There is part of Pahiatua that will forever be Poland and part of Poland that will forever be Pahiatua, says MERVYN DYKES.
In the grim months when World War II was drawing to its fiery close, the tiny Tararua town of Pahiatua opened its doors and hearts to 733 refugee children and their caregivers from the other side of the world - 838 people in all.
Some 62 years later, in May 2006, the ancient Polish city of Lublin (population about 500,000) gave a grassy playground near its centre the name Children of Pahiatua Square to commemorate the kindness shown by distant strangers from another century.
How fitting that Pahiatua's name has connotations of resting place and sanctuary. "Pahi" can be translated as "resting place" and atua as "god" says The Reed Dictionary of New Zealand Place Names.
The story goes that a chief making an escape from enemies was led to the hill on which the town now stands by his atua or war god. However, other sources say the name was imposed by the town's founder W W McCardle.
Whatever the truth, the two events underline Pahiatua's continuing reputation as a quiet and caring town close enough to Palmerston North to commute and yet far enough away to follow its own destiny.
Most of the refugee children in 1944 were from Eastern Poland and were regarded as short-term guests, but when their former home territory was swallowed up by Communist invaders everything changed.
The New Zealand Government and the people of Pahiatua said "stay, you have a home here".
There were problems, of course. Urban Pahiatua today has a population of only 2600. Imagine what it would be like if Palmerston North was challenged to open its doors to a refugee influx equalling nearly a third of its population.
However, Pahiatua had one big material advantage to complement the generosity of spirit of its people.
About two kilometres to the south of the town was a former internment camp where foreign nationals were held in the earlier days of the war. With some spiffing up, this would be ideal for housing the refugees during their stay.
Women from Pahiatua's Polish Children's Hospitality committee swung into action, preparing 850 beds for the refugees, putting flowers on tables and tidying the camp for the newcomers.
There were dormitories, dining rooms, recreation halls, schools, a library, gymnasium, hospital, chapel and an administration building.
The Polish Government-in-exile in London soon came to the end of its limited resources, so the New Zealand Government elected to pick up the tab.
The Polish authorities in New Zealand did what they could to help keep costs down by organising the cleaning of the camp, taking over the running of the laundry and kitchen and maintaining a vegetable garden.
Books and countless articles have documented the life of the camp between 1944 and 1949 and it still features in promotional material for the town.
These pamphlets show there is much to see and do in the town and the surrounding districts.
The surprisingly broad main street, hints at a pioneer disappointment, but demonstrates that every cloud has its silver lining. Six private citizens, who in 1881, owned all the land in Pahiatua (which became a borough in 1892) had hoped for silver of another kind by having the railway line pass through the centre of the town, boosting land values.
Alas, the line passed by on the west, so a dividing strip was placed down the middle of Main St and planted in lawns and gardens. Today, they provide a pleasant place for people to stroll, relax and have lunch.
One such person encountered was Warren Williams, out walking his cousin's German shepherd, Zara.
He came to Pahiatua from Christchurch in 2007 to take a break after some upsets in his personal life and found the town ideal.
"It's a quiet place where you can get a bit of peace," he says. "The townspeople are friendly and the schools are fantastic. I'm going to stay for a while. People here leave you be if you want it, but when you get to meet them they are damned nice."
Pahiatua also provides him with plenty of opportunity to pursue his hobby of photography.
Photographers can often be seen a short distance away from the bench he is resting on, cameras pointed at one of the most unusual sights ever to grace a children's playground. It's a bright-yellow World War II Harvard of a type that once operated from RNZAF Base Ohakea.
A ladder leads up to the cockpit and from there junior adventure seekers can access the top of a slide and go whizzing down to Mum and Dad waiting below.
Like Warren Williams, Liz Gibbs, the co-ordinator of the Pahiatua Information Centre is an "outsider" captivated by the town's charms.
She hails from Kaikoura, but has been in Pahiatua long enough to see it come alive.
"When I first moved here it was a bit of a sleepy hollow, but the town has really pulled its socks up. More and more people are coming through here. There are people moving in from Palmerston North, Wellington and even places in the South Island like Christchurch and Timaru.
Dairy, sheep, beef and deer farming are the main boosters for the town that has become a busy service centre for a region with a combined urban and rural population of almost 7000.
Easily the most famous of its farmers was former prime minister and governor-general Sir Keith Holyoake, who was born in Mangamutu in 1904.
Major industries and employers in and around Pahiatua include the Tui Brewery a few minutes away at Mangatainoka, Betacraft and Fonterra, which alone provides about 180 jobs.
Ms Gibbs says Pahiatua's surrounding bush is a magnet to hunters of deer and pigs and anglers are downright spoiled with 200km of fishable waters within 30 minutes drive of Main Street.
Other places to visit include the Cultural Centre, which is housed in the town's 1894 court house and is now used by arts and crafts groups. There's the Pahiatua and Districts Museum, the Railcar Centre and Carnival Park, which contains the largest stand of tawa trees in New Zealand.
Pahiatua was formerly within the area of forest called the Forty Mile Bush that extended north from Mt Bruce near Masterton. Settlement began in 1881, but in 1897 when there was still much timber close to the outskirts, a bush fire swept through the area almost destroying the entire town.
But Pahiatua came back and indications are that it's not done growing yet.
- © Fairfax NZ News