Oamaru woman tells of a childhood of wartime

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After surviving a harrowing childhood, including the death of seven of her family members, during the Soviet invasion of Eastern Poland, Czesia Panek now lives in Oamaru and has written a book to share her story.

Mrs Panek (nee Wierzbinska), who is in her 80s, will be launching Chmielow: Our Paradise Lost at St Joseph’s School Hall on Saturday.

Her book talks about surviving the occupation of Poland and the horrors of her family’s deportation before coming to New Zealand as a refugee in 1944 with 733 other Polish children.

The occupation of Poland during World War 2 began with an invasion in September 1939 by Nazi Germany from the north, south and west and the Soviet Union from the east.

More than 1,200,000 Poles were deported by the Soviets in four mass deportations.

Mrs Panek, who grew up in Chmielow, southeast Poland, and nine family members were taken, along with 220,000 others, on February 10, 1940, to northern European Russia during the first mass deportation.

“We didn’t know where we were going.

“We were locked in cattle trucks, locked up like animals.”

Mrs Panek and her family were kept in prison camps until they were taken to a collective farm in Uzbekistan following the Poles and Soviets re-establishing relations in 1941 with the signing of the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement.

Seven of her 10 family members died within two years of being taken, including both her parents, which left Mrs Panek, aged 9, her older sister, aged 13, and younger sister, aged 7.

“We saw so many people dying, it was an everyday occurrence.”

Following the signing of the treaty, they stayed with an uncle and aunt for the summer of 1942 before spending two years in orphanages in Turkmenistan and Iran.

While in Iran, the siblings were told they were going to be among 733 Polish children and 102 caregivers to be sent to New Zealand, where they would stay until the end of the war.

However, after a pro-Soviet communist government was installed in Poland in 1945, the refugees were given the option to stay permanently in New Zealand.

The refugees were welcomed into Wellington on November 1, 1944, and sent by train to Pahiatua, near Palmerston North.

Hundreds of children waved New Zealand and Polish flags and passed toys through the train windows along the way, said Mrs Panek, who was 11 at the time.

“We got a wonderful reception. It was a royal welcome.”

An old internment camp had been made into the “Polish Children’s Camp in Pahiatua” and women from Pahiatua’s Polish Children’s Hospitality committee prepared the beds and put flowers on tables and lollies in each room.

“The camp was beautifully prepared,” she said.

By the time the camp closed in 1949, Mrs Panek and her younger sister were studying at St Mary’s College in Auckland. Her older sister had a job in Wellington.

She stayed in Auckland and worked at a clothing factory before marrying and having two children. They moved to Oamaru in 1981 because Mrs Panek’s sister was living here with her family.

The book launch will be held at St Joseph’s School Hall on Saturday, May 2 at 2pm. RSVP to Sandra Tonkin by Wednesday on 03 437 0418 or swtonkin@xtra.co.nz.

PHOTO: RUBY HARFIELD  – Oamaru resident Czesia Panek will be launching her book Chmielow: Our Paradise Lost on Saturday.

By Ruby Harfield