Anna Zatorska Piotrkowska
LESSONS FROM THE ‘OUTSIDE’
by Barbara Scrivens
Ten-year-old Anna Zatorska lay in her unfamiliar bed in the tiny room a world away from her family farm in Poland and listened to the muted chatter filtering through the thin walls.
Her housemistress1 mother, Walerija, used the other bed in the room. During the busy evenings she left Anna alone to wonder about the conversations of the girls in the four adjacent dormitories.
It had been nearly five years since Anna had slept in the comfort of her own bed, with its down-filled pillow and bed coverings, her parents and three brothers nearby.
… hard-shelled blood-sucking insects, pluskwy… dropped from the ceilings onto occupants of the roughly hewn beds.
In February 1940 Soviet Russian soldiers occupying eastern Poland ripped her family from their slumber. Under cover of darkness, the soldiers forced them—and about 200,000 other mostly rural Poles—into animal transport trains destined for one of the thousands of NKVD2 forced-labour facilities in northern Russia and Siberia.
Wooden slats crudely attached around the sides of the prison wagons became the only places to lie in the trains as they made their way through the USSR, regularly disgorging groups close to forests. Stalin had decided to use his Polish prisoners to feed his latest five-year plan: Most would cut timber for improving infrastructure.
The Zatorski family shared a log house near one of those forests with other captured Poles and hard-shelled blood-sucking insects, pluskwy, which dropped from the ceilings onto occupants of the roughly hewn beds. For more than 18 months, sleeping went hand-in-hand with scratching painful and itching bites.
Just before their second winter in Siberia, Anna’s father, Albin, accepted Stalin’s ‘amnesty.’3 The Soviet leader planned for the Poles to fight the German army then heading towards Moscow.
The Zatorski family left the wood-loving pluskwy to the NKVD’s next set of captives and joined the ragged but hopeful queues making their way through the unrelenting wilderness—their destination the Polish army’s enlistment stations in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
The abandoned Poles were expected to work for no wages at all and received neither food nor water.
Instead of allowing them through to Tashkent, however, Soviet soldiers steered their group to another kind of forced-labour—a Kazakhstani kolkhoz where any sleep was on the mud floor of a hut they found. The abandoned Poles were expected to work for no wages at all and received neither food nor water. The situation became so dire that Albin talked at one stage of returning his family to the NKVD facility.
During the next few months Anna lost one family member after the other.
She last saw her emaciated father and oldest brother, Józef, when they left that kolkhoz on a second attempt to find the Polish army. She knows that Władysław was later accepted into the Polish army’s cadet school but cannot remember how she, her mother and younger brother, Marian, managed to escape the USSR.
In Persia (now Iran) they did see Władysław once again, briefly, before he left for Palestine. While Walerija worked in a Teheran hospital Marian fell out of an upper storey window and died a week later.
In late November 1944, Anna’s room stood in the middle of a prefabricated dormitory building, one of several that had been specially constructed for Polish children and their caregivers north of Pahiatua in New Zealand’s lower central North Island.
Anna was pleased to have left behind the Middle East dust for the familiarity of another farming community. The New Zealand hills were steeper than those around her hometown of Waniów, and the camp population far larger, but Anna knew that she was safe again. She had her own bed, a pillow, sheets and blankets.
She loved being with her mother—and knew how lucky she was to still have her alive—but was never able to break through the invisible wall of camaraderie that surrounded the other girls.
“I was not treated differently by the adults. The children made that distance.”
Anna and Walerija’s sleeping arrangement had been completely logical in their previous accommodation, a Polish boys’ hostel in Isfahan, about 400 kilometres south of Teheran, where after Marian’s death Walerija first served as a so-called “housemistress.” There, from 1942 to 1944—up to 2,590 in 19434—Polish children and their caregivers lived temporarily in mansions, monasteries, convents and other institutions scattered around the city.
On 1 November 1944, Anna stepped on New Zealand soil with 837 other Poles invited by the New Zealand government to stay until the war ended. Unlike in Isfahan, New Zealand authorities decided to initially house all 733 children and their caregivers in one place.
The only suitable accommodation appeared to be an enemy alien internment camp created in 1943 on the site of a racecourse outside Pahiatua. Its 180 prisoners were returned to Somes Island, Wellington, and the New Zealand army built extensions for the Polish children, including classrooms, dining rooms and a huge communal hall.
