Maria (Myna) Dunin Borkowska was born on 31 March 1901 in Klimaszowka, eastern Poland, then part of Russia. Her father, Kalikst Dunin Borkowski, an estate owner, and his wife, Maria Wolowska, belonged to the Polish nobility. She went to school in Kiev, and was there during the Russian Revolution, when her parents’ estate was destroyed. Her family subsequently moved to Cracow in southern Poland. She finished her schooling in Zakopane in the Carpathians, where she became an accomplished mountaineer and skier. Her university studies were interrupted by the Polish–Soviet War of 1919–20, during which she joined a Polish Red Cross unit serving at the front. After her return she continued her studies, graduating from the Jagiellonian university in 1923 with a master’s degree in soil science. She then worked as an assistant in the soil chemistry laboratory at the university.
On 9 February 1928 Maria married Kazimierz Antoni z Granowa Wodzicki, a fellow graduate of the Jagiellonian and member of the Polish nobility. Their two children were born in Cracow. Kazimierz was a lecturer in comparative anatomy, and after he was appointed professor of animal anatomy at the Warsaw university college of agriculture in 1935 the family moved to Warsaw.
In the late summer of 1939, while they were holidaying on the family estate in eastern Poland, the Soviet invasion began. Kazimierz and his parents were arrested, but he escaped and crossed the border out of Poland. Deciding that it would be safer in Nazi-occupied Poland, Maria Wodzicka travelled back to Cracow by horse and cart with her children and their nanny. There she joined the Polish underground movement, and throughout the winter of 1939–40 used her knowledge of the Carpathians to lead many Poles across the mountainous border into Romania. She once narrowly escaped capture.
A year after the outbreak of the war Maria Wodzicka arranged an exit visa from Poland. The family and their nanny travelled by train to Paris, where they were re-united with Kazimierz. The remains of the pre-war Polish government had gathered in France and functioned there as government in exile. The Wodzickis joined this and after the fall of France moved with it to the United Kingdom. In late 1940 Kazimierz was appointed Polish consul general to New Zealand. The family moved to Wellington in January 1941.
As the delegate of the Polish Red Cross, Maria Wodzicka set to work doing what she could for her fellow countrymen and -women. A practised speaker with an excellent command of English, she travelled extensively giving public addresses to raise money to help Polish refugees. With friends in New Zealand she also founded the Polish Army League. This organised pen friends and parcels for Polish servicemen fighting under British command.
In 1943 a troopship bound for Mexico berthed in Wellington. On board were a group of children who had been deported from Poland at the beginning of the war. Maria Wodzicka visited the ship with gifts, and these silent and withdrawn children made a strong impression on her. The next day Maria visited Janet Fraser, the wife of the prime minister. Together they persuaded Peter Fraser that New Zealand could host displaced Polish children. Soon he called Kazimierz Wodzicki to his office and told him that the government wished to invite a group of Polish children to New Zealand.
Maria Wodzicka was at the centre of the preparations for the Polish Children’s Camp at Pahiatua. In 1944 more than 700 children and about 100 adults arrived. Because of the language barrier she and her family acted as translators. She was the only Polish member of the Polish Children’s Hospitality Committee, which the prime minister set up to act as ‘a liaison between the public generally and the Polish children and staff’. Her role involved many visits to Pahiatua. She accepted many speaking engagements in which she explained the plight of the Polish children and of their country and thanked New Zealanders for their kindness and generosity.
Maria Wodzicka worked tirelessly on the children’s behalf, acting as a mediator between the camp and the many governmental and non-governmental agencies involved with their welfare. At the end of the war she became a member of the board of guardians constituted by the Supreme Court of New Zealand for the children’s protection. When the Polish consulate closed in 1945, the official roles the Wodzickis had played in the Polish Children’s Camp came to an end. Neither they nor the Polish children wished to return to communist-dominated Poland. The Wodzickis stayed in New Zealand, and in the Polish community both Kazimierz and Maria continued to play a leading role centred on the children’s welfare. Maria was naturalised as a New Zealand citizen in 1954. She died on 24 July 1968 at Wellington, survived by her husband and two children.