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Hunting Ghosts  

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?

Ian Possenniskie’s grandfather, William junior, with his wife, Anne née Strange-Mure.

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.

—Barbara Scrivens, April 2023

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Celebrating the Settler, the Refugee, the Immigrant

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.

Ray Watembach, left, and Paul Klemick, outside the historical sod cottage south of Waihola.
Ray Watembach with Jim Binnie, in front of the Switala family’s sod cottage that Jim is restoring in Allanton.

—Barbara Scrivens, December 2022

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For a list of early Polish settlers to New Zealand, go to

Photographs: Barbara Scrivens  

A Gem of a Cemetery

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.

—Barbara Scrivens

November 2022

For more information about the first Polish settlers to Taranaki, go to

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All photographs: Barbara Scrivens  

The Beekeeper Soldier

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 like to think they survived his absence, but doubt it.

—Barbara Scrivens


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Staying Power

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.

—Barbara Scrivens


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

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:

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Losing the Three Percent

My mother used to tell me, when I had a side-line in making applique items, that 97 percent was good enough. This from the woman who had previously told me that if I didn’t unpick a crooked seam, I’d keep seeing the flaw.

Aiming for 97 percent taught me that perfection is impossible: there would always be something else that I could do to tweak a cushion or a wall hanging into a higher sphere, but I saw the time to effort ratio skew exponentially towards craziness.

It’s been a good 20 years since I sat at my sewing machine, but my mother’s words have remained with me—she didn’t give me much advice, so it is comforting to be able to follow something. It has helped me decide when to pause the research and start to write—especially when a story is about people who died more than a century ago and one cannot know the whereabouts of the full stop.

The latest story on the Early Settlers page, about the Grofski (Grochowski) family, is an example of how sometimes, things fall into place. I mentioned my frustration at being unable to find the death details of the New Zealand patriarch, Simon Grochowski, at a talk I gave with Polish historian Ray Watembach during a Christchurch Heritage Week in 2018. The subject was the Poles who arrived in Christchurch in 1872, and the family was part of the story Marshland, The Place Where Flax Grows Profusely.

One of Simon’s descendants happened to be in the audience and came up to chat afterwards. He sent me a copy of Simon’s death certificate and other family documents and I started to chase a man who in 1883 had been buried under the misspelling of his wife’s maiden name. The cemetery on the death certificate says Lincoln, but I can find no inkling of his presence there, nor in any other cemetery in the Christchurch or Selwyn areas.

The Grochowski name had at least 25 different spellings before Grofski became official in 1893: “Mr and Mrs S F Grofski… respectfully informed” their friends about the funeral of their 10-year-old daughter Annette. I like to think that their four living sons, 10 years after their father died, were making a point: after years under the influence of what in fairy tales would be called a “wicked stepfather,” and the death of another sister just months earlier, they were reasserting their original family.

The Grofski spelling stuck. Until then, other spellings included Crokowsky, Gerosky, Glogoski, Grahofski, Grofskey, Grofsky, Grogoski, Grokowska, Gronfsky, Gronkosski, Gronkouski, Gronkovsky, Gronkowski, Groschkowski, Grosenosky, Grosewski, Groshinski, Groskwsky, Grosrkowski, Groszkowski, Groufsky, Groukowski, Growchowski, Growszk, and Grojeski.

I first came across the name when researching the Marshland Poles. Another early settler in Marshland, Wilbur John Walter, wrote in his memoirs that Mrs Frances Grofski “and her family worked very hard on the[ir] place.” The array of farming stock and implements that Mrs Frances Grofski sold before she remarried in 1903 showed that she had become a solid farmer in the area.

I still need to go back to the Marshland story to amend an assumption I made that Mrs Grofski’s husband had been the one to register their son’s death in 1876. Unlike a crooked seam, the flaws in my stories don’t make themselves known immediately.

When I was sewing, I knew exactly what I had to work with: the machine, the fabric, the design, the thread, and the time pressure. All had their foibles, but it was a finite set. Writing about early settler families is like not knowing whether one is working with leather, velvet or silk, with a design that generally only makes itself known well into the process, and with fine threads that often remain hidden under heavier ones.

There is no way that I can estimate how long any of my stories will take to hatch. I cannot guarantee them like I used to with cushions: six by next week. But there is something about trying to capture and make sense of ephemeral moments that makes research and writing about families like the Grofskis so special.

