I was born in south-eastern Poland in Krzemieniec (pop. around 25,000) a beautiful town surrounded by hills and forests. I bad very young parents. When I was born my mother was just 21 and my father was 25. My father was a land surveyor and although mother had qualified as a primary school teacher, she did not work as in those days married ladies stayed at home. Mine was a very happy and carefree childhood. I had lots of friends as did my parents. They loved entertaining and life was good.
When I was five, I went to kindergarten and in 1938, when I turned seven, I started school. The following year, during the summer school holidays, when I was old enough to appreciate what I was seeing and to learn, my parents took me on an extended trip around Poland. We visited Warsaw and other cities and places of interest. Our holiday was cut short by persistent rumours of war, and we returned home. Very soon afterwards my father, who was a reservist in the Polish Army, was called up. (He was subsequently taken prisoner of war by the Germans. Mother and I did not see him again until 8 years later when he joined us in New Zealand in 1947. However, throughout the war we knew where he was and he knew where we were, thanks to that marvelous international organization, the Red Cross)
And the war did come: on I September 1939, Germany invaded Poland from the west and two weeks later Russia invaded from the east. Our lives changed irrevocably.
All these events took place a lifetime ago, half a world away. But how do they tie in with a group of Poles in New Zealand? When we are asked this question, our short answer is: we carne here during the Second World War having been deported to Siberia as political prisoners. We were given amnesty and were granted temporary asylum in Persia (now Iran) and carne to New Zealand as war refugees. This is the short, simple answer. But then come more questions: Why were we deported? What crime had a four-week old baby or I at the age of 8 years committed to deserve imprisonment and deportation? And how come we were given amnesty and became refugees? To answer these questions I think we must put the events that brought us here in their historical context and more particularly in the context of Polish-Russian relations.
The emergence of the Polish state dates to the 10th century. In 966, the Polish King was converted to Christianity, was baptized a Catholic and his subjects followed suit Since then Poland has had its periods of greatness and of disaster and its frontiers and importance have fluctuated a great deal. For example, in the 15th century, Polish lands stretched from the Baltic in the north almost to the Black Sea in the south-east - an area well over 1 million square kilometers (at present Poland covers just one third of that area).
In the 17th century, when Europe was threatened by the Turks, it was a Polish King, (Jan III Sobieski) who took command of combined Polish, Austrian and German armies and in 1683 defeated the Turks at Vienna. By this act he gained for Poland the title of “Bulwark ofChristendom". And by the way, if you visit the Vatican Museum you will find in a separate room, a painting which in size takes up the entire wall on which it hangs. It is a painting by a famous Polish 19th century painter, Jan Matejko, and it depicts King Jan 111 at Vienna. The inscription is a variation on the words of Julius Caesar - Veni, vidi, vici - (i.e. I came, I saw, I conquered). It reads: "Veni, vidi et Deus vincit" (I came, I saw and God conquered).
Until the 16th century Poland was a kingdom; it then became a "royal republic", with the entire nobility taking part in the election of a king. In the 18th century Poland was tom by wars of succession and suffered interference from foreign powers which backed various claimants to the throne. In 1772 Poland's neighbors, Russia, Prussia and Austria, the three greatest military powers of the time, took advantage of Poland's internal problems and its military weakness and proceeded to partition the country. Two further partitions followed: in 1793 and 1795. The last king abdicated, and Poland disappeared from the map of Europe.
Poles are and always have been fiercely patriotic and attempts of the partitioning powers to denationalize and assimilate them were futile. Although the many armed revolts against the foreign powers were defeated, the spirit of nationalism, of Polish identity and unity, remained. However, it was not until after the First World War, by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, that the independence of Poland was restored.
In 1939, Poland covered an area 1½ times the size of New Zealand and had a population of 35 million. Having regained its independence after so many years of bondage, the country wanted to be able to rebuild itself and for that it needed peace. And so it concluded pacts of non-aggression with both Germany and the Soviet Union. The pacts proved of no value. On 1 September 1939 Germany invaded Poland from the west and two weeks later, the USSR invaded eastern Poland.
What do I remember of those first few days of the war? I remember the continuous
transmission on the radio of air raid warnings and the screeching of sirens when Warsaw was being bombed. I remember that our town was also bombed, on 3 September, because the Germans thought that that was where the Polish Government had sought shelter. Mother and I were in town at the time of the bombing, and she thought that it was too dangerous for us to return home. So, we spent the night in someone's orchard. I have a memento of that night which has traveled with me wherever I have been. Someone - and I have no idea who - gave me a tiny (1 inch) statue of St. Anthony of Padua. St Anthony has been a great help to me and to my friends and acquaintances.
