The unheard stories of Polish children who were sent to New Zealand as refugees during World War Two are now being told.
Suzanne Bieniowski's parents were among those deported from eastern Poland to Siberia during the Russian invasion.
Miss Bieniowski, owner of The Outfit in Birkenhead, attended the Polish Children's 65th Reunion in Wellington at the weekend.
Her parents were among 732 Polish children and 102 caregivers evacuated to Pahiatua in the Wairarapa in 1944 after being given refuge in Persia after years of deprivation in Siberia.
Miss Bieniowski's mother Helena was seven when she, her two sisters and mother were woken at home early one morning by loud knocking from Russian soldiers.
They were taken with their father to Siberia in cattle trucks, Miss Bieniowski says.
"It was freezing cold and frightening in Siberia.
"The parents were sent to labour camps while the children attended school. There was never enough food and any they had was given to the children."
Helena's father froze to death.
Miss Bieniowski says her parents never talk about what happened, but she has heard of trains being so cramped and cold that people's faces froze to the carriage windows.
A number of Polish babies were thrown overboard, she says.
"My mother woke in horror to see her mother's body being thrown off the train. She knew she had died during the night."
Helena's older sister Marysia was forever separated from the family when she got off the train to buy food and it left without her, Miss Bieniowski says.
They were reunited in 1973 through Red Cross but Marysia only spoke Russian while the others speak English so communication was difficult.
"She died alone. She was traumatised, she turned to drink and couldn't cope."
To this day some of the older Polish migrants in Russia are in institutions where they have to be sedated to take showers because they bring back memories of gas chambers, Miss Bieniowski says.
"And if they see dirt they freak out because they had to crawl through dirt to get to the border."
The children granted refuge in New Zealand stayed in touch. She says her parents met years later at a dance in Wellington and went on to have two children who attended a Polish school in Wellington.
The family possess strong Catholic beliefs. Miss Bieniowski says she and her brother Steven met former Pope John Paul II when he visited New Zealand, which gave their mother much pride.
The former president of Poland, Lech Walesa, who received a Nobel peace prize for his role in challenging communism in Poland, planned to attend the reunion but was unwell.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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