New Zealand

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New Zealand's First Refugees: Pahiatua's Polish Childred
Submitted by: Alan Newark

The Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua

he piece of land on State Highway 2, some 3km south of Pahiatua where the rest area with the Polish Children's Memorial is situated, was once part of the Pahiatua Racecourse, established in 1901.

Shortly after Japan entered World War II on 7 December 1941, the New Zealand Government rounded-up all foreign enemy nationals (Germans, Italians, Japanese and Samoans of German extraction) and interned them on Somes (Matiu) Island in Wellington Harbour. However, the fortification of Somes Island meant that the internees had to be shifted. In 1942, a prison camp was built at Pahiatua Racecourse for these "alien" civilian internees.

When on 9 June 1943 the US transport ship Hermitage, carrying a group of 706 Polish refugees from Iran to Mexico, anchored for a short time at Wellington, the wife of the Polish Consul, Countess Maria Wodzicka , visited them and conceived an idea of bringing some of the other Polish orphans from Iran to New Zealand. She shared her idea with Prime Minister Peter Fraser's wife, and eventually that idea become a reality when Mr. Fraser and his government offered hospitality to 733 Polish children and 102 staff who were to accompany them. So the journey from Isfahan to Pahiatua began.

The Polish children were farewelled from Wellington Railway Station by hundreds of Wellington school children waving New Zealand and Polish flags. There were also big welcomes at Palmerston North and Pahiatua, and all along the way there were groups of children waving to the arrivals. In a gesture of further goodwill, some of those children were driven to other railway stations to cheer on the refugees again.

Thirty-three army trucks transported the arrivals from Pahiatua station to the old internment camp whose official name was now the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua. At last they had a new home. The long journey was over.

All teaching at the camp was in Polish and even some of its street names were in Polish. It was intended that after the war all the children and staff would return to Poland. However, after the Russians had pushed the Germans back across Poland in 1945, the Russians installed a pro-Soviet communist government in Poland and retained, with some adjustments, the territories occupied in 1939. It was at this stage that the New Zealand Government assured the children and staff that they were welcome to remain in New Zealand.

The limited financial assistance from the Polish Government-in-Exile in London soon came to an end and the New Zealand Government took over the entire financing of the camp. The Polish authorities were aware of the huge costs of running the camp, and it was decided to try to lower them by cultivating a vegetable garden, and taking over the running of the laundry and kitchens.

The children performed their duties and chores outside of school hours by cleaning the campgrounds, working in the vegetable gardens, cutting the grass, washing dishes, and also tidying their dormitories, classrooms and washrooms. To help them get acquainted with the New Zealand way of life, the army and Catholic hierarchy collected 830 invitations from New Zealand families for the Polish children and adults to spend two weeks' holiday with them in May 1945 and January 1946.

In early 1945, one of the first groups of girls left the camp to attend New Zealand schools, and at the beginning of the 1946 school year a second group left for Catholic secondary schools or to towns to learn various trades.

Towards the end of 1946, the new Russian-installed Warsaw Government sent a special envoy to New Zealand, Mrs Zebrowska, to inspect the living conditions of the Polish children in the camp and New Zealand schools. After inspecting the camp, she returned to Poland completely satisfied with the conditions.

As the Polish army was demobilised, there arose the possibility of bringing some of the children's relatives to New Zealand. Soon afterwards, Polish ex-servicemen and other relatives began arriving from Africa, India and Britain. In 1948, they formed the Polish Association in New Zealand, which was based in Wellington. Thus, the children formed the nucleus around which the Polish post-war community in New Zealand developed.

The exodus from the camp continued as each year those children who had finished Polish school up to Standard 6 left for New Zealand schools or apprenticeships. The last group of children left the camp on 15 April 1949.

Thus, by the time the camp was closed in 1949, many of the children were already working or attending New Zealand day and boarding schools. The youngest girls were transferred to the Polish Girls' Hostel "Ngaroma" in Queen's Drive, Lyall Bay, Wellington, which closed in 1958. The older boys were accommodated at the Polish Boys' Hostel, Clyde Street, Island Bay, Wellington, until 1952. A group of the youngest boys was cared for at the Polish Boys' Hostel in Princess Street, Hawera, until 1954.

