Today, in 1944, over 800 Polish refugees (over 700 of them children) arrived at the Pahiatua Polish Children’s camp after a long and perilous journey to our shores seeking safety from war-torn Europe.
This Hidden Treasure is a carved elephant statue made at the camp which operated on the outskirts of the small Wairarapa town from 1944 until 1949.
The children had endured a lot over the five years before arriving in New Zealand. After being invaded by the Soviet Union in September 1939, the children and their families in Eastern Poland where transferred to labour camps in Siberia where they were kept on meagre rations and housed in terrible and freezing conditions. However, after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Russians sided with the allies and the children in these camps were evacuated to Perisa (Iran) where they became refugees for the next two years. The Polish government in exile appealed to the allied countries to find a temporary home for these children. The Prime Minister of New Zealand at the time Peter Fraser agreed to accept a group of these children and provide them with a safe place in New Zealand for the duration of the war.
The camp soon became known as “Little Poland” and was administered by the New Zealand Army with the support of a delegation from the New Zealand Polish Consul. It provided the children with a Polish speaking classroom environment and many of the street signs around the camp took their names from the children’s homes in Poland. The children grew vegetables to sell to the local community and helped staff in the laundry and kitchens, also providing them with valuable life skills. To help get them acquainted to the New Zealand lifestyle, many of the Polish children were given two weeks holiday around the country where they were hosted in the homes of local families.
The camp continued to operate until April 1949, by which time all of the children had moved on to attend public school or started regular trades and other employment around the country. Given that Poland became part of the Communist Soviet Union at the end of the war, it was agreed that it would be unwise to send the children back, so the majority accepted the government’s offer to remain in New Zealand. Where possible, the children’s relatives where bought out to New Zealand to start their new lives together. These children would grow up to become hardworking, prosperous, and well respected members of their local communities and formed the nucleus of the Polish community in New Zealand today. The children continued to keep in touch and various reunions where held in the following years. A memorial was erected by the children at a rest stop near the former site of the camp in 1975, and in 2004 (60 years after their arrival) a memorial plaque was placed on the Wellington waterfront in recognition of their life changing journey and their enduring legacy in New Zealand.
New Zealand Electronic Text Collection (NZETC) “New Zealand’s First Refugees: Pahiatua’s Polish Children”. Published by the Polish Children’s Reunion Committee, 2004.
Wellington City Council (www.wellington.govt.nz). Waterfront Stories “Polish Children of Pahiatua”. Accessed 19th October 2023.