BOOKMARK Journalist-academic Anuradha Bhattacharjee talks about the making of “The Second Homeland”, a chronicle of a little-known journey of Polish refugees from USSR’s concentration camps through India in the 1940s
“This is a book you could have also written,” says Anuradha Bhattacharjee, the author of The Second Homeland . “I only followed the core of my journalistic training — utter curiosity. The five ‘w’s and one ‘h’ was all I chased to reconstruct the story.”
In a conversation at her house in Noida, journalist-turned-academic Anuradha is referring to a rather intriguing story that her book The Second Homeland (Sage India) encompasses, a tale long buried under the rubble of World War II history.
As Indians, we typically consider the World Wars as Western wars even though many Indian soldiers spilled blood in them and have remained unsung till date. So Anuradha naturally hit a wall when she tried digging the story of hundreds of Polish refugees of World War II — most of them orphans, living in camps in Gujarat before resettling in different parts of the world. “Nobody had heard that the king of Nawanagar then, Jam Saheb Digvijaysingh, a member of the Imperial War Council by dint of being the chancellor of The Chamber of Princes, had opened the doors to hundreds of young Polish refugees who survived the concentration camps of USSR in Siberia and Kazakhstan. He facilitated setting up camps for them in Balachadi, Gujarat, put in place facilities that gave them back a life of dignity,” says Anuradha, now adjunct fellow at the Centre for Culture, Media and Governance at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.
Anuradha stumbled upon the story in 1992 through one Zofia Mendonca from Poland, married to an Indian officer. “Zofia was introduced to me as a holocaust survivor but she was a Roman Catholic.” Much like what aNazi Germany did to their Jews, Zofia too was bundled into a cattle train along with thousands of families of the defeated Polish army to work and die in the concentration camps set up by Stalin’s Red Army in sub-zero Katyn. The journalist in Anuradha compelled her to write Zofia’s story but her senior at work spiked it, calling the account farfetched.
Anuradha couldn’t spike the story in her mind though. Ten years later, while working with a national daily in Delhi, she exhumed it. This time though her editor published it because he himself had come across a Polish woman who had lived in such a camp in India in the 1940s. “The story attracted feedback from across the world”. Anuradha was told by many that “the records on the Red Army’s atrocities on Polish refugees have never been opened.”
“The silence intrigued me. Even when I went to our External Affairs Ministry, they have little substantial political and diplomatic information about it,” says Anuradha. This made her decide to “transform the story from a minor journalistic venture to a serious academic pursuit” in the University of Pune. Anuradha criss-crossed countries to meet survivors, spent hours in various archives and libraries including our National Archives, stumbled upon precious bits, followed primary and secondary references to rebuild the untold human disaster story. “It was like solving a jigsaw puzzle without the reference picture,” says Anuradha.
She also took extensive help from Internet to connect with people and also access information on the episode. “I think without Internet I could not have connected with the survivors, couldn’t have put the pieces together about what happened to the families of a defeated army, where the best of brains among the officers were hunted down systematically, and the world powers helped USSR keep it under wraps for decades,” she says. Only in 1992, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin acknowledged that such camps existed.
Anuradha’s book, an over 300 pager, is thick with personal stories and photographs. She weaves around them the times, the harsh conditions of the concentration camps, people dying of extreme cold and starvation, before focussing on the humane gesture of Jamsaheb of Nawanagar even though the British rulers were not open to the idea.
She brings alive the arduous journey of the young refugees bundled in trucks through Persia, details the Indian camps, the refugees’ cordial relationships with the locals, the underlining racism of the British bosses towards the Indians at the camps, and even features local suppliers, how they were gauging a tired lot getting off a train to assess their possible profit. At the end of the war only 10 per cent of the Polish civilians who had reached India returned to Poland due to the changed political affiliations.
“It was the warmth with which they recalled the period in India and the term they used that makes the title of the book.”
Anuradha says a strong string that pulled her through so many years of research was the silence around the episode and the grace with which the survivors dealt with their plight of victims of an unrecognised humanitarian crisis.
“Had I found anger in them, I would probably have stopped. The dignity with which the survivors have borne their misfortune at the altar of world politics is humbling,” she says.
The London launch of the book is on the cards later this year.
SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY