Uprooted from home 70 years ago
Once a month a group of Polish women gather to reminisce.
"We eat Polish food, sing Polish songs and watch Polish movies," St Heliers resident Krystyna Brooks says.
The 13 women have a number of things in common – the most significant is that they were all forced from their beloved home country of Poland 70 years ago.
It was two in the morning when nine-year-old Krystyna Wojciechowski and her family were taken from their home on February 10, 1940.
The disappearance and suspected death of her father Jozef a few months earlier meant her mother Helena was on edge, but the knock at the door on that cold, wintry morning still came as a shock.
Jozef, a soldier in World War I, received land in eastern Poland as a reward for fighting in the war.
But World War II gave the Soviet Union an excuse to claim back the land the Poles had been given in the 1920s.
The young Mrs Brooks, her mother, and four brothers and sisters were given just 10 minutes to gather what they could. The Russian soldiers advised them to pack warm clothes. The journey ahead of them was unknown.
This early morning would mark the end of Mrs Brooks's Polish childhood.
The family spent six weeks in a cattle-truck train. Each carriage held 50 to 60 people with one little window, and a hole in the floor for a toilet.
Many people died from the cold or lack of food, the train occasionally stopped to throw out the bodies.
"There was nothing else but soldiers with guns. We had no choice."
Mrs Brooks and her family ended up in a labour camp, or gulag, in Siberia where the temperatures dropped to minus 50 to 60 degrees Celsius.
Her experience is almost identical to hundreds of thousands of Poles.
On that one fateful morning nearly a quarter of a million people in eastern Poland were transported to Soviet Russia.
The family spent two long years at Nuchw-Oziero camp.
Many people died during that time because of poor conditions, lack of food and freezing temperatures.
Mrs Brooks, her twin sister Maria and younger brother John, who were by then orphaned after their mother died of tuberculosis at the age of 35, were sent to an orphanage in Persia in 1942.
In November, 1944, they were invited by the Prime Minister of the time Peter Fraser to come to New Zealand as part of a group of 733 orphaned children and 100 adults.
Mrs Brooks and her twin sister were just 14 years old.
Other Polish labour camp deportees were sent around the world, and 70 years on those who are still alive would have reminisced on February 10 this year about the day that changed their lives forever.
In St Heliers, Mrs Brooks, now 82, and 12 other Polish orphans met for a luncheon to commemorate 70 years since they were forced from their beloved country. All 13 women have been meeting up once a month for the last eight years.
"All our children have grown up. We want to keep our culture going," Mrs Brooks says. "We want to promote Poland."
Mrs Brooks married her husband Ernie 56 years ago.
They have a son, daughter and four grandchildren.
"I love my children very much. I didn't have the opportunity to have love from my parents.
"Overall it was a good life and it was a bad life. To survive for 70 years is a long time."
East And Bays Courier