I am the daughter of Polish war refugees who came to New Zealand in 1944. Their waka (journeying canoe) was a decommissioned American troop ship. In 1939 they had been taken from their beds in Eastern Poland, forced onto cattle trains to Siberian workcamps, and two years later fled and, one foot in front of the other, made their way to a dirt-floor hut in Kazakhstan. There my mother watched her mother die, and the three remaining children fell into a starved sleep, under a rough blanket.
They were found huddled there, by farmers who had little themselves. But they shared their milk. Children who were so malnourished they could eat no food. By some miracle, by which I am now able to tell this story, they recovered, and their exodus began again. My father, on a parallel route had seen his parents shot, and, as he walked that final leg he stole chickens to keep his sister and brother alive.
They made their way, on the sticks that were their legs, to a refugee camp in Iran. 733 Polish children.
Peter Fraser, New Zealand's Prime Minister then, offered to take them. So they sailed from 'Persia' to Mumbai, to Melbourne and then to Wellington, in a country at the bottom of the world. They had been saved by milk and human kindness, and had now arrived in the 'land of milk and honey'. My father was 12, my mother 11, as they crossed the war-torn Pacific Ocean.
In a little town called Pahiatua they found kai (food) and kindness in the hearts of these big-boned, milk-fed New Zealanders. But at first that feeling of fullness was hard to trust. My mother used to keep food under her pillow, fearing there'd be nothing to eat the next day. By the time she became my mother her table laid with food was her greatest act of love.
We would have great Polish feasts. The ritual of setting the table, the bowed thanks and the first taste of soup was communion and, I now understand, reunion. She always cooked far more than we needed. I now see why she did. Our grandparents, the aunties and uncles we never met, they were always sitting with us.