Vale: Mieczysŀaw (Miet) and Felicitas (Fe) Wnorowski

I met ‘Dr Wnorowski’ (I can think of only one occasion that I used his first name), when we both worked at the NZ Dairy Board. This was in the seventies. I was a junior analyst and although Dr Wnorowski was in the same office, I was never sure of exactly what he did.

I found his Polish accent and courtly manner interesting and we became friends.

Early Life and Education

Miet came from a farming background, although he clearly wasn’t a peasant. ‘My father was a farmer’ were Miet’s exact words and that could cover a lot of situations.

Clearly a bright child, Miet went to university and graduated PhD in history, after completing a dissertation on a Catholic diocese.

Polish Diplomatic Service

After graduation, Miet entered the Polish Foreign Service. One of his first jobs, was acting as ‘safe conduct officer’ for groups of Polish Jews who wished to migrate to the British Mandate of Palestine. As a sop to Arab sentiment, Britain opposed Jewish migration in general and I’m unsure of how many trips Miet made, or the numbers of Polish Jews, he escorted.

As far as I can remember, the groups were of 3 or 4 families and numbered maybe 30 individuals. Miet’s diplomatic passport and the attached documentation listing his charges, got the party across the various borders.

Piecing the journeys together, I expect the group travelled from Warsaw to the port of Trieste in northern Italy. Here they would have embarked on steamer, to Haifa in Palestine. The Jewish party then dispersed to merge with the Polish diaspora already settled. For his part, Miet was billeted with a well-established Polish family, until he could board the steamer for its northern voyage back to Trieste. Once there, Miet took the train back to Warsaw.

Miet was very taken with that part of Palestine he saw and recalled sitting in the winter sun and being served wine, grapes and cheese by his hosts. ‘I can see why they call it the Promised Land’ was his observation to me.

Miet’s first diplomatic assignment

After initial training and the safe-conduct courier work to Palestine, Miet was assigned as a Second Secretary to the Polish Embassy in Berlin.

This was in the late 1930s and with the NAZI Party in power it must have been an exciting, if fraught, diplomatic scene.

A fateful meeting

As Miet tells it, he was sitting on a train when an attractive woman walked up the platform on the arm of a German officer. The pair boarded the same carriage as Miet and as luck would have it, seated themselves in adjacent seats. Before long, a conversation started and as you can guess the woman was Felicity (Fe) and the officer was her husband.

Although of German descent, Fe was born in Argentina and returned to Germany with her mother as a teenager. Miet once told me that Fe was treated as an ‘outsider’ in Germany, due to her Spanish-accent. In addition, given that this was a time of extreme emphasis on race in Germany, there may have been issues around that aspect.

Given Fe’s charm which she retained until great old age, it is not surprising that this young Polish Second Secretary was befriended by Fe and her husband.


In September1939, Germany invaded Poland and Miet made his way home to join the army. Poland was defeated a month later, Miet was taken prisoner and was interned until Germany gave up the fight in 1945.

Over the course of our friendship, Miet made several references to his life as a POW. One was the prisoner’s preoccupation with food. He described hours of lolling on bunks in the camp barracks describing favourite meals. Camp fare was pretty basic and although Red Cross parcels gave some variety, the best items were usually pilfered by the Germans.

Miet tells the story of the time some powdered coffee got through, which the lucky prisoners sold to the German housewives who passed by the wire. On another occasion, a prisoner stole some potatoes, which he laboriously grated and squeezed until he had enough for pancakes. Some butter had also been obtained and the whole process of grating, to squeezing out the water, to consumption took the whole day, such was the novelty of having the luxury.

Miet said that he was regarded as somewhat lazy by his compatriots and firmly declined to take part in prisoner-organised calisthenics or football. Miet said that mental fitness would always trump the physical.

On one occasion the prisoners, organised an athletics meet. Miet was persuaded (or bullied) to get off his bunk and participate in the 100 meters race. Miet said: ‘I easily won it and without saying a word I returned to my bunk and relit my pipe’.

