New exhibition explores Polish lives

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Angela Grieve alongside the First Polish Settlers exhibition.

By Mick Jensen

A new exhibition in the Mt Hutt Memorial Hall has special meaning for Methven amateur historian Angela Grieve – it showcases the lives of some of the first Polish settlers in Canterbury, including her family on her mother’s side, the Schimanskis.

The exhibition outlines the journey of those settlers, who first arrived in Lyttelton in 1872. It frames the Polish chapter of New Zealand history in the chronicles of four families who disembarked from the Friedeburg after a journey from Prussia.

The Kotlowskis, Gierszewskis, Szymanskis (later changed to Schimanski and Schimanska) and Watembachs were among a wave of immigration which saw New Zealand’s settlers’ population double to about 500,000 during the 1870s.

The exhibition is presented by the Polish Legacy in NZ Charitable Trust to advocate and promote Polish heritage.

Angela Grieve said Matthew Schimanski had been the first of her Polish family to arrive here in 1872.

He sent word to his brother, Christopher, who made the voyage from London on the Firth of Forth with his wife Louisa and sons Michael and Martin 11 years later.

“Michael is my great grandfather and was my ‘mother’s hero’,” Mrs Grieve said.

“His family lived at Marshland, Christchurch, where they grew vegetables, but he would visit our family on occasion and take a child or two to the Methven races with him.

“He became a naturalised New Zealander in 1899, when this country was still called a ‘colony’ and he died in his 80s in 1953,”

Mrs Grieve said she had inherited a trunk full of papers, photos and clippings from her mother, Eva Clemens, documenting some of her Polish family history.

It was fascinating to read and even included the Polish national anthem, handwritten by her mother.

Mrs Grieve said her mother’s second cousin, Martha Szymanska, had provided much of the content for the Schimanski chapter of the Canterbury’s First Polish Settlers exhibition.

She said the exhibition had first been shown at Canterbury Museum, where it had run from December 2017 until May this year, and Methven was its first touring venue.

The Hall of Memories had been considered a good place for the exhibition because of its focus on commemorating 100 years since World War 1, and the fact that the country now called Poland was celebrating its centenary this year, said Mrs Grieve.

The exhibition displays photos, stories and memorabilia that show the hardship, challenges and achievements of the early settlers and runs until November 16.

exhibition will be officially opened at an event between 3pm and 5pm this Sunday (September 23). It will include the promotion of the book by Polish New Zealander Jacek R. Drecki: “Ignacy Jan Paderewski, a Pianist Amidst the Geysers”.