Curiosity drives any family genealogist, and Paul Klemick is a curious man. He was also a curious child.
“I was very young, not even a teenager, when I asked my father where our name came from. ‘What do you want to know that for?’ he said, ‘That lot were all brought and sold as slaves.’
“He always called them ‘that lot.’ When I joined the Polish society some years later, he was still the same: ‘What did that lot ever do for society?’”
Rather than put off his second son, his father’s dismissal of his Polish roots further ignited Paul’s imagination.
“Who were these people? Why were my family like they were? Why did my father call my grandfather Phil the Flogger?”
Paul found out that his great-grandfather, Franz, arrived in Lyttelton harbour in 1874, among the Poles aboard the Gutenberg. He was aged 18, and had travelled with his parents, Maciej Klemik and Anna née Smolinska, and his younger brothers Theodore (Felix) and Martin.
Also aboard the Gutenberg was Paul’s great-grandmother, 17-year-old Franciszka Chełkowska, who travelled alone but who was joining her married sister Veronica Anis in Waihola. Franz and Franciszka married in 1882, and first settled in Waihola.
Dunedin born and raised Paul started gathering and recording information. By the early 1990s, he was corresponding with Taranaki-based Ray Watembach of the Polish Genealogical Society, who had worked with academic Jerzy (George) Pobóg-Jaworowski on his book History of Polish Settlers in New Zealand.
In 1998, Paul answered an advertisement in Dunedin’s weekly publication, The Star, that invited people in the area to join the Polish Heritage of Otago and Southland. He went to the new society’s inaugural meeting, and met Patricia Clark, who had answered the same advertisement. Patricia recognised Paul—for years at Mass at St Paul’s in Corstorphine, she had sat in the pew behind the Klemick’s, and had seen Paul grow up. They found out that they were third cousins, once removed. They met other Poles.
POHOS planned its first exhibition of Poles in Otago, and gave Paul and Patricia the task of gathering material.
“There was no material then. Patricia and I visited and filmed people, and created an exhibition of what we found. By then, I had got to know other Polish people in Dunedin, and found people missing from George’s book.
“Before POHOS, I always thought it would be good to do something for the Polish people. They were a forgotten people, ignored, treated as if they were nobodies. I wanted to promote them in the community. Now they are culturally a part of the community, always counted in when there are cultural events.”
Paul’s grandfather believed the family was German, but Paul knew instinctively that they were not.
“I had a recurring dream as a little boy: I was in Europe, hiding from soldiers in barns, forests, all sorts of places, and always—just before someone saw me—I’d wake. I still remember those dreams.”
In 1994, Ray wrote to Paul: “Your letter is not straightforward, but full of enquiries…” and explained how the Germans, during their partitioning of north-western Poland between 1779 and 1918, germanised Polish names. Ray sent Paul books, church records, and Paul began to build a picture of not only his extended family, but also the families of other descendants of early Polish settlers in the Otago region.
“I spent so much time at the New Zealand Archives in Dunedin, I hadn’t been back for years, but when I popped in the other day, the lady there recognised me.”
Ray at first thought Paul’s family was Kaszubian, but that, too, did not sit well with him.
“At the first POHOS dinner in 1998 with the board members and descendants, I turned the menu over. On the back, were the cultural regions of Poland, and as soon as I saw Kociewie, I knew that was where we came from.”
Paul found his roots, and went three times to Poland to investigate them further.
Since the launch of his book, Poles Down South, in Dunedin this month, other descendants have asked why it took him so long to put together.
“I say to them, yes, it has taken all those years to put together, but it was tough to get my head around all the complex stories. We are all related in some way.”
I counted at least 116 Polish names in just one of the book’s appendices. As a fellow researcher, I appreciate the twists and turns that Paul would have faced in unravelling the information behind all those names, and the unexpected paths that he had to resolve as he followed threads and made sense of the stories attached to those names. This is an informative tome, filled with narrative, and backed by scores of pages of information that invites any family genealogist to pick up and follow.
From me, Paul, well done! I am proud of you and your tenacity. I continue to respect your staunch work-ethic, your dogged research, your patient kindness, and most of all, your unstinting curiosity.
30 November 2023
Anna Gruczyńska took the photographs at the book launch. The family photograph is from the Klimeck family collection. The book’s cover illustration comes from the Toitū Otago Settler’s Museum collection and is named Waihola railway workers.
To purchase a copy of Poles Down South by Paul Klemick, please contact POHOS through https://polesdownsouth.org.nz/book-launch-poles-down-south/
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Tell us a bit about yourselves, said the president of our Polish association after she had gathered her fellow committee members to the front of the hall.
The occasion was our commemoration in Auckland of 79 years since the Pahiatua children arrived in New Zealand.
I heard committee members to my right say they were descended from this or that Pahiatua family. Easy. This was a Pahiatua audience in a hall with a display of 12 pull-up panels showing Pahiatua history. Next to me, I heard my friend Anna say that her family had arrived here differently, through Africa, and I went along with that, because several members of my family had been through Africa too. I fumbled, said it was complicated, and froze. The four committee members who spoke after me were born in Poland, and had arrived here between two and five years ago.
It made me think. Anna and I happened to be stuck between Pahiatua and Poland, neither of which are identities that need explanation in New Zealand. If someone says, “I’m descended from such-and-such Pahiatua family,” Poles in Auckland know that they arrived in Wellington in 1944. If someone living here says, “I was born in Poland,” again, no explanation necessary.
But for those of us, like Anna and me, who came the long way around—not born in Poland, but of Polish parents and grandparents who went through the same trauma as the Pahiatua children, and who ended up in Polish refugee camps in Africa rather than in New Zealand, a 30-second explanation is inadequate.
Is it appropriate to tell a Pahiatua audience that the Pahiatua children were lucky, compared to those Poles stuck in east and south-east Africa years after WW2 ended? Soon after it became clear that Poland’s efforts in the war were in vain, and the country ‘given’ to Stalin in 1945 by her supposed allies, Great Britain and the USA, the New Zealand government invited the 733 children and their 105 caregivers to stay—if they wished.
This was a good year earlier than the Polish soldiers languishing in Italy after their heroics in battles such as the fourth, finally victorious one at Monte Cassino in May 1944. British MPs badgered the Polish soldiers to return ‘home’ to help ‘rebuild’ Poland. Most of the soldiers of Władysław Anders’ Second Polish Corps refused: the British MPs seemed to have no notion of the fact that the Polish soldiers had no homes to return to, because they were in the very part of Poland that had been gifted to the USSR. Besides not wanting to return to a communist-controlled country, they were also aware that the reason Soviet soldiers forced them and their families—at gunpoint—to leave those homes in 1940 and 1941, was because their names were on the Soviet Secret Police’s list of “anti-Soviet elements.” They had heard stories of Polish soldiers returning to post-war Poland, and disappearing.
While Pahiatua children, growing into adulthood, slipped into New Zealand society, those like my mother and uncles in Africa waited. The British government finally created the Polish Resettlement Act of 1947, and soldiers in Italy moved into disused army and air force barracks all over the UK. Slowly, their families were allowed to join them, and eventually also the widows of soldiers and their children. In 1947, the first ships with Polish refugees arrived in the UK from the Middle East and India. From 1948 to 1951, the African refugee camps emptied.
On 1 November 1944, groups of New Zealanders went down to the railway tracks between Wellington and Pahiatua to wave to the two trains carrying the Polish refugees to their new home in Pahiatua. They stopped for two hours in Palmerston North as residents there showered them with gifts.
The Poles who arrived in the UK received no such welcome. Rather, they were cold-shouldered. Veteran Adam Piotrzkiewicz, for example, told me how the residents of Cirencester made such a fuss about the Polish soldiers that they had to move. Still, as around 250,000 Polish refugees moved into scores of Polish resettlement camps in England, Scotland, and Wales, they developed strong Polish communities inevitably nick-named “Little Poland” by the locals. Outside of the camps, much like in New Zealand, other Polish communities flourished. Ours in Dunstable-Luton had a Polish Saturday school.
By the time I was born, my parents, paternal babcia, and uncles had moved on from the Stover Polish Refugee Camp in Devon, but my maternal babcia still lived there. Memories of spending every summer holiday there, with her and her second husband, always make me smile. They were lucky enough to be on the edge of the camp, and dziedek made a gate for access to the forest beyond.
We picked forest chanterelles. We played in the wild garden. We made money by finding lost balls in the golf course next door. When my father was there—he dropped us off the first week of the holidays and returned for us the last—we went to beaches and always, a trip to Hay Tor, where, after braving the rock, we gathered blueberries from bushes scattered among sheep droppings.
I know that my Polish childhood on the other side of the world was very different from the childhoods of those in our Auckland hall yesterday. Until we emigrated to South Africa, I had the best of both Polish worlds. I am grateful for that grounding, and I know that if I had to speak in a Polish hall anywhere in England, I would not need to explain much about my background.
October 30, 2023
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To read about Adam Piotrzkiewicz’s story, go to https://polishhistorynewzealand.org/adam-piotrzkiewicz/
Anyone wanting to find Florinda Lambert in the 1980s would have had a good chance of success on any Friday afternoon if they went to the New Plymouth library’s newspaper collections.
For years, the retired schoolteacher and farmer’s wife donated that time to scour newspapers, publications, and historical records for items she thought might be of interest to the Polish community in Taranaki, and Inglewood in particular.
In those days, her son Ron, another dedicated historical researcher, was a director at the New Plymouth Museum that shared cramped accommodation with the local library before the concept emerged of creating a joint library and museum, now Puke Ariki, which Ron helped establish.
President of the Polish Genealogical Society, Ray Watembach: “The library-museum was a comfortable place for her to visit her son and stop for a cup of coffee as she looked for Polish stories. She enjoyed a kind of diplomatic immunity as she took books from one place to another.
“She was one of those genuine people who knew she had a story to tell. She thought there was a lot of history that people didn’t know, which she thought they should know. She was one of the few who made a real attempt to read Polish records.
“At that time there was a lot of interest in the early pioneers of Taranaki who chopped down bush to clear land for their farms. She knew that others of her generation had the same background.”
The year 1976 was a big one for Taranaki Poles, many of whom became interested in their heritage during the 100th anniversary celebrations of the first Polish settlers in the area off the ship, the Fritz Reuter. The original guest list expanded to nearly 2,000 when Poles who arrived in New Zealand as child refugees in November 1944 found out, and wanted to meet the families of those who had hosted them during school holidays.
That series of functions piqued the interest in Polish genealogy of several descendants of Taranaki Poles, Florinda among them.
In an article All About Me, she wrote that her maiden name had been shortened from Voitrekovsky to Voitre, and wrote that Voitrekovsky was almost the correct phonetic pronunciation of the correct Polish original, Wojciechowski.
Florinda was the granddaughter of one of the first Polish settlers in Taranaki. Her grandfather, Feliks Wojciechowski, arrived in New Zealand from Prussian-partitioned Poland as a single man in 1875. He married Irish woman Margaret Reidy, and eventually settled in Hawera.