When I was in Lisbon many years later, I made a point of visiting the church built on the site where St. Anthony's home bad been. However, I digress.
And so, in 1939 Poland was once more under foreign occupation. Germany annexed 189,000 sq kms of Polish territory and 22 million people, and the Soviets annexed 202,000 sq kms and 13 million people.
Each invading power assumed responsibility for the administration of its part of Poland. In eastern Poland the process of expropriation and of switching over to the Soviet economy now began. The first step was the so-called nationalization of commerce. In practice this meant the seize and export to the Soviet Union of practically all goods still left in the country. These goods included the contents of shops, stores and factories, machinery and equipment, foodstuffs and raw materials of all kinds. The outcome of these measures was almost total unemployment. The next step was the devaluation and then the withdrawal from circulation of Polish currency. This meant that people's savings were rendered valueless overnight.
At the same time an intensive Soviet indoctrination programme was started by the Russians. This included the closing of churches, the prohibition of conducting of services by priests of all denominations and the inclusion of atheist propaganda in all radio broadcasts.
The Soviet army came to Poland accompanied by political commissars, and civil administration of the occupied area was in the hands of the NKVD (now known as the KGB). The commissars arrived with lists of categories of persons to be arrested and of those to be deported to the Soviet Union. Those to be arrested included representatives of all political parties, trade union leaders, government and local body officials, civil servants, youth leaders and skilled and professional workers of all kinds. The selection of those to be deported was more random and included people from all classes, employers and employees, the wealthy and the poor, merchants, people from the professions and unskilled workers, landowners and farm labourers. Deportations included the principal "offenders" and their families as well as the families of soldiers of all ranks thought to be with the Polish army or interned ·abroad.
The stage was set for the systematic destruction of a nation: occupation, economic ruin, unemployment, arrests and preparations for deportation. Instructions given to the NKVD concerning deportations were very detailed: e.g. people were to be taken from their homes at night; they were to be allowed between 20 and 60 minutes to pack; the weight of a family's baggage was not to exceed 100 kgs and was to contain only clothing, bedding, kitchen utensils and food for a month. Farmers were allowed to take certain simple fanning implements which were to be transported separately in case they were used as weapons.
The first mass deportation took place on 10 February 1940, in mid-winter. My maternal grandfather and aunt were in this group. They were sent to the Arctic circle, near Archangel, where my grandfather died. From the first deportation onwards the population lived in fear as everyone knew that other deportations would follow. It was merely a question of who would be next and when they would be taken. And so everyone started packing up clothing, bedding etc, baking and drying bread and hoarding non-perishable food in preparation for arrest and deportation. In fact, three further transports followed: in April and June 1940 and in June 1941. In all some 1.3 million people (women, children and men beyond call-up age or unfit for military service) were deported.
Why did these deportations take place? The reason was simple: to break the spirit and the body of the people. Consignment to labour 'camps and deportation bad been the methods used in the past by the Russians to punish their own dissidents and other undesirable persons. In 1940, the same methods were applied to Polish citizens living under Soviet occupation.
My mother and I were deported in June 1940. All transports were organized on similar lines: people from towns and villages in a large area were brought together to a central point where cattle wagon trains were waiting. I have no idea how many people were packed into each wagon, but I would estimate that it must have been 80 to 100. If you can imagine a wagon with two shelves at each end stretching the width of the wagon for 20-25 persons to sit and sleep on, with space in the middle where people could stand up, you will get the idea.
Remember that there were only four deportation transports and that around 1.3 million people were deported so the trains were very long and very crowded. Remember also that some people travelled in the middle of winter, in sub-zero temperatures, while others travelled at the height of summer.
My mother and I travelled in summer, in June. Our journey lasted 21 days and I have no idea how we survived it. As I said, we were in cattle wagons. There were no toilets and no running water. Every so often the train would stop for refueling and we would be given water to drink and several times during the journey we were given bread. For the rest, we ate what we had brought with us. Those who had shared with those who had not A friend of my mother who was with us had a 6-week old baby and whenever the train stopped. my mother would get off and try to get milk for the baby. I was terrified that the train would move off and mother would be left behind. (By the way, the "baby" is now a 67-year-old grandmother living in Christchurch).