This bee knows what the job entails: returning time and again to both known and different sources of nectar. I saw it on this gazania on yet another trip to the Linwood cemetery in Christchurch. I was looking for the unmarked graves of the Grofski sisters, and had included it in my photographs before I could confirm that the flower happened to be above those graves.

I’ve swapped the impossible perfection of 97 percent for discovering the pleasure of patience and uncovering the unexpected rewards of research.

—Barbara Scrivens


For a fuller story on the Grofski family, go to

Marshland, The Place Where Flax Grows Profusely is available at:

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Full Circle

Pani Marysia née Dac Jaśkiewicz was a Pole typical of her time. Deeply religious, generous, stubborn, single-minded on many topics, she exuded the kind of Polish hospitality that she should have grown up with.

The St Mary of the Immaculate Conception church in Avondale was packed on 15 June. People nodded, smiled, and shed tears with her family and the priest, Pa Peter Tipine, whom Pani Marysia had known all his life, as they recalled tributes and reminiscences of a life heavily intertwined with the church. This was where she married Franciszek Jaśkiewicz in 1961, where her children Kazik, Marysia, Basia, and Krysia were baptised, where her daughters were married, where she sat for Franciszek’s funeral in 1994, and where there was not a priest nor an altar boy or girl who had not worn something she had sewn.

Pani Marysia was the local doyenne of sewing. She made her own wedding dress, and those of her four bridesmaids and, besides her daughters, did the same for countless others. At the funeral, one of her granddaughters wore one of the Polish embroidered national costumes that she had created. The last time I visited her, I saw several badly frayed red school jerseys on her kitchen counter. Basia, a school teacher, had brought them to her for repair. To me, they looked beyond help; to Pani Marysia, it was a fiddly job, and she did it. While she was conscious, her hands never stopped.

The recessional song at her funeral was Góralu, ci czy nie żal?  The English translation of the song’s name, Highlander, do you not feel grief/ sorrow/ regret/ desolation/ woe? is as complicated as the feelings of anyone forced from their home, as Pani Marysia was as a young girl. It took me back to my own 1960s childhood and Polish gatherings when, late into the evenings, the men would stand and sway and sing the mournful melody. (Anyone hearing it at a faster tempo is not doing it justice.) I did not know that it was one of Pani Marysia’s favourite Polish folksongs, so old that there are disputes about its musical origins, but that she interpreted as leaving her heart in Poland.

Apparently the author, poet Michał Bałucki, was imprisoned in Kraków in 1863 with a highlander farmer who had been arrested when crossing the border between Russian- and Austrian-partitioned Poland. Because he happened to be carrying the implements of his trade, a pitchfork and a shovel, he was accused of being an insurgent. The man’s grief at not being able to get back to his hills stayed with the poet.

I first met Pani Marysia in 2013, at the entrance to the Dom Polski in Morningside. Although I had immigrated to New Zealand 15 years earlier, it had not occurred to me before I started researching my family and became involved in this website, that there may be a proper Polish organisation here. I found out that the Auckland Polish Association was holding its annual general meeting. What better way to assess people?

Walking into a roomful of strangers is always intimidating, and I was grateful that this bird-like woman came up to me and started chatting with—probably interrogating—an unknown visitor. Whatever it was, I appreciated it, because no one else was as friendly.  

I grew to understand Pani Marysia through interviewing her in 2016. She insisted in speaking Polish, despite my telling her that I was not fluent, but it was as if she needed to be within her Polish self to recall the horrors of her childhood after Soviet soldiers barged into their home in Przemysł one early morning in February 1940, and told the family to pack and dress warmly because they were they were “going to Siberia for a vacation.”

Her father was shot in the forest near the forced-labour facility where they were imprisoned for nearly two years. Her mother died soon after getting Marysia and her older brother and sister to Kazakhstan.

With their parents dead, three Dac siblings roamed the streets looking for food. She was small enough to climb under a fence in a vegetable garden to steal what she could, and was almost shot by guards on horseback patrolling with dogs. Another time, the older ones left her playing with other children and she came so close to remaining in the village after a Russian girl decided to take her home. Weeks later, her brother heard her name being called, and retrieved her.

One of the youngest of the 733 Polish children who arrived in Wellington in November 1944, Pani Marysia loved her five years at the Polish children’s camp in Pahiatua. It gave her back some of what she had lost, and she absorbed the Polish traditions.