Before the internet, research involved painstaking reading, and that is exactly what Florinda did. She read, found, and transcribed thousands of records relating to the social history of Inglewood and the surrounding district. Her accumulated 11 volumes took her nearly 20 years to gather. They are published under the title All about Inglewood, available at the Puke Ariki’s research centre, and gave me my first indication of the breadth and depth of Polish influences in the area.
Some of the first stories she found dealt with the ‘acquisition’ from Māori of “large blocks of land” in 1873 and 1874, the sale of the first Moa blocks in 1875, and Inglewood’s “Christening” on 22 January 1875. Shorter transcriptions of early stories—some a few lines—mention “improvements” to the centre of Inglewood by clearing a “large open space in the centre of it” (19 July 1879), a Mr Vickers of Inglewood losing 100 ewes and lambs through poisonous toadstools (5 November 1887), and dairy factory payouts that included £5,288 for Moa farmers (25 May 1928).
Florinda was born in 1920, and grew up with two younger sisters on her parents’ farm on the Lower Norfolk Road southeast of Inglewood. One of her first memories was riding into Inglewood with her mother, also Florinda, in a “smart little horse and gig.” She was old enough during the 1930s Depression to remember her parents “fashioning furniture, such as crude chairs and footstools, out of cheese crates and butter and benzine boxes.”
After her schooling in Norfolk and Stratford, and qualifying from Auckland Teacher’s Training College, Florinda married Andrew Lambert in 1942 and brought up three sons on their returned serviceman’s farm on Bedford Road southwest of Inglewood.
The Lamberts ‘retired’ in 1979, but Andrew kept 60 acres in Bedford Road, and busied himself with the North Taranaki Acclimatisation Society, and Florinda was just as occupied. She may have slowly relinquished roles at various organisations, but kept up those closest to her: she loved music, played violin and was in the St Andrew’s Church choir in Inglewood before spending more than 30 years as its organist, and she loved croquet: While she was researching at the Taranaki Museum, she was still holding down the role of greenkeeper at Inglewood Croquet Club.
She was a founding member of the Polish Genealogical Society in 1988, and made it her mission to ensure that the new Fritz Reuter Place fountain was built and running—the committee that organised the memorial site in the middle of Inglewood disbanded, but Florinda was on hand to replace the plaque and flowers that was later stolen, and to deal with the detergent that someone decided to put into the fountain.
In 1997, Florinda Louise Lambert received a New Zealand Order of Merit for services to her community.
She died in March 2007, but she lives on in her work and her vision. I did not know her, but once I started investigating Poles in New Zealand, it was inevitable that she would make herself known to a new researcher.
No one person can ever reinvent a wheel and see it to its journey’s end, because the journey does not end. Researchers can only progress by being able to lean on the shoulders of what others have done before us, and I consider primary research such as that carried out by Florinda Lambert a priceless gift.
If you would like to comment on this post, or any other story, please email firstname.lastname@example.org/
Find Florinda Lambert’s Voitrekovsky family story on our Early Settlers page, or click on https://polishhistorynewzealand.org/voitrekovsky-family/
Florinda’s niece, Faye née Major Dravitzki, was another in the family who has been recognised for her volunteering work in New Plymouth. For her story, click on https://polishhistorynewzealand.org/faye-nee-major-dravitski/
The photograph of Florinda comes from Polish Genealogical Society newsletter no. 30, and the early photograph of Inglewood and Florinda in the croquet dress, from All About Inglewood.
When I first heard of the Polish Army League, the first image I had was of men in khaki milling around a musty office with dull windows and overcrowded desks. It had to be somewhere in England, where the Polish government-in-exile resided after the fall of France to Germany in 1940. I was so wrong.
A group of women in Palmerston North with no connection to Poland at the time, established the Polish Army League in December 1941; its only function—to ease the loneliness of Polish soldiers then in the Middle East.
The men were among those who had escaped Poland with the Polish army in the early stages of WW2, and had lost contact with their families left behind in a Poland under the grip of German and Russian occupation. However much they may have yearned to, any communication between them and family still in Poland would have placed the latter in extreme danger.
Like many others in New Zealand, when the war started, Ann Jacques joined so-called patriotic drives to collect, make, and pack items to send to New Zealand servicemen abroad. The Red Cross concentrated on sending weekly food parcels to the 8,469 New Zealand prisoners-of-war, and gave towns the space to support their own residents serving overseas, which they did with generosity.
In Palmerston North, the United Guild’s members were soon running an effective production line of parcels for soldiers. They solved their own problems: The country lacked wool for knitting; they invited spinning experts to show them how to spin. Ann Jacques was the United Guild’s honorary secretary and in October 1941, became patron of the Rosemary Club, formed for the wives and relatives of soldiers. She used the local newspapers to great effect, advertising events and meetings, writing letters to the editors, and making editorial contributions.
Ann wasted no time once she learnt that Polish soldiers fighting alongside New Zealanders in the Middle East did not receive as much as a message from home, far less the letters and “comfort packages” so familiar to their New Zealand counterparts. She could not accept that on mail days, the mailroom the New Zealanders and Poles shared became a stark reminder of the discrepancy.
On 14 December 1941, she gathered the core of the women who became the heart of the Polish Army League. They worked in the United Guild’s workrooms in the PDC department store in central New Plymouth, where passers-by could not fail to see their advertisements in one of the window displays.