Children with parents lived with them in separate staff quarters or, like Anna, within rooms in one of the eight dormitory blocks.
“We were not exactly part of the group. I was not treated differently by the adults. The children made that distance. I could never be close to them. I was in the dormitory but I wasn’t. I was in a little room with my mother.
“When things happened, they would all say, ‘Oh, but you’ve got your mother, that’s why you’re not doing this or that: You’ve got your mother…’
“Mind you, I know there was a bit of an advantage for one of the girls in my class. Her mother was a teacher. We had to share books. There were not enough books but she would always have a book. The rest of us would have to share and sometimes you got a book and sometimes you didn’t, and you still had to do whatever you had to do. I also said to her, ‘You’ve got a mother, that’s why you’ve got the book. I can’t get that book but you’ve got it.’
“There was always that distance, even now. When I came from Marton to Wellington in 1953, I knew so many girls, and I made lots of friends, but I was never as close as the kids from the ‘real’ Pahiatua camp, because I had a mother.
“I spoke to some of my friends about it—and I’ve got really good friends now—and they said, ‘Yes, that’s how it was.’”
Walerija Zatorska is second from the left, standing, in this photograph of Pahiatua caregivers and domestic staff. The others standing from left are: Leon Rudolf Rosenberg-Łaszkiewicz, Maria Węgrzyn, Stefania Nawalaniec, Ewa Benasiewicz, Elwira Kundycka, Paulina Jania and Julia Rolińska. In front, from left, are Zofia Sprusińska, Zofia Kołodyńska, Father Michał Wilniewczyc, Janina Kornobis, Weronia Woźniak, Helena Białostocka, Zdzisława Blaschke and Balbina Wojtowicz.5
Despite the detachment of her peers Anna’s Pahiatua memories are happy ones.
“The camp was well-provided, and we could go every so often to Pahiatua town, with special permission and not too big a group, to have a look at the ‘big city.’
“Every Sunday we had lots of New Zealanders visiting us, bringing lollies and chocolates and cakes and biscuits. Anything. They were wonderful, wonderful people. Every Sunday there was somebody arriving—in the afternoon, because in the morning we had Mass. I remember once we had a Maori group doing the haka.
“The concert that they gave us was lovely, with the grass skirts, and everything was fine. But when it came to haka, a lot of us wanted to leave the hall. They made their eyes wide and jumped and pulled out their tongues… We thought they were going to eat us. It was frightening, especially for the little ones who were sitting in the front.”
The photograph above shows the camp layout. The girls’ dormitories were located at (E), the boys’ dormitories at (I). The classrooms were (D), and the large white building at (G) was the communal hall. (L) marks the site of the grotto.6
In the classrooms there could sometimes be three years’ difference in ages, depending on the children’s levels of education when Soviet soldiers kidnapped their families in 1940 and 1941, and their circumstances in the various forced-labour facilities and kolkhozes.
“I liked most subjects but I struggled with maths up to Standard Three or Four. Then we got Pani Bucewicz and my marks shot up.
“The way she explained… We always had tests. She would spread the desks out so we couldn’t copy from anybody else… she would walk up and down and straight away she knew how you were working out the problems, because she was watching, and when the test finished, she would take the papers and ask, ‘Why didn’t you…? What didn’t you understand? Why did you do it like that?’ and she would explain.
“I thought that was so great. She was only little, but she was so good.
Anna’s favourite teacher, Maria Bucewicz, seen here with, from left, Elżbieta Kruszyńska, Zofia Iwan and Cecylia Gawlik.7
“I liked geography and nature study. We did not learn that much about New Zealand because we were going back to Poland. History was good but the teacher was elderly and she would ask us when this war was on and what happened on this or that date. We would write out a list of all the dates and pinned it on somebody sitting in front of us… I think half the time she was sleeping… and you read out, ‘This was then… that happened then.’ Dates, dates, dates, and so you passed history.
“We really resented the English teacher. Some of the kids took to it all right, and picked up the language and loved it, but a lot of us didn’t want to learn it. We found it quite hard and we just didn’t want it. She was a New Zealander, not knowing any Polish language at all, and she’s trying to teach us English?
