New Zealand’s first official refugees were today welcomed back to Pahīatua, the town that took them in 75 years ago.
A total of 733 Polish children, escaping the atrocities of World War Two, arrived in the Wairarapa town on 1 November 1944.
Many of them were orphans and had been stranded at a refugee camp in Iran before New Zealand said it was willing to accept them.
Pahīatua already had the facilities to look after them - an old internment camp - and so that’s where they stayed, studied and formed life-long bonds before heading off to various boarding schools.
“Wonderful friendliness, super teachers, wonderful food after all those starving times in Siberia and Kazakhstan and so it was real home,” remembered Dioniza Choros.
About half of the Pahīatua Polish children are still alive, most of them are in their eighties. Forty-one of them made the emotional return to the town today.
The community put on a colourful display of kapa haka, Polish dancing and plenty of flag waving to welcome them back. Many of the refugees were overcome with emotion with the heartfelt gestures.
“Absolutely fantastic. Proud of Pahīatua. I’m very emotional,” said Roman Kolodzinski.
Most the of the child refugees stayed in New Zealand, many of them going onto successful careers in business and the trades.
But they will never forget Pahiatua, the rural sanctuary that gave them their first home.