Germany’s defeat in sight

The defeat of the German tank regiments at Kursk in 1943 and the D-Day landings showed that Germany’s defeat was in sight. About 3 months before the German surrender in May 1945, it became apparent to Miet and his fellow-prisoners that they would become pawns in any armistice agreement between Germany and the Allies. To preserve the availability of this negotiation asset, Germany began a programme of moving Poles and other Allied prisoners closer to Germany proper and although there were many false alarms, eventually the Poles and others were marched west. This showed further evidence of Miet’s ‘mind over matter’ approach to life. When his fellow POWs went into training and marched endlessly around the perimeter fence, Miet reclined on his bunk. Once on the road, Miet said the others concentrated obsessively on the physical difficulties, but he simply mentally reviewed favourite books and writers in his head. It was hard he said, but it worked for me. The penalty for prisoners falling by the wayside was instant death from their German captors.

From Untermench (sub human) to Overlord in weeks

I have no details from Miet as to when, or by whom, the Polish prisoners were ultimately freed, but pretty soon he was on the staff as an interpreter of one of the Allied groups. It was beyond weird to Miet, that one day he was being marched under threat of death along a German road, to driving along in a be-flagged staff car while Germans along the route stopped and bowed low to their conquerors.

As firstly an enemy combatant and then a POW, Miet had had no contact with Fe and her husband and knew not if they were alive or dead. As soon as he was able, Miet made his way to Berlin to look for Fe and do what he could to help out, or at least find out what happened to his pre-war German friends.

After a search, Miet found Fe who in the interim had had a son. Sadly Fe’s husband the German officer had died on the Eastern Front.

As the Iron Curtain came down across Europe, Miet was in no mind to return to Poland and become a citizen of the USSR. He proposed to Fe, which began a ‘love match’ that lasted for the rest of their lives.

Safe Harbour

The couple and Fe’s son registered as refugees and resettled in Wellington, in their ‘safe harbour’ as Fe described it.

Once here Miet, worked two jobs and Fe likely worked as well. Their determination to have what they would have had in Europe had war not intervened, was remarkable. At the end of their lives, they pretty much had that, helped by a German connection which raised its head again.

The German connection - again

Fe’s mother lived in Germany – in West Berlin to be exact. Divided by the infamous wall, the street where Mother had her apartment was a dead end, even though in peacetime it had been a well-to-do boulevard. In the days after the wall was built, the general expectation was that the Soviets would eventually want the whole city and property prices reflected that fact. West Berlin was so out-of-favour as the likely location of a rebuilding Germany, that the West German government in fact subsidised people who agreed to live there.

But as it had so many times in the past, history intervened. The wall came down and the run-down dead end where Fe’s mother lived, once again became fashionable and real estate prices rocketed.

Eventually Fe’s mother died and as sole beneficiary Fe – now living on the other side of the world – inherited. But this gave the Wnorowski’s a problem. How to properly dispose of the assets from such a distance. Accordingly a trip home was organised and owing to Fe’s mortal fear of flying, it had to be by sea.

As this was a round trip of six months, I was asked to house-sit to which I readily agreed. On the voyage home, via Panama Fe cut her leg badly and as the wound was too severe for the ship’s doctor to handle alone, Fe and Miet were put ashore at Cartagena on the Pacific coast of Colombia for treatment in a hospital there.

Urgent communication then ensued as to whether I could remain as house sitter, which I agreed to. The pair finally returned home about a year after leaving.

Echoes of Russian troops in Berlin

One of Fe’s mother’s possessions she brought back with her, was a large (knee high) bronze sculpture of a sea otter. Apparently, a cousin, or close relative of Fe’s mother had been a notable sculptor of wild animal figures pre-war. Sitting talking to Miet one afternoon, the conversation turned to the otter and Miet told me of its recent history. During the war, Fe’s mother had placed the otter and no doubt other valuables, in a bank vault. When the Russians came everything was ransacked, but the otter was found under rubble near stairs leading up from the vault area. Once recovered and dusted off, it was returned to its owner. According to Miet, bank officials surmised that the otter was taken from the vault by a Russian soldier, who found it too heavy to carry and discarded it in favour of more easily carried booty.

Resting my hand on the otter’s head I asked Miet if there had been any damage to the object. He said none except for a small dent under the otter’s chin. I immediately felt for it and sure enough there was the dent. It was like being transported back in time to those desperate last days of the war.

On their return from Europe, Miet and Fe continued to live their best version of gracious lives. They entertained many, many dinner guests. Sumptuous food and clever conversation.

In later years, Fe was increasingly weakened by emphysema and needed supplementary oxygen.

After their deaths, Miet’s and Fe’s ashes were mingled and scattered in Wellington port. Their ‘safe harbour’ after eventful lives.

RIP Felicitas and Mieczysŀaw. Thank you for your friendship.