I am so glad that our Auckland Polish Association, instigated by Eva Sherer, made a special presentation to Pani Marysia at our annual general meeting on 29 May. She did seem tiny and more frail than usual when I hugged her goodbye, but I fully expected her to live much longer, despite her regular stays at Auckland City Hospital.

I am not sure what it will be like without our long phone calls that I found out recently were typically Polish: A good amount of complaining about whatever it was in the beginning, the reason for the call in the middle, and a good amount of saying goodbye at the end.

Rest in Peace, my friend. I will miss you.

—Basia Scrivens


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A Swamp’s Gentle Reminder

Marshland in Christchurch got its name for a reason that the first Polish settlers in the area knew too well. In 1874, when the first Poles arrived there, the swamp was still home to trees and shrubs that thrived among the wetland’s flaxes and reeds.

Marshland today obviously looks nothing like it did 150 years ago, but there is one section off the northern tip of Marshland Road that gives one a feel for what those first settlers faced: the Ōtukaikino Reserve.

The reserve is tucked under the tip of the triangle that SH1 and SH74 make before joining at Chaneys to become Christchurch’s northern motorway.

The muffle from the elevated roads followed me as I walked around the reserve earlier this month—five years after my first visit—but I know that soon, the specimen trees will completely shut out the outside world. As I walked, I wondered at the strength and resilience that the first settlers to this region must have had, to have tamed such land.           

Among those settlers were Poles who had arrived in Lyttelton in 1872. They been working mostly in Pigeon Bay and Holmes Bay on the Banks Peninsula, when an owner of part of the swamp, Edward Reece, found them two years later and offered them land leases of £1 an acre for five- and 10-acre blocks, which they could repay over 30 years.

Several of the Poles moved north with their families. To them, the offer of leasing land was gold. Any of them who had had land historically, had long lost it under Poland’s Prussian-partitioning. They had managed to leave the Prussian oppression only thanks to the Vogel government’s scheme designed to encourage labourers—much-needed in the new colony in the 1870s—to emigrate by loaning the £5–£8 cost of their sea passages.

The lucrative but seasonal cocksfoot grass-seed industry on the Banks Peninsula helped them repay that debt, and they may have been ready to take on other employment, especially when it came to land.

I wonder how much they understood of Reece’s offer? I like to believe that the developer found an interpreter. Even if there were no Polish-English translators, there were German-English speakers, and the Poles had learnt German under the years of partitioning.  

What would any of the new settlers have thought when they first saw what they were up against?

Breaking in that land meant digging drains. An 1856 map by Ken Silby showed Christchurch’s swamps and vegetation, but the Marshland area was depicted generally as “Swamp raupo tussock & flax” with a “shaking tutu bog” to the south.

The drainage was just the first step. It led to the land’s subsiding and revealing previously immersed kahikatea, mataī, ribbonwood, totara, and mānuka, which then had to be removed.

Many a cow, sheep, horse, and even trailers and implements drowned in the process, but eventually that land became the market gardens that sustained the growing city, and when the Poles were in the position to buy the land freehold, they found that the improvements they had made had increased its value well over the original price.  

Drains are still fundamental to life in Marshland today. These ones are part of market gardens alongside Mairehau Road.

Ngāi Tūāhuriri Rūnanga suggested the 13 hectare freshwater wetland as a suitable site for the Ōtukaikino Reserve, and it has been operating as a joint venture between the Department of Conservation and Lamb & Hayward funeral directors since 1992. These days, the Friends of Ōtukaikino meet every month to plant and maintain the reserve.            

The original swampland has long been tamed, but for anyone wanting to experience a smidgen of what the early settlers found, the reserve is well worth a walk around. Just stick to the paths: the swamp is still capable of inhaling the unwary.

—Barbara Scrivens

The boardwalk bridge at the entrance of the Ōtukaikino Reserve.


Find a fuller story on Marshland: The place where flax grows profusely at:

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Remembering Them

A few minutes before 7am on 28 April 1942, the deck watch on the Polish destroyer ORP Błyskawica saw six low-flying fighter aircraft approach from the south.

Their clear markings showed they were Luftwaffe. Their attack lasted less than a minute. They were gone before any alert was sounded on shore, but their raid foreshadowed a far more serious intent to damage and destroy the shipyards, aircraft factory, and the residential towns at Cowes and East Cowes on the Isle of Wight.

