Diplomacy creates cooperation between countries, yet there are no stronger or more durable ties between nations than those established directly by their citizens. India’s adoption of approximately 6,000 Polish refugees, who were recent victims of Soviet repression and found themselves without a home, is a beautiful example of selfless assistance for the needy during WW2. Settlements were built specifically for the Polish women with children, the orphans, and the elderly, who all lived in India from 1942 to 1948. At that point, some of them returned to a new, communist-controlled Poland, while others were scattered around the world. Years later, they would return to visit India – a country that will always have a warm place in their hearts. Wherever fate led them to spend the rest of their lives, they have always been informal ambassadors for India. In a world where millions of refugees need help today, the memory of the events that took place so long ago in India still resonate. May the ties between the Polish and Indian nations be cherished forever.
The world of hundreds of thousands of Poles came to an end in September 1939. The German invasion of Poland on 1st of September 1939, followed by the Russian invasion less than three weeks later (17 September 1939), were just a prelude to the largest ever contingent of Polish citizens ending up in almost every corner of the globe after World War II. Within less than two months, the Polish State practically ceased to exist and the country was divided between the two invaders – the German Third Reich and the USSR.
In the winter of 1940, the Soviets initiated the mass deportation of Polish families to remote areas of the USSR. Four mass deportations took place in between 1940-41. People were deported simply because they were Polish citizens, without being convicted of any crime. To this day, the exact number of the deported is not known – estimates vary from 0.5 million to 1.3 million Poles (many of whom were women, children and the elderly). Loaded into unheated freight cars, they were sent to the remotest regions of the USSR, including Archangel, Kazakhstan, and the vast expanses of Siberia. Thousands died in transit as well as in the camps. Those who survived spent the next 18 months in inhuman living conditions, suffering daily hunger, backbreaking work and disease.
The German invasion of the USSR finally brought them some hope. Under the Sikorski-Maisky pact of the Polish agreement with the USSR in July 1941, Stalin agreed to the creation of a Polish Army in the Soviet Union, and thus granted ‘amnesty’ for the deportees. Thousands of Poles who were scattered over a huge area of the USSR descended on the rallying centers in the Volga region and later in the Central Asia.
This was also the aim of the Polish Army commander, General Anders. After many difficulties that were imposed by the Soviets, he managed to obtain Stalin’s permission to move the army to the British-controlled territories of the Middle East. The evacuation occurred in two waves, in March and August of 1942, using the Caspian Sea route as well as additional overland evacuations. In all, nearly 120,000 Polish citizens left the Soviet Union, including more than 38,000 civilian refugees. The remainder of the evacuees were the recent prisoners of concentration camps and the deportees who formed the newly-established Polish Army. They initially all found refuge in Iran.
Civilian refugees, more than half of whom were children and youth, were located in a series of special transitional centers in Iran (Tehran, Isfahan, Ahwaz). This gave them an opportunity – in part at least – to regenerate, physically and psychologically, after their experiences in Siberia. When the problem of the Polish refugees was discussed in British War Cabinet in London, an Indian Maharaja Jam Saheb Digvijaysinhji, of Jamnagar (then Nawanagar), within the state of Gujarat, in India) was the first to propose to accept about 500 to 1000 Polish orphans within his estate, which was yet under British rule. Setting an example of compassion and large hearted-ness British colonies in East Africa, Kolhapur in Maharashtra state in India, New Zealand, Lebanon, as well as Mexico later offered to take care and host Polish refugees.
Poles came to India either by land or by sea,- some Polish orphans went by trucks from Ashkhabad in USSR via Afghanistan to India, while others by sea, together with two big evacuations of Polish Army from USSR to Iran through Caspian Sea in March and August of 1942. In India, Polish refugees evacuated from the Soviet Union were deployed to settlements in various locations.
The only permanent and the largest Polish settlement, was in Valivade (next to the city of Kolhapur, within the State of Maharastra, in India). built for 5000 people that included women, children and the elderly. There were also two temporary transit camps in the immediate vicinity of Karachi-Country Club and Malir (now in Pakistan); the therapeutic center in Panchgani; as well as convents that were made available to the Polish youth in Karachi, Mount Abu, Panchgani and Mumbai in India. The Polish delegation of the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare of the Polish Government in Exile in London organized the Polish settlements in India, under the direction of Victor Styburski and Kira Banasińska, a delegate of the Polish Red Cross in India.
The road to India became the start of a new life for thousands of Polish orphans and half-orphans.
