Stories behind my students

My Polish heritage… The reason I started studying Polish at the age of 50

Teaching Polish language in Australia and New Zealand is still an extraordinary profession. Polish is not a very popular language and has the opinion as one of the most difficult to learn. During 8 years of teaching, I have had nearly a hundred students and believe me or not, there are many remarkable stories I’ve heard! Stories about student’s reasons and purposes; why people in a different age wanted to speak Polish living so far from this country. 

I would love to introduce you to a few of my students as I found their stories very inspiring and motivating. 

halina 2 400x683 - My Polish heritage…Halina Footner lives in a beautiful costal town in New Zealand and she became my student in 2013. After years we still have a 60 minute lesson a week focusing on conversations, reading and learning advanced vocabulary.

Our first lesson

Magda Szczepaniak: Before our interview I checked my mailbox to find when we started our lessons. So, you sent me a request in January 2013! I have to admit that you were my first student who asked for lessons online. Always before, I was teaching face to face….. do you remember our first lesson?

Halina Footner: Yes, I do remember our first lesson although I don’t remember the subject matter.  Six years ago is a long time.

Magda: Why do you learn Polish?

Halina: My parents were both Polish and I was brought up with the Polish language and culture. As I am Polish by heritage, I love the unique challenge of tackling a difficult language. I also like to talk and teach my grandchildren the Polish language. I enjoy travelling to Poland every second year and attending the Polish language schools.

Magda: When did you decide to learn Polish. I know that, as a child, you spoke Polish to your parents, then when you went to school you started using more English. What made you want to start learning Polish again?

Halina: I started to learn Polish 20 years ago at the age of 50 years as I could not read, write or properly converse in Polish language. It started off as a hobby. I love the language and Polish culture.

From Poland through Siberia to New Zealand

Magda: What is the story of your family?  What ocurred that made your Polish parents start a new life in New Zealand?

Halina: My Mother came from today Ukraine and this part of Poland was occupied by the Soviets. My Mother’s father was killed by the local Communists. My grandmother’s first husband was killed in the Revolution fighting the Communists. He had been an Adjutant to Pettura, and then ruler of an anti-communist Ukraine.

My grandmother, Mother and her brother were deported to Siberia, the Kazak Part on 13 April, 1940, in what was called the Second Transport. They were in Siberia for 2 years in an area between Omsk and Tomsk. The precise place was a Government Collective where they worked in the fields with the rest of the exiles. My Grandmother, Maria, did enjoy a special privilege, in as much as, she had the responsibility for the cow stable where she could obtain some milk for her family – a rare commodity in that part of the world. Winters were very cold and summers equally hot and dry.

An inexplicable shift via the usual cattle trucks to Kazakstan proper heralded an escape from the Soviet Union. After a journey of many miles and stops, all dangerous, because my Grandmother, who knew to speak Russian, had the task of collecting water and food at each station, which mean searching for food and water and risking being left behind, as each stop was not scheduled and the train left capriciously. Many people were thus separated. They passed such famous places as the Aral Sea, as well as Tashkent till they reached Uzbekistan. Here, the Polish exiles were made to demolish ancient Uzbek villages and to work in the cotton fields.

My Mother joined the Polish Army

Nearby, it was heard that Polish troops, consisting of other exiles, were being assembled and that you could join the Polish Army. It was agreed that my Mother should escape and volunteer, at fifteen years of age, into the army. She did. The Polish Authorities accepted such youngsters realising that this was a way out of Soviet hell for both the volunteers and for their families. My Mother, now a member of the Polish Army went into freedom via Akmolinsk, hence she left USSR on 17 May, 1942.

One night my Grandmother did arrange for her son, Michael and herself to escape while friends covered for her till it was too late for local authorities to look for her. The place was called Guzary, an ugly death trap for many died here of typhus. Here too, both Mother and son Michael, got separated. My Grandmother nearly died of typhus and her son, Michael of scurvy. Michael, now an orphan, was transported out of the Soviet Union with hundreds of other Polish orphans, first to Persia, Pahlevi and then to Teheran. Here by sheer chance Michael and his sister (my mother) were reunited, thanks to some friends who knew both of them and who told each other where to look.  After a few days the two were separated as Michael went on to Isfahan and my Mother continued her training in the Polish Army.  

Fate again intervened and the same friends reunited my Mother with my Grandmother in Teheran. My Grandmother had made a miraculous recovery from typhus and had escaped to Persia. My Mother was able to tell my Grandmother where her brother, Michael was and 11 months later they were reunited in Isfahan.

Magda: And soon after, your Mother met your Father?

In the meantime, my Mother went on to Iraq, then Egypt, Libya and finally to Italy with the Polish Army and worked as a theatre nurse in the army hospitals. My Mother met my father in the Polish Army.  Both then married towards the end of the war in Casimassima, Italy, on 3 March, 1945.

My Grandmother and her son, Michael, left Persia for New Zealand arriving by ship on 1 November, 1944, together with 733 Polish children, mostly orphans and 102 adults, seeking safety from war-torn Europe. They had survived deportation to the Soviet Union, forced labour in Siberia and evacuation to the Middle East before reaching New Zealand.

My parents left England after both being discharged from the Polish Army and joined my Grandmother and her brother in New Zealand on 10 January, 1948.

Magda: I honestly had goose bumps hearing this story. It sounds so unbelievable. That your family being separated so many times during this horrible war time – ended up together in New Zealand. Now I understand more about your history, but also I know where your strength comes from!halina 5 - My Polish heritage…

“Set aside a small time each day to learn something new”

 Magda: Every lesson with you is very inspiring and gives me a lot of motivation. I remember that at the beginning I couldn’t believe how active you are! You did a triathlon, you graduated a few Polish language courses in Poland. Now you swim 3 times a week, volunteer in a Polish Saturday School, look after your grandchildren and you study Polish grammar nearly every day. And, can I share the secret that you turn 70 this year?! I’m asking how? 

Halina: Yes, I turned the big 7 this year and escaped to the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia, with some family members. I am still swimming 3 times a week with a swimming squad. I stopped training for triathlons as am too busy enjoying and looking after grandchildren who live closeby.

Magda: You are absolutely phenomenal! And you are probably the only one student who loves Polish grammar even more than the aspects of the language. Why?

Halina: Yes, I love learning Polish grammar. First of all I learnt the challenge of the 7 cases in the Polish language, namely nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, locative and vocative. Once mastered, everything becomes more clear.  Then I start to analyse sentences to understand the grammar when I read.

halia 4 - My Polish heritage…Magda: You did many Polish courses in Poland, in Kraków, Lublin and Sopot. Did you find this helpful?

Halina: I attended the Jagiellonian University for Polish Language studies in Summer School three times in Krakow. I also went to the John Paul Catholic University of Lublin in Summer School for 3 weeks and found the language course very intensive yet rewarding.
My favourite school is in Sopot where I have been 4 times in Summer School. I love going to Sopot as it’s a seaside resort and have met many wonderful Polish friends.

Magda: What would be your advice to other students who are at the beginning of their journey withn the Polish language?


  • Take every opportunity to meet with Polish people for conversation.
  • Listen to Polish movies on television and You Tube.
  • Read Polish magazines and novels.
  • Do homework as this teaches many skills.
  • Set aside a small time each day to learn something new.
  • Travel to Poland and as well attend a Polish language school. I found that you get completely  immersed in the language and you quickly learn so much more. You constantly hear the language around you.

Magda: Thank you very much, Halina. It was a pleasure to talk to you and hear the story of your family. See you on Thursday at 12 🙂 do zobaczenia!