Being a boy
Before World War II, we lived in the Ostrów Mazowiecki region of Poland near a village called Jasienica before being deported to the Soviet Union. We survived Stalin's hellhole because of the sacrifices made by our parents.
After a lengthy and arduous exodus, we eventually arrived in Pahlevi, Iran. My brother Stanislaw was six years old and I was eight. Within three months of our arrival, our mother, aged 3, died of malnutrition and other associated complications brought on by the hardships suffered in Siberia. She is buried in Pahlevi. After our mother's death, we were virtual orphans left to fend for ourselves, wandering from one refugee camp to the next looking for food and shelter. The army cadet camp was our most frequent destination, because in return for cleaning shoes and performing other minor chores we were given food.
I specifically remember one night in the pouring rain with thunder and lightning surrounding us, my brother and I sheltering in a doorway of a house somewhere in Pahlevi. To this day, I vividly recall the loneliness I felt, despite only partially understanding the helplessness of our situation and not really realising how alone we were. On learning of the death of our mother, our father was granted leave of absence from the army to locate us and determine our situation. In the few days he had with us, he arranged for us to be placed in an orphanage camp, and organised with the authorities that he be informed of our movements and wellbeing.
After two years in Iran, we were invited by the New Zealand Government to stay in the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua. My observations about life in the camp pertain mainly to that of the boys and do not encompass the secret life of the female residents. Of the 733 children brought to Pahiatua, 308 were boys with a range of ages, abilities and backgrounds. Some were very serious and studious, others devilish and wild, with a few potential bullies in the making. Some excelled in gymnastics and athletics, and others on the football field.
The usual routine at camp life comprised church, meals, school classes, sports activities, general cleaning, hygiene and sleep. But during our free time on weekends a whole new range of opportunities became available. Exploring the camp's surroundings and the adjacent farms, forests and river was one of the most thrilling facets of camp life.page 112
Roaming and hiding in the forests, jumping off vines into the river like Tarzans, and swimming and playing with the primitive rafts and boats that we built were among the favourite activities. Fishing for eels and trout with hooks and lines was always exciting. But someone once attempted it with dynamite, which proved to be dangerous and stupid – especially considering the subsequent investigation by the police and camp authorities.
Building tree houses, catching sheep and attempting to ride them, and climbing for birds' eggs were all part of our rural lifestyle experience. Many boys developed an awesome degree of artfulness in avoiding detection or being caught during raids on orchards or a field of turnips. Sometimes the farmer would attempt to catch the perpetrators but he was usually too slow. Occasionally, he would send his farm dogs in pursuit but the poor animals would turn back yelping from slingshot volleys. The more audacious acquired onions and carrots from the teachers' private gardens, though not always successfully. Such indiscretions would certainly end in pain and silent tears.
Culinary experimentation was not just the domain of the girls at Pahiatua. It was a major coup among the boys to acquire enough sugar off the dining table to make toffee over a fire while out on weekend adventures. In summer, there was an abundance of blackberries to eat and what wasn't eaten was inevitably turned into "wine" – an enterprise that often ended up with amusing and disastrous results.
Most of us were curious and inventive, freely participating in activities that were fun and harmless. For self entertainment, a wide range of ball and stick games were improvised. What began with palant (baseball-type game), dwa ognie (netball-type game), wheel hoops, cowboys and Indians, making stick swords, bows and arrows, and slingshots, soon progressed into making samopaly (homemade guns), assembling bikes and dismantling tractors. As you can imagine, we were very popular with the local farmers!
Periodically, we were allowed to go to the Saturday matinees in the town theatre and, though it was a three-mile hike, it never seemed a hardship. It was there that more enterprise was often displayed. It was common practice to sneak out at the beginning of the screening to borrow the New Zealand boys' bikes parked outside and try to learn how to ride them. It was then imperative to be back in our seats before the end of the film but more so to be seen leaving the theatre by the camp chaperone.
After the camp closed in 1949, we were dispersed throughout New Zealand. One group was placed in Hawera, another in Auckland, but the majority went to Wellington. Most continued with high school studies and some went on to university. Others obtained apprenticeships or jobs, and most developed into assertive and independent individuals. While assimilating well into New page 113Zealand society, in their private life many predominantly associated with their Pahiatua kumple (friends).
An unrestrained sense of humour and ribbing was always evident at every meeting of the boys. There was an intensive yet friendly rivalry in every facet of our lives. This would include sports activities, billiard-hall snooker games, and the ownership and display of motorbike expertise. This was even more evident while courting at the Polish Girls' Hostel in Lyall Bay, and at other dances and gatherings.
While initially displaying (not surprisingly) awkwardness or naivety in our social behaviour, we hopefully acquired some degree of refinement and manners to help us in our later life. Six decades ago, we guys from "Mars" had a simple "sophisticated" method of dealing with the opposite sex. We threw stones at them, pulled their hair or sprayed them with water on dzień oblewany (traditional water fight on Easter Monday). We didn't have a hope of ever understanding the inhabitants from "Venus".
There are many factors that combine to make our Pahiatua camp a unique experience. Being there contributed immensely to our survival. My younger brother and I were fortunate to have ended up in New Zealand. For more than five years, we were without parents and the camp life created a feeling of belonging and comradeship. This created the atmosphere of an extended family, which has been retained to varying degrees by most of us for the rest of our lives.
While it was unique and special, it was not a true integrated family and has made us slightly different. As my wife Erna commented only shortly after we first met, it was obvious from my outlook and attitude to life that I lacked a mother's influence while I was growing up – most of us did. The camp, combined with our earlier life experiences, made us more determined, confident, assertive, selfish and in many matters more knowledgeable, though not always to our advantage or betterment.
Our father, having joined the Polish army being formed in Russia under General Anders, went on to serve in the Middle East and Monte Cassino, Italy. He fortunately survived the war and, after the demobilisation of the Polish Corps in Scotland, was eventually able to join us in New Zealand and reinstate us as a family.
Dwelling into nostalgia, I wish to make an observation of my own and my brother's life. In our youth, we were exposed to hardship, pain, starvation, tragedy and sorrow. Despite this, I believe in God's presence and care over us throughout our ordeal. I am therefore convinced that our survival and future blessings are God's way of compensating for having taken our mother so early in our lives. We are thankful for the return of our wonderful father, whose page 114values and ethics have consistently helped and guided us in our adult life. We continue to try and emulate his example towards our own children and grandchildren.
We are both blessed with happy marriages – Stanislaw to Zofia Portas (a wonderful "Pahiatua girl"), and for me Erna (a unique, salutary Croatian). They are our salvation and unequalled partners. We have wonderful children who are our pride and joy, not only for their achievements but also because they are caring, decent, capable human beings. As a bonus, we are blessed with loving grandchildren without whom life would be unfulfilled. We are also extremely fortunate to have salt-of-the-earth friends and in-laws whom we honour, value and respect deeply.
Most of us will be buried in this country. On reflecting on our past and what has ensued, let us appreciate with gratitude our present situations, and say dzięki ci Boże (thank you God) for your past blessings and keep us always in your care.