„THE GOOD MAHARAJA STORY – BALACHADI SETTLEMENT”
Indian monarchs formed an organization called the Chamber of Princes in 1920. Local monarchs headed the organization, each in their turn. In 1938, the 42-year-old Maharaja Digvijaysinhji, known as ‘Jam Saheb’,ruler of Nawanagar estate in the Kathiawar Peninsula (now the state Gujarat) off the western coast of India, became the head of the Chamber of Princes. He was an efficient politician and administrator and, from the time of his meeting in 1920’s with Ignacy Paderewski, a Polish pianist, politician, and spokesman for Polish independence, Jam Saheb had a great knowledge of Poles and Polish culture. His decision to accept Polish orphans under his care allowed legions of Polish refugees to find a new home in exotic India
It is worth mentioning that Indian princes were largely autonomous within their territories – collecting their own taxes and conducting their affairs independent of the central government treasury. The Maharaja could, therefore, adopt and take care of as many refugees as he wanted to, without asking anyone’s permission. He decided to build housing for approximately 1,000 Polish orphans at his summer residence in Balachadi, as well as share parts of the palace with his new charges. The Polish Government in Exile used its own resources to cover the cost of maintaining the settlement.
The monarch established the Polish Children Fund for the exiles. As president of the Chamber of Princes, Digvijaysinhji convinced (mainly through his own example) many other local Indian monarchs and noblemen to provide the funding necessary to establish settlements for the Polish children who were refugees in India. He managed to collect more than eighty donors.
The residence of the Polish children was situated near Jamnagar in Balachadi village. The monarch, explaining his decision to take to care of hundreds of orphans, said the following: “Deeply moved by the suffering of the Polish nation, and especially those whose childhood and youth is being spent in appalling conditions in this most terrible of wars, I wanted to contribute in some way to improving their circumstances. So I offered them hospitality in lands located far from the turmoil of war. Maybe here (…) the children will be able to recover, perhaps forget about everything past, and gather strength for their future work as citizens of a free country.” In fact, according to the accounts of the children who lived in Balachadi, Jam Saheb Digvijaysinhji became a kind of foster father, a guardian, on whom they could always count on – thus fondly called ‘Bapu’ (Indian term for father) by them.
The children needed to be transported to their new Indian home in Balachadi. The children were scattered, emaciated, ailing and frequently alone, ending up in Soviet orphanages following either the imprisonment or the death of their parents, or having lost track of their parents after leaving the place of exile following the ‘amnesty’. They had to be located and gathered up in the Soviet Union. As a result of the efforts of the staff of the Polish Consulate in Mumbai, the Polish children gathered in these orphanages were then transported in several groups, in lorries, overland through Iran, around Afghanistan, to India and then at various times throughout 1942 to the newly-built settlement in Balachadi.
The settlement in Balachadi was the first permanent, major center built specifically for the Polish orphans who were evacuated from the Soviet Union. The settlement project was submitted in April 1942, and was implemented at a rapid pace: the first transport of children populated the residential buildingsby mid-July 1942. The youngest refugees to arrive in Balachadi came in three automotive transports of the Bombay Red Cross, sent to retrieve them from the USSR. Other children arrived later, in smaller groups. The age limit of refugees residing in Balachadi ranged from 2 to 15 years. As the children grew and exceeded that age, they were transferred to another settlement in Valivade, near Kolhapur city, within the state of Maharashtra. Adults could stay there for as long as they served a specific function in the care and education of the children.
The settlement consisted of dozens of brick and stone buildings in the form of oblong barracks with ceramic tile roofs, and no floors or ceilings. A building could accommodate about 30 children. Buildings designed for adults were divided into small, single apartments. The settlement also included general utility buildings: a school, a hospital, a chapel, an office, a kitchen, dining rooms, lounges, shops, craft studios and facilities for the Indian service providers. In the fall of 1942, shortly after the arrival of the next transport of children, the settlement was equipped with all the facilities and structures that provided all customary functions: a school and a kindergarten, a hospital, a kitchen, and a laundry. Military chaplain Fr. Francis Pluta served as the commander of the settlement for the entire period of its existence. Over and above the official organizational structures that were assumed by the Poles, a dominant role was played by the settlement’s patron and founder, the Maharaja Digvijaysinhji.
Life in the settlement was very active in terms of culture, education, and sports. Scouting was also established there. The youth set up green areas between the buildings, giving the place the look and feel of a Polish town, where the Polish flag was hoisted on a mast every morning. Half of the staff that provided services to the children were local Indians. Despite the difficult climate and living conditions, Balachadi is remembered by almost all the pupils as an extremely friendly place. They also remember the kindness shown by the locals. Balachadi was officially closed at the end of November 1946. All the children still in residence were moved to the settlement in Valivade – the largest center for Poles in India.
