Rosalia Gierszewski

This is an oral story, written by and for storyteller, Margaret Copland, designed for performance and delivered in a Polish New Zealand accent. It is closely based on the life of Margaret's great-great-aunt, Rosalia Gierszewski, an immigrant on the friedeburg and one of the first settlers in the Marshland swamp.


by Margaret Copland

What am I doing here? In this Christchurch where everyone is English. These English peoples—they don't speak any one else's language.

My name is Rosalia Gierszewski. When I am young my father come. He say to me,

I find you the very good husband. You marry Jan, the good Polish boy from the good Catholic family.

So I marry Jan, and after the wedding the soldiers come. They take him away to the Prussian Army. I am alone, working on the farm of my in-laws.

Katarzyna, she is my friend, the tailor's daughter, and Michał is Jan's brother. He is apprenticed to that tailor so the marriage is arranged and Michał go also into that Prussian Army because here in West Prussia, every boy when he is twenty year old, he go into the Prussian Army for five year. The old people are wise. They say,

Find the boy a wife. Get him married. Then we have someone to help do the work on the farm.

For five year I am waiting, waiting for Jan to come home. Then he come. But he is the angry man. He don't like to be the Prussian soldier. I don't know if he like me. I am married for five year but I don't know my husband.

He is a worried man. Everywhere the Prussians are coming. They are buying up the land, making the big estates, bringing in the machinery. When the poor man go to the market the price is very bad. We don't have the money to pay the rent. We try to find more work but everyone looking for work and the wages very small. We borrow the money.

I have a son, little Szymon. Michał come back from the war. I think Jan happy. He has a son and he has his brother. Soon Michał and Katarzyna have a son also.

But the Government, he say:

No more Prussia! Now Germany!

That German Empire, it don't leave the Polish people alone. We have to speak German in the market-place. The children have to speak German in the school, even in the Sunday school. How can they learn the Holy Catholic Polish faith in German? You might as well try to pray in German!

That Kaiser and the Bismarck! They want to control the church. The archbishop is in the prison. They are giving the money to the German people to come and colonise West Prussia. They are taking our land. There is no hope for us here in West Prussia.

Jan say,

We go to America.

All the people in the villages; the Borkowskis, the Boloskis, the Symanskis, the Gierzewskis, the Grochowskis—they all want to go to America.

It's hundreds and hundreds of miles to Hamburg and we are walking. Walking and walking and walking. Me and Jan and my son, Szymon, my new baby Anna and the Borkowskis, the Boloskis, the Symanskis, the Growskis and the Grochowskis, all of us praying to St Christopher for the very good journey.

We arrive in Hamburg but everything is confusing. All the boats… They are going to America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. Everyone is shouting and those people in Hamburg, they got the very funny accent. We can't understand them. We are lost and tired.

But the New Zealand agent is a friendly man. He find for us a place in the barracks. He give us the good advice:

Don't go to America! They just had a civil war. Don't go to Australia! Too many convicts! You go to New Zealand. In New Zealand a man like you he earn six shilling a day.

He say,

I like you. You got the honest face. I lend you the money.

I want to go to America. In America there is the place called Chicago and I hear that in that Chicago there are some Polish people. They don't say that about New Zealand. Jan, he want to earn six shilling a day.

We go on the ship friedeburg. It's a very long way and no priest to say Mass for us. Every day on that ship they give us salt meat. I'm not fussy but I don't like that meat. I just long for the good cabbage soup. All the people on the ship they come from Norway, Denmark and Sweden and no one speak English so we can learn nothing. One day we wake up and we see nothing, nothing at all, just fog, the very thick fog. They say to us,

You are arrive in Canterbury, New Zealand. Tomorrow the beginning of Spring!

What can we do? We see nothing at all. We say our prayers and go to sleep.

In the morning the little boat is coming out of the fog. We are on the deck, singing. Singing across the water to the little boat. It come alongside and there is Mr Ruddenclau, the interpreter. He speak to us in German. He say,

Welcome to Canterbury. Don't worry you don't speak English. There are some Germans here and you don't need much English to work…

He ask every man,

How was your voyage? Did you have good food and clean water?

My Jan is a good man. He know how he must answer the official. When they ask him the question he say,

Ja… Ja… Ja.

