mrs. Skwarko and her children traveled through
Novosibirsk to Karsht and later to Guzari In Uzbekistan
near the Polish army base, where she registered as a
teacher at the Polish social welfare agency. Meanwhile,
Mr. Skwarko was released from his labour camp and joined
the Polish army at Kermene. Mrs. Skwarko managed the
Polish orphanage attached to Guzari, under the protection
of the Polish army in 1942. Later the entire orphanage
was evacuated through Krasnovodsk on the shores of the
Caspian Sea, which they crossed by ship to Iran. Then on
30th March 1942 they traveled in army lorries to Teheran.
On her appointment as the Principal of the orphanage
school she left for Isfahan in Persia, where happily, the
family was reunited, Mr. Skwarko having been discharged
from the Polish army. They had been together since then
and had arrived at the Pahiatua Polish Children's Camp in
New Zealand in 1944 with 743 Polish orphans and staff.
Here Mrs. Skwarko continued as the Principal of the boys'
primary school while Mr. Skwarko was the Camp's
treasurer. We envied the Skwarkos' secure family unit,
though we counted our own blessings. Many wonderful
people had assisted us to arrive safely in New Zealand.
There was so much to relate to our old friends.
After only a week at the Pahiatua Camp, Mother left for
Auckland to undertake a three month refresher course at
St. Helen's Hospital, in order to become a registered
midwife in New Zealand. Both the Waikato and the North
Canterbury Hospital Boards guaranteed Mother's
employment, following her registration as a midwife and a
general nurse in New Zealand. After her departure for
Auckland I continued living with the Skwarkos, while
attending the District High School at Pahiatua. Alek
however, transferred to a boys' dormitory at the camp. He
made many friends among the Polish boys with whom he
shared his life at Pahiatua. Some of these friendships
deepened and continued into his later life. As all the
young people of my age were at secondary schools outside
the Pahiatua Camp I remained an outsider, unable for some
time to penetrate the close-knit group of Polish
adolescents of my age. Alek and I continued to travel to
school in Pahiatua until the end of November 1947.
Only six weeks after our enrollment at the schools there,
a severe epidemic of poliomyelitis broke out in New
Zealand. This necessitated the closure of all schools
until after Easter 1948. The children at the Pahiatua
Camp were isolated from outside contact to prevent an
outbreak of polio there. Polish high school students
scattered throughout New Zealand were found homes in
their respective areas, to spend their long summer
vacation in. Similarly, Krysia Skwarko was unable to join
her family at the camp. Several older children of the
Polish staff there were also in the same position. Mr.
and Mrs. Skwarko and a small group of other Polish adults
and secondary school age children obtained permission to
camp in a wooded area in the vicinity of the camp, yet
beyond its confines. They lived therein the 'lasek'
(small forest), intents for several summer months.
I was found employment as a nurse aide at the Pahiatua
Hospital. While I worked there and resided at the nurses'
home, I often visited the Skwarko family in the woods. I
had no contact with Alek, who remained at the camp. My
mother continued her work and the refresher nursing
course at St. Helen's Hospital in Auckland, so we were
separated yet again. For me it was a time of readjustment
to a very new culture. I had much to learn. In India at
Kimmins High School all the chores had been done by
Indian servants. During my brief stay with the Skwarkos
at the Polish camp I had only tidied up my room and
helped with the dishes. At the Pahiatua Hospital I was
suddenly 'thrown in at the deep end'. Here I was required
to clean the wards and all utility rooms. Ironing,
washing, panning and sponging patients were new skills I
had to acquire immediately. I felt embarrassed when asked
to sponge men and to attend to their toilet needs. At the
age of 16 I was very shy, having led a sheltered life in
boarding institutions. I was shocked to learn of the
lesbian relationship between two English nurses resident
at the nurses' home.
Many of the nurses were kind to me. They donated clothing
for me to wear as I had no money to buy new clothes and
had outgrown my clothes from India. Moreover, fashions in
New Zealand were different. When Christmas came I
received several gifts from my nursing colleagues.
Christmas in the middle of the summer in New Zealand was
a new experience for me. The hospital wards were brightly
decorated and the Christmas tree reminded me of our home
in Poland. New Zealand Christmas dinner at midday on 25th
December was also different from the Polish celebrations
on Christmas Eve. Roast lamb with mint sauce, accompanied
by roast potatoes, pumpkin, kumara and peas was followed
by rich Christmas pudding and Christmas fruit cake.