As I said, the journey took 21 days. We travelled through the whole stretch of the
European part of Russia, over the Ural Mountains into Kazakhstan and were finally deposited on a collective farm in the middle of the vast Siberian steppes. Mother was put to work on the railway, but she fell off the train and injured her back. She was exempt from work but at the same time lost her food ration. So we survived on what food mother was able to get in exchange for her jewellery, clothes, linen etc that we had brought from Poland.
What do I remember of the two years we spent in Siberia? Mostly I remember being afraid of all sorts of things: of the local people, of the winter - the temperature fell to 30 or even 40 degrees below zero. I was afraid that we would freeze to death or that the house would be buried under snow as happened on occasions, but that next time no-one would dig us out. I was afraid that we would be attacked by wolves which had killed our neighbours' dogs.
In summer, when the temperatures soared. I was afraid of fires: the heat on the steppes was intense and any vegetation there was was tinder dry and spontaneous fires would start. There were blinding sandstorms to fear and huge, grey, hairy tarantula spiders and big brown cockroaches and bedbugs. These are some of my memories. of Siberia.
In June 1941 (while the last of the four mass deportations was in progress) Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, which immediately became an unexpected and unintentional ally of Great Britain. (lt should be remembered that the USA was not in the war for another six months, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941). General Sikorski, the Polish Prime Minister and Commander in Chief since 1939 (who was at the time in the United Kingdom) at once opened negotiations with the Soviet Union. A new Polish-Soviet Pact was signed in London in July 1941. It provided, among other things, for the raising on the territory of the USSR of a Polish Army under a Polish commander. It also provided that an amnesty would he granted "to all Polish citizens at present deprived of their liberty within the territory of the USSR".
Soon a Polish military mission went from the United Kingdom to Moscow to begin organizing an army and a Polish Embassy was established in Moscow to begin organizing civilian relief. Before either of these plans could be put into effect the Polish authorities faced the gigantic task of actually finding the Poles who were scattered over an area of millions of square miles of Soviet territory.
As the news of the amnesty spread, the Polish people began to move south, to Turkistan, to army recruiting centres and to civilian relief posts. We were undernourished, in rags, physically and mentally exhausted. Disease was rife, epidemics (typhoid, cholera etc) raged, and many thousands died.
An army was formed under the command of General Anders who was himself released from the still notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow. Men carne from prisoner of war camps, from labour camps and deportation settlements. Civilians flooded in to be near the army and share its fate.
I don't remember how long it took us to get from Kazakhstan to Turkistan. I do
remember that we travelled by horse cart, truck and train. By now we had found out
that Persia (now Iran) had offered the Poles temporary asylum and that that is where we would be going next.
After some weeks in a transit camp, in a place called Yangiyule, we traveled by train to Krasnowodsk, a port on the Russian side of the Caspian Sea. When we arrived in Krasnowodsk, trucks were provided to take the very old, the very young and the sick to the port which was several kilometers from the railway station. The rest of us were told we would have to walk and carry all our possessions with us. At the age of ten, I couldn't carry very much. Mother was able to carry a change of clothing for us and our most precious and irreplaceable possessions: our photograph albums and personal documents. We had to travel light!
The sea voyage from Krasnowodsk to Pahlevi in Persia normally takes one day but the cargo ship on which mother and I traveled took three days. It was a rough crossing, there was heavy fog, and it was very hot and crowded. There were a lot of very ill people on board and when we arrived in Pahlevi a fleet of ambulances waited to take the sick to hospital.
After a couple of weeks living in tents on the beach in Pahlevi and after being washed, de-loused, fed .and outfitted in clothing provided by the Red Cross, we travelled by trucks to Teheran. The army made a brief stay in Teheran and then left for the Middle East and active service alongside the allied forces in Ąfrica and Europe. The civilians, mainly women and children (very many of them orphans or separated from their parents) remained in Iran longer and were being gradually settled in refugee camps in British colonies in Africa, and in India. Mother and I were on a list to go to Kenya or South Africa, I can't remember which, but a few days before we were due to leave Teheran I developed a high temperature and to mother's great relief we were removed from the list.
Soon after, the possibili1y of going to New Zealand came up. We found out that the New Zealand government had agreed to accept a group of children, mainly orphans, as refugees. Since the children could not travel alone, a call went out for volunteers to accompany them. We knew next to nothing about New Zealand apart from its geographical 1ocation and it was precisely its location, at the end of the world, far from war, that was its main attraction. And so mother volunteered. Prior to going to New Zealand all those selected were moved from Tehenm to Isfahan. Here mother decided that I should begin to learn English. However, the lesson did not last long since the teacher spoke only Farsi (Persian) and English, and I spoke only Polish and some Russian. There were few books and no dictionaries to help and the lessons were soon abandoned.