“We were horrible to Miss Isaac and I remember her picking up a chalk and throwing it at somebody because she got so upset.
“We had one Polish lady trying to teach us physical education and—I remember it like today—she took us out to the big paddock behind the school and she told us to strip off completely. Some of the girls were already developing and she made us jump, and do this, and that… Some of the girls were crying.
“She only did it once. That was the end of it. Physical education no longer belonged to her.
“There was a piano that some of the kids wanted to play and we had a Polish lady, Mrs Kalińska, to teach us embroidery. I loved the embroidery classes. We made lots of lovely things. I don’t know what happened to it all. We couldn’t keep any of the stuff that we embroidered.
“She also used to teach drawing and painting. In my class I had two girls who were really good painters. If it was somebody’s birthday, we would make laurki [decorated cards]. They would paint a lovely picture and we would write some nice words.”
The camp lay in the Mangatainoka river valley near the road that later became State Highway 2. By the time the Polish children arrived, much of the dense bush had been cleared for dairying and sheep farming.
The Polish caregivers held onto their own sorrows and were not necessarily trained to cope with similarly traumatised children.
In summer the languid river provided dozens of swimming spots. Boys tied up ropes for swinging in the trees and some acquired bikes.
“There were some boys, they were so horrible, I remember one… I was so scared of him, because if you walked anywhere and he was coming, he would shout to you, ‘Get out of the road, get out of the way you baba!’
“They were more or less the same age as me, maybe a little bit older, but some of them just yelled, ‘Ty babo! Get off my way!’ as if I were a really old woman.
“It was pure aggression and it wasn’t because of my mother.”
Emotional and physical trauma shaped all the Poles in Pahiatua. Some had lost entire families. The Polish caregivers held onto their own sorrows and were not necessarily trained to cope with similarly traumatised children. Today post-traumatic stress is recognised but then it was luck whether a conflicted child had emotional or any family support.
Years later at a reunion, Anna chatted to some of the ‘boys.’ One told her he received regular “hidings.” Another said, “Nobody laid a finger on me.”
Anna remembers one of the teachers taking a group for a walk through the remote farming district:
“He took us somewhere on the mountain. I can’t remember exactly where but I know we were a long way away from Pahiatua. We were singing harcerskie [scouting] songs. It was great for the older children but half the young ones were passing out. Some of them were so tired, they had to be carried back on the older ones’ backs.
… camp authorities began to accelerate the children’s integration into the wider English-speaking society.
“I don’t know how many children went but it was quite a big group and there were quite a few hills. We found some sort of lasek [grove], not quite a forest, but quite a few trees. We never went again.
“I think the teacher had something to do with the boys because some of them were quite a handful. The people who l ooked after those children, I think they deserved more than a medal.”
Anna, a girl guide, enjoyed that walk. Scouting activities organised at the camp mirrored those that adults and children remembered doing at their schools in Poland.
“We used to go to the grotto and say prayers. And we’d sing and there would be somebody older, one of the college girls or Mrs Kozera, who was in charge, and we would be singing different songs. We went quite often, especially in May, or on Sundays, but sometimes we would just go there because we felt like it, and say a little prayer.”
By 1946, when it was clear there was no free Poland to return to, camp authorities began to accelerate the children’s integration into the wider English-speaking society.
New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser settled any possible post-war predicament by declaring that the orphaned children could wait until they were 21 to decide whether they wanted to return to communist-controlled Poland. Some adults and children found and joined family members in Poland. The Red Cross started to reunite Poles in New Zealand with family members who had served in the Polish army and who had been repatriated to the United Kingdom. Many came to New Zealand.
“Some men came from the [Polish] army and they were looking after the boys. The boys were growing up quickly and the army men made them march and all sorts of things. They were very strict with the boys, and then they had to keep an eye on the girls too because later on, when the men from the army came, there were quite a few girls that got pregnant.”
The Polish children left the camp to go to high schools all over New Zealand. Walerija left to work for an Italian priest in Pungarehu, south of New Plymouth, and for a time, Anna did join the girls in the dormitory. She left the Pahiatua camp to finish her Standard Six at the Catholic school in Opunake, 20 kilometres south of Pungarehu. Although she was the only Polish girl, Anna had absorbed enough English to slot in easily.