Despite the passage of time, Poland has not forgotten its benefactor. When Jam Saheb Digvijaysinhji was asked about what he would like to receive in thanks for his contribution to the rescue of Polish children, he laughed and waved his hand, saying: “Name a street in Warsaw after me someday.” The Maharaja did not have a street named after him, but rather a beautiful square in Warsaw’s Ochota district, next to the famous Opaczewska street that is commemorated in a poem about defending the access to Warsaw in 1939. The Square of the Good Maharaja – Jam Saheb Digvijaysinhji, with a statue dedicated to his memory, extends along the length of Opaczewska street, from Grójecka street (which became the barricade in 1939) to Szczęśliwicki Park (created in the 1940s from rubble gathered all over the ruined capital). One of Warsaw’s schools is also named after him: the school’s name is Jam Saheb, as the Polish children in India called him.
On 23 December 2011, the President of Poland Bronislaw Komorowski posthumously awarded the Maharaja Digvijaysinhji with the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Polish Republic. Children from the settlement in Balachadi constantly mention him and keep returning to visit the settlement. They funded a memorial plaque at the former settlement, in gratitude for the assistance and hospitality that they had received. In 2012, a Polish-Indian production called “A Little Poland in India” was the first documentary to tell their story.
THE KOLHAPUR – VALIVADE STORY
The assistance provided by the Maharaja Digvijaysinhji, although significant was decidedly insufficient. Thousands of Poles evacuated with the Polish Army via the Caspian Sea to Iran were waiting for safe havens to be provided for them. Following requests from the Polish authorities, India finally decided to accept approximately 10,000 refugees. Construction on the largest settlement for Polish refugees began in 1943 – it was intended to house some 5,000 people. They had searched for a location that provided a better climate and thus they chose Valivade, some 500 km south of Mumbai near city of Kolhapur within the state of Maharashtra, in India. Construction of the settlement began at the end of March 1943.
Kolhapur is a city in the Panchganga river basin in the western state of Maharashtra, in India. Before India gained independence, Kolhapur was a princely state ruled by the Bhosale Chhatrapati (Bhosale royal clan) of the Maratha Empire.
Since in 1943, Kolhapur estate was ruled by a minor Maharaja, a Chhatrapati thus the decision to place Polish refugees in Valivade is attributable to the British authorities, with the consent of the government in Delhi. In any case, Valivade became the largest Polish settlement in India; a Polish city where a number of local people were employed, and where relations between the two communities were very cordial. Designed for 5,000 refugees (mostly mothers with children) it was 700 meters above sea level, so the climate was much cooler and a lot more pleasant.
The settlement in Valivade, located on the Deccan plateau, was an example of a typical Polish town. It had its own independent administration, with an administrator at the helm. The town included a church, a community center, five elementary schools, a general high school and a commercial high school, a humanities college and a teaching college, a post office, a theater, a cinema, craft workshops, and a cooperative called Zgoda (Accord). The market was in the center of the town. Residents could purchase the necessities there, and prices were fixed so as to prevent overcharging. There were also shops of local Indians that were located on the outskirts of the settlement, a memory very fondly shared by the survivors – both Polish and Indians.
The settlement in Valivade consisted of five districts. Every mother with a child was allotted half of a double bungalow, equipped with a kitchen, a veranda and a bathroom.
Residential buildings were divided into 10 independent apartments, with no ceiling or floor, and consisting of 2 rooms and a kitchenette. The walls were made of plaited bamboo mats, and the roofs were covered with red tiles. Water had to be carried in buckets from the water supply. Apartments were equipped with beds that had mosquito nets and a sturdy table. Kitchenettes were equipped with charcoal-burning iron stoves. These barracks also had verandas which were wrapped in morning glories to provide shade, and decorated with a variety of shrubs. The Polish authorities provided each family with a monthly living allowance.
An important element in shaping and tempering the youth was scouting: attending camps on the edge of the jungle, taking courses, going on tours, learning skills. The settlement had a field for soccer and volleyball, so the youth could gain physical fitness through sports. Religious organizations such as the Marian Sodality were formed, as well as altar boy societies. All national and religious holidays were solemnly celebrated. Classics were presented in the theatre. The lack of a sufficient number of books was made up for by reading lectures aloud in the community center. Despite the language barrier, contact between Poles and locals developed – all very pleasantly remembered by the survivors. On 15 August 1947, when India gained her independence, a large, joyful celebration took place at Valivade. Indians and Poles shared a meal on one of the main streets of Valivade.
Between 1946 and 1948, another journey began for the small refugees who had spent the most beautiful years of their childhood (as they themselves say) in India. The settlements in Balachadi, Valivade, and other minor centers, were gradually liquidated. Some of the residents left for England as part of the family reunification with loved ones who had fought with the Polish Forces. Some emigrated, with or without their families, further into the world. A small number (only about 500 people) returned to Communist-controlled Poland after World War 2.
After the departure of the Poles, the residents of the settlement in Valivade were refugees from Pakistan. To this day, a cemetery in Kolhapur, containing 78 Polish graves, reminds us of the presence of Poles in this place. It was beautifully restored in 2014, at the request of the Polish authorities. Small stone slabs with the names of the buried recall that those who fled the Soviet Union, but were not given access to their homeland, remained forever in India and are buried in Kolhapur. The obelisk in Mahavir Garden Park in Kolhapur recalls the gratitude of the refugees for the friendly welcome they received in India. The monument, topped by an eagle, was donated by the Association of Poles in India 1942-1948 who formerly lived as WW2 refugees in India – on the 50th anniversary of the departure of the last group of Polish refugees from Valivade. Both the cemetery and the obelisk are currently under the care of the Polish State. The Polish refugees of Valivade re-visit their childhood home in Valivade and Kolhapur whenever an opportunity is provided by the Polish State.
The present 13th Maharaja of Kolhapur HH Maharaja Chhatrapati SHAHU II BHONSLE, fondly remembers their visits and interactions of gratitude that has been shown to the land and its people, when he says that „the Poles came as refugees and left as friends.”.
REUNIONS AND VISITS
Several thousand Poles (mostly women and children) who were deported to the Soviet Union in 1940-41, found refuge in India during WW2. They later returned to a changed Communist-controlled Poland, or found new homes elsewhere in the world, but continued to feel a great fondness for India. Gratitude for the support they had received there made them great ambassadors of India, regardless of where they ended up in the world.
The former “Indians” (as they call themselves) focused on personal matters during the initial years following the war. After some time, however, they began to miss each other – the friendships, the experiences at school or in the scouts, the shared memories of their journeys, and then the time spent in India. Hence, the first informal meeting of the former residents of the Balachadi or Valivade settlements took place outside Poland, in 1954. These would eventually become cyclical “Indian” reunions in London in 1971, and in Canada in1978. At that time, it was impossible to form an association in communist Poland, and therefore difficult to organize large group meetings there. A joint reunion of both groups (those living in Poland and those living abroad) finally happened as a result of the changes brought about by the “Solidarity” movement. In 1980, they held an “Indian” pilgrimage to the Jasna Gora sanctuary in Poland. Taking advantage of the changes occurring in the 1980s in Poland, the former pupils of the Balachadi settlement near Jamnagar formed the “Jamnagarians’ Club” as the part of the Society of Polish-Indian Friendship. An unforgettable World Congress was held in Rome in 1989 that included a visit with the Polish Pope John Paul II.
A breakthrough year for the “Indians” came in 1990 with the creation of an official organization of former Polish refugees in India. The “Association of Poles in India 1942-1948” was initially formed in London and then in Poland, the USA, Canada and Australia. In addition to socializing and sharing memories, the Association adopted as one of its most important objectives the creation of an historical archive concerning the Poles who lived in India during and after WW2. This work led to a comprehensive publication “Poles in India 1942-1948” published in Polish and in English, along with still published periodical Association’s newsletter. Since 1990, the “Indians” meet every two years, in Poland or in the UK. Their ties with India and the memories of their youth continue to link them.
These ties also manifest themselves by a return to remembered places of long ago. The first group of former Polish refugees in India – residents of the orphanage in Balachadi – returned to India in 1985. This was followed by a second visit in 1989, where they unveiled a monument-memorial plaque in Jamnagar to thank India – “the good earth” – for the hospitality shown to the Polish children. The plaque shows this kindness by depicting an Indian woman embracing a Polish child. The former residents of the settlement in Valivade returned for the first time in 1994. Then, in 1998, they unveiled a monument in Kolhapur commemorating the 5,000 Poles who lived there from 1942 to 1948. The monument features a column topped with the Polish eagle. The Maharajah Chhatrapati Shahu of Kolhapur described it as “a monument to the victory of good over evil and the friendship between Poles and Indians”. In recent years, the former residents of Balachadi and Valivade have visited the former settlements several times, either individually or in a group – the last time was in 2014. They have also brought their children and grandchildren to visit. By their continued efforts, many more have heard of this beautiful story through exhibitions, lectures in schools, published articles and memoirs. They continue to hold India in their hearts and are its tireless ambassadors.
ANETA HOFFMANN, FUNDACJA KRESY HISTORII