All sorts of groups and clubs donated items that the women of the PAL packed into parcels. In September 1942, a Mr Hickin contributed 60 tobacco tins that he had painted, for use as “permanent soap boxes.” By then the women were well-able to transform the bales of wool donated by farmers into yarn.
New Zealand members of the Polish Army League took the time to write letters to Polish soldiers desperate for contact with the “outside world.” The PAL organised Polish members to translate. Members baked, sewed, knitted, and collected. Any monies donated went into buying goods, and the PAL executive paid for all postage sent from Palmerston North.
By the end of the war, the PAL had become a nation-wide hub of around 8,000 members who ‘adopted’ the lonely Polish soldiers. Ann Jacques and her team gained the gratitude and appreciation of the Polish soldiers—to such an extent that in 1946, soldiers of the 3rd Carpathian Infantry Division sent their own artworks to the Polish Army League, which led to a country-wide exhibition.
After the war, Ann and the PAL continued to raise funds and encouraged members to send food parcels to needy families in communist-controlled post-war Poland.
This week, writer and cinematographer Warren Elliott, who introduced me to Ann Jacques and the Polish Army League, reminded me that we don’t make enough of a fuss about the silent support that those soldiers received from ‘ordinary’ people who read about Ann’s campaign and did something about it. During his research on his wider documentary project surrounding the Polish Army League, he discovered a humanity on both sides of the language barrier.
I started to write for this website because I wanted to give a platform to Polish stories. I had grown up hearing a distorted history of Poland’s effort in WW2, and was spurred into action by Churchill’s statement: “History shall be kind to me because I intend to write it.”
Delving into the stories of Polish service men and women in the Polish army, navy, and air force has been a satisfying task, and our War Immigrants pages abound with stories where Polish soldiers played pivotal roles in several crucial battles during WW2.
But Warren is right: Too often we don’t acknowledge enough some of the quiet angels who work behind the scenes, like Ann Jacques, who never took on a role as chair, but who gave a special meaning to the description “organising secretary.”
Find the Ann Jacques/ Polish Army League story on our War Immigrants page, or click on: https://polishhistorynewzealand.org/ann-kathleen-nee-jobson-jacques/
The photograph was taken by Elmar studios, 459 Main Street, Palmerston North, in May 1942, and digitised by Manawatū Heritage, Palmerston North Libraries.
Today, 75 years ago, the Carnarvon Castle docked at Southampton carrying 1,173 Polish refugees. Aboard were both my widowed grandmothers, my mother, and four uncles.
The 1,173 had embarked in Durban and Mombasa, and had been among more than 21,000 mainly women and children who had spent more than five years in Polish refugee camps in southern and eastern Africa. They had escaped the forced-labour facilities of the USSR in 1942 with their husbands, uncles, and siblings who had enlisted in a Polish army formed there. While their menfolk fought in European conflicts, the Allied military authorities sent them to Africa.
I know the date—28 June 1948—but would not have remembered the anniversary had I not received an email from the National Archives in London last Friday telling me that it was Windrush Day, marking 75 years since the arrival to the UK of the Empire Windrush from the Caribbean. I waited for news of a Carnarvon Day, but it did not materialise.
I found the Carnarvon Castle passenger list in 2010 thanks to a website about the 265 Polish Resettlement Camps established in Britain from 1946 in former British, American, and Canadian army and air force barracks. The website had a list of ships carrying Polish refugees. My mother, Kazimiera Surowiec, had told me they arrived from Africa in 1948. I went through each ship’s passenger list until I found my Surowiec and Nieścior family members, coincidentally, on the same ship.
I wondered whether my grandmothers had met on the ship, or whether my uncles had played with one another. The latter scenario was more probable, because boys play, and my uncles were then aged 11, 12, 13, and 15, but it was more likely that groups that had been together for the past five years, remained together on the ship.
The Windrush also carried Polish refugees—66 who had been living in a Polish refugee camp in Mexico, and who joined the ship in Tampico—but besides the Windrush Poles, the make-up of the passengers on the two ships was very different. The Carnarvon Castle carried 470 children and teenagers, while most of the 1,027 Windrush passengers were former service personnel who embarked in Trinidad, Kingston, Havana, and Bermuda. Of the 84 men aboard the Carnarvon Castle only two had military backgrounds: a 66-year-old Colonel Feliks Dziewicki, who boarded in Durban with his wife, and a 53-year-old Feliks Burlinski, who gave his occupation as “military” and apparently travelled alone from Mombasa.
On the Carnarvon Castle, single mothers headed 238 of the families aboard—71 percent. Single fathers headed just seven families. The ages of the 53 fathers who arrived with their wives and children ranged from 48 to 73. The dearth of men, and their ages, reflected the fact that during their escape from the USSR, any Polish man who could, joined the Polish army.
The Carnarvon Castle passenger list shows 24 sets of parentless siblings: 14 of those brothers and sisters had just one sibling, eight had two, and two groups shared three siblings. Six families were three-generational, and the note that 72-year-old Maria Stano “did not sail” next to the date 4 June 1948, suggests that this was when passengers embarked at Mombasa.
My mother, and my uncle Stanisław Surowiec were the last two people recorded as embarking in Durban. It is unclear why they were listed after the Z-surnames, and separated from their mother and younger brother, but the same thing happened with three others in Mombasa. The Durban passengers were the first listed, so I assume that the mail ship sailed from the UK around the Cape of Good Hope, up the African east coast, and through the Suez Canal.
In 2010, I counted 374 women older than 35, and made a note that I did so because babcia Surowiec was then 40, and babcia Stefania Nieścior, 43. There were 243 girls and young women younger than 20. The fewer teenaged boys and young men would have been thanks to the Polish army taking on the care and education of teenaged mainly boys in the Middle East from 1942. My father, aged 20 in 1948, had joined the so-called junaki, and had arrived with them in Britain the year before.
Of the 84 men, five were aged 48 and 49; 35 were in their 50s; 33 were in their 60s; 10 were in their 70s, and the oldest was 82-year-old farmer Michał Naronowicz, who travelled alone. The oldest woman, Julia Wajs, was also 82, but she had a 40-year-old daughter-in-law and four grandchildren as company.
By far the most common “occupation” on the passenger list was that of student: 475. They were followed by 289 ‘housewives,’ 113 dressmakers, 65 farmers, 23 teachers, 22 nurses, and 13 ‘clerks.’
According to the National Archives, the Windrush passengers had been “invited to help rebuild Britain after World War II.” Thousands of Caribbean men and women had been recruited by the British government during the war, and the British government had been “encouraging migration to boost the workforce.”
In contrast, the British government encouraged Poles displaced during WW2 to return “home” to help rebuild their own country. The Poles who refused to return must have been an embarrassment for that British government, which had, with the USA, allowed Stalin to re-draw the eastern boundary between Poland and the USSR, and had accepted the Moscow-controlled post-war Polish puppet regime.
Some of the Polish military personnel who refused to return to post-war Poland joined their families in New Zealand, but for those who were like my family in Africa, all they could do was wait for others to decide their fates. The Poles there had lost their land in eastern Poland, so in any case, there was no “home” to return to. My mother told me how, during that sea journey from Africa to England, she and her brothers had begged their mother to return to Poland. Babcia, widowed mother of three teenagers, refused.
Seventy-five years on, the word “refugee” is still an awkward one. A refugee is generally understood to be someone who flees, or is forced to leave their homeland for any variety of reasons—war, persecution, a natural disaster. And some of the Poles in the beginning of WW2, did escape a Poland being overrun by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. But in 1940 and 1941, Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, kidnapped the Poles in the refugee camps in Africa—and those who arrived in New Zealand in 1944—at gunpoint, removed them from their own homes, and took them to forced-labour facilities throughout the USSR.
In New Zealand the term is sometimes glossed over, and exchanged by some Polish refugees for “invited,” but I believe that diminishes the epic journeys that they made to get themselves out of the USSR by any means available, be it by rail, raft, or foot.
I know that the four to eight percent of Poles who did escape the USSR in 1942 and 1943 were the lucky ones, but they were strong too, in many ways, and I am proud to call myself the daughter of refugees who were not invited anywhere.
28 June 2023
The Polish Resettlement Camps in the UK website: https://www.polishresettlementcampsintheuk.co.uk/PRC/PRC.htm
For more on life in the Polish refugee camps in Africa, see the stories of the independent journeys that Joanna Adamek Kalinowska, Joe Gratkowski, and Wisia Sobierajska Watkins made to New Zealand:
Joanna Adamek Kalinowska: https://polishhistorynewzealand.org/joanna-adamek-kalinowska/
Joe Gratkowski: https://polishhistorynewzealand.org/joe-gratkowski/
Wisia Sobierajska Watkins: https://polishhistorynewzealand.org/wisia-sobierajska-watkins/
The trees at the entrance of the Otorohanga cemetery seemed an appropriate place to have a better look through the contents of the box that sat in the boot of my car. I needed to take a break anyway, on my drive home from Taranaki, and felt comfortable with the Polish souls resting nearby.
The A3 landscape-printed Possenniskie family story sat on top of the box of newsletters and papers that Ray Watembach, president of the Polish Genealogical Association, had given me to transcribe and use for this website.
The cover said the story spanned the years 1847–2001. 1847? That seemed a bit early for Polish families settling in New Zealand.
Ian Possenniskie wrote the story—an account of his investigations into his great-grandfather William Possenniskie’s arrival in Auckland in 1847, his marriage, his children, his emigration to Australia with five of those children, and his death in Sydney in 1882.
Ian was prompted by the exclusion of that great-grandfather in another book, which listed the first Poles to land or settle in New Zealand.
He supported his work with 54 appendices that included information of a second, unrelated Possenniskie family in Auckland, and seven A4 pages of notes from his father’s sister.
I left the quiet of the cemetery intrigued. If Ian’s grandfather—the sixth of seven children—had not returned to New Zealand in the early 1900s, would William Possenniskie’s life in early Auckland have been erased? Ian speculated that the surname was made up, so who were the other family with exactly the same name?
I blessed Papers Past, the digitalisation arm of our national library, for providing free access to the newspapers of colonial New Zealand. If the Possenniskies were the only family I was researching, I could have spent many more hours poring through Papers Past, but I found out enough to be sure that this was, indeed, the earliest Polish family in New Zealand. They did not migrate as a family from partitioned Poland, as the bulk of the early Polish families did in the 1870s and 1880s, but their patriarch, William, was born in Poland, his wife probably in England, and his children definitely in Auckland.
When I first finished the Possenniskie story, I slotted it into the Early Settlers menu under Family Stories, but it did not sit well that William Possenniskie did not stand out as probably the first Pole to make himself known in New Zealand, who decided to make this country his home. (Yes, he did move to Australia, but you will have to read the story to find out why.)
I have since added Auckland to the Early Settlers menu. Under it is only one entry: the Possenniskie family story, which for the first time, I have repeated in the Family Stories section.
30 April 2023
To read more about the Possenniskie family, go to: https://polishhistorynewzealand.org/new-zealands-earliest-polish-family/
On the surface, I do not have much in common with Polish New Zealanders—except for the fact that both my parents were Polish.
I was not born in Poland, nor New Zealand, and when we immigrated here 24 years ago, had no expectation of meeting any Poles.
All that changed in 2008 when I started looking for my grandfathers’ graves in war cemeteries in northern France and Italy, and happened to find an internet group of Poles from all over the world—including a few from New Zealand—who were sharing information about what had happened to their families after they were forcibly removed from their homes in eastern Poland in February 1940, and taken on cattle trucks to northern Russia and Siberia.
Shortly after, I met my first New Zealand Pole, Aniela Crook. She lived just 20 minutes away from me. She said I’d be able to recognise her by the red and white flowers she would wear, and I took her a posy of September bluebells from my garden. She was two years younger than my mother and like her, was refugeed in eastern Africa after the Poles escaped the USSR in 1942. My mother, during a visit to New Zealand, met Aniela a few times, and it was lovely to hear them chatting. My mother began to share what had happened to her and her family.
I discovered Pahiatua, the town synonymous with the 838 Polish refugees that Prime Minister Peter Fraser’s government welcomed in November 1944, and allowed to stay after it became clear that post-war Poland was run by the Soviet regime.
Jerzy Pobóg-Jaworowski’s 1990 book, History of the Polish Settlers in New Zealand, showed me that Poles had been visiting New Zealand since Captain Cook’s second voyage, and introduced me to the large groups of early Polish settlers who spent up to three months getting here on sailing vessels with varying degrees of discomfort and hygiene.
In one of the last chapters of his book, Jerzy described the centennial of the Polish settlers who arrived in Taranaki in 1876. The organising committee had made provision for about 350 guests, but numbers grew, and on 1 and 2 January 1977, nearly 2,000 arrived in Inglewood for the celebrations.
When he heard that I was working on a website for all Polish New Zealanders, one of the organisers of the Taranaki centenary, Ray Watembach, agreed to an interview. So started my education regarding the early Polish settlers in New Zealand. Ray’s research into his and other families before and since the centennial made him the perfect mentor.
Ray’s paternal great-grandparents, Albert and Catharina Watembach, and their three children were among the first large group of Poles to arrive in Lyttelton on the ship the Friedeburg on 30 August 1872.
Little more than three months later, the Palmerston arrived in Port Chalmers with another group of Poles. Both these groups of Polish settlers—and others who arrived after them—were escaping the oppression of Prussian-partitioned north-western Poland, where the German rulers had banned their language and religion.
This year, Polish communities in Christchurch and Dunedin celebrated the 150th anniversaries of those arrivals. Guests at their several functions included the descendants of the first settlers, as well as Poles who arrived during and post WWII, and later, but the commemorations belonged to those men, women, and children of the 1870s who helped embed the Polish nation into New Zealand’s culture. Many Poles off the Friedeburg made names for themselves as market gardeners in Marshland, Christchurch. Those off the Palmerston arrived in time to get jobs building the railway infrastructure in Otago.
I have loved finding out about Poles in New Zealand. Their stories may not touch me through descent, yet they touch me through nationality. I am not connected to any early Polish settler, but I am an immigrant. I am not a refugee, but I am a child of refugees.
It has been a privilege to visit Christchurch and Dunedin on their special occasions this year and connect or reconnect with Poles—living or in cemeteries or library records. Visiting those cities, and Taranaki, this year underscored for me the vast differences in Polish communities within New Zealand. Immediate post-war Poles have tended to dominate in cities like Wellington and Auckland, and the new breed of younger, educated Poles seem to be attracted to larger cities with universities.
Some of us were born here, others of us have come from all over the world, at various times. Sometimes the fact that we are Polish becomes the basis for friendship. Now, ending 10 years’ work on this website, I am so grateful to have been able to dig way, way below the surface of Polonia in New Zealand. When the website first went live, my message on the About Us page spoke about the extraordinary people who show their calibre in challenging times. I don’t need to change a word.
I know that without our common Polish heritage, I would never have met Ray, or our mutual friend and researcher, Paul Klemick of Dunedin.
Ray and I ended our visits to Dunedin late last month with Paul taking us to the Milton-Fairfax cemetery, the sod cottage south of Waihola, and to the cottage of a Polish settler in Allanton that its new owner is restoring.
A perfect end to a researcher’s year.
31 December 2022
For a list of early Polish settlers to New Zealand, go to https://polishhistorynewzealand.org/list-of-early-polish-settlers/
Photographs: Barbara Scrivens
The swathe of royal-blue irises and soft mounds of forget-me-nots caught my eye as soon as I drove into the Te Henui cemetery in New Plymouth. It took a few minutes to realise that they were just the entrée.
As I parked and looked around, I could not help smiling at the completely unexpected pleasure.
Riots of colour within the trees and shrubs made it clear that this was a much-loved place of rest, and it dawned on me why parking had been hard to find: I had inadvertently stepped into the Taranaki Garden Festival. A garden in a cemetery?
Usually, I wonder alone around cemeteries. There may be a contractor—or maybe one other car—but that is it. Usually, it takes me a while to orientate a cemetery’s paper map with the physical layout. Not this time: Rob, one of the gardening volunteers responsible for the stunning show, who happened to be ready to receive visitors, explained the intricacies of cemetery’s layout.
I had 45 names to find—all early Polish settlers to Taranaki, or their first-generation descendants—and appreciated the help, especially when it became clear that some of the early Catholic graves did not follow orthodox lines of the Presbyterians next door—or any of the others in the rest of the cemetery.
I found Martha Gray surrounded by other graves. Martha’s father, Frank Uhlenburg, was with the first eight Polish families—off the Fritz Reuter—to arrive in New Plymouth in August 1876. He was the only single man, then aged 27. He married Julianna Myszewska, who was also among the first group, and then aged 17. Their ninth child, Martha, married William Gray in 1911, and is buried with her husband.
Nearby is Mary Rose née Wotkowski Lehrke, who arrived with her family aged four in 1876, aboard the Shakespeare. She married Anthony Lehrke junior, who arrived the same year, aged six, aboard the Terpsichore.
In the more conventional Catholic section lie Polish settlers such as Thomas and Mary née Stachurski Potroz. With them is a memorial to their son Bernard, who was killed in action in WWI. In the neighbouring plot is Mary Agnes née Potroz Stachurski. Mary Agnes’s father, Anton, was Thomas Potroz’s older brother. Mary Agnes was born in Taranaki, but her parents and two older brothers were also among the first eight Polish families to arrive in New Plymouth in 1876, and settle in Inglewood.
During a second visit to the cemetery, I asked Rob more about the plantings. I am a gardener, and have walked though many New Zealand cemeteries. I told him I was Polish, that the Poles knew how to do cemeteries, and that this one could challenge the best of any cemetery in Poland. Poles lean towards plastic flowers and candle lanterns, but their cemeteries are colourful and well-tended.
The cemeteries I have visited in New Zealand tend to be dour, grey, and often decrepit. Not all of them. The first time I saw Inglewood cemetery, the bluebells were out, and gave a spectacular display, but I remember how upsetting it was in 2013 to see sheep grazing among broken headstones in the Midhirst Old cemetery. (Sheep now gone and a volunteer gardening group has started to emulate Te Henui’s practices in Midhirst Old.)
Te Henui, which had it first burial in 1861, has benefited from a more sympathetic council. The site was originally 10 hectares, and the council planted trees that Rob and the handful of other volunteers appreciate for giving structure to the area. The first volunteer started contributing her gardening love to the cemetery 13 years ago, and worked alone for many years.
Any gardener can see that their work is not a mere once-a-month working bee: they can be found among the graves most days, scattering seed, planting bulbs, or grooming the perennials. They have created a joyful tranquillity that will never lack appreciative visitors.
30 November 2022
For more information about the first Polish settlers to Taranaki, go to https://polishhistorynewzealand.org/under-the-mountain/
All photographs: Barbara Scrivens
The last issue of the Pszczelarz (Beekeeper) appeared in Poland in August 1939.
The National Library of Poland in Warsaw keeps one. I cannot describe what it felt to handle it, gently turn its pages, and know that I was reading the same words, and looking at the same photographs that my paternal grandfather would have seen and read. It was smaller than an A4 page, the cover a dull red-cerise.
My interest in the publication was purely because I had found out that my grandfather, Stanisław Nieścior, wrote at least one article for the monthly magazine. I arranged to view that publication, and others, and ordered copies of relevant pages—photography was not allowed. I did not check the CD that the copying librarian gave me until I was back in New Zealand: it held all the pages I had asked for except the one with my grandfather’s article, which I remember as a complaint about a neighbour’s sloppy beekeeping.
News about the sham referendum in eastern Ukraine late last month immediately made me think of that grandfather, who survived the 1919–1920 Polish-Soviet War, and WW2, but who died in Italy in 1946 knowing that his farm in eastern Poland had been ceded by the Allies to Stalin’s communist USSR—the same Allies who Poland had fought beside for so long.
My grandfather and his family were among the hundreds of thousands of Polish civilians that Stalin’s soldiers captured in 1940 and took to the USSR to work as forced-labourers. Most of those who escaped the USSR, did so in 1942 through a Polish army formed on Russian soil. Anyone who could, joined that Polish army, including that grandfather, then aged 45.
Within the relative safety of the Middle East, the Second Polish Corps asked its soldiers to write depositions and fill out questionnaires about their arrests by the Soviets, the conditions in the USSR forced-labour facilities, and the date and circumstances of their release. General Władysław Anders, Commander-in-Chief of the Second Polish Corps, apparently wanted as many of his soldiers to give testimony as was possible.
Some soldiers vented screeds, some had their testimonies taken by others, some were suspicious of the request and possible repercussions, and some—like my grandfather—wrote within the given spaces. Their replies are housed at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at the Stanford University in California.
Family members in Poland described my paternal grandfather as stern. He was obviously not impressed when, on 20 October 1939, the Soviet army arrived in Niweck in the Wołyń province of then-eastern Poland. He wrote his answers in a guarded, passive voice, and I wonder whether it was his way of distancing himself from events:
After the invasion, on the pretext of “saving” the local Ukrainians from the Poles, Soviet decrees led to the repression of the local Polish people, who became subjected to searches and arrest. People considered activists were also arrested.
Then, the Soviet machine started to organise so-called “elections.” Pre-election propaganda proliferated and caused agitation among the locals, who were forced to attend communist-focused assemblies and meetings. From those gatherings, a “census of inhabitants eligible to vote” was created “according to the USSR constitution of voting.”
Communist activists from the Russian population were “elected” onto to an election commission by a so-called Assembly of West Ukraine and West Belorussia, which also selected the candidates.
The elections, held in Niweck in November 1939, were compulsory. Sick people were transported in carts. The results were no surprise.
The elections were followed by the “dismantling” of Polish farms.
