Polish Refugees in New Zealand 1944-1951

Farewell to Isfahan

A drawing of Iranian memories by Eugenia Smolnicki. Source: Eugenia Smolnicki.

Krystyna Skwarko: The author of the idea to bring Polish children to New Zealand had been Countess Wodzicka when a ship carrying a few hundred Polish orphans from Persia to Mexico stopped in Wellington for a few days in 1943. She talked to Janet Fraser about the possibility of a similar scheme for this country and the idea soon became a reality. Through innumerable speeches and meetings the countess inspired the people of New Zealand to this most noble undertaking.

After being invited to join the “Polish Children’s Hospitality Committee”, Countess Wodzicka became the chief champion of the whole cause and devoted an enormous amount of time to advising the committee and directing its operations. (p51-52)

…In the same year (1944) the Polish Minister of Social Welfare, Mr Stanczyk, came from London to visit all the homes in lsfahan. It was during his visit that Delegate Haluch told us that because the British and Polish Armies were moving out, the camps in Teheran and the homes in lsfahan were going to be moved. He also told us that the war could not end favourably for Poland so there was no chance of us going back there. Then Mr Haluch told us the Polish Government in London had accepted an invitation from the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Mr Peter Fraser, for about 700 children and 100 adults to travel to his country and remain there till the end of the war.

The remaining Polish inhabitants left in lsfahan would be transferred to Syria.

Our stay in Home No. 7, therefore, was to last barely eight months. I was asked to become principal of the boys’ school that would go to New Zealand. After discussing the matter with my husband who was now in lsfahan after being exempted by the Polish Army Medical Commission from further military service, I accepted the offer without hesitation.

We began immediately to organise the new boys’ school in Homes No. 1 and 1A. To go on the long trip we selected the orphans, children whose fathers were fighting in Italy, children whose parents were not in Persia, and the children of those adults who would accompany them in the ship and work for the children in New Zealand. Then we had to find teachers and supervisors.

It was not an easy task to persuade women to care for about 300 boys. Most of the men, and there were only a few in lsfahan, did not want to go as far away as New Zealand.

Some brothers or sisters could not leave at that time because of illness, so there were several changes to the list of boys selected to travel. The final list was made up of orphans and children who were separated from their parents because of the war.

We worked for days and nights checking clothing, issuing suitcases, text books, library books and so on. Time was limited. It was already July and we had to leave at the end of September.

At the same time the principal of the girls’ school, Mrs J. Zerebecka, was getting 390 girls together with teachers and supervisor in Home No. 6. Also making preparations for the journey were the principal of the high school, Mrs Zieciak, who selected 55 girls in Home No. 2 and Mrs Tietze who collected 52 preschoolers in No.8.

Included in the staff going to New Zealand were the chaplain, Father M. Wilniewczyc, a doctor, Dr E. Czochanska, a dentist, Dr J. Budzyna Dawidowska, a treasurer, Mr S. Skwarko and two Ursuline nuns, Sister M. Aleksandrowicz, as the religious instructor, and Sister A. Tobolska as a supervisor. Mr M. Kotlicki and Mr and Mrs Olechnowicz also volunteered to come with us. Apart from the group mentioned above there were also the teachers, supervisors, domestic and administrative staff. Altogether, 100 staff and 733 children.

The children were eager to go. The prospect of seeing a new, little-heard-of country fascinated them. There was no end to the questions about New Zealand. The most important thing that the teachers could tell them was that it was a beautiful country and that the people were very kind. The word “Antipodes” became very popular. There was a lot of interest shown in the life of the Maori people. One of the few available books about the country was called Drama in the Pacific. It was read with great excitement.

Then on September 27, 1944, those staying behind waved us farewell as we left for Ahvaz. We were saying goodbye to lsfahan, the city of mosques and palaces, the city of our Polish Homes, the city that restored physical and mental health to two thousand Polish children. We were leaving behind the ancient Iranian capital with the streets resounding with Polish children singing as they marched in orderly scout ranks. (p47-49)

The Invited; p51-52, 47-49