from Poland to NZ

Jan 18, 2014

Late last year the Australian Annals magazine (Journal of Catholic Culture) published an article entitled “The Extraordinary Tale of the Orphans of Pahiatua”.  On 1 November 1944, the Feast of All Saints, a group of 733 Polish children and their 102 caregivers were welcomed to NZ by Prime Minister Peter Fraser. Later this year we will mark the seventieth anniversary of their arrival, and gratefully acknowledge the significant anniversary that these citizens have made to New Zealand over the past seven decades.

The Annals article is the account of the rewards for nation’s hospitality in the midst of its own post-war challenges. The article’s introduction hails the scheme as “an unqualified success.,” and is especially timely as many nations move to close their borders to foreign-born people in need.

I emailed the Annals editor, Paul Stenhouse MSC who replied this morning giving me permission to reproduce this Annals article on Food For Faith.

So, here it is. Also a couple of photos that I took when in Pahiatua last year, and these pics link to a brief twenty minute documentary about the scheme produced in 1966. This documentary was produced by pioneering NZ film maker Kathleen O’Brien.

The New Zealand scheme was an unqualified success; the happiness which the Polish children found being just compensation for the horrors that had gone before.



By Alan Gill

Their early childhood was hellish, suffering Nazi and Soviet tyranny, their escape and trek in search of freedom was worse, and when they did find a haven it was in a camp originally intended for prisoners of war. Yet they were probably the happiest and best adjusted group of child migrants to any English speaking country.

According to senior New Zealand Government welfare officer, Mark Quinlivan: ‘I know what you mean. There’s an interesting situation here; they were interned in a camp but the end product was far better because it was designed to meet their specific needs as a group. The friendships and relationships that built up while they were together has carried them through into adult years and created stability.

The NZ Government, like that of Australia, wanted child migrants, preferably British to boost population in the early and middle years of the 20th century. World War II caused a temporary glitch in the traffic which was administered mainly by religious and charitable groups. An interesting exception was made in 1944 when, with war still in progress, the government broke its own rules to admit 733 Polish orphaned children.

The Vatican acted as co-sponsor. They were part of a larger group of children which also found haven in Britain, France, the United States, Canada, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, India, Kenya, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa.

Their story would make a Hollywood epic. The children were well treated and, as far as I have been able to discover, no subsequent accusations of scandal. The story is still largely untold and, nearly 60 years on, deserves a wider audience.

Kazimierz Zielinksi, an architect now living in the Sydney suburb of St Ives, was one of the Children of Pahiatua. ‘We were scattered far and wide,’ he says. ‘I wonder why none was admitted to Australia then.’

The author, too, would like an answer to this question. According to Australian Catholic sources, a plan at one time existed to bring out from 1500 to 2000 Polish orphan children. It collapsed when the Polish Government in London found itself unable to keep an initial pledge to support the children financially.

The New Zealand scheme was an unqualified success; the happiness which the children found being just compensation for the horrors that had gone before.

The mass migration came about, in the first place, because of the Hitler–Stalin Non-aggression Pact, which made Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union temporary allies. In February 1940, the first of some 1.6 million Polish civilians were deported from eastern Poland to Siberia. Lucjan Krolikowski,[i] a teenage seminarian who was deported with them, claims some 380,000 children participated in the exodus.

There were few men among the deportees — husbands and fathers already having been rounded up and sent to forced labour, or simply executed.

The exodus involved children as young as four, and even a few babes in arms. Mothers fought to travel in the same carriages as their children. Kazimierz Zielinski (known as Kaz), who was six, has only vague memories of his father. One is of a holy picture being placed on a wall in the house together with that of a military figure, and ‘dad explaining their significance’. The second is of his father ‘in a uniform, saying a quick goodbye’ before fleeing to join his post as an officer in the Polish Army.

The family home was actually on the Polish–Russian border. A barbed wire fence at the bottom of their garden marked the Polish side and a few yards away a similar fence marked the Russian side. ‘Between the two sets of barbed wire was a ditch and the best raspberries would grow there. I would creep through a gap into this no man’s land. My parents were worried what the Russians would do.

When the Russians came there was more than a slap on the wrist to worry about. The soldiers burst into the house — in the middle of the night, naturally — to remove them for deportation. Kaz fired his toy gun, with a cork in it. A soldier took it and broke it across his knee.

The deportees were put in cattle wagons attached to several trains. Meanwhile Kaz’s mother learnt her husband had been arrested. It was too much for her. ‘She just couldn’t tackle all that was happening. She died before the journey began.’

