Polish refugees land in New Zealand

1 November 1944

Peter Fraser and Countess Wodzicka with Polish children (Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-003634-F)

Over 800 Polish refugees disembarked in Wellington, seeking safety from war-torn Europe. For the 733 children and 102 adults it was the end of a long and perilous journey. They had survived deportation to the Soviet Union, forced labour in Siberia and evacuation to the Middle East before reaching New Zealand.

An estimated 1.7 million Poles were deported to labour camps in Siberia following the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland in 1939. Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 prompted Joseph Stalin to send over 120,000 Polish prisoners to Iran, where they languished in refugee camps.

While most of the former soldiers joined free Polish forces fighting on the Allied side, the Polish government-in-exile in London appealed for help finding temporary homes for the civilian refugees. In 1943 Prime Minister Peter Fraser invited a group of Polish children to New Zealand for the duration of the war. 

A camp for the children – dubbed ‘Little Poland’ – was established near Pahīatua in Wairarapa. Most of the refugees chose to settle in New Zealand after the war. Relatives joined some in the late 1940s, while a small number returned to Poland.

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