When the last of them left the camp, it was converted to accommodate "displaced persons" who migrated from forced-labour camps in Germany. They were also stateless because of the boundary changes in Europe after the war. By 1952, the last people left the camp and it was finally closed.

The buildings were sold for use as barns, halls and beach cottages. Some of the best-preserved camp buildings are still in use, such as at the Southern Cross Abbey in Takapau, Hawke's Bay. The land then reverted to farmland. Thereafter, nothing remained of the original camp to remind anyone that a huge camp had existed, except for a small grotto shrine on its northern perimeter which the Polish children had helped to build from rocks from the local Mangatainoka River in 1945 for their religious devotions.

In 1971, the Jaycees of Pahiatua notified the Polish Association in Wellington that the grotto structure was rapidly deteriorating. The former children of the camp felt that they could not allow the only tangible reminder of their happy years at the camp to disappear. So the Polish Children's Memorial Committee was convened to build a monument and establish a rest area.

The land and air-landing strip for top-dressing on which the former camp stood was now owned by Balfour Stud Farm Limited, and part of it was donated for the rest area through Mr. P Williamson of Wellington. The rest area was established at the northern entrance to the old camp, and the stones and masonry from the grotto shrine were incorporated in the monument now standing there.

The monument, a white marble monolith, was unveiled on 22 February 1975. Based on Greek mythology, its shadow at midday represents a mother holding a child. A historical noticeboard, prepared by Józef Zawada the auspices of the Historical Places Trust, was unveiled in the rest area by John Falloon, the Member of Parliament for Pahiatua, on 23 October 1994 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Polish children.

New Zealand archives:

National Office, Wellington
10 Mulgrave Street, Thorndon, Wellington 6011, New Zealand
PO Box 12-050, Wellington, New Zealand
Phone: (64-4) 499 5595
Fax: (64-4) 495 6210 General email:
Research email:

Auckland Regional Office
95 Richard Pearse Drive, Mangere, Manukau 2022
PO Box 201103, Auckland Airport, Manukau 2150
Ph: (64- 9) 270 1100
Fax: (64- 9) 276 4472

Christchurch Regional Office 90 Peterborough Street, Christchurch
PO Box 642, Christchurch 8140
Phone (64-3) 377 0760
Fax (64-3) 365 2662

Dunedin Regional Office
556 George Street, Dunedin 9016, New Zealand
PO Box 6183, Dunedin North, Dunedin, New Zealand
Phone: (64-3) 477 0404
Fax: (64-3) 477 0422

Shipping records
Archives New Zealand holds a variety of Shipping Records, mostly in Wellington.
Auckland Office:
* Auckland Inward Passenger Ships lists for 1909, 1915-1965 [BBAO 5552] (AK)
* Comber Index (copy – see next column) [AREPRO 4711/357] (AK)

Wellington Office:
Shipping Index [Reading Room]

Emails from those who want to know....

Jun 11, 2013 Dear Ms Kaczmar
Subject: searching for UNRRA worker
I'm a historian from Wellington, NZ. I was referred to your wonderful website by a US postgraduate student named Shawn O'Donnell. I had emailed him about a research project of mine on a New Zealand nurse, Dorothy Aroha Morris. She served first in the Spanish Civil War, then provided relief services to Spanish refugees in concentration camps in Perpignan, southern France. From about 1946 she was employed by UNRRA, and was apparently the first New Zealander to work for this agency.

All I have been able to find out about her work for UNRRA is that she worked on projects in Yugoslavia and Cairo. She may possibly have worked elsewhere as well.
It's not much to go on, but I'm hoping you can help me find out more. Do the UNRRA archives in NY include personnel files that may give me Nurse Morris's employment history? Is there anyone else you can refer me to who has studied these archives?

Any advice or contacts most appreciated.
Yours, best wishes,
Mark Derby | Writer
Manat? Taonga - Ministry for Culture and Heritage
ASB House, Level 4, 101 - 103 The Terrace
P O Box 5364, Wellington, New Zealand
Ph +64 4 495 1314 Fax +64 4 499 4490

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