Janina Sarniak was a tiny lady with the warmest of hearts.

Each Sunday for 20 years she would take her seat in the front pew at Mass at St Mary’s Catholic church in Whanganui and she would put her walker right beside her.

Kiddies would play with the soft doilies hanging from the walker frame. They would let her fondly stroke their heads and cheeks.

These children were safe, warm and secure. This was quite the opposite from Janina’s own young life, which featured near starvation, labour camps, fear and death in the volatile situation of wartime Europe.

These were experiences of which many parishioners were unaware. But it was an extraordinary faith in God that held her in hope. She died, aged 92, last month.

A requiem Mass for Mrs Sarniak was celebrated at St Mary’s on November 13.

She was born on June 24, 1926, and she grew up in a family of six in Eastern Poland. The Russian invasion in September, 1939, saw them forced off their small sugar beet and tobacco farm. In February the following year they were arrested at night and became prisoners of the Soviet Union. They were locked into cattle wagons and deported 1500 km to a labour camp near Kotlas in North Russia, 400 km south of the Arctic circle.

In the labour camp the queue for bread started at 3am. Her older sister, Romka, was often pushed out of the queue to return with nothing. Janina, who has been raised to be a polite child, had to fight as hard as she could to stay in the bread line.

Germany invaded Russia in June, 1941 and most Polish prisoners were given amnesty including Janina and her family. Hundreds of thousands of released Poles began to flee south, all in desperate condition. Gathering at rail stations and travelling huge distances, all were seeking the protection of the Polish army then being formed in Soviet central Asia. Some 30,000 died along the way, mainly from starvation including Janina’s own mother, Leontyna, after surviving more than 7000 km of train journeying.

“When my mother died my world fell apart. I was very close to mum and loved her with all my heart. I loved my father too, but I had a very special bond with my mother. Even though we were so desperately hungry and in rags our family still had each other. Now mum was gone everything changed,” Janina once said.

Yet again they were rounded up by Russian soldiers and sent to another collective work farm near Kenimekh in Uzbekistan. Janina and her brother Miecio then caught typhus. He never recovered and died.

Janina remembered him lying in the local hospital, bones poking out everywhere, a little skeleton covered with skin. He was wrapped in a sheet and buried in a communal grave.   This was in February, 1942.

While Janina was still hospitalised, her father Walenty placed Romka and brother Bogdon in a nearby orphanage. He then left to join the army, but was to die exactly two months later.

Against all discouragement, Janina decided to leave hospital with no idea where to go. She was too weak to walk and was crawling along on all fours when she met two soldiers.

“I recognised the Polish white eagle on their caps. They asked me where I was going and I told them that I didn’t know.  They asked about my family and I told them that I didn’t know where they were,” she remembered.

She was picked up and taken to the same orphanage where Romka and Bogdan had been sent. But the orphanage was empty. The orphans had been moved on and would eventually reach the Caspian Sea and cross to safety in Persia, now modern day Iran.

Janina stayed here for several months with the orphanage once again filling with more than 200 children. Fearing that the Soviet Union would close its borders, the decision was made to move 400 km to Tashkent. From Tashkent, it was another 1200km by train to Ashkhabad in Turkmenistan.  Finally, in October, 1942, after much delay and a tortuous two-day journey over mountains, they reached safety in Persia.

Janina, at that stage 16-years-old and weighing 25kg, spent the next 7 months recovering in an American Red Cross Hospital in Meshed. She then moved to a Polish Children’s Home in Isfahan where she remained until leaving Persia in 1944.

She could vaguely remember a Catholic priest somewhere telling her that Romka had died. Bogdan had joined the Polish Youth Army and was taken to Egypt.

With 733 traumatised, orphaned Polish children, she travelled in the troop ship General Randal with New Zealand troops returning home. They docked in Wellington on November 1, 1944 and were settled in what was to become known as the Polish Children’s Camp in Pahiatua.

Bogdan was adopted into a family in England and was to eventually meet up with Janina when he visited her in 1985.

In 2006, at the Polish Embassy in Wellington, the ambassador conferred Janina with the Siberian Cross – an expression of the national memory of Polish citizens deported 1939-1956 to Siberia, Kazakhstan and North Russia.

May she rest in peace!