Jan Jarka, one of the organisers of the 1994 golden jubilee celebrations, had a broadly similar experience. His mother had died, aged only 26, three years before the war.  His father remarried and the family lived in Bialystok, a city of about 120,000 people. The German invasion, and the subsequent ‘amicable’ transfer of the city to the Russians created acute danger for his father, a senior detective and member of the diplomatic security service, who fled with other resistance figures.

Jan, who was seven, and Kaz, who was six, have hazy memories of the ‘nightmare’ train journey to Siberia. People died in the cold, airless wagons. Mothers died, leaving the children to be looked after by strangers. There was no sanitation. Food was thrown to them like animals. Little Kaz was taken in tow by his 16-year-old sister, Misia (pronounced ‘Misha’, a diminutive of Michelle), who became ‘mother’ to him and his other sisters Stasia, Marysia and Renia.

Eventually the train ground to a halt. Kaz recalls: ‘The doors were opened and we were led out.’ It was like a scene from Dr Zhivago. ‘There was nothing but snow and fir trees. Just nothing.’ The exiles were left to build their own shelters. ‘Of course, it takes weeks and weeks to build anything solid, so at first we were just living in the snow, under the trees. More people died; there was much sickness.’

Eventually, crude accommodation was built. Wanda Ellis, then Wanda Pelc, aged 12, recalls struggling to survive with her mother, two sisters and younger brother. ‘We lived on a starvation diet in 60 degrees of frost.

‘Worse was the mental desolation of being completely cut off from the world and being told that “You will work in Siberia for the rest of your lives”.’ Skeletally thin like her fellow prisoners, Wanda felt terribly ill. ‘I was convinced I was dying of TB.’

Jan Jarka’s principal memory is of hunger. ‘Women and older children equipped with shovels and crowbars worked from dawn till dusk. Meals as a rule consisted of 200 grams of black bread and watery soup. Any articles of value we still had from Poland were exchanged for flour, potatoes, gruel or cash in order to buy salt or lard which were almost non-existent.’

Jan recalls the support given by ‘a young university student with us named Jasia — I forget her surname. She told us children about our homeland, and taught us poetry, songs and arithmetic. She used sand as a blackboard. A family prayer book served us also as a textbook.’

One day trucks arrived, and removed the children to Sverdlovsk, where they were taken to a sort of camp, and told they would be attending a Russian school. Conditions were not unpleasant; the idea was that they should be moulded to become good communists. Says Wanda: ‘We began and ended each session with a declaration that there was no God but Stalin. But we knew that this was a lie and our Catholic religion sustained us.’

One day the children received red scarves, and found themselves enrolled in the Pioneers, the communist equivalent of the boy scouts. Some of the boys objected, persuading the others not to wear the scarves. The woman teacher charged with enforcing the rule put on more and more pressure. There were detentions; stones were thrown at her. Older youths, who were not at the school, egged on revolt. Hand grenades and molotov cocktails were thrown.

According to Kaz: ‘It had a terrible ending. The Russian headmaster was killed; the camp of the Komsomol (party youth organisation) was burnt down. All this brought terrible reprisals. The ‘trouble-makers’ were taken away never to be seen again.

‘I guess I was a survivor. I survived because I was always where it was a little less dangerous, and because I was so young. If I had been older …’ He leaves the sentence unfinished.

In June 1941, the Nazis reneged on the pact and turned on the Red Army. Stalin suddenly needed Polish co-operation, and the exiles were allowed to leave, albeit with neither food nor medicines. Many made their way south to Krsnovodsk, where they crossed the Caspian Sea into Persia (now Iran) at Phlevi. Others travelled overland from Ashkhabad (in the Soviet Union) to Maskhad (in Iran).

The last of the exiles are known to have left for their new temporary havens in September 1943. They included Wanda, Jan and his sister Jadwiga.

It was an astonishing trek, by rail, in oxen carts and on foot. People in the southern Soviet republics — Tadzikistan, Turkestan and Uzbekistan — were often helpful, sometimes at great risk to themselves. Travel was slow and frustrating. Sometimes the engine would be uncoupled from a train, leaving the refugees in a remote siding for days, even weeks, without explanation.

Jan Jarka recalls that many children who still had a mother or grown-up relative travelling with them became separated from them. ‘It was so easy to happen. When the train stopped at the railway station the mother or senior relative would go to get some food, which invariably meant standing in a queue. The train would take off, and the child would be left on its own.

‘Of course, very young children often do not know their surnames, only that they are John or Mary or whatever. So when they came to the orphanages they had to be given new names to identify them. Many also didn’t know their ages.’

