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Polish children after arriving in New Zealand in 1944, safe at last from war-torn Europe. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

How NZ families separated by war, disaster or migration are being reunited

On the 75th anniversary of the first Polish refugees settling in Aotearoa, New Zealand Red Cross' Katherine Wright looks at how they've reunited families, 75 years ago and today. 

‘Dear Sir, With reference to your letter of 21 December 1948, I am happy to say that three of Mrs X’s sons are in New Zealand…The three boys are most anxious to procure their mother’s address, perhaps you could help us in the connection…’ 
correspondence between NZ Red Cross and British Red Cross, December 1948.

The atrocities of World War II led to the separation of vast numbers of families across the globe. Parents would wait months before receiving a letter notifying them of the death of their son in combat; others would forever wonder the fate of their loved ones. For the 733 Polish children who arrived in Wellington Harbour on 31 October 1944, their collective experience was no different – most of them had been separated from their parents and lost complete contact with their families in war-torn Europe, unsure whether they were still alive or not.

The NZ Red Cross Archives store a handful of files relating to some of these children. Their journey to get here was arduous and often traumatic but they were welcomed to New Zealand and then settled into the Polish Children's Camp at Pahiatua, north of Wellington; a place where they were finally safe, and cared for. Red Cross played a number of roles in this resettlement process, not least through helping families in post-war Europe find out what happened to their young relatives.

One such case concerned a mother who had been repatriated to Poland from the former USSR, seeking news of her four sons. We don't know the circumstances surrounding the family’s separation but she was trying to find them and reached out for help. The excerpt at the beginning of this article is taken from our records documenting a positive outcome – three of her children were indeed alive and in New Zealand. Sadly, the fourth child wasn't with his brothers on the journey here and his fate remains unknown.

The Restoring Family Links (RFL) Programme is one of the oldest Red Cross programmes, its origins tracing back to the 1859 Battle of Solferino in Italy. It is here that Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman and Red Cross founder, who was helping the injured and dying, came across a wounded soldier who asked that his family be informed of his fate. This is believed to be the first time ever that family news was officially delivered from the battlefield. 

Related articles: The story of the Polish orphan refugees who found sanctuary in Pahiatua | The Polish resistance fighter who volunteered for Auschwitz 

Polish children and Red Cross workers. Photo/NZ Red Cross Archives

Enquiries received by the NZ Red Cross reflect the global conflicts of the 20th and 21st century as well as natural and man-made disasters. This includes New Zealanders wishing to re-establish contact with family in countries as diverse as Germany, China, Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria; families separated by war, disaster or migration, not knowing where their family members might be, anxious for news and answers.

To this day, the RFL programme continues to be important and relevant. With the world being more connected than ever, the assumption might be made that the need for such a service no longer exists. But when warring parties in a conflict do not allow for usual forms of correspondence to be transmitted or when a natural disaster means lines of communication are cut, often it is us who can help.

Just a few months ago, a client told me about reconnecting with family in the Ukraine after all communication ceased when her immediate family migrated to New Zealand post-World War II. As she said to me on the phone, “You never say never; they were searching for us too.” With our Ukrainian counterparts, we were able to track down some of the enquirer’s mother’s relatives. Despite never having met her Ukrainian family, the client told me how happy she was and her feelings of connection after visiting them earlier this year.

The RFL programme was also used in response to the Christchurch terror attacks on 15 March 2019. NZ Police collaborated with Red Cross to provide an online platform so people, both here and abroad, could register a loved one as missing or register themselves as safe.

Because of Red Cross’ principles of neutrality and impartiality, we can also access places others can't, meaning we can continue to provide services in situations where communication would otherwise cease. During World War II, NZ Red Cross set up a so-called Communications Bureau which enabled messages to be sent between Prisoners of War (POWs) and their families. Red Cross used its global network to facilitate the delivery of these messages and in total, the Bureau transmitted 138,780 messages from POWs and sent out 496,395 messages from concerned family in New Zealand.

On this 75th anniversary of the arrival of a boatload of children escaping wartime Europe and recognising the importance of this in terms of New Zealand’s commitment to providing sanctuary and safe haven for those fleeing persecution, we should also remember the importance of reconnecting families. Without the RFL programme there would be hundreds of New Zealanders left with more questions than answers – the pain of family separation is often the longest lasting and most silent legacy of war. 

If you or someone you know has missing family members, Red Cross may be able to help you. Email familylinks@redcross.org.nz. Find out more about the programme here.

Katherine Wright is the Restoring Family Links Coordinator for New Zealand Red Cross, having been seconded for six months from Australian Red Cross. Katherine has over six years’ experience working in this programme.