But some of those Polish people, they complain. There is the reporter from the star newspaper, writing, writing, writing… and in the newspaper they write,

Polish people complain.

It's not good.

Monday morning we are off the boat and on the train, through the tunnel and in Addington, Christchurch in twenty minutes. They give us good food; fresh mutton, potatoes, cabbage and the water in Christchurch—the best in the world.

For three days we are looking around Christchurch. We go to the Botanic Gardens and see all the little trees they are planting. We go to the square and there is that protestant cathedral, green with moss because they start to build eight year ago and they run out of money, those protestants.

Friday, we are in the barracks, waiting for the employer to come. He come to the single women. He come to the single men but he don't come to the married people. Fifty-four families and only four employed. Saturday is better. Twenty- seven families employed but not the Borkowskis, the Boloskis, the Symanskis and the Gierszewskis. All of us we are waiting in the barracks.

Sunday they close the barracks. We go to church, the church of the Blessed Sacrament in Barbadoes St and all those Irish people, they make us very welcome. There is the Irish woman there, married to the German man, Frau Poninghaus. She talk with us. She say,

All the people here are Irish, but the priest is French. Thank God the mass is in Latin.

I say to Jan,

You pray to St Joseph. Find us the work. I pray to the Virgin, just in case.

All the week we are waiting in the barracks, and the next week also. Me and Jan we pray to St Jude, the patron saint of hopeless cases and of course our prayers are answered. Mr Holmes come into the barracks. He say,

All of you, you come to my place in Pigeon Bay.

So we go to Pigeon Bay. He give us a house. You see my house. It's a very bad house. Just a timber worker's hut but Mr Holmes is a good man. He say,

I give you the dynamite and the bullock team and you can pull out the stumps. Make this land ready for the farmer and for that work I give you six shilling a day. You can plant potatoes on that waste ground. You can shoot the rabbit and catch the fish.

One day my Jan go into the forest and he see a pig, a wild pig. He shoot that pig and I am afraid. If a man shoot a pig in Prussia they hang him and what I do if my Jan is in trouble? Mr Holmes come and he see that pig. He say,

A fine pig, Mr Gearszewski.

He don't care that Jan shoot a pig. I say to Jan,

We are now the aristocrat!

Summertime come. Ground very hard. We can no longer pull the stumps but everywhere growing the cocksfoot. It belong to no one. We go into the hills and harvest and harvest that cocksfoot. In two months—a years wages. We write to Katarzyna and Michał,

This is a very good country. We are the aristocrat who shoot the pig and harvest the grass that belong to no one.

We get the letter. In West Prussia no one coming to buy from the little tailor so they are coming. They are coming! But they don't find a ship going to New Zealand in Hamburg. They get on the wrong boat. They go to Australia. It's a very bad ship, that ss humbolt. It got the scarlet fever and all their children die. They don't like that Maryborough, Australia. The little tailor don't want to work in the sugar cane fields and they are coming!

While we wait for them there is a man who come on a brown horse. He want to talk to the Polish people. His name is Mr Reece. He buy land, swamp land in Christchurch. They build the ditch and the swamp begin to sink but underneath the swamp there is a forest. The big kahikatea and the totara trees, they fall over in the swamp and everywhere there are great humps of swamp timber. No one can plough that land.

We go and we look. We take one farm for us and one for Michał and Katarzyna. There's one for the Borkowskis, the Boloskis, the Pierkarskis, the Gierszewskis, the Grofskis, the Grochowskis, the Watembachs, the Symanskis and the Kiesanowskis. Land for everyone. Look at our land. There is flax we can sell to the mill, rushes for making the floor and thatching the roof and when summertime come we go to the hills and harvest the grass that belong to no one.

One day our land is clear and drained and we can plough. We plant carrots and sell to the Christchurch Transport Board in Riccarton and bring home the dray load of horse manure to sweeten our land. Soon we have the best land in the world for growing onions and we are the onion kings of Marshland. So when you in Christchurch you eat plenty of onions—they are grown by the great grand children of the Borkowskis, the Boloskis, the Symanskis, the Gierszewskis and the Kiesanowskis.

© Margaret Copeland, 1999
Updated 2016.


This story is found in Margaret Copland's book, Portraits of Pioneers: Stories from Canterbury, New Zealand, ISBN: 0-473-09947-0. Email: