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During World War II, many Polish people were deported to the Soviet Union, forced to labour in Siberia and then fled to the Middle East.
A Red Cross delegate, who had seen first-hand the need of the Polish people, suggested to the New Zealand government of the time that we invite them to New Zealand. Prime Minister Peter Fraser did just that.
They were welcomed ashore by Prime Minister Peter Fraser, his wife and Red Cross nurses. They were then taken by train on 1 November 1944 to Pahiatua, “Little Poland”, where they remained for the duration of the war.
On the train, the children were given lunchboxes by Red Cross, which contained a bottle of milk, an orange and a sandwich – there are also rumours of ice cream. Once the children arrived in Pahiatua, they were given Red Cross clothing parcels and messages were passed on to family back home.
Correspondence with Red Cross counterparts in Europe helped families find out what happened to their young relatives. The New Zealand Red Cross archives store a handful of files relating to these cases. Restoring Family Links is one of the oldest Red Cross services and continues to reconnect families separated by conflict and disasters.
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. It was the first refugee resettlement programme that New Zealand Red Cross participated in.
Krystine Tomaszyk was one of the children on the USS General Randall and remembers what it was like arriving in New Zealand.
She remembers the Red Cross nurses providing the children with milk and sweets on the train and their support, but most vividly she remembers the kindness of New Zealanders.
“Of course the main people who stood out were Red Cross people because of their uniforms. And at every stop, when the train stopped, it was the Red Cross who brought us drinks - milk. The milk was served in little bottles at that time and every child got a little bottle of milk with a straw.... They were given ice cream and we were given cakes and biscuits. So we were very much aware of the Red Cross,” says Krystine.
“The war ended and we couldn’t go back to Poland, because Poland was left behind the Iron Curtain. And so we stayed on and we were very lucky enough because New Zealand is a very friendly place. It's got wonderful people, very accepting people. They took us in, they treated us as equal and they gave us tremendous opportunities.”
New Zealand Red Cross is now the primary provider of community refugee settlement in New Zealand, supporting and empowering new Kiwis as they rebuild their lives. Seventy-five years on, we celebrate New Zealand’s achievements in welcoming refugees and saving thousands of lives.