While we were in Isfahan, the Shah, who was in residence in his summer palace, celebrated his birthday. There was a big sports event and a military parade. And it was then that we saw and heard our first Scottish pipe band. Its appearance and sound made quite an impression! We bad never seen men wearing skirts, some also wearing animal skins and all making the most weird noises! (incidentally, years later, in 1977, when the Shah of lran and the Empress visited New Zealand I was presented to them at Government House and it gave me enormous pleasure to be able to thank the Shah personally for the kindness he bad shown us daring the war).
While we were in Isfahan, as a special treat mother would take me to tea at the gardens of Sbah Abbas the great caravanserai. Many years Jater, in 1974, I stayed at that caravanserai which had by then been converted into a fabulous, luxurious hotel.
The group in Isfahan which was to travel to New Zealand consisted of 732 children.
and 102 adults. We left Abadan on the Persian Gulf on board a British troopship in
September 1944. When we got to Bombay we transferred to an American troopship,
the General Randall The journey to New Zealand was very long and dangerous as there were Japanese warships in the Indian Ocean, and at one stage we had a naval escort. On the ship with us them was a large contingent of New Zealand soldicrs returning from the Front. (The world is small, and life is full of coincidences. Years after we came to New Zealand, an American tourist got into a taxi in Wellington and started chatting with the driver. He told the driver that it was his second visit to Wellington as he had been the captain of an American troopship which had brought some Polish refugee children to New Zealand. He said he had often wondered what had happened to those children. Whereupon the taxi driver introduced himself to the American and informed him that he was one of those children).
We arrived in Wellington on 1 November 1944, on a beautiful, sunny day and marveled at the quaint little houses smack on the hillsides. We boarded a train at Wellington and at every station were greeted by the locals and by school children until we got to Woodville. From there army trucks took us to Pahiatua, to a camp which originally bad been intended for Japanese prisoners of war, but which became the Polish Children's Camp and our new home.
The camp was under the command of a New Zealand army major, and the army was responsible for its upkeep and servicing. However, there was a Polish administrative unit which was responsible for the general welfare of the children, including their schooling, etc. In fact the Poles at the camp were a self-contained, self-sufficient little community. Among the adults there was a priest, two nuns, a medical doctor, a dentist, nurses, teachers and a variety of other care-givers. This was very important from the point of view of the children who were in yet another strange country, without their families and with no knowledge of the local language or customs. I was one of the very few lucky ones. I was with my mother from whom I had never been separated.
I stayed at the camp in Pahiatua just over two months. My mother very wisely decided that no matter what the future held for us, it was important that I begin learning English as soon as possible and suffer no interruption in my education. And so in January 1945 I went to Auckland and for the next four years was a boarder at the convent of the Sacred Heart (now Baradene).
I learned E nglish (and French), passed School Certificate then University Entrance, left school when I was 17, enrolled at Auckland University and three yean later graduated with a BA in languages. I was the first of the Polish children to attend University in New Zealand and to graduate. (Incidentally while at the University I met Pat Downey whom I married many years later and now we are growing old together). On graduation I joined the Public Service and in 1956 came to Wellington for one year. That was 51 years ago! I fell in love with Wellington and as you see, I am still here!
At the end of the war, that part of Poland from which all of us at the Camp had been deported was no longer Poland. It was now Byelorussia and the Ukraine. The new Poland was under Communist role, with the result that but a small handful of the children went back, to be reunited with their families. The rest of us stayed and were eventually joined by fathers, brothers, sisters, and husbands, after they were demobbed. My father arrived in New Zealand in July 1947 and after a month or so at the camp in Pahiatua he and mother went to live in Rotorua where my father worked as a land surveyor for the New Zealand Forest Service. My parents subsequently moved to Auckland so that when I left school we were once again together and happy.
Whatever I have achieved in my life, I owe to my parents. They nurtured any abilities and interests and supported me in every way. I owe it to my mother that I survived Siberia and Persia and that I am in New Zealand. She taught me at home when there was no school to go to and ensured that I continued with my education when we ca.me to New Zealand.
And so eventually we all became Polish-Kiwis, grateful to the New Zealand government of the day for allowing us to come here and to all New Zealanders who made us welcome.
Krystyna at the Embassy
Note: Krystyna (nee Kolodynska) Downy died 16th February 2020. Wife of Patrick (dec) and daughter of Stanislawa and Henryk.
Source: www.gov.pl (a Google PDF doc)
Copyright: Downy family