830 New Zealanders (review)

A STRANGE OUTCOME: The remarkable survival of a Polish child by John Roy-Woljciechowski and Allan Parker.

Listener: 22 May, 2004.

Keywords: Miscellaneous; Political Economy & History;

One of the proudest letters any New Zealand Prime Minister wrote was by Peter Fraser in 1943, beginning, “With reference to our discussion concerning the reception of Polish refugee children in New Zealand … I have to inform you that the New Zealand Government would be very willing to afford the hospitality in New Zealand to a total number … of 500-700.”

In fact we took 830, including 10-year-old Jan Woljciechowski, who later changed his name to John Roy (the latter being the shortest name he could find in the telephone book). As he tells it in A Strange Outcome, the story of how Jan got here is gripping.

He was born in Poland and his area was taken over by the Soviet Union in 1939 when the country was divided with Germany – an event starting World War II. His father was immediately shot by the Russians, although six-year-old Jan was not to learn this until years later. Shortly after, the rest of his family – except for the eldest, who escaped to German Poland – were shipped to a harsh Siberian work-camp. And there they would have died, except that Germany invaded Russia. The Soviets, wanting the support of pro-Polish Britain and the US, shipped the Poles to the warmer south, and thence to Persia. A few countries then took the children, although only New Zealand and South Africa insisted after the war that they were not automatically repatriated, but could make a choice.

In our case, most stayed. As did Jan and his twin sisters, Maria and Krystyna. Their mother, to whom the book is dedicated, “having sacrificed her life for her children”, died in the Soviet Union before they escaped. Later, Boleslaw (Bob), who had got lost on the way, joined them.

The second part of John’s life in New Zealand is not nearly so gripping. He gets married, has six children, obtains a university accounting degree, works his way through a number of small businesses, restructures others, is involved in the takeover of Mainzeal, and has the good luck to be cashed up, rather than holding shares, when the sharemarket collapsed in 1987. In 1994, 50 years after arriving in New Zealand, he retires wealthy.

The third part of the book returns to the themes of the first. John becomes the honorary Polish consul and finds, in Poland, his eldest brother, Stanislaw, who also endured hardships, for the Germans were no more kindly occupiers than the Russians. Alas, the reunion does not quite work despite migration to New Zealand – the distance between them was too great. But things go better with eldest sister Amelia, who married an Iranian Muslim. The family farm, now in the Ukraine, is under the fallout shadow of the failed Chernobyl nuclear power station.

The book helps corrects our Western European perception of recent history, by opening up the more turbulent Eastern European front. Much of it is a good read, although some of the writing is florid and the metaphors extravagant. Unfortunately, there is no index, or references, and not all the historical facts seem correct. The first part could have done with a map.

Within A Strange Outcome, there is an issue to be teased out. The guests at the wedding when John marries Christchurch-born Valerie were “New Zealanders and Poles”. But surely the Poles there were also New Zealanders, just as surely as Jan/John Woljciechowski/Roy is one. About 2000 New Zealanders described at least one their ethnicities as “Polish” in the 2001 census. It is easier to be a Pole in Poland, but over the years they have scattered all over the world while maintaining a Polishness; what does it mean to be a Polish-New Zealander?

We can incorporate other ethnicities into New Zealand, as Woljciechowski’s history demonstrates. But our biculturalism treats all Europeans the same. Jan’s story, touching on the genocide of Germans, Russians and their allies, and Jews as well as Poles, shows they are not. How right Fraser was to take the 830 of 1943, and let them stay.