Whoever invented the word “babble” had it right. In the slow traffic this morning on the way to school and daycare, I tried to explain to my grandsons what it was like not understanding a word anyone said.

We were talking about “tricky words” in English—the older one is learning to read—and I said that that every language had its tricky words, but they were at the perfect ages to learn them, like I had to when I started school in England without a word of English. Quiet, then:

“Didn’t anyone talk to you, babcia?”

“Even if they did, I didn’t know what they were saying.”

“Did you talk to anyone?”

“Even if I did, they wouldn’t have understood me. What I do remember is standing in the playground, turning slowly around, and hearing, ‘Bab bab bab baba blah bab bab…’” I babbled in staccato.

“That’s not a real language,” from the younger grandson.

“No, but that’s what it sounded like to me.”

I told them how, when they heard my mother call me “Basiu,” some of them started to call me “Bash you! Bash you!”  

“That’s not kind,” from the older grandson.

“No, but I learnt say, “I’ll bash you in a minute!”

They were quiet for a bit, and then we turned down the school road.


I’m not sure how I learnt that phrase. Possibly my mother had overheard. What I do know is that it must have been tough to get a rise out of someone who did not respond to the general babble.

“Foreigner” was one of the words I learnt. I remember the subject coming up in class, when I was about nine, by a new teacher from “up north” who struggled to understand our southern accents, and who talked about feeling like a foreigner in Dunstable. Suddenly I knew why I was called this name—I was born in St Albans, Hertfordshire, about 30 miles away.

My childhood confusion about heritage is exactly why I talk to my grandsons. I want them to know their Polish links, to get them to think, to give them information that will help them draw their own conclusions about humanity, and its inherent prejudice and bigotry.

My parents, grandmothers and four uncles were WW2 refugees, something I did not fully grasp until I started to research my family. I had got used to being different, an outsider, but when I married an Englishman, it was so much easier having his surname.

I had two good friends in Dunstable: Linda and Pauline. They didn’t seem to get on, but I lived near Linda, and Pauline used to invite me to her family farm on Tring Road, under the Dunstable Downs and near the Dunstable Gliding Club. I loved the way Pauline’s dad was so kind to me. I did not realise he had the same accent as my parents—their surname was Kaye—or that he was the man in the white van who used to stop on the corner of our road and sell my parents the most delicious kiełbasa and wędlina. He married an Englishwoman who insisted he change his name to something that would not disadvantage his children in a post-war England. Pauline, half Polish, never had to experience an ignored raised hand for an entire sewing class, or had to resort to walking behind her teacher as she walked between the rows of desks. That was a mistake I did not repeat. She scolded me, then told me to unpick the hem on my apron because I had sewn it the ‘wrong’ way—left to right instead of right to left.


I’ve emigrated twice. First, as an 11-year-old when my father was offered a job in South Africa. Second when my husband and I and our two children moved to New Zealand. I know how tough it is to start again in an unfamiliar country, and have a particular sympathy, an empathy, with Poles in New Zealand.

All peoples here are immigrants—Europeans, the newest, a result of forceful colonisation. The British colonisers’ automatic assumption of the moral high ground became clear to me shortly after I started scouring through early newspapers and parliamentary papers digitised by our national library.

I appreciate being able to remotely access Papers Past. It allows researchers like me to step into the lives of people living in New Zealand when newspapers were key communicators. It lays bare the prejudice that non-British subjects endured.

I recently searched the surname Biesiek, one of the first eight Polish families to Taranaki in 1876. Paul and Marianna Biesiek joined thousands of others who emigrated from the oppressive and increasingly germanised Prussian-partitioned Poland, where their language and religion were banned, and where they barely made a living. Their 18-month-old daughter died at sea, but they had at least two more sons in Stratford, Joseph, and Thomas.

I discovered that Joseph, then a dairy farmer from Ratapiko, had been among several “local boys” called up for military service in January 1917.

Both appeared in an 1918 article in the Taranaki Herald under the heading A Question of Parentage. It illustrated the depth of the New Zealand government’s distrust of Polish heritage. Joseph Biesek, “after being trained… had been turned out of camp some 12 months ago on account of his parentage…” Joseph did not take his turning out lightly, because “as the outcome of his continued representation to Sir James Allen he had again been ordered to camp.”

Sons of the early Polish settlers in New Zealand fought, died, and returned wounded after WWI, yet before they left, and after, the government classified their parents as “enemy aliens”—even those who had been naturalised years prior. They received notice in 1916 that they had to report weekly to a police station, and not travel without a police permit farther than a 20-mile radius.

In 1916, the Taranaki Poles made a “strong protest” to their MPs about their enemy alien status, and were placated, temporarily. In 1920, they were again humiliated when the validity of their votes was questioned in the 1919 election in the tight Stratford seat, and they had to defend their characters in court.


In early adulthood, I heard the words “get over it” often enough to suppress my railing against what happened to my family and other Poles during and post-WW2. I am grateful that I now can use my chisel to dislodge some of the egregious behaviours that Poles have had to deal with for so many years.

I appreciate digitisation for making it so much easier to inspect the documents of the past, primary sources without sanitisation or distortion. My experiences growing up have made me sensitive to the historic slurs of Poles, but it is a relief to know that those experiences had everything to do with my surname and my parents’ accents and nothing to do with me.

The next time we have the boys over, I will answer the question I couldn’t yesterday: a spider in Polish is a pająk.

—Barbara Scrivens

31 March 2021


Papers Past and the appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives are available by typing Papers Past or AtoJs in your search engine.


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