Who Gets Counted?

The Polish diaspora numbers about 20-million—slightly less if one accepts the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ “reliable estimates”—about half of Poland’s current population.  

I would love to know how the calculation is made, and by whom. Who gets counted and who does not? I know I am not part of that calculation because, although I had Polish parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, I was not born in Poland and do not have a Polish passport.

The Polish MFA’s explanation of Polish diaspora does not mention New Zealand in its list of “major communities of Poles or people of Polish origin.” Yet significant groups of Poles started arriving here in the 1870s, squeezed out of their land during the 146-year-long Prussian partitioning of north-west Poland, a partitioning that ended with the 1918 Treaty of Versailles.

Then, the Prussian, Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires had divided Poland between them, and ruled their own partitions in their own way. The Poles who came to New Zealand in the 1870s were referred to as Germans, Prussians or, occasionally, Prussian Poles or German Poles. During the mass emigration from Europe at the time, immigration officials seemed to presume their nationality, a situation not helped by different languages, dialects, and the illiteracy of many of the Poles.

If your country does not exist geographically, does that mean your nationality does not exist? Are the descendants of these first Poles in New Zealand included in the modern Polish diaspora calculation? How far back does “origin” go?

In 1944, 733 Polish children and their 105 caregivers arrived in Wellington from refugee shelters in Isfahan, where they had been living after escaping forced-labour facilities in the USSR in 1942. The Soviets, after invading eastern Poland on 17 September 1939, removed around 1.7-million Polish people, mostly civilian, and deposited them in northern Russia and southern Siberia. Their survival revolved around being able to labour for the meagre bread rations, but at least they had a chance of survival:  in the spring of 1940, in western Russia and Soviet Ukraine, the NKVD, Stalin’s Secret Police, murdered more than 22,000 mostly Polish officers.

I wondered what a history of Siberia might have said about those civilian Poles sent to forced labour facilities. Like anyone doing an initial exploration on a subject, I first went to Wikipedia: WW2 in Siberia apparently started in 1941, when “many enterprises and people were evacuated into Siberian cities by the railroads” and “started working right after being unloaded near the stations.” The lengthy article mentions thousands of captive German and Japanese soldiers sentenced to labour in conditions that, although “hadn’t the purpose to lead prisoners to death, the death rate was significant, especially in winters.” No word about the Polish men and women and their families.

By the time Stalin gave the Poles in the USSR an ‘amnesty’ on 30 July 1941, about half had already died. (For a fuller explanation, see our Military Timeline.) Those who escaped did so with the help of a new Polish army, only 115,000 through then Persia. The huge number of Poles left behind had Soviet citizenship forced on them. Various explanations of the Polish diaspora talk of the migration of Polish Jews from Poland in the early 20th century, and the three-million Polish Jews killed by the Nazis during WW2, but I did not find one that mentioned the Catholic Poles inhaled by the Soviet war machine.

Two new stories on our website this month deal with Polish families first arriving in New Zealand 68 years apart: The Lewandowski family story is on our Early Settlers page, and the Zioło siblings’ story is on the War Immigrants page.

In 1876, the Lewandowski family made the decision, with several neighbours, to leave Kokoszkowy in Prussian-partitioned Poland. Church records prior to their leaving show multiple deaths, of diseases related to poverty and malnutrition. Prussian-partitioned Poland then fell into Otto Von Bismarck’s German Empire. Polish schooling had stopped; the Polish language and Catholic religion was banned; and young Polish men, once conscripted to the Prussian army, were tied to it for the best part of their productive adult lives. The Poles from Kokoszkowy, like the other hundreds of Polish settlers in New Zealand in the late 19th century, had nothing to lose, but their decision to leave their homeland was their own.  

The Zioło siblings in 1940 had no such choice. Tadeusz Zioło, nine when Russians kidnapped him and his family and removed them to Siberia, grew up quickly. He talked of carrying his new-born sister, Hania, from the primitive Siberian village deep in the taiga where they ended up living, and taking her to be fed by his mother working “a distance” away. Tadeusz’s sisters, Danuta and Alina, then six and three, followed him.

Hania Zioło did not see her first birthday. Her parents, Jan and Marianna Zioło lived long enough to lead their surviving children out of the USSR in 1942, across the Caspian Sea to then Pahlevi in then Persia. Jan Zioło expressed relief that the family had been accepted to board the vessel—their surname beginning with the letter Z made them among the last—but Tadeusz Zioło saw that hundreds of others remained on the dock.

—Barbara Scrivens

31 July 2019


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