(February 15, 1931 – February 6, 2022)
An insight into the life of a proud Polish woman.
by Jacek Drecki
Malwina Zofia (Wisia) Schwieters (née Rubisz) was born on 15 February 1931 in Sokołów, Rzeszów county, Lwów province, in southern Poland. Prior to World War II, she lived with her parents, Zygmunt and Anna, and her younger brother, Ignacy, in Nisko and then Rozwadów, where her father had a dental surgery.
In the months before the outbreak of WWII, German intelligence was surveilling Poland’s Central Industrial District (COP). This area included Rozwadów, which had an important railway junction, while nearby Stalowa Wola was the site of a new steel mill producing artillery equipment.
Zygmunt reported to local authorities the suspicious activities of two unknown men he had noticed. The duo were arrested and questioned. They were German spies. Later, after Germany’s invasion of Poland and the capturing of the area by Nazi troops, the Germans learned of Zygmunt’s role in the identification and capture of the spies. Zygmunt became a target for arrest. Luckily, he was secretly warned about it and decided to ‘disappear.’
Zygmunt and family left Rozwadów. Not expecting an attack by the Red Army from the east, they travelled to his sister’s home in Lwów, where she lived with her family and ran a restaurant. When they arrived, the city was already occupied by the Soviets: by escaping arrest and captivity by the Germans, the Rubisz family found themselves under Soviet occupation.
After Christmas 1939, the Rubisz family received letters from their grandmother in Rzeszów informing them that Uncle Józef, Zygmunt’s older brother (a reservist mobilised by Polish forces during the outbreak of the war and a participant in the September Campaign), had been taken prisoner by the Soviets. Initially he was in a prisoner-of-war camp in Kozielsk, western Russia. Later, he was one of the Katyń massacre victims.
Eight-year-old Wisia went to school in Lwów. At this time, the living conditions of the Rubisz family deteriorated drastically. The Soviet occupation authorities confiscated the restaurant owned by Wisia’s aunt and her family. Zygmunt decided to return to their home or to Rzeszów, but it required a permit to cross the new border between Germany and the Soviet Union. Without a valid reason for travel, there was no freedom of movement.
A permit could not be obtained. Then, a letter arrived from Rzeszów stating that Zygmunt’s mother, who lived alone, had fallen ill and required care. With the letter in hand, Zygmunt went to the authorities asking for permission to go to his mother. But, the Soviets had already instigated their policies of dismantling Polish society, not acknowledging anything or anyone Polish. Instead of allowing Zygmunt to leave, they proposed he change his citizenship to a Soviet one. He found the offer ridiculous, and declined.
From that moment, Zygmunt lived with the fear of arrest. He had seen it happen to many people who, like him, had been refugees from other parts of Poland to Lwów and then wished to return to their homes. Zygmunt went into hiding, spending nights away from his family, accommodated by friends. After a few weeks, hoping that the authorities might have forgotten about him, and putting faith in God’s will, Zygmunt returned home to his family.
Unfortunately, the Soviet authorities had not forgotten him. On 13 April 1940, at three o’clock in the morning, Soviet soldiers pounded on the family’s apartment door. Zygmunt hid in the attic. But, realising that the soldiers would take Anna and their children whether he was with them or not, he soon came out from his hiding place.
All four were taken by truck to the train station and loaded into a railway carriage, usually used for the transportation of cattle. For several days, the train stood at the station as the Soviets packed more and more Polish families into it. Despite the presence of armed guards surrounding the train, relatives managed to get the family some food before the train left the station. The now nine-year-old Wisia, along with her parents, younger brother and many other Polish families, was deported. No one knew then where they were going, what was planned for them, nor what wrong they did. There was no charges and no trials. During the journey, someone saw (through the only small window in the freight car) that they were passing Polish border posts. The train was heading east.
The Rubisz family was exiled to a forced labour facility in the forests of the Mari El republic, on the Vetluga River. A left tributary of the Volga River in European Russia, it was about 700 kilometres east of Moscow. While her parents worked felling trees, Wisia collected firewood, performed cleaning duties, and looked after her younger brother. Fellow prisoners began to die from disease, malnutrition, the cold and the exertions of hard labour. The Rubisz family were fortunate to survive the freezing winter. In the summer of 1941, unexpected hope arrived.
The attack of the Germans on its former ally, the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa, 22 June 1941), gave rise to the resumption of diplomatic relations between Poland and the USSR. The signing of an agreement between the Polish and Soviet governments (Sikorski-Mayski Agreement, July 30, 1941) allowed for the release of Polish citizens from their places of deportation and the establishment of a Polish Army. Wisia remembered the moment well:
On that day, Tomasz, the twenty-something-year-old son of the Dobrowolski family from Warsaw who had been deported by the same transport as us, could not go to work because a falling tree had broken his leg. The barrack in which we lived was located near the only shop from which we collected our rations of bread. The Russian who ran the shop, seeing Mr Tomasz sitting on the step at the entrance to the barrack, started waving a newspaper at him. Mr. Tomasz, a journalist by profession, called me and asked me to get the newspaper from the shopkeeper. Knowing Russian, he read the news about the war between Germany and Russia and about the ‘amnesty’ for the Poles. He translated this information and told me to repeat it. As I had been able to repeat it correctly, he sent me to the forest, to the workplace of the forest teams, with an order to pass on the message.
The first member of the team I met was a lawyer from Lwów, who, after hearing my words, stood me on a pile of wood, called the team and told me to repeat exactly what Mr. Tomasz had told me. Despite the objections of the Russian foreman, the work was interrupted, the other teams were informed, and in the daytime, with a Polish Legion’s song on their lips, the workers returned to the camp. It was an unforgettable sight! As was the satisfaction with which we gave the news to the commandant of the camp, naming him ‘former commandant’, as he never addressed us other than ‘former Poles’ and who was always telling us that we would return home ‘when hair grows on my hand.’
Although the news came from a Russian newspaper, the commandant claimed he knew nothing about it, got angry and punished the prisoners for returning from work early. To compensate for the lost working time, he ordered an early march into the forest the next day. A few days later, he called everyone together and, referring to a received message, announced that ‘we have a common enemy,’ and that the Poles would receive a document and be able to leave the camp. He noted, however, that it would be better to stay, as there would be more money for work, bigger rations of bread, and life would be easier. But we all had only one dream – to leave the camp as soon as possible. A second winter would be unbearable there.
Together with other exiles released from the camp, the Rubisz family set off to the southeast, towards the Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, where formations of the Polish Army were being established.
The family had little money, having sold almost everything they had brought with them from Poland. They journeyed with scant water, food, or medical care. Wisia and Ignaś became seriously ill. They were so weak in Ferghana (Uzbekistan) that Zygmunt carried Ignaś for some distance in search of a hospital. Tragically, by the time he found one, poor Ignaś had died in his arms.
Wisia was saved by a female Russian doctor who was passing the entrance to the train station and saw the young girl lying on a suitcase, unconscious and with a fever. She took Wisia to the hospital and treated her.
The Polish Military Delegation in Ferghana placed Polish families in nearby kolkhozes (communal farms) where work could be found. But, primitive living conditions, hunger, typhus and other diseases, and arduous work in the cotton fields exhausted them more than ever.
At the beginning of 1942, despite being ill, Zygmunt was conscripted into the Polish army. His skills as a dentist were sought after. Later, with the ninth division of Anders’ Army, he served in a field hospital in the Middle East, and then through its entire Italian campaign, from Monte Cassino to Bologna.
Anna and Wisia remained in the kolkhoz. One day, news about a transport being organized for military families to leave the Soviet Union bound for Persia (Iran) reached the kolkhoz. Anna by then was too weak and ill to walk the 30 kilometres to the nearest departure point in Ferghana. One of the last possessions they still had from Poland – a leather suitcase – brought about an opportunity for them to move by vehicle.
Local Uzbeks were interested in it. They wanted to make shoes out of it. They asked about the type of leather. Anna deceived them, assuring them that it was not pig, which would have been of no value to Uzbek Muslims. In exchange for the suitcase, Anna and Wisia were given passage to Ferghana. Unfortunately, they missed meeting up with their carrier. Going back to kolkhoz was out of question. Thanks to the efforts of the Polish Delegation, Anna was placed in a rented room with other Polish women in similar situations, but there was no work for her, and therefore no food. Wisia was placed in a Russian orphanage. Whenever her mother was able to visit her, she shared her daughter’s portions of bread.
Weeks later, Anna found employment making socks for the army. In August 1942, another evacuation transport was organized, for which Anna and Wisia were registered. They were taken to Krasnovodsk (now Turkmenbashi) in a train that, incidentally, had Polish State Railway carriages which had been taken by the Soviets after their 1939 invasion of Poland.
The journey was not without drama. The train derailed and there were many casualties, mainly those in the carriage carrying children from the orphanage. Others who were sick and starving died while waiting days for a ship in Krasnovodsk, or while crossing the Caspian Sea to Persia. Anna and Wisia disembarked from the ship in Pahlevi (now Bandar-e Anzali), together with thousands of similarly exhausted, malnourished and seriously ill compatriots. They thanked God for saving them from the ‘inhuman land.’
After several weeks’ quarantine spent in tents on a beach under the care of Red Cross medical personnel, most of the refugees, including Wisia and Anna, were transported to Tehran. Anna was employed at Polish orphanages. When Zygmunt found out, through the Red Cross, that his wife and daughter had managed to leave Soviet Union and were safe in Teheran, he obtained a few days’ leave from the army to visit them. There was no end to the joy at their reunion.
A few months later, those in orphanages, including Wisia and Anna, were transferred to Isfahan. Despite modest resources, including a lack of staff, textbooks, books and other aids and facilities, Polish authorities, with British and Persian help, organized schools, chaplaincy, scouting, and even vocational training courses for the gulag survivors. Isfahan also offered a healthier, mountain climate, conducive to recovery from the illnesses and diseases experienced in the USSR.
Iranian aid for Poles could not continue for long and in 1943 the evacuation of orphans, orphanage staff and refugees began. They were sent to British Commonwealth of Nations countries that remained far from the ongoing war hostilities. These included India, countries in south-eastern Africa and New Zealand. Mexico and Lebanon also extended a welcome.
In agreement with Zygmunt, Anna decided to sign up her daughter and herself for passage to New Zealand. The journey, first by rail and then by ship, ended jubilantly when their steamship reached Wellington on the evening of October 31, 1944. On the first day of November, 733 Polish orphans and 105 Polish care personnel disembarked and moved to a specially adapted camp at Pahiatua, north of Wellington in Wairarapa.
The camp became a small homeland for the newcomers. It offered Polish schooling from kindergarten to college level as well as religious education, scouting and vocational training. All was conducted in a patriotic spirit with an aim to prepare the young ones to re-build Poland after the war. The camp was funded and supervised by the Polish Government-in-exile in London and the New Zealand Government.
As time passed, the course of the war in Europe made the camp management realise that the long-desired return to Poland after hostilities ceased might prove difficult, or even impossible. With the young people in mind, new outcomes for the newcomers were instigated, including preparing them to stay in New Zealand. In 1945, while Anna remained in the Pahiatua camp working as a librarian, Wisia was sent to the Catholic Sacred Heart College boarding school in Napier. It was run by the Missionary Sisters and she studied there for three years.
In July 1946, Zygmunt arrived in New Zealand following his release from military service. He and Anna moved to Auckland and lived in a small flat in Ponsonby. Wisia joined them at the end of the 1947 school year, completing her final two years of high school education at nearby St Mary’s College.
Once settled, the Rubisz family grew in number. In 1949, Ignacy was born (named after his late, beloved brother), and the following year Halina. The family moved to a house Zygmunt had bought in Greenlane. Life was still not easy for them. Anna, having two small children, could not go to work, and Zygmunt could not practise as a dentist.
Wisia finished at St. Mary’s with an award in English literature and the University Entrance certificate. However, instead of pursuing her studies, she decided that she needed to help her parents by taking on a paid job. She wanted to be a librarian. Anna was not in favour this. She was afraid that working in a library, often into the evening, would expose the still-teenage Wisia to dangers when she returned home alone after dark. Instead, Wisia accepted a job offer she had received while still at school, to work at the then Union Bank of Australia (later the ANZ), on the corner of Queen and Victoria streets in central Auckland.
In 1952, Wisia enrolled at Auckland University and, as she worked during the day, attended evening lectures. She took philosophy papers with Italian language as her major. Italian had been recommended by Zygmunt, who thought it would be easy for her to learn because she was familiar with the Latin used in the church’s pre-conciliar liturgy.
Wisia’s work in the bank did not match her interests or field of study so she moved, without regret, to a position as a clerk at the state tax office. The change of job had the advantage that her new employer allowed study leave of one and a half hours per week. Even better was the fact that she faced no deduction to her wages. This made it easier for Wisia to broaden her degree with subjects that were not offered as evening courses.
Studies that normally lasted three years for a full-time student took Wisia six years. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree. With her qualification, she took up a position at the Department of Education, working as a vocational guidance counsellor.
During her studies, encouraged by one of her lecturers, Wisia had joined a philosophical discussion group. There she met Patrick Schwieters. Patrick, apart from his philosophical interests, studied geography and specialized in climatology. They married in 1958 and Patrick secured a job at the Auckland Airport weather station. The proximity to Patrick’s workplace was the reason for choosing nearby Papatoetoe as the place to build their life together. They moved into a recently built house at 31 Landon Ave and lived there for more than thirty years. They were a happy couple and the inability to bear children did not affect their love for each other.
There were young people in Wisia’s life, however. She became a highly respected career advisor, travelling to schools throughout the Auckland region and sometimes as far north as Kaitaia. In 1979, the state career counselling offices passed from the governance of the Ministry of Education to the Ministry of Labour. Wisia did not follow the change and instead started working as a translator for the New Zealand Department of Immigration, helping many new Polish immigrants who were arriving during the Solidarity and martial law period in Poland (1980-1983). In 1984, Wisia was again hired as a career counsellor, this time on temporary contracts. She retired in 1989.
After reaching retirement age, Patrick and Wisia moved to a new home on Hillsborough Rd.
Retirement allowed Wisia to devote much of her time to the Polish community in Auckland. Shortly after retiring, she enrolled for a three-week course organized by the John Paul II Foundation at the Summer University of Polish Culture in Rome.
While there she re-connected with someone she had first met in Iran; the priest prelate Zdzisław Peszkowski, who was one of the few surviving former prisoners from the Kozielsk camp. He gave her some soil and a pine cone from the site of the Katyń graves, where Polish military officers and intelligentsia had been massacred by Soviet forces in 1940. Among them, her Uncle Józef.
The ‘Polish national relics’ of soil and pine were placed inside the Katyń memorial plaque at St. Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral in central Auckland. The plaque was unveiled in April 1990, on the 50th anniversary of the mass murders.
Wisia had been interested in Polish history and literature from childhood. The remoteness from her homeland had deepened these interests. From the time she moved to Auckland, she was involved in the life of the local Polish community. She was a founding member of the Auckland Polish Association and contributed financially towards the purchase of the building which became Polish House in Auckland.
Wisia participated in a wide range of Polish patriotic events and community activities, not only in Auckland, but throughout New Zealand. As mentioned, she helped many of the newly arrived Poles as an interpreter. At the Polish Association school she volunteered, teaching Polish language and culture. She assisted former soldiers of the Polish Armed Forces in organising Polish commemorations, usually held at Polish House. Later, as these soldiers became too old or passed away, she took over and organised commemorative events that always involved the younger generation of Polish emigrants. She took particular care of the memory of the Katyń massacre.
Great was Wisia’s respect for all priests and she always supported the work of Polish chaplains in Auckland. For many years she was the secretary and chronicler of the Polish Church Committee. She was a correspondent for the Sydney monthly Przegląd Katolicki, a periodical published by the priests from the Society of Christ, contributing columns and reports on the Polish ministry in Auckland.
The election of Karol Wojtyła as Pope John Paul II in 1978, the uprising of the Solidarity movement shortly after, and the imposition of martial law in Poland in December 1981 brought about extraordinary international interest in Polish affairs. Wisia, along with other representatives from the Polish community, began to be invited to meetings, seminars, radio broadcasts and talks about events in Poland. In that, she became something of a Polish spokesperson in New Zealand. Judging by the numerous letters of thanks she received, she fulfilled this task exceptionally. Despite information blockades and communist propaganda in her homeland, Wisia was up to date with Polish current affairs. This was possible, mainly through her participation in a new Auckland based organization, Solidarity in New Zealand Inc., which was established in 1983. For 15 years, the organization published the bimonthly Solidarity in the Antipodes, for which the members of the editorial committee, including Wisia, obtained material and information which bypassed communist censorship thanks to private contacts from various parts of the world. Often her own short columns and poems appeared there too.
Efforts to free Poland from communist oppression brought Wisia into the halls and corridors of New Zealand politics. In 1982, together with other Polish community activists, she was received by the then-Prime Minister of New Zealand, Robert Muldoon. He accepted a petition from the Auckland Polish Association which contained more than 50,000 signatures demanding that the Polish government in Warsaw end martial law, release Solidarity internees and restore civil liberties in Poland. The petition, with the full support of the New Zealand Parliament, was submitted through official diplomatic channels to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.
During her working life, Wisia had always devoted part of her salary to the purchase of books. Her hunger for literature seemed never to be satiated. She had great respect for the written word and when something interesting fell into her hands, she held on to it. Anyone who visited her home will confirm this. Most of her house resembled a library more than a private dwelling, especially as Patrick also had his own collection of books. She ordered books from London, Paris, Australia, the United States, and Poland because there was never a Polish bookstore in New Zealand. She was mainly interested in history and literature. She collected more than a thousand, often unique, Polish-language books.
Besides books, she subscribed to local newsletters and periodicals, and magazines published in various parts of the world. They all had a patriotic, historical or religious profile. Her passion for collecting is of great value now, preserving the history of the Polish people in Auckland.
Though Wisia loved books, she never wrote one herself. She did publish many articles, reports, correspondence and poems. When interviewed, she often referred to her personal experiences, but she never had time to write a fuller autobiographical work as her tasks in the Polish community absorbed her completely. Wisia’s collection of poems, Głos serca na drogach życia (Voice of the Heart on the Pathway of Life) published in 2016, was a result of the initiative and determination of a friend.
The generosity of Wisia deserves special mention. She was always ready to help and make monetary donations to causes involving the church, fighters for Polish independence and Polish history promoters. For years, she was the official collector of donations for the invalids of the Polish Home Army. In cooperation with the Przemyśl bishop, Józef Michalik she regularly supported Poles living in the countries to the east of Poland. She sent money to charities in the Vatican, London, Poland, and New Zealand; to veterans’ organizations, seminaries, missions, universities, the disabled, orphans, victims of natural disasters, St John, SPCA, committees for the construction of churches and various monuments, for the renovation and maintenance of Polish cemeteries scattered in the world and so on. It seemed as though almost every charitable organization or foundation could count on her help. She made most of the donations with her husband, but there were some that Patrick did not know about! The list of recipients, including some individual members of the Polish community in Auckland, is long.
Wisia returned to her homeland only three times. In 1976 and 1978 with Patrick, and in 1992 with a friend from Wellington. That last trip gave her the opportunity to visit Katyń. Patrick only found out about that excursion after Wisia returned home! She had not wanted to tell him, knowing that, for her safety, he would not let her go to the country that had inflicted so much pain on her family and could still cause more. This trip was made possible thanks to her being able to join the official delegation of priest prelate Peszkowski.
Together, Patrick and Wisia also went on trips to America, Australia, Greece, and Italy.
Of Wisia’s family, Anna Rubisz died in 1970, and Zygmunt in 1981. Her New Zealand-born brother Ignacy joined the Christian Brothers religious order and was a respected teacher. He died suddenly in 2005 in Rarotonga, where he taught at Nukutere College. Patrick Schwieters died in 2018. Malwina’s sister, Halina, lives in Christchurch.
Wisia was greatly respected in Auckland for her constant efforts in preserving the memory of Polish history, cultivating the beauty and purity of the Polish language, and strengthening the identity of ex-patriot Poles of various generations. She was known as the ‘guardian of national remembrance.’ Her attitude was particularly appreciated by the younger generation of Polish emigrants who learnt from her what was missing from history courses at schools in Poland.
In her homeland, her efforts were appreciated only late in her life, after the fall of communism and when Poland regained independence. The President of the Republic of Poland honoured her in 2017 with the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland.
Other honours and decorations awarded to her include: the Order of the Social Foundation for the Remembrance of the Polish Nation ‘Polonia Mater Nostra Est’ (Warsaw 1999); the Gold Medal of the National Treasury (London 1991); the Golden Badge of Honour of the SPK (Association of Polish Combatants), (London 2000); the Medal of the Golgotha of the East – Katyń 1940 (Warsaw 2001); the Veterans Cross of the SPK (London 2009); the Siberian Exiles Cross; and the Medal of Gratitude from the priests of the Society of Christ. In 2018, for their 60th wedding anniversary, Patrick and Wisia received a medal for a Long Martial Life from the President of Poland.
Wisia was an extremely tactful and modest person, always grateful to those she had learnt from, and full of respect for veterans and priests. She did not consider herself a leader, but always supported and helped them, one of those hardworking ‘ants’ one could always count on.
It seems that Malwina Zofia Schwieters, despite living on the other side of the world for most of her life, never left Poland. She kept her homeland in her heart, spoke beautiful Polish and never ceased to serve Poland and Poles. Her life is a testament to this.
The Polish community in Auckland will miss her very much and cherish her memory.
Prepared by Jacek Drecki. This English translation by Barbara Scrivens.
Auckland February 2022.