Pahiatua re-enacts arrival of ‘PolishChildren’

Polish war-orphans and family make their way from the bus, past an emotional welcome, to Pahīatua’s community hall.

The decades appeared to melt away for a group of Polish war-ophans and refugees on a pilgrimage to their adopted hometown for a special commemoration.

In 1944, the people of Pahīatua welcomed 733 Polish children and their 102 caregivers who were forcibly removed from a war-torn Poland occupied by the Nazis and the Soviet Union. They were New Zealand’s first refugees, invited in by Prime Minister Peter Fraser on humanitarian grounds.

They arrived by train and were ferried in 33 army transports to the camp on the edge of town that would be their home for the next five years.

Hundreds of children lined the streets on Friday, cheering and waving Polish flags, as the town turned out to recreate the welcome those children received 75 years ago.

Pahiatua schoolchildren line the street waving Polish flags as they did 1944, as many of the war-orphans arrive by bus.

Over 60 of the Pahīatua Polish children returned by bus, with Polish ambassador Zbigniew Gniatkowski, in a procession led by one of the same army transports that first brought them into town.

Tararua College pupils dressed in period army, navy and police uniforms, rounded out the re-enactment, and when Edward Wala​ looked out the bus window, it felt like he was back in 1944.

“It’s wonderful, all those children waving flags and welcoming us so warmly. It’s like we never left, like it was all yesterday.”

Wala was five when his great-grandparents greeted him the same way 75 years ago, and only remembers fragments of his life before then.

“I was one of the lucky ones, I was too young to really understand what was happening. I saw it as an adventure, the older kids felt the war much more.”

Edward Wala, centre, arrived as a Polish child to Pahiatua in 1944. He is pictured with his daughter Halina Black and wife Margaret Wala.

He remembers a little of the Siberian labour camps the children and their families were taken to after being forcibly removed from their homes in Poland by the Soviet Union. And there is the fragment of a memory in a mosque, when Polish prisoners were released and moved to a camp in Iran.

Wala clearly recalls his excitement at seeing the battleship that would carry him to New Zealand, and the bright blue sky on the day it arrived in Wellington harbour.

Growing up in the Pahīatua camp, known as “Little Poland”, the children became an extended family.

Wala said Pahīatua give him and the other orphans a future, and a sense of safety and belonging.

Even as they scattered across the country, they always felt a deep connection to Pahīatua and its people, he said.

“Coming back after all these years, is beautifully eerie. I don’t remember everyone’s name. But I’ve seen faces [today] and, although they’re very different, I know them.”

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