The 75th anniversary of the arrival of Polish children to a camp in Pahiatua is be commemorated on Friday.

On November 1, 1944, 732 Polish children and their 102 caregivers were welcomed to New Zealand during World War II.

They were among displaced Poles who had been deported to Siberian work camps by Russia when Poland was split under Russian and German control, and later evacuated to Iran under an amnesty reached with Russia in 1941.

Many of the children had lost their parents during the harrowing deportation, or harsh labour camp conditions, or their fathers were fighting for the Polish Army.


In 1944 New Zealand's Prime Minister Peter Fraser invited the group to stay under humanitarian grounds, and they became known as the Pahiatua Polish children.

In all 216 Polish visitors will travel to Pahiatua on Friday, arriving at 11am.

Pahiatua on Track chairwoman Louise Powick has been organising events for the day which will be hosted by Tararua mayor Tracey Collis and attended by Polish ambassador to New Zealand Zbigniew Gniatkowski.

The visitors will be led along the town's main street by members of the New Zealand Army and welcomed by Polish flag-waving children and community members.

From there they will go to the Town Hall where the official part of the programme will take place.

Collis will present a carved replica of the monument on the site of the Polish Children's Camp carved by Tararua craftsman Jeff Bryan from 1200-year-old totara to the Polish ambassador.

A group of Wellington children will perform Polish dances and the Tararua College kapa haka group will also perform.

The visitors will be taken to the town's museum where a replica of the camp's grotto that the children worshipped at has been created.

Powick said it was made clear to local organisers that the day's celebration was to be a relaxed affair that would allow the Polish children to talk with each other and with local people they knew and enable them to reconnect to the past.


Five years ago the town welcomed the Polish children to the 70th commemoration, but the numbers attending this time will be more than the numbers at that event.

"We've had an amazing response, considering that the youngest of the Polish children are now in their mid-80s," said Powick.

"The numbers reflect the strength of the relationship between the town and the Polish children."

She said at the 70th anniversary those attending were overwhelmed by the welcome they received.

Powick says the story of the Polish children is a harrowing one, but it was one that had a happy ending.

"It's an amazing part of New Zealand's history that many people don't know about."
Collis says their story is one of great humanity.

"The total love and respect and the kindness they were shown has stayed with them. They are eternally grateful for the love they received."

Tereska Lepionka-Carroll from the Pahiatua Polish Children Reunion committee says this year's commemorations are very special, as the numbers of the original group dwindle.

"The bond that these children shared is unique; they experienced traumatic journeys and extreme hardship, before arriving in a country that welcomed them with open arms," says Lepionka-Carroll.

"Their memories of arriving in Wellington and travelling by train to Pahiatua with hundreds of people waving and welcoming them is forever etched in their minds and hearts.

"They grew up together, and navigated being new to this country with a different language and culture, at a time when speaking a different language was unusual," says Lepionka-Carroll.

"New Zealand quickly became their home, but they've retained a strong sense of being Polish and love of their homeland, which is celebrated through language, food and culture whenever they meet with one another."

For Stanislaw Januszkiewicz the 75th anniversary will be about celebrating the opportunity the children were given to settle in New Zealand.

"It was a real blessing for us to come here and be able to stay. It means a lot to many of us who grew up in Pahiatua," he says about the camp that was effectively an orphanage, "where we felt like one big family."

"Because we shared barracks with children the same age, in some ways we were closer than ordinary brothers and sisters; we were the same age as one another so we were going through the same experiences - good and bad, so we got to know each other very well."

Januszkiewicz says although there are regular get togethers in the Polish community the anniversaries of their arrival are a special time "to reunite and remember what connects you."

"We're encouraging anyone associated with the Polish community, the Pahiatua children and their families to also come along, as it's a great opportunity to commemorate the journey the Pahiatua Polish children shared," says Lepionka-Carroll.