Kaz was helped in this respect by having older sisters. Much later, he and Jan discovered their fathers had not ‘escaped’, as they had thought, but were victims of the infamous Katyn Massacre — the murder of 14,000 Polish officers, apparently on Stalin’s personal orders, which was not discovered until 1943.[ii]

The exodus out of the USSR differed from the exodus from Poland to Siberia. Apart from the usual pains of hunger, tiredness and isolation, threat to health now came from extreme heat rather than cold. Typhus, malaria, dysentery took a severe toll.

According to Kaz: ‘We came from eastern Poland, and were born into a cold environment, so Siberia was to some extent bearable. But this was different; like going from the fridge into the frying pan. I would say more of our people perished on the way out of Russia than on the way into Russia.’

The idea was that the refugees should link up with British troops and the International Red Cross in Iran, and also with the Free Polish Forces — an ‘army’ set up by the Polish Government in exile — at which point the children would be despatched to various safe havens by international agreement.

Kaz Zielinski may have only hazy memories of his father, but his arrival in Iran is ingrained in his mind for ever. ‘We were fumigated and deloused, which was quite an ordeal. The idea was that we should strip off, hand over to the British soldiers whatever possessions we had, go through this process and on the other side we were to be issued with new clothes.

‘Their intention was to dress us like junior soldiers — khaki shirt, shorts, even a pith helmet. As I said, we went through the fumigation process starkers. But when we emerged on the other side the man with the shirts and shorts hadn’t arrived. The only one who was there on time was the man with the pith helmets. So there we were — hundreds of children standing around for hours wearing just pith helmets.’

Apart from being kitted like junior soldiers the children also had their first decent meal for nearly two years — which made shrunken stomachs sick.

The camps to which they were sent were run by volunteer agencies and religious bodies. Kaz went to one in Isfahan run by Swiss Salesian Fathers. His sisters were looked after by French nuns. He believes the bill was paid by the Vatican. The very happy days here lasted until September 1944.

Children were, theoretically, given a choice of where they would like to go. In practice, selection was carried out in the old army style: ‘From here to the right fall out for Canada; from here to the left fall out for New Zealand’.

The New Zealand-bound children looked at that small, remote red dot on the world map and wondered what it was like and what was in store. There were rumours about New Zealand being filled with fierce, grass-skirted warriors, even cannibals.

The General Randall arrived in Wellington on 31 October 1944. As it neared the harbour the children gazed in relief and delight at the ringed green hills dotted with colourful little houses. They disembarked the following day. As they descended the gangway they sang ‘It’s A Long Way to Tipperary’ and ‘You are my Sunshine’ (the only English they knew) which they had been taught by a Polish priest on the vessel.

The chilling tales which the children had heard seemed to be confirmed by the Maori haka party that greeted the new arrivals on the Wellington wharf. Jan Jarka recalls: ‘Some of the children ran away and hid, but later the Maoris mingled with us and were so warm and friendly. We didn’t know what to think.’

The children were welcomed by, among others, the Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, and the Polish consul-general. They then travelled by rail to the camp at Pahiatua, 43 kilometres south-east of Palmerston North and about 170 kilometres north-east of Wellington, which was to be their home.

The Pahiatua camp had an interesting history, being built for civilian enemy aliens and for Japanese POWs who didn’t come. It was clean and (by the standards of the day) well equipped, with  comfortable dormitories.

Ladies from a specially formed Polish Children’s Hospitality Committee did their best to make the children welcome. They had prepared the beds, put flowers on tables and tidied up the camp for their arrival. Street names were erected with Polish names.

The first thing the ‘guests’ noticed was that there was no barbed wire. In Jan Jarka’s words: ‘The gates were always open, and there were no sentries anywhere, even though the camp was run by the military.’

The 733 children were joined by a further 22 children and 110 adults, making a grand total of 865 persons.

The camp housed both boys and girls, which was unusual. Kaz was by this time 10. Did he have any girl friends? ‘Yes, about 400.’ A small number of children, when they first arrived, could not distinguish between their old masters and the new, and ran off into the hills, where they were ‘recaptured’ by friendly New Zealand troops. Surprised at not being ill-treated, they soon adapted.

The army was also responsible for the catering. The food was of good quality, far richer to anything they had experienced before, however problems arose when children were given dishes to which they were unaccustomed.

Says Kaz: ‘We were introduced to tripe. It was the classic tripe and onion and white sauce. To have 700 kids refusing to eat would have created a problem for discipline. So those in charge decided that we could not leave the dining hall until we had eaten everything that was on our plate.

