Polish Refugees in New Zealand 1944-1951

Journey from Isfahan to New Zealand

The transport ship - USS General Randall - transported the Polish children from Mumbai, India to Wellington, New Zealand together with New Zealand and Australian soldiers returning home

The transport ship – USS General Randall – transported the Polish children from Mumbai, India to Wellington, New Zealand together with New Zealand and Australian soldiers returning home

Dioniza Choros (Gradzik); The group departed from Isfahan, Iran, on 27 September 1944. We were gathered in a huge hall where we were given our travel instructions on how to behave as worthy representatives of our country. (p37)

… The younger children with their guardians were settled into buses and the older ones into army trucks, bunched together on hard benches. After a cold and dusty trip over the desert, we arrived in Sultanabad (now Arak) the next day in an American army base camp. The hot showers were most welcome. We visited the camp, saw short American films, and the soldiers handed out sweets and nibbles. One soldier knew no language barrier and managed to entertain us until we rolled with laughter. To them, we were their children back home and to us it was a memorable experience.

In the evening we were farewelled with speeches we did not understand but we applauded vigorously the learned speech by one of our girls. We boarded specially adapted wagons to carry the children, with benches on one side and sleeping platforms on the other. For the little children, the platforms were covered with netting to stop them from falling off. We older ones had the duty to settle in the little ones before going to bed.

The train shook and rattled on bends. We counted more than 150 tunnels on the way and the acrid smoke from the locomotives permeated everything and made breathing difficult. The children’s stomachs began to revolt against the unaccustomed overeating of sweets at the American camp and many of the little ones were ill in the carriages. We arrived in Ahwaz (which in Iranian means hell), where temperatures reach over 50ºC. We were taken to a transit camp which formerly housed the Iranian cavalry’s stables. We placed our possessions in the mangers and slept on benches. We spent our time writing letters, which were never posted. Religious services were held outdoors early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day.

After six days, on 4 October 1944, we departed by train for the port of Khorramshahr at the estuary of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, where I saw palm trees. This was the embarkation point for the refugees travelling to India, East Africa and other countries.

Our group boarded the cargo steamship Sontay. In disciplined ranks, we went below to a huge, smelly and dark cargo hold with scurrying rats. The only furniture was piles of smelly mattresses. I was horrified. Having been ill with malaria and the resultant anaemia with fainting spells, how would I survive here? We discovered that the hold would be our bedroom, dining room and living room. Food was brought from the kitchen in buckets. Parts of the floor were flooded with murky bilge water. Sleeping was unbearable in these conditions, so we lugged our mattresses onto the deck and slept under the stars, feeling sorry for the little ones who were not allowed on deck at night. Our male teachers, Mr Kotlicki and Mr Olechnowicz, tried to answer all our numerous questions. (p37-38)

… The ship had several British officers and a Portuguese crew. (p38)

… We sailed down the Persian Gulf. One day, a severe storm broke and everyone was ill. There was nothing with which to clean up the mess. The children, used to a hard life, did not complain but lay pale and ill on the deck. Our guardians were also feeding the fishes. We cleaned up later. The worst part of the journey was the terrible heat and unsanitary conditions with nowhere to wash our filthy clothes.

One day, we became afraid when an escort of two ships suddenly appeared at our sides and a small plane accompanied them. Some of the crew ran to secure the portholes. This lasted a few hours and then the escort left us. After six days, our priest Father Michał Wilniewczyc said a thanksgiving Mass on the deck for our deliverance to date. That same day, on 10 October 1944, we sailed into Bombay Harbour. (p38-39)

… After four days, our ship berthed close to the navy troopship the USS General Randall, which had a capacity to carry 7,000 people. It now carried 3,000 American soldiers and a group of New Zealand soldiers on their way home from war. We were glad to hear this was now “our ship”. Hugging our suitcases to our chests, we followed a crew member up the steep gangway to our new temporary home. The crewman Chester Wisniewski was our guide and translator. He was of Polish descent and had a good understanding of our language. His assistant was Joseph Dutkowski. We were ushered into a large hall with tiered hammock beds. The boys and younger children occupied similar halls.

There were two meals a day – breakfast and a 4pm meal. We lined up, took trays from a stack and were served by a line of cooks, each one ladling out a tonne of different food which even a wrestler could not handle, let alone children. (p40)

… The girls wallowed in the plenty of the ship’s hot water, washing their grimy clothes and enjoying the bliss of unrestricted showers. This was the best medecine for our rashes and skin ailments, which were caused by a week of exposure to salt water on the previous ship.

At 9.30am on 15 October 1944, I awoke to the ship’s vibrations. The motors fired and we were on our way on a long and dangerous journey down the Indian Ocean. (p40)

… The New Zealand soldiers, hearing that we were travelling to their country, also took us under their wing, played games on the deck with the boys and taught them English. One brave guy even taught the older girls to sing his national anthem, which they later sang at the station in Palmerston North to the surprise of welcoming New Zealanders. (p40-41)

… Each soldier was to look after one child, which made us feel safer. The ship was heavily armed, with anti-aircraft guns and torpedoes on deck. Some were covered and guarded. One day a plane appeared towing what looked like balloons and without warning deafening gunfire erupted from our ship’s guns. We were terrified.

This was war time and our ship was zigzagging across the Indian Ocean to avoid torpedoes. Until we reached Melbourne in Australia, our ship sailed in convoy with a sister troopship identical to ours carrying Australian soldiers. Each day began with an exchange of signals between the ships. For safety, the ships were made invisible at night by extinguishing all outside lights and covering portholes. One night we awoke terrified to a big jolt, the breaking of crockery in the kitchens, the scurrying of the crew and much speculation. Later, in Wellington, Captain Van Poulsen revealed that a torpedo had grazed the ship’s side, though we had already heard the rumour the next day. (p41)

… The weather cooled as we sailed south. The regular announcements to reset our watches for the time difference were wasted on us because we had none. (p41)

Our sister troopship with the Australian soldiers berthed in Melbourne and we sailed to New Zealand alone without convoy. (p41)

New Zealand’s First Refugees: Pahiatua’s Polish Children (3rd edition); p37-41