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A Strange Outcome - NZ Herald interview with the Author

Will to win forged in a Soviet hell

By MARGIE THOMSON, books editor

Over the past 40 years, John Roy has become known as a successful New Zealand businessman - a founder of Mainzeal and Mair Astley among other achievements - and, more recently, as the Honorary Polish Consul for New Zealand. But few of his boardroom colleagues will have realised the extraordinary story that lay in his past.

John Roy sprang into existence in 1953, a typically pragmatic attempt by a young man then in his 20s to fit into his adopted country by the simple act of opening the phone book and choosing the shortest name he could find.

Until then, he had been Jan Wojciechowski, a Polish orphan who had miraculously escaped the deathly, frozen misery of Stalin's gulag, whose family home had been destroyed, his father murdered, his identity papers lost so that to this day he doesn't know his birthday, and who had travelled enormous distances in unimaginable hardship before disembarking, dazedly, in Wellington in 1944, with 800 other refugee children.

Now in his retirement - if that is the right word to describe the 70-year-old's unabated activity - he has told the story of his early life in a book published this month.

A Strange Outcome, written by Allan Parker in collaboration with John Roy-Wojciechowski, is published by Penguin and costs $35.

The Wojciechowskis - father Jozef, mother Helena, Amelia, Stanislaw, Boleslaw, twins Maria and Krystyna and little Jan, the youngest by six years - were a farming family from the east of Poland, that giant billiard table between Europe and Russia, across which invading armies have marched throughout history, leaving devastated populations behind them.

When Jan was about six years old, in September 1939, Hitler's tanks rolled in.

Less than three weeks later, Stalin's armies invaded from the east, equipped not only with weapons, but with a plan to rid the eastern provinces of the Polish farmers.

Within days of the Soviet arrival in the Wojciechowski's district, John's father - a World War I hero who had been rewarded with farmland in the east - was taken away and, the family learned years later, shot.

Over the next four months the Wojciechowskis endured constant searches of their house by Soviet soldiers who took anything they wanted.

Then, on the night of February 10, 1940, they and nearly a quarter of a million people in eastern Poland were given 15 minutes to collect their belongings, and put on convoys of cattle-truck trains that carried them to Stalin's slave labour camps in Siberia and the Arctic Circle.

"The world is almost completely unaware of the tragedy of the Polish borderlands in 1940," Parker writes in A Strange Outcome. "There is almost no acknowledgment of one of the greatest enforced migrations in history."

So appalling were the conditions on that six-week train journey that one in 10 people died before they arrived at their destination.

The Wojciechowskis survived, and arrived at their camp in the Arctic Circle where for eight months of the year the cold - "that icy pale horseman of Death" as Parker puts it - was so cruel that even to breathe caused searing pain.

For 18 months they slaved there, although Jan, as a young child, was exempted from labour and can remember little about it. By the end of the second winter, half of those who had arrived on the train had died.

They were saved when, in August 1941, Stalin realised that to combat Hitler's forces he needed the help of what was in effect a huge Polish army languishing in the gulags. The Poles were allowed to leave to join military bases in Central Asia, starting another hideous trek in another Arctic winter.

The Wojciechowskis left the camp in November, 1941. By the time they reached Bukhara in Uzbekistan, one brother had been lost and Helena, John's mother, was mortally ill with tuberculosis.

When she died, she was tossed into an unmarked grave, leaving the orphaned children starving, filthy, lice-ridden and in danger of succumbing to the many diseases rife in the desperate camp-cities. Jan was 8 years old.

Eventually, they were evacuated to Persia (now Iran) and from there, their strength returning, they were ferried from place to place, ending up in New Zealand.

Then came the quick learning of English, the hard work, the university degree and the determination to succeed.

In this context, the ordinary achievements of a lifetime - career, establishment of a new family, wife and children - take on enormous significance.

One certainly feels, in this book, the vital importance to Roy of his 40-year marriage to Valerie, and their own five children, the comfortable suburban family home, the many community roots he has put down.

I asked Roy, who has since the 1980s made several emotional trips back to Poland to meet a long-lost brother, if it was strange to be confronted with what could have been his own life an alternate John Roy/Jan Wojciechowski.

And certainly, his brother's life couldn't be more different from his own - he was a peasant farmer with limited education, no knowledge of the world, and no desire to acquire it.

But, Roy believes - and he pulls himself up slightly as he says it - that this would never have been his life.

"I would have made it anyway," he says. "My father had a successful career as a small farmer in the old country, and I think I'm like him. So it wouldn't have been in Mainzeal, but I would have done something in Poland.

"I was determined to succeed."

Because he was so young during many of the events in this book, the process of working with Parker uncovered many things he hadn't known.

"The description of my mother by Allan is so beautiful," he says. "I remember her warmth as a person, as a mother, but I was too young to remember her personality, or that of my father. Yet suddenly in this book Helena, this mother, is real. She fought for the five of us to make sure we survived."

He attributes some of his later success to his genetic heritage, his gutsy, active father. Yet, he says, those horrific early years left their mark.

"I can't pinpoint it exactly, but on this journey something happened. It gave me the steel necessary, the survival instinct, which was necessary for me to succeed in my chosen endeavour."

"Whatever path you choose, sure you've got to have technical knowledge, but you've got to have that inbuilt steel to be able to succeed."