Second Thoughts: Kindness remembered

I suppose any war, and certainly the Second World War, has hundreds and thousands of untold stories. Love stories, stories of heroism, stories of kindness, stories of loss and deprivation... each waiting for a storyteller to come along and find them somewhere, in some ageing memory, tucked away in yellowing letters, fighting dust and mould in some filing cabinet. And when they feel that the discerning eye and the deserving heart of the right narrator is finally nigh, they gush forth, often astounding the narrator with their bottled-up passions, the twists and turns of which they are born, the brushes with destiny, the bundles of coincidences that make up life.

One such story is of the children of Jamnagar, a few of whom I first met 25 years ago in Warsaw, where they formed a club under the umbrella of the Indo-Polish Friendship Society. I was intrigued by those greying, middle-aged men who would often talk of long-ago days in a corner of India with a soft, affectionate look in their eyes. Clutching albums with fading black and white photographs of scrawny Polish children in a wartime Indian camp, they seemed to be possessed of some missionary zeal to keep their story alive. I learnt that they were part of a few hundred orphaned children who had ended up during the War as guests of the Jam Sahib Digvijaysinghji, the princely ruler of Nawanagar in Kathiawar, and successor of Ranjitsinghji or Ranji, the famous cricketer. In 1989, the Jamnagar Club decided to produce a huge plaque, which they planned to send to India and have it installed on a school wall in Balachadi, a few miles from Jamnagar. The plaque showed a mother sheltering a child, and the inscription in Polish and Hindi paid homage to the beloved land of Jamnagar, which gave shelter to Polish children during difficult wartime years. I was drafted to go to the factory and ensure that the Devnagri lettering was correctly depicted.

The years passed. The nugget of that story stayed with me. I mentioned it to the amazing Dr. Kenneth Robbins, a researcher and scholar par excellence of many things but most relevantly for my purpose, of princely Indian states and Jewish heritage in India. He went after the story with practised dedication and clarified many aspects — his wife Joyce later jokingly blamed me for spoiling a year of her husband’s sleep. A few years later I met Anuradha Bhattacharjee: she had heard of the story and wanted to know all I could remember. I forgot about the conversation, almost, until the other day, a decade later, Bhattacharjee came by to give me a book: The Second Homeland (Sage). Therein is told, with affection and sympathy and perhaps for the first time in such detail, the full story of these children.

Destiny, the story shows, is all powerful. Idyllic pre-War Polish childhoods were turned upside down, as in the case of young Franek Herzog, whose sensitive and emotive diary forms part of Bhattacharjee’s book. Poland, that had re-emerged into existence after 123 years in 1920, once again vanished in 1939; parcelled out between Germany and the Soviet Union under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. The Poles moved into underground resistance; a Government-in-exile was set up under General Sikorski. Immense tragedies were to follow, including the well-documented Jewish holocaust and not-so-well-documented deportations of nearly two million Poles to labour camps in the frozen wastes of Siberia and Arctic Russia, or the Gulag. Thousands died unrecorded deaths, including more than 4000 Polish officers in the forest of Katyn, a festering historical wound still not fully healed. When Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, an amnesty was announced for Polish internees in that country and the Polish army began to regroup under General Anders. But thousands of Polish civilians, including