I learnt that you can never be late for anything. The bell rings and you go, you just go!
Because there was no Catholic college in Opunake, the following year Walerija moved Anna to the Sacred Heart College in New Plymouth. There were several Polish girls as day scholars, but Anna the only Polish boarder.
“They didn’t have many boarders because they were closing the convent. The building was very old. They were not doing much to it. We were about 10 girls all in this one room. The girls in the beds close to the windows closed them because they were cold but I was somewhere in the middle and suffocating, and that was really hard, horrible.
“Six o’clock, you had to get up, go for Mass, and then breakfast. I learnt that you can never be late for anything. The bell rings and you go, you just go!
“After school we could have afternoon tea and there was always a little scone or something. You had to go and take it. There was a little window; you slid it up and got your afternoon tea. One day I was late, a few minutes late. The nun saw me. I had my arm out and was just about to take it and she shut the window in front of me. That was it.
“I was a very hard person to feed in Pahiatua because I didn’t like this, I didn’t like that but at Sacred Heart I was always hungry. There was never enough food. There must have been but the prefect, the head girl, was the one giving out the portions. You could not help yourself, and the nuns didn’t put the food on your plate. It was that person serving you, so if she liked you, she might give you a little more, but if she didn’t… And she had really good friends, so it was never ever dished out fairly.”
Sometimes the whole period would go and you couldn’t get to your typewriter but you had to leave and go to another class.
“Mum visited me once a week. The priest would bring her to New Plymouth. I never had to go to footie on Friday. I was let out so I could go with my mother. She would buy me, say, a tin of biscuits to go back to school with. We all had cupboards but every time I went back to my cupboard, the cupboard was bare…
“We had extra English lessons but we were always ‘just the Polish group.’
“I was taking shorthand typing: You always had to fight to get to your typewriter. Sometimes the whole period would go and you couldn’t get to your typewriter but you had to leave and go to another class.
“The same with the sewing: You were supposed to learn sewing. Well, it took me a whole year to make a little apron. I had to sew it by hand because I couldn’t get to a sewing machine. That didn’t worry me because I was quite good at embroidery but that’s how long it took.
“One good thing was how they dealt with homework: You had tea [evening meal], then you had to go to a special study room and you had to do your homework. There was always a nun sitting at the desk. If you needed any help you could go over and ask her quietly.
“Quite often the next morning, I would go to my classroom and I’d have all the homework done and some girls would say, ‘Oh yeah, it’s all right for you, the nuns helped you out,’ but that was the routine and I thought that help was great.
“I was only there for a year. My mother met my stepfather [Polish veteran Antoni Characzko] and married, and that was the end the convent for me. Mum couldn’t afford to pay because it was expensive. In some ways I was glad.”
“In Marton everything was provided. Everybody had a typewriter. Everybody had a desk.“
Anna moved to Marton to live with her mother and Antoni, a carpenter who got a job building the Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital in nearby Rangitikei. Walerija worked as a seamstress making candlewick and chenille bedspreads in a local factory.
“They bought a little place in Marton. By that time my brother was coming from England. My stepsister, Helena, younger than me, still went to the convent as a primary student. I went to Marton college—such a big, big, big difference.
“In New Plymouth the girls would be chosen for, say, basketball. They were good runners, good throwers… and we, the ones who weren’t that sporty, well, we just had to sit there and watch. When I went to Marton—it was a public school, mixed boys and girls—you always had to do something when there was a sports lesson. One girl had a heart problem. She had to throw rings on a stick. I joined girls who were playing hockey, or rugby. I wasn’t in any team but I had to do physical education. I just had to do it. There was no excuse unless I had a note.
“In Marton everything was provided. Everybody had a typewriter. Everybody had a desk. We were even taught cooking, very plain things like making jam or making scones but it was practical knowledge, things like Mothercraft: How do you look after a baby?
“There was a woman who came with a little baby to show us how to bathe it, how to dress it, how to start getting the baby on the potty… We were just starting secondary school but girls used to get married quite young in those days.
“I always remember the poor baby, just little, and she’s holding him over the little potty, and that’s how I taught my own kids. By nine months, they were out of nappies, even my Alex, my grandson; I used to take him to playgroup and he never had to wear nappies.
“It was the same with the sewing. We were taught how to work out a pattern; if you wanted a pleats or something else in the skirt, how to increase or decrease the amount of material. I really liked that, and I did quite a bit of sewing later on.”
By the time Anna left Marton District High School, she spoke fluent English.
“Now I find it harder. I mispronounce words. Now you can pick me out that I am from another country, whereas before, I don’t think many people did. I can even hear it myself that I don’t speak English as I used to. I was more fluent.
“Mind you we always spoke Polish at home with Władek (Anna’s late husband).”
“… you were so different. You talked about the chooks that you had to feed. You had to go and work in the garden…’
Anna’s brother Władysław was unwittingly responsible for her meeting Władysław Piotrkowski. Around 1950 Władysław Zatorski needed an extended stay at Wellington hospital when he had to have part of a lung removed. Zofia Piotrkowska, Władysław’s mother, lived nearby with her daughter, Maria. Zofia and Walerija knew each other from Pahiatua and met one day. In typical Polish fashion, Zofia insisted that Walerija and Anna stay with her when they were in Wellington.
“Władek always said that his mother said to him, ‘Mrs Chareczko is coming with her daughter to see her son. You should meet her.’ He said, ‘How old is she?’ And when she told him, he said, ‘Mum, that’s a child, I want a woman and not a child.’ [Władysław was nearly 11 years older than Anna.] His mother said, ‘It doesn’t matter. You come and see her. You come for a meal and you meet her.’ And that’s how it happened, but I remember meeting him before then.
“I started working in Marton as an assistant in a boutique. One day I went for a trip to Wellington with my mother. Being a small-town girl, going to the city was a big event. There was a big Polish dance at one of the Newtown halls and I first met him there.
“He had other friends. When he arrived in Wellington, there were lots of girls, and lots of Polish girls. He could pick and choose almost any one but he said, ‘I will not marry a New Zealander, and not an English woman because I’ve seen my friends marry in England and it wasn’t a marriage.’
“He met some Polish girls that he liked, but they said, ‘You haven’t got anything. I want somebody that has got this and that, nice car and nice that…’ and Władek said, ‘Well, I haven’t got any of that,’ and let them go.
“Sometimes we used to talk about it and he said, ‘When I met you, you were so different. You talked about the chooks [chickens] that you had to feed. You had to go and work in the garden…’
“That’s how it was in Marton. I had to do the shopping because mum and dad were working. Mum would say to me, ‘Get this and this and this ready and when I come home, I’ll finish.’
“But I did like him the first time I saw him. I thought he was very handsome, beautifully dressed. He had very nice manners. That’s what I liked about him and yet I never thought I’d marry him because in Wellington there were lots of girls.
“And then one day a friend invited him to Palmerston North to be a godfather. The mother had two sisters. After the christening, the father went to the races but Władek decided to come to Marton to visit me, to see where we live. He had to go by bus or by train because nobody had cars then.
“At that time with the Poles, anybody from anywhere could knock at your door and say, ‘Hello, I haven’t seen you for ages,’ or ‘Hello, this is my friend, so-and-so.’ It was a very popular thing to do. You never had to ring up somebody or tell them you’re coming. Whatever food you had at that time, you put it out on the table and everybody had a good time.
“And then later on, Władek’s brother was getting married (to Pam Kowalewska, from Inglewood) and I was invited to be a bridesmaid, with Władek a groomsman. I didn’t know the bride at all before the wedding and I hardly knew Zbyszek. He had a big motorbike. He and Władek were so different.”
Anna and Władysław married in January 1953, at St Francis’ church in Marton. Walerija’s former employer and Italian friend, Rev Eugene Carmine of Pungarehu, officiated.
“My mother really wanted that priest to marry us. He was such a good friend of the family, such a warm man. When I was a boarder and home for the weekend, he used to take me with him to the Maori settlement where he helped out. He said that one day I would make a great nun.”
Władysław and Anna after their marriage ceremony with Rev Eugene Carmine and Władysław’s brother Zbigniew, who was one of the groomsmen. His sister, Maria, one of the bridesmaids, is behind Anna. The flower girl was Danuta Wos.
At Władysław and Anna's reception, right, with Walerija and her second husband, Antoni Characzko and above, Zofia Piotrkowska.