Although I enjoyed this delicious food among many
friendly New Zealanders, I felt alone with my thoughts of
the past, unable to share these festivities with my
brother and Mother, with whom I had no contact at that
time. I always looked forward on my days off to a visit
to the woods, where I could speak Polish with my friends
On completion of Mother's refresher course at St. Helen's
Hospital in Auckland, she was appointed as a midwife at
the Burwood Maternity Annex In Christchurch. Meanwhile, I
was transferred to a private hospital for the elderly,
many of whom were disabled after strokes or afflicted
with senility. There I remained as a nurse aide until
after Easter in April 1948, when the New Zealand schools
reopened. The polio epidemic was over by then.
In April Mother arranged for Alek's and my transfer to
schools in Christchurch. Mrs. Maureen Baker, an old
friend of Uncle Lovat, lived in Wellington. She kindly
met me at the Wellington railway station and directed me
onto the inter-island ship bound for Lyttelton. Mrs.
Baker had helped us to obtain our entry permit to New
Zealand and had kept in touch with us after our arrival
in this country. Alek arrived in Christchurch a few days
before me, with a group of Polish boys from the Pahiatua
Camp. He was already enrolled at St. Bede's College when
I arrived. Mother met me at Lyttelton, from where we
traveled by train together to Christchurch. I was allowed
to spend the weekend with her at the nurses' home at
Burwood Hospital. On the following Monday I was enrolled
at Sacred Heart College as a fifth form student. Shortly
after this Mother was transferred to a small maternity
hospital at Amuri in North Canterbury. where we spent our
May school holidays.
Unfortunately, Mother was unhappy In this isolated, rural
community hospital, so she requested a transfer to
Wellington. This occurred towards the end of our school
holidays. A kind local couple, Mr. and Mrs. Croft, took
us into their home when Mother left Amuri for Wellington.
They were friends of Mother's acquaintances Mr. and Mrs.
Munro, who farmed nearby. A few days later the Morrison
family from Christchurch visited their friends, the
Munros, in Amuri. On hearing about our plight they
offered to take us to their home In Christchurch. When
the May holidays ended Alek returned to St. Bede's
College, but I remained at Spreydon with the Morrison
family. Mother could not afford to pay school fees for
both of us, so I had to leave school without any
qualifications, after six weeks' attendance at Sacred
Heart College In Christchurch. That short period, and
another of the same length at the Pahiatua district High
School in 1947, was my only opportunity of secondary
education in these early years In this new country.
I managed to obtain employment in the mail-order office
of Ballantynes, a large department store in Christchurch.
My task was to attend to mail orders received from rural
customers. My net weekly wage was 30 shillings and
sixpence. Out of that amount I paid 25 shillings board
weekly to Mr. and Mrs. Morrison. My weekly concession
tram ticket cost five shillings, so I was left with a
sixpence to spend on myself every pay day. I desperately
needed warm clothes for the winter in Christchurch, which
was extremely cold in comparison with the Indian winter.
Mrs. Morrison and a kind neighbour with two daughters of
her own, Mrs. Ryan, gave me various essential items of
clothing. Somehow, with their assistance I managed to get
by. With the Morrison's encouragement I enrolled at night
school to learn shorthand and typing.
My first social encounters In New Zealand were the Sunday
evening Catholic youth meetings, which I very much
enjoyed. I attended these socials with Shirley and Bev
Ryan and the Monison's two elder sons Mervyn and Kevin.
Their youngest son Brendon was still at primary school
then. Now at 17 years of age, exposed to a new culture,
and with only occasional contact with my mother and
brother, I missed the stability of my own family
dreadfully. I had had no father since the age of eight
and now I missed him more than ever. Although I was
fortunate to have the friendship of the Morrison and the
Ryan families, I felt like an outsider without my own
family. I recall a very happy evening spent with them all
at Mrs. Ryan's house across the road from the Morrison's
home, where we all enjoyed singing by the piano, In the
warmth of their home. This was followed by a splendid
supper and a friendly talk before I returned to the
privacy of my room at Mr. and Mrs. Morrison's residence.
That night I was very upset and cried myself to sleep.
After experiencing that happy family atmosphere, I felt
more than ever the lack of a close family bond, with the
love and security that was part of it. I should have
counted my blessings, but as an immature adolescent with
strong suppressed emotions In a new cultural environment,
I was incapable of an impartial, objective assessment of
Finally, Mother managed to settle down in her new
position as a midwife at the Wellington Public Hospital.
She obtained a couple of rooms in a house in Berhampore.
I was then able to join her In Wellington, while my
brother Alek remained at St. Bede's College in
Christchurch as a boarder.