“When others were killing our children, you were able to save them.” Emotional statements are not the stuff of formal interactions between high dignitaries, but this is precisely what Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said to President Pratibha Patil during his visit to India in September this year. It was a clear indication that nearly 70 years on, the heartwarming story of hundreds of Polish children who found sanctuary in the princely state of Nawanagar in the Kathiawar region of present-day Gujarat during World War II is still remembered with gratitude in their homeland.
The celebrated ‘Kindertransport’ project, in which the UK rescued thousands of children from Nazi Germany and occupied Europe in 1938, finds an echo in the noble decision by Digvijaysinhji, the maharaja, or ‘Jam Saheb’, of Nawanagar to take in Polish children from war-torn, occupied Poland and Soviet prison camps. The Jam Saheb took personal risks to make the arrangements at a time when the world was at war, and when the exhausted refugees were denied entry at all ports. Digvijaysinhji, son of the legendary cricketer-prince Ranjitsinhji, built a camp for them in a place called Balachadi beside his summer palace, 25 km from his capital, Jamnagar, and made them feel at home. The Jam Saheb’s gesture is said to have paved the way for thousands of Polish refugees to be received in other parts of the world, including some other places in India.
Roman Gutowski, a Balachadi boy, in front of the Maharaja Jam Saheb School, Warsaw, in 2004. (Photograph by Anuradha Bhattacharya)
Nearly 68 years after the children arrived in Jamnagar and 64 years after their repatriation, there is renewed interest in the story in Poland, possibly triggered by a desire to ensure that this valued slice of memory passes on to a younger generation of Poles. As part of this commemorative effort, a square or an important street in Warsaw is likely to be named after the Jam Saheb. (A prestigious higher secondary school in the Polish capital has been named after him.)
Plans are afoot to honour this “Indian Schindler” with a posthumous award, and make a feature film on the subject. Meanwhile, Indian historian Anuradha Bhattacharya’s book on this humane encounter will be released in 2011.
Prof Piotr Klodkowski, Poland’s ambassador to India, told Outlook that distant though the historical event is, it still stirs emotions in Poland. “This is a true and captivating story for the ‘aam admi’ in both India and Poland. It is a story hidden like a precious stone in history. We are not satisfied with the common man’s knowledge of this story and intend to popularise it and retell it in various forms,” he said.
Commenting on the significance of retelling the story, M. Krzysztof Byrski, Indologist and former Polish ambassador to India, said: “Each event in the history of our relations that exemplifies disinterested generosity should be remembered. After the nightmare of their morbid experience in the limitless, frosty wastes of Siberia, these children found a safe haven in India, which for them appeared like heaven.”
Polish children at Balachadi celebrate the St Nicholas day festival with a traditional dance. (Photo Courtesy: Sainik School, Jamnagar)
So, what is the story? A warning before we dive into it: there is more than one version. Due to the loss or destruction of archival material in Jamnagar, it has largely been corroborated from material available in London and through the narratives of aged survivors. Inevitably, these contain discrepancies about how the decision was taken to allow the children on Indian soil; how the project was funded and what route (land or sea) the kids took to reach the shores of Nawanagar. The reconstruction one hears in Jamnagar has the benign flavour of mythology. It is a heroic tale, lacking in complications, and resting on one man’s generosity, courage and ‘word of honour’; by contrast, the historian’s version is far more intricately woven. However, in both versions, the Jam Saheb comes through as the moving spirit behind the mission.
Another extraordinary detail recounted by the siblings is that when the viceregal office in Delhi objected to him taking in foreigners, he said they were part of his family, and even produced an adoption certificate. “Our father politically adopted them,” says Harshad Kumari, adding that he bankrolled the project from his personal funds.
Harshad Kumari, now in her 70s, but aged six when the children arrived, remembers being at parties with them: “They came to our Christmas parties and mingled with 45 of us cousins. A huge shamiana was put up in an open area. Once they came for my Bapu’s birthday and once for my brother’s birthday.” She also remembers attending a festival at the camp, with the kids dancing and singing in full skirts and dark velveteen shorts: “They made a costume each for my brother and myself. Mine is still lying somewhere in my trunks.”
Harshad Kumari, daughter of the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar. (Photographer by Apoorva Salkade)
The narrative of events pieced together by Bhattacharya, and the more-or-less matching version provided by Wieslaw Stypula, a ‘Balachadian’ who wrote about his stay in a commemorative volume, Poles in India 1942-1948, differs in significant ways from the siblings’ account. While corroborating the fact that the princely state of Nawanagar was the first to offer sanctuary to the children, the historian says they were evacuated out of the Soviet Union (they were Polish refugees deported to the USSR and interned in camps after their country was invaded by the Red Army in 1939)—first by road—in 1942 and, according to archival documents, maintained out of charitable funds raised in India (Rs 6,00,000 between 1942-48), subscribed to by several Indian princes.
Stypula, in his account, says: “After the Maharaja’s offer...a Polish Children’s Fund was opened with a Rs 50,000 grant from the viceroy of India, and Rs 8,500 collected by the Polish Red Cross.” He narrates a moving tale about the condition of the children who reached Ashkabad, Turkmenistan, the assembly point for them in the then Soviet Union: “A seven-year-old boy, after the death of his parents from typhus, was left with his 18-year-old sister—alone on the Uzbek farm. When news reached him that evacuations were being organised somewhere in town, the boy set out on a dozen-kilometre journey to Samarkand, with his sister on his back....”
In an interview in the November 25, 1942, issue of Polska, a weekly Polish magazine, the Jam Saheb spoke of his decision to welcome the Polish kids: “Maybe there, in the beautiful hills beside the seashore, the children will be able to recover their health and to forget the ordeal they went through.... I sympathise with the Polish nation and its relentless struggle against oppression.”
The Jam Saheb’s extraordinary dedication to the cause of the Polish children is evident from Stypula’s account of their departure, after a United Nations-assisted repatriation began in 1946: “Farewell—good man from the good land. ‘Polish’ Maharajah Jam Saheb. Your tears and your voice trembling with deep emotion, when you spoke to us for the last time at the station in Jamnagar, said it all.” It is only right that Poland today wants posterity to remember him.
The article on the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar’s sheltering of Polish WW-II refugee children was wonderfully done (Little Warsaw of Kathiawar, Dec 20). The Polish initiative to honour Digvijaysinhji is well-known now and there is an online petition to the president of Poland to award him a posthumous state honour.
K. Rzysiwanek, Warsaw
Loved the article. I hope someone also highlights the life and work of Maurice Frydman, or Swami Bharatananda—humanist, Gandhian and freedom fighter, a true son of both Poland and India. He deserves a mention in Outlook’s pages too.
Gajanan Netravali, Mumbai
Heartwarming piece. I’m happy to see all the initiatives in Poland aiming at commemorating this great ruler. May his memory live for ever.
Margo, Melbourne, US
As one of the Balachadi boys, I read with interest your story about the Polish refugee children who were given sanctuary during wwii by the great humanitarian, the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar (Little Warsaw of Kathiawar, Dec 20). In September 1939, the USSR invaded Poland from the east, and soon after started mass deportations of Polish citizens to Siberia and Kazakhstan. Thousands died from starvation or disease.
When, in 1942, the Soviet government agreed to release the deportees, many of them managed to make their way to neighbouring Persia (Iran). The first transport of Polish orphans departed from an orphanage in Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan. The evacuation was organised by the Polish government in London. After reaching Mashhad, the children were transported via Zahedan and Nok Kundi to Quetta.
From there they proceeded by train to Jamnagar, where they were warmly greeted by the Jam Saheb. Despite other reports, the children did not arrive by ship; the Polish children in Balachadi arrived by land. This is a fact established through research by Anuradha Bhattacharjee in her PhD thesis ‘History of Polish Refugees in India, 1942-48’, and corroborated by Wieslaw Stypula, himself a Balachadi boy, in his book Guests of the Polish Maharaja.
I’d also mention the recently published Heniek by Anna Bonshek, about her father, who was a Balachadi boy.
Tadeusz Dobrostanski, Melbourne
As the author of Heniek: A Polish Boy’s Coming of Age in India During World War II, I read with interest the story of the Polish refugee children. While I appreciate the statement that there are several versions of the story, the seminal work on the issue is Poles in India 1942-48 by the Association of Poles in India. That text accurately records the heart-wrenching ordeal of thousands of Polish children (mostly orphans) who escaped Soviet penal camps to find refuge in India. Historians Anuradha Bhattacharjee and Ken Robbins have made further valuable contributions.
Since much factual information does not appear in the Outlook article, I fear the reader might come away with the idea that the historical details are somewhat cloudy. I would like to emphasise that nothing can be further from the truth—those who lived to tell the tale have told it clearly and unanimously. Such individuals as Tadeusz Dobrostanski, Jan Siedlecki, Franciszek Herzog and others are living, breathing repositories of this piece of Polish-Indian history.
Launched at the Byron Bay Writers Festival in August 2010, Heniek was presented to the Polish PM, Donald Tusk, by Indian ambassador to Poland Deepak Vohra, and to Pratibha Patil earlier this year. It is inspiring that in dire circumstances individuals from a host culture were motivated to support those in need, those who came from a very different culture. And I can attest to the fact that India had a profound impact on my father’s life, not just due to his time in Balachadi, but also due to his experiences later in life.
Anna Bonshek, Brisbane
Apropos Little Warsaw of Kathiawar (Dec 20, 2010), we are pleased to announce that the President of the Republic of Poland, Bronislaw Komorowski, did posthumously award Maharaja Digvijaysinhji the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland.
We are pleased to announce that the President of the Republic of Poland, Bronislaw Komorowski, did posthomously award the maharaja with a state honour (Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland). Full information, albeit in Polish, here:
As a graduate of the Warsaw-based high school mentioned in the article that bears Jam Saheb's name, I am glad that the Maharaja's tremendous generosity is finally getting the recognition it duly deserves.
Unfortunately, the picture included in the article does not do justice to the school's beautiful architecture, which can be seen here:
As an author on this topic (HENIEK: A Polish Boy's Coming of Age in India During World War II), and on Indian theory (The Big Fish (Rodopi), Mirror of Consciousness (Motilal Banarsidass)), I read with some interest Sugata Srinivasaraju's article about the Polish children who were cared for in India during the Second World War. While I appreciate that Srinivasaraju states up front that there are several versions of the story, readers can rest assured that the seminal work Poles in India 1942-48 (published both in Polish and English) is that single text, which records accurately the entire details of the heart-wrenching ordeal of thousands of Polish children (mostly orphans) who escaped Soviet penal camps in Siberia to find refuge in India. Historians Anuradha Bhattacharjee (History of Polish Refugees in India 1942-48) and Ken Robbins have published further contextualisations of events, which are valuable contributions.
Most compelling is to hear and read actual accounts by individual survivors. Many are available, including Wieslaw Stypula's Guests of the Polish Maharaja and the recently published HENIEK: A Polish Boy's Coming of Age in India During World War II—the latter being the documentation of my own father's (Henry Bonshek) story as one of these Polish children. Launched at the Byron Bay Writers Festival, Australia in August, HENIEK was presented to the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk by Ambassador Deepak Vohra, and to Indian President Pratibha Devisingh Patil earlier this year. In his artlcle War and Peace (Gold Coast Bulletin Paradise Magazine), writer Michael Jacobson (The Windmill Hill) summarizes how Heniek was "snatched from his home town of Wolkowysk and transported to the hell of a Soviet gulag, followed by a perilous escape to Uzbekistan" before finding respite in India. HENIEK is an epic story—albeit the story of one boy's journey to freedom (including time at the Balachadi facility).
Clearly, it is inspiring to know that, in dire circumstances, individuals from a host culture were motivated to provide support to those in need, those who came from a very different background. And I can attest to the fact that India had a profound impact on my father's life—not just due to his time in Balachadi, but also due to his experience in Bandra (Mumbai), in Valivade (near Kolhapur in Maharashtra), and, most of all, in Mt Abu, Rajasthan.
Coming back to Srinivasaraju's article, there is a great deal of important factual information that does not appear here, and I fear the reader might come away with the idea that the historical details are somewhat cloudy, especially surrounding events during this period. I would like to emphasise that nothing could be further from the truth. The Poles who lived through the terrible events of the time have a very clear understanding of their experience and have documented it well. Those who remain to tell the tale—including individuals such as Tadeusz Dobrostanski, Jan Siedlecki, Franciszek Herzog (The Herzog Family Chronicle, 1866-2000), Czesia Moniak, Danuta Pniewska, Andrzej Chendynski and many, many others—are living, breathing repositories of this piece of Polish-Indian history. All recount how they were transported overland (rather than by ship).
Having lived through those turbulent times, my late father, and his peers, developed a keen knowledge of the impact of historical and social factors on individual life. Their stories are historical records, not just of Soviet oppression, of hardship, of despair, but also of the will to live, of heroism, of the force of life. And while they tell of the enduring Polish spirit, they reveal the ingenuity of the Polish Government-in-Exile, the life-saving initiative of Polish wartime leader General Anders (that effectively facilitated the release of Poles from Siberia by Stalin, even for a limited period), and the generosity of Indian nationals (the Maharaja, along with other wealthy industrialists and caring individuals of various faiths)—all during this most devastating period in world history.
For anyone who is genuinely curious about this unique and incredible chapter in Polish-Indian relations, I would recommend that they go more deeply into this story, to witness true endurance, the force of survival, unparalleled compassion and the triumph of humanity in times of war.
As one of the Balachadi boys, I read with interest your story about the Polish orphaned children of Balachadi which were given sanctuary during the Second World War, by the great humanitarian Maharaja Jam Saheb.
In 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Poland and soon after the Soviet occupiers commenced mass deportations of Polish citizens to Siberia and the Kazakhstan. Thousands of adults and children died due to illness and hunger. When in 1942, the Soviet Government agreed to release the Polish deportees a large number of people managed to escape to neighbouring Persia (Iran) and the first transport of Polish orphans departed from an orphanage in Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan.
The evacuation was organised by the Polish Government in London. After reaching Mashhad the children were transported via Zahedan and Nok Kundi to Quetta. From there they proceeded by train to Jamnagar. On arrival they were warmly greeted by the great benefactor Maharaja Jam Saheb. Despite what was previously reported the children did not arrive by wandering ships. These Polish children in Balachadi arrived by land. A fact researched and documented by Dr Anuradha Bhattacharjee in her PhD thesis, “History of Polish Refugees in India 1942-48”. by USA historian, Dr Keneth Robbins and by Mr Wieslaw Stypula himself a Balachadi boy in his book “Guests of the Polish Maharaja” This is further documented in the book “ Poles in India 1942- 1948.” by the Association of Poles in India and in another recently published book “Heniek” by Anna Bonshek about her father who was also Balachadi boy.
Thank you so much for this wonderful article! Heartwarming, beautiful and so thoroughly researched. I'm happy to see all the initiatives in Poland aiming at commemorating this great Maharajah. May His memory live for ever.
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