Władysław Zatorski married Alicia Dombrowska, whom he met on holiday in Poland.
“They married again when they came back because in Poland it was only the civil wedding, and my mama said that they should have a proper wedding.”
Anna and Władysław’s first child, Basia, was born in Wellington in 1955 when Anna and Władysław were still living in Daniell Street, Newtown. Bogdan arrived five years later, when they lived for a few months in Titahi Bay.
“We always spoke Polish with the children and it was the first language they spoke. When Bogdan started kindergarten—he must have been about three and a half—the teacher said, ‘You shouldn’t be bringing him here because he cannot speak English.’ I had to help out in the kindergarten because Bogdan couldn’t speak English, but he made connections with the kids. They play, they don’t have to know the language.
“Later on a different teacher came to the kindergarten. She said, ‘He’s good, there is nothing to worry about,’ and I didn’t have to stay with him.
“When he went to school I asked the teacher how he was getting on, she said, ‘He’s the top of the class.’
“He had a friend living not very far from us, David, a lovely boy. My Bogdan would try to speak English, try to give a different twang, and David would speak English. They were good as gold. They used to know how to talk to each other, and yet that little David, when the other kids were walking home from school, he’d be sitting on the street and he would give them hidings, and yet he and Bogdan never had one fight, ever.
“He was a little bit older than Bogdan, and one day came to our place after school and started to complain. I said, ‘What happened, David?’ He said, ‘Ooh, I was belting them up and they all came climbing on me.’ He never touched anybody after that. His mother and father were always fighting, and every time he’d come to our house he would tell me a different story about what his father was doing. He wanted to have a father who would be doing something wonderful.”
The Piotrkowski family at Anna's 60th birthday celebrations in 1994.
Anna is now a great-grandmother, something that has helped her deal with her husband’s death on 1 February 2015. Basia, a teacher, married Murray Powell, a school principal; their son, Aleksander, now has two sons of his own, Ryder and Jakob. Bodgan died on 15 March 2013. His widow, Jane, née Mabson, and two sons, Jordan and Vincent, live close enough for regular visits.
A certain café in Upper Hutt hosts a full table of Polish chatter most Sundays after Polish Mass in Avondale. Congregation members like Anna gather casually and enjoy one another’s company for an hour or so. It is not the 800-strong Little Poland of Pahiatua, but it remains an appreciated link to their Polish heritage for those who arrived in 1944, and others years later.
Anna’s invisible wall has long lost its power.
© Barbara Scrivens, 2017.
ALL PHOTOGRAPHS FROM THE PIOTRKOWSKI COLLECTION.
THANKS TO THE NORTH AUCKLAND RESEARCH CENTRE IN THE TAKAPUNA LIBRARY FOR THE LOAN OF AUDIO RECORDING EQUIPMENT.
- 1 - I made the decision to stay with the old-fashioned term because that is the employment description used for Walerija Zatorska and many others in the book Isfahan, City of Polish Children edited by Irena Beaupré-Stankiewicz, Danuta Waszczuk-Kamieniecka and Jadwiga Lewicka-Howells, OBE, Association of Former Pupils of Schools, Isfahan and Lebanon, 1989, ISBN 0 9512550 1 2. Pani Anna described her mother as one of the wychowawczynie, for which the translation “carergiver” does not do justice.
- 2 - The NKVD, or Narodny Kommisariat Vnutrennikh Del was the Soviet Union’s Secret Police, known officially as the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs.
- 3 - In this and other stories, I use the apostrophes to show that the ‘amnesty’ was a farce. An amnesty is defined as an official pardon for those who have committed political offences, but the Poles living in eastern Poland in 1940 and 1941 did nothing to deserve their abduction to the USSR. If Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa had not threatened his former alliance partner, Stalin would not have turned to the West for help.
- 4 - Ibid, Isfahan, City of Polish Children, page 127.
- 5 - New Zealand Electronic Text Collection, through Victoria University of Wellington Library,
NEW ZEALAND'S FIRST REFUGEES: PAHIATUA'S POLISH CHILDREN,
http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-PolFirs-t1-g1-g2-t52.html#n192, page IX.
- 6 - Ibid, page IV.
- 7 - Ibid, page XVII.