Eighty years ago today, the six planes flew in a “single line ahead” formation. The two on either side dropped their bombs on the shipyards and aircraft factory and they all veered away. The middle pair that flew over the Medina river, returned to drop bombs on either side of the ORP Błyskawica, docked in Cowes for repairs. The ship retaliated, and one of that pair flew away trailing black smoke after an “exceptionally violent turn.”

The attack left the ship without a mast, with her torpedo control destroyed, her RDF (Range and Detection Finding) capabilities “seriously damaged” and her superstructure battered. The damage suggested the planes were ME 109s, the light Messerschmitts that used bombs of “very small size with slight delayed action.”   

The commander of the ORP Błyskawica, Wojciech Francki, recognised the Luftwaffe mission as German reconnaissance and, against British Admiralty protocols of the time, re-armed his ship. That deed resulted in the ORP Błyskawica being able to use all except its still-not-repaired heavy guns to repel the 160 German bombers that arrived during the night of 4–5 May. Commander Francki’s order to light and maintain “smoke candles” on shore sheltered the town from illumination by flares and fires. Instead of the enemy planes being able to accurately bomb a well-lit target from around 50 metres, the barrage from the ship forced them higher, which affected their ability to aim.  

Every year Cowes and East Cowes commemorates the bravery and courage of the ORP Błyskawica commander and his crew, and the residents who staffed the towns’ ARP (Air Raid Precautions) headquarters and units. Although the towns lost 70 people, its residents know that without the Polish navy ship, the toll would have been far worse.

A duffel-coated commander probably on the bridge of his ship, smiling at the camera. Seas behind him are rough and grey.
Commander Wojciech Francki


During the Anzac Day commemorations this year, I wondered whether Commander Francki, who lived in Auckland for nearly two decades after WW2, ever attended a post-war parade. The Polish military was snubbed at the massive, allied victory celebrations in London on 8 June 1946, and I doubt that many, if any, of the Polish veterans in New Zealand would have had the desire to be reminded that their years fighting “For Our Freedom and Yours” had been in vain.

In any case, by the 1950s, soon after most of the Polish veterans arrived in New Zealand, the day had lost its popularity—thanks to some local authorities extending the legal prohibition on commerce that day to include a ban on any entertainment or sport.

Nowadays, the increasing respect that we have for our fallen and our veterans is reflected in the number of services and those attending, including children who are encouraged to find out about their forbears’ contribution to war and peace efforts.

Polish names appear on every memorial that I have seen in districts where the early Polish settlers lived. Several thousand young Polish men fought with the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces in WWI at the same time as the New Zealand government put Poles who arrived here in the 1870s and 1880s, on its 1917 register of Enemy Aliens. Restrictions under that act decreed that they had to report weekly to their nearest police station, and had to carry a police permit if they wanted to travel farther than 20 miles.

While Poland fought for the allies in WW2, its own Armed Forced Day is on 13 August, to commemorate its 1920 victory over Soviet forces during the battle in Warsaw known as the Miracle on the Vistula.

This year I again attended a small ceremony to honour the almost 22,000 Polish prisoners-of-war executed by the NKVD, Stalin’s Secret Police, in April and May 1940, and buried in mass graves in the Katyń forest in western Russia. The Auckland function is organised by the Honorary Consul for Poland in Auckland, Bogusław Nowak, and takes place at the Cathedral of St Patrick and St Joseph, which holds a plaque dedicated to the Katyń victims. It was arranged by members of the Auckland Polish Association in 1990, at a time when the total dead still numbered 14,500.

Two Polish soldiers saluting the Katyn plaque in the cathedral. They are dressed in smart khaki uniform and blue berets.
Polish officers Colonel Paweł Chabielski and Lieutenant Colonel Marcin Matczak, visited the Auckland Catholic Cathedral in April 2018, and paid their respects to the Polish officers killed in western Russia and buried at Katyń.

—Barbara Scrivens

Find a fuller story of Commander Wojciech Francki on:

Although several individual family stories on our Early Settlers page include sons who fought in WWI, the story of the first eight Polish families in Taranaki also covers the Poles’ battle regarding the 1917 Enemy Alien register:

Find a fuller story on the Katyń massacres at:

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Lost and Found

The 12 sheets of heavy A3 paper that Ray Watembach gave me the last time I was in his kitchen nearly three years ago still do not file neatly away, but this week I made peace with their contents.

