Second Acts

The Children of Pahiatua

They were orphaned, lost, and alone. Yet a generation of World War II Polish child refugees found a new life and happiness in distant New Zealand.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand—A fish restaurant in New Zealand seemed an odd place to discuss a war that took place several thousand miles away and several decades ago, but there we were: Sea bream was served, sauvignon blanc was poured, the rain drummed down outside, and I listened while three septuagenarians smiled, laughed, and told me of the unimaginable tragedy they had lived through as children.

All three were born in eastern Poland, and all three were arrested and deported, along with hundreds of thousands of other Poles, after the Soviet invasion in 1939. Soviet soldiers and police packed their families into boxcars and exiled them to Siberia or central Asia, where many died of illness or starvation. Only in 1942, after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, were survivors released and allowed to form a Polish army in exile. After crossing the border into Iran, the adults formed themselves into fighting units and began to travel back to Europe via Palestine.

But their children could not fight. Some were already orphans, having lost their parents to hunger or disease. More would lose their parents, or lose track of their parents, in the course of the war. An international appeal went out: Thousands of Polish children could not remain in Isfahan forever. Among others, New Zealand—a country that had never before accepted refugees—responded.