Polish diaspora celebrates alumna Krystine Tomaszyk

Over 50 members of Wellington’s Polish diaspora attended an event at Victoria University of Wellington celebrating the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the Polish children in New Zealand.

Two women and a man in front of a banner with victoria university on
Rebecca Needham, Krystine Tomaszyk, and Zbigniew Gniatkowski

Hosted by Assistant Vice-Chancellor (International Engagement) Rebecca Needham, the event featured the presentation of alumna Krystine Tomaszyk’s book Polish Children in Isfahan 1942-1944 to the University. Krystine and her mother were part of the group of 733 children and their 105 caregivers on the ships that travelled in 1944 from Isfahan, via Bombay, to Wellington.

The Polish government-in-exile in London provided money to support the children and families at Polish orphanages in the south of the Soviet Union then in Isfahan and finally at the Polish children’s camp in Pahiatua. At the end of the war and as Eastern Poland was annexed by the USSR, the Prime Minister at the time, Peter Fraser, invited the children and their caregivers to remain in New Zealand.

Krystine gained a Bachelor of Arts at the University in 1955 and enjoyed a long career in the public service, in Wellington, Rotorua and the Waikato. She was awarded a Queen’s Service Medal for services to the community in 2013 New Year Honours, as well as being given an honour by the Polish President Andrzej Duda on his 2018 visit to New Zealand.

She was one of many Polish alumni and their descendants to study at Victoria University of Wellington, and during this event, Ms. Needham formally acknowledged their contribution to both the University and New Zealand.

The Polish Ambassador to New Zealand, His Excellency Mr. Zbigniew Gniatkowski and his wife, the Polish Consul Mrs. Agnieszka Kacperska, attended the event along with a number of Polish alumni and their families, to hear Krystine speak about her and the other children’s experiences during the war, along with the results of her survey of the careers of over 750 first-generation Polish New Zealanders.

Krystine told the gathering, “The wide range and the apparently unimpeded choice of professions selected by members of the first Polish New Zealand-born generation indicates the unquestioned freedom of choice of professions in New Zealand.”

Krystine told of once speaking to a Hamilton Rotary Club and being asked to say something about the arrival of the Polish children to New Zealand, and the subject of actual voyage came to mind.

“It would have been very difficult for the Polish female staff to care for all the children for the whole length of the trip, if it wasn’t for the Australian and Kiwi soldiers traveling home on leave deciding that it was their role to get involved. They taught the girls to sing ‘My Bonnie lies over the ocean’, and the boys how to do the haka. But what we appreciated most, was that the soldiers shared their dessert with us.

“After telling the story, I stopped talking. There was a momentary silence. Suddenly, a man sitting in the audience stood up and walked towards me, and put his arm around me, saying ‘I was one of the Kiwi soldiers with the Polish children on the General Randall.’ Silence followed. Tears flowed.”

Mr. Gniatkowski thanked Krystine for her talk, “We’ve heard a beautiful personal story of resilience, courage, and determination, which began in Eastern Poland from earliest childhood and continues even now.

“Krystine’s contribution to New Zealand has impacted on many communities in New Zealand. Throughout her life she has successfully contributed to building a strong bond between Poland and New Zealand, while representing Polish culture, Polish heritage, along with the best values of New Zealand society.”

The University continues to nurture links with Poland, with a student exchange agreement with the Warsaw School of Economics having run for over a decade, initially funded by Valerie and John Roy-Wojciechowski, who was himself one of the Polish children and served as Polish Honorary Consul in Auckland for many years.

It also has a cooperation agreement with the University of Warsaw, countersigned by Emeritus Professor Roberto Rabel during the visit of the Polish President to New Zealand. Professor Rabel will be a visiting professor at the University of Warsaw in the first half of 2020.