Pahiatua Refuge

The collins concise english dictionary defines “refuge” as “shelter or protection from danger, difficulty, etc” or “a place of safety; shelter; safe retreat.” This is exactly what New Zealand was for 733 Polish children and their 105 caregivers who disembarked from the USS General George M Randall AP-115 on 1 November 1944, bound for Pahiatua, a farming community in the Manawatu-Whanganui region of the North Island.

The refugees had survived being forcibly removed from their homes in eastern Poland in 1940 and 1941 by the Soviet invaders of their country. They had been transported in animal rail wagons to forced-labour facilities within the vast reaches of the USSR, and had led tenuous lives there. On release, they made perilous journeys, much on foot, to where a Polish army was being formed on Russian soil. That same Polish army helped get thousands of Polish soldiers and civilians out of Stalin’s hands via what was then Persia, now Iran.

From 1943, eastern and southern Africa, Argentina, India, Mexico, and New Zealand established refugee camps for Polish civilians. Those who arrived in New Zealand came mostly from orphanages in Persia.

The same dictionary defines a “refugee” as “a person who flees from his home or country to seek refuge elsewhere, as in time of war, persecution, etc.” That does not strictly define the Pahiatua Poles—nor other Polish survivors of the Soviet forced-labour facilities who arrived in New Zealand after WW2. They did not “flee” their homes but were removed at gunpoint. They did, however, “flee” the USSR.

In blue skies, green grass and warmth we introduce the 838 Poles as they arrived in Wellington. the language of children continues with their train journey to Pahiatua and on the next page, pahiatua stories, we highlight some of the people who have given us their accounts.

Contributions are welcome.

—Barbara Scrivens