Polish civilians soon felt the decisions of those new in power. More than 1.5-million were captured in their homes, at gunpoint, bundled into cattle trains, and sent to hundreds of forced-labour facilities scattered throughout the USSR. Like in all wars, the civilians bore the brunt of the suffering: General Anders estimated that at least half the Poles taken by the Soviets in 1940 and 1941, were dead by the time the Polish army managed to get just 115,000 out.
I am not sure what was worse: My maternal grandfather dying in action in northern France, aged just 34 in 1944, but not knowing of the Allies’ perfidy, or my paternal grandfather surviving Monte Cassino to find out that the land he worked so hard on had been given away, and that the freedom he had helped fight for in two conflicts involving Polish territory was for naught.
Stanisław Nieścior also contributed to the Żołnierz (Soldier). He wrote about horticultural husbandry, and had a special interest in grafting fruit trees. I like to think that the photograph below of him was taken in his grafting nursery, and that the dark shapes on either side of this path are juvenile trees. I also like to think they survived his absence, but I doubt it.
30 October 2022
For more information about the post-war Polish immigrants to New Zealand, go to https://polishhistorynewzealand.org/war-immigrants/
The Friedeburg dropped anchor about two miles outside Lyttelton harbour 150 years ago today—30 August 2022. It was a Friday afternoon, and the “fine iron ship” had spent 102 days at sea.
It remained anonymous until the next day, prompting the Christchurch Star that Monday to lobby for “the urgent necessity that exists for the establishment of telegraphic communication” between the lighthouse at the north Godley Head that screened the ship from the port that afternoon, the signal station on Adderly Head on the south side of the harbour entrance, and the Lyttelton telegraph office.
No doubt that after so long at sea, Captain Kopper and his crew were relieved to be under the cliff’s shelter, and had no idea of the fuss they created by not making themselves known immediately.
Christchurch immigration officials had been processing scores of ships and their passengers since the Charlotte Jane and the Randolph arrived on 16 December 1850, but the Friedeburg was another first. She arrived from Hamburg in continental Europe rather than from London. Her 292 passengers represented what immigration authorities called 241 statute adults. Immigration agents charged with finding suitable labourers for the new colony were paid £1 for every person older than 12 who arrived in New Zealand. Children younger than 12 were classified as half a statute adult, and babies younger than a year became simply “souls.”
The Friedeburg carried more than 90 Poles, more than 80 Germans, nearly 60 Norwegians and the same number of Danes. The next morning, three immigration officers and two interpreters arrived in Lyttelton to be taken to the vessel by the barque Gazelle. The flag flying on its stern confirmed the ship’s identity, and the men stepped into a crowd of different languages.
Like on other immigrant ships, the living quarters of married couples and families aboard Friedeburg divided those of the single men and single women. It is not clear whether authorities in Hamburg also divided the nationalities, or whether they did it themselves, but reports from the passengers about the voyage show that the Germans and Poles “on one side of the ship” seemed to have a poorer quality experience than the Danes and the Norwegians on the other side. The latter were wealthier and had been able to bring more “comforts” with them, as well as having money to be able to supplement the ordinary ship’s rations.
The 102 days aboard the Friedeburg ended with a flurry of attention for the single women and men, much sought-after by farmers wanting domestic workers and labourers. Despite language barriers, they seemed to have no trouble finding work. The larger families, which had provided a good income for the immigration agents, were not as lucky.
The Poles seemed to move as a loose unit to the Banks Peninsula. The Kotlowski family were the only ones who stayed there—apparently Marianna Kotlowska refused to move again. The rest made their way north and settled in northern Christchurch. As more large groups of Poles arrived in the colony in the next few years, Friedeburg families such as Burkett, Groszinski, Kurek, and Wisniewski migrated north to join other Polish settlements such as Inglewood in Taranaki. Jan Gierszewski’s family moved to the USA, but his brother Michał Gierszewski, who arrived off the Humboldt in 1873, remained in Marshland.
The Friedeburg Poles made names for themselves as market gardeners in Marshland and farmers in Taranaki, and Polish names show up on any walk among the headstones of old cemeteries such as the Linwood in Christchurch, or the Inglewood in Taranaki.
I am still looking for several of the single women, like Wilhelmina Arczikowska, Julianna Borcinska, and Paulina Woszewiak, off the Friedeburg. They are among the Polish women who disappeared thanks to mutilated spellings in marriages. Two Friedeburg families also remain elusive: Jablonski and Szutkowski, but sometimes there are gems: On a headstone at the Linwood cemetery are the words: “Matthew Shaskey (Mathias Jaroszewski) born Poland 22-2-1835. Died Christchurch 26-10-1912. Loved husband of Anna. Interred at Gisborne. RIP” Matthew and Anna’s son John remained in Christchurch, became a market gardener, kept the Shaskey name, and is buried at the Waimairi cemetery.
Other Friedeburg names at the Linwood cemetery are Borlowski, Burysek, Grofski (Grochowski), Gurni, Piekarski, Szymanski, Watembach, and Dunick (Zdunek). Most lived and farmed in Marshland and its environs.
Their descendants can be rightly proud of their contributions to a developing new colony. It has been a privilege to research and write about their families, and others who showed Polish grit and hospitality long before it was recognised.
31 August 2022
Put “Friedeburg” into the search function at Papers Past to see a variety of stories about the ship and the settlers. The newspaper article here came from https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/TS18720902.2.9
Go to the Early Settlers section, and follow some of the stories in the menu.
Marshland, The Place Where Flax Grows Profusely is available at: