Orphan's story told in memory of his survival
Te Anau writer Alina Suchanski has penned a book about her stepfather's long and arduous journey from Poland to New Zealand as a child during World War II, that ended at a haven for refugees near Palmerston North.
Alone - an inspiring story of survival and determination is based on the life of Tony Laparowski, who was orphaned as a child in the Soviet Union after his family had been deported from Poland. Laparowski's father was killed by the Russians and his mother died soon after. He was only 3 or 4 when he was taken to a Russian orphanage and from there he was sent to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Iran, before he came to New Zealand in 1944.
When he arrived at the Pahiatua Polish Children's camp with 733 other children, Laparowski was only 8 years old.
His five years at the camp before it was dissolved in 1949 were remarkably happy, Suchanski says, considering the horrors they had witnessed for years before their arrival at the old army internment camp.
Far from being another chapter of despair, the Polish Children's Camp in Pahaiatua is remembered in New Zealand history as a place of restoration before a planned journey back to Poland for the children and their minders.
They were educated in Polish and the camp even had street names in Polish. On arrival they were greeted with flowers on bedside tables from the ladies of Pahiatua's Polish Children's Hospitality Committee.
"It was like heaven to them, coming to New Zealand," she says.
Though the planned return to Poland didn't happen.
The Russians - after pushing the Germans back across Poland in 1945 - established a pro-Soviet communist government in Poland, and retained much of the territory occupied by the Russians there before.
The New Zealand government offered the children and Polish staff at the camp the opportunity to stay on. Laparowski was fostered out to a Christchurch family where he was raised and loved, Suchanski said.
While she had read the history books about what had happened in Poland and the long journeys each of the children had gone through, she describes it as only half the story. It was her step-father's handwritten memoirs that filled in the pieces, and later her own journey back to Poland and the Ukraine to trace his steps.
Suchanski was a refugee herself when she left Szczecin, Poland, in 1981. During a stay in a refugee camp in Vienna, Suchanski applied for a visa to New Zealand.
When she arrived in 1982 she could say "Hello" and "I love you" and a few other simple phrases, she remembers.
She had always journaled and written poetry in Polish, she says. A survivor's spirit persevered. After mastering English, she took creative writing courses in Christchurch and later joined the New Zealand Society of Authors.
Her first taste of literary success came when a case study in her computer science MBA course was published. After that she took her writing more seriously and published her first book in 2006.
Suchanski's mother met Laparowski when she came to visit her daughter, who by then had a long involvement in the Polish community in Christchurch. Her mother and Laparowski were both in their 40s when they married, Suchanski says.
Her stepfather's story amazed Suchanski when she first heard it.
Once she started digging for more information, it was difficult to stop.
"Research can be addictive, once you start studying documents and family history."
There was the trip to Europe for further interviews and research and the gathering of her step-father's memoirs - but her own writing stopped cold after the death of Suchanski's partner in 2007.
"I couldn't write for nearly four years. It was very, very hard. Hard to find the motivation to go on. There was the passage of time [that helped] but it was also because my stepfather became ill and I had to finish it before he died."
Suchanski said she was able to finish the manuscript for Alone before her stepfather's death in May 2012 but he never got to see the book in print.
It took eight years to complete the book. In the aftermath, there is a sense of both relief and pride in tracing Laparowski's life back to his childhood and documenting an important piece of Polish history in New Zealand.
Alone is Suchanski's second book after Polish Kiwis - Pictures from an Exhibition, though she also produced a documentary in 2004 called Poles Apart.
After having a book launch in Te Anau last week, Suchanski will be taking Alone on a promotional tour to Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland, in combination with the opening of a Polish library at the Polish Heritage Trust Museum in the next few weeks.
- The Southland Times