They are copies of his notes, most written on the fronts and backs of buff-coloured envelopes that carried the Polish American journal Ray subscribed to. He started researching his own Polish roots decades before digitisation made trawling through records so much easier, but these were not his family notes. Rather, they were hunting for connections to Catharina Grabowska, eight years old in 1876.

Those 12 sheets of paper covered births, marriages, and deaths from 1818 to 1876 in Kokoszkowy, a village in then Prussian-partitioned north-western Poland.

Catharina Grabowska was listed on the ship Fritz Reuter as the daughter of a Jacob Rzonska, but she was not his daughter, neither his wife’s. Catharina’s father died when she was two months old, and her mother four years later.

Catharina Grabowska may have remained hidden, had her real name not appeared on her 1883 marriage certificate. Jacob Brzoska (the same Rzonska as above) was one of the witnesses. I wonder whether the “Katie Grabowsky” on that certificate had known that she had been fostered by the Brzoska family, or whether it came as a shock when her foster-father decided that he needed to provide as much correct information as possible on an official document. There were other people from Kokoszkowy in New Zealand who knew her family.  

Jacob Brzoska, his wife, Marianna, and several children moved to the USA in 1901, including two boys younger than Katie who also travelled on the Fritz Reuter. As the president of the Polish Genealogical Society in New Zealand, Ray met, helped and guided many other family genealogists, including a Brzoska family descendant who visited New Zealand in the early 1990s. After she could find no trace of Catharina, that genealogist decided that she had died aged 11 or 12. It is not clear why those ages, but Catharina does not appear in the genealogist’s subsequent family story.

Inaccuracies in the Kokoszkowy church books must happen—no set of record keeping can ever be infallible—but are more to do with spelling variations of a name, or the germanising of a name, say, a Polish Wojciech becoming its German equivalent, Adalbert. The Kokoszkowy record keepers had generally good handwriting when compared to some of the scrawlers in other parishes, so it is possible to follow a family’s genealogy.

Kokoszkowy’s Gothic stone church of St Barbara, erected in the mid-1500s, held most of the ceremonies and records of its Catholic residents’ births, marriages, and deaths. The priests knew their parishioners, their parents, their children, their friends, and their extended families. They were unlikely to make a mistake about who was born to whom and who married whom. The death records are so precise that they give a cause of death, plus often the exact age of the person who died: Catharina Grabowska’s mother, Barbara Dytmer, died as the wife of Vincent Arim, aged 36 years two months and 24 days.

In comparison, New Zealand church records are riddled with inaccuracies. One can to some extent forgive a record keeper for not knowing a family that is new to an area, but when a bride’s father is recorded as her mother as well as her father—as happened to another Catharina who married in Carterton, Catharina Gronkowska—one wonders whether some of the colonial record takers were merely filling the forms as quickly as possible.

The same type of thing happened in other parts of the colony. In Christchurch, Michael and Ewa Piekarski had 12 children in Christchurch between 1877 and 1894. Their baptismal records from the Catholic diocese show only two surnames spelt correctly, and some so wildly silly, they border on offensive.  

One of Catharina Grabowska’s granddaughters asked Ray to investigate her mother’s roots, but would not believe that the Carterton marriage certificate was wrong. Even though Ray found the Polish record of Joseph Grabowski, aged 25, marrying Barbara Dytmer, aged 23, on 25 October 1857 at St Barbara’s, the descendant continued to believe that her great-grandmother was the Bella Oudeman named on Katie Grabowsky’s marriage certificate.

Ray accepted the descendant’s choice to believe what she wanted to, but the interaction bothered him enough to bring it up as we chatted that day about researching, and how easy it is to jump to a conclusion and remain in that hole. Two of Ray’s great-grandmothers are named Catharina, and he named his daughter Katarina after them, so he remembered the little lost girl, who happened to come from the same village as many of his extended family.

His records made researching Catharina Grabowska so much easier for me. It has been a pleasure to let him know that his researcher’s instincts were correct, that his question marks and various highlighted names did lead to a definitive answer for a little girl who became known as Catherine Salter, who in 1893 enrolled in New Zealand’s historical world-first election where women won the right to vote, who had seven children, and who is buried next to her husband in Taumarunui.   

—Barbara Scrivens


Find a fuller story of Catherine Grabowska Salter, and copies of various birth and marriage records at

A database of early Polish settlers in New Zealand is available at We allow wild-card spellings.

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