On 31 October 1944, 733 Polish refugee children and 105 adult caregivers, sailed into Wellington Harbour on the General Randall. On 1 November they settled into the Polish Children's Camp at Pahiatua, north of Wellington.
They had lost their homes and family members following the 1939 German invasion of Poland and its subsequent occupation by the USSR. In 1940 the first of a total of 1,700,000 Poles were deported to the USSR.
In 1941, after being attacked by Germany, the USSR joined the Allies and granted amnesty to the Poles. Only 120,000 were liberated, many making their way south. This small group of 733 children finally arrived in Persia and from there came to New Zealand.
It was intended that at the end of the war they would return to their homeland and be reunited with their surviving families. However, unexpected events prevented this from happening.
First, the infamous Katyn Massacre was made public, after the grave of 4,000 Polish Army Officers murdered by USSR soldiers was discovered near Smolensk. Later it was disclosed that some 22,000 officers had actually been massacred. The USSR denied culpability and in retaliation halted the amnesty. Many of the victims were relations of these Polish children.
Second, at the end of World War II, allied leaders agreed that Poland would be placed under Stalin's Communist rule. There was little point in returning to their country and most of the children accepted the offer to become New Zealand citizens.
The plaque was unveiled on 25 October 2004 by Her Worship the Mayor of Wellington, Kerry L Prendergast, in the presence of the Rt Hon Helen Clark, the Prime Minister of New Zealand.
The Honorary Consul for Poland, Mr John Roy-Wojciechowski and his wife Valerie made the plaque possible.
The message on the plaque reads:
Polish Children of Pahiatua 1944–2004
On 31 October 1944, 733 Polish refugee children and 105 adult caregivers sailed into Wellington Harbour on the USS General Randall. On 1 November, they settled in the Polish Children’s Camp in Pahiatua.
They had been invited by Rt Hon Peter Fraser, Prime Minister of New Zealand, for the remainder of World War II. They had lost their homes and family members following the 1939 German invasion of Poland, the occupation of Eastern Poland by the USSR and subsequent deportations of 1,700,000 Polish people to the USSR.
In 1941, after being attacked by Germany, the USSR joined Allies, granted “amnesty” to Polish deportees, allowed the formation of the Polish Army in the USSR and agreed to its subsequent evacuation to Iran (Persia) to fight the common enemy. However, only 120,000 soldiers and civilians were evacuated, before mass graves of thousands of Polish officers, murdered by Soviet Secret Police, were discovered in the Katyn Forest. The USSR denied responsibility, but halted the amnesty. After two years in Iran, the 733 children who had been part of the evacuation from the USSR arrived in New Zealand. At the end of the war they were to return to Poland. However, the Yalta Agreement ruled this out. Eastern Poland was annexed by the USSR and the rest of the country was under communist domination. It was unsafe for the children to return to their homeland, so most accepted the Government’s offer to stay in New Zealand.
They became self-sufficient, hard-working loyal citizens and 60 years later, together with their families, they say thank you to the New Zealand Government, New Zealand Army, Catholic Church, caregivers, teachers and all who extended a helping hand.
Thank you all and God bless “Bog Zaplac”