‘A lot of bribery went on. Some youngsters would eat your tripe for you, for a fee, of course. Others tipped it into their pockets or down their socks. Anything to present an empty plate.’

One of Jan’s friends became rich. ‘He sat at a table with 11 others. After being bribed with pocket money and sweets, he ate six portions of tripe.’

The children had both New Zealand and Polish teachers. A man called Frank Muller, their principal English teacher, was a champion rugby player who later achieved renown as a diplomat. He is still alive and a hero to many of the ‘children’.

Children who wished to avoid camp chores found it unwise to adopt the most natural hiding place — under their beds in the dormitories. The floors were creosoted, which meant clothes which came into contact with the floor ‘gave off the most dreadful smell’.

Local families were ‘unbelievably kind’. ‘At the weekends New Zealand people would come and select one or two of us to take home. They would come with their own children who would be carrying gifts to hand to us, but the visitors would have to catch us first.

‘We had no idea of their intentions and we would be running like mad from these people. I think we distrusted anyone who was grown up and we felt safe only within our own little groups.’

After about a year in the camp, Kaz left to go to St Peter’s College, Auckland, which was run by the Christian Brothers. Jan Jarka went to St Kevin’s College, at Oamaru, which was run by the same Order.

Both have the highest regard for their teachers, and are distressed that the same Order should be accused of ill treating migrant children in Australia.

When the war ended Kaz was holidaying with a New Zealand family in New Plymouth. Someone decided the Polish kids should be invited to take part in the celebrations. ‘So that’s how I came to be in the V for Victory march’. Jan remembers being taken into the local radio station to give a concert of Polish songs. ‘It was a great success.’

When the war ended the children were given the option of returning  to Poland, at New Zealand Government expense, or staying in their new country. Only about 35  chose to return. In July 1945 Poland became a satellite state of Soviet Russia and exiled Poles were stateless.

As Jan Jarka puts it: ‘To go back would have been like returning to our first place of exile in Siberia. The only difference would be that the people there would be speaking Polish rather than Russian.’

The Government decided to give the children full citizenship rights. They were no longer refugees but ‘guests of the New Zealand Government with all the duties, rights, responsibilities and privileges of any New Zealand citizen.’ According to Jan: ‘That distinction was very important.’

Pahiatua camp was closed in 1949, when the balance of the boys, about 50, moved to an orphanage in Hawera. Some of those who had already started work were housed in a hostel at Island Bay. The remaining girls were transferred to a hostel in Wellington.

The children of Pahiatua grew up, married into local families, and sometimes among each other. For many years they called themselves the ‘Persians’ or ‘Pahiatuas’ — commemorating the staging points which shaped their lives. Jan and Kaz both married ‘pretty New Zealand girls’.

About 20 of the ‘children’, including Kaz, moved as adults to Australia. He has achieved distinction in his profession as an architect, and his CV is impressive, but interestingly, a mere sentence is devoted to the early years. He smiles when this is pointed out to him. ‘I am like someone who has won the lottery once a week. There were so many times that I was ‘lost’ or in danger, or perhaps just facing the wrong way, and someone said ‘Come with us’, I guess I had a lot of luck and a lot of blessings from above.’

Jan Jarka is a former president (three times) and vice-president of the Auckland Polish Association. In 1990 he revisited Poland, to which his step-mother, who is still alive, returned. She gave him a postcard written by her husband from Ostaszkow, near Katyn Forest, shortly before his murder. To Jan this is a treasured possession — the only memento of his father that he has.

Now retired from his job as an insurance executive, Jan remains heavily involved in community service, for which, in 1993, he was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal. He and at least three other Children of Pahiatua have been appointed Justices of the Peace for New Zealand.


Alan Gill was for 23 years the religious affairs writer for the Sydney Morning Herald. In the 1990s he spent considerable time researching the import of British child migrants, resulting in the well-received book “Orphans of the Empire”. In 1995 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia for sevices to the media.

[i] As a Franciscan priest Father Krolikowski later became chaplain to many of these ‘wandering orphans’, leading a group of them to a new home in Canada. For this the post-war Polish Communist Government branded him a kidnapper. His extraordinary story is told in a privately published book, Stolen Childhood

[ii] For many years the Soviet Union blamed the Germans for this appalling crime. In 1992 Russia finally admitted that the Katyn Massacre had been carried out by the NKVD, forerunner of the KGB (Soviet security police).


In 1966 pioneering NZ film maker Kathleen O’Brien produced a twenty minute documentary on the arrival and settlement of the children. You can watch the two ten minute parts by tapping on either of the images below.

IMG_2275 IMG_2276



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