Over 70 years ago, in 1942, more than 5,000 Polish children arrived in India as refugees from Siberia, having been orphaned by the Nazi invasion of their country.
Many spent the next few years in Jamnagar, a princely state then, whose ruler K.S. Digvijaysinhji offered them protection. The little-known story of their travails and the Maharaja’s timely help is the subject of an Indo-Polish documentary, which will be released soon.
After the invasion in 1939, the children were shifted to Siberia, from where they came to India. “Most of them came overland, some through Iran and others came through Karachi. Most of them landed in Mumbai,” says Polish Ambassador to India Piotr Klodkowski.
Professor Klodkowski, who is fluent in Hindi and Urdu, says Little Poland in India, directed by Anu Radha of Akaar Production and produced by the National Audiovisual Institute in Warsaw and Doordarshan, is based on the testimonies of child survivors of the war. The documentary, which has received financial support from the Gujarat government and the Polish government, is getting “final touches.”
The Maharaja, also known as Jam Saheb of Nawanagar, established a camp for these children at Balachadi in Jamnagar; it later became the site of a Sainik School.
Most of the children were Roman Catholics, Professor Klodkowski explains, not Jews as one would have expected from Poland where the community suffered probably the most, held captive in concentration camps of Auschwitz, Sobibor and Treblinka. “The main characters in the film are the child survivors, and they recall with sadness, but also great gratitude, the time they spent in India.”
Though Balachadi was among the first camps, there were other camps, sited mostly in Gujarat and Maharashtra, where the children stayed. For instance, one was set up at Valivade in Kolhapur. The Red Cross, the Polish Army in Exile and the colonial administration all helped to set up the camps, but the Maharajah played the main role, says Professor Klodkowski. “A fairly large school was established for the children at Balachadi, and the Maharajah is well remembered,” he said.
According to Professor Klodkowski, one of the survivors in his testimony quotes the Maharajah as having said: “You may not have your parents, but I am your father now.” Children used to call him “our Bapu.”
The Maharajah was even a patron of a famous school in Warsaw. This school, as a matter of policy, “admits children who are victims of circumstances,” Professor Klodkowski says. In 2012, Warsaw named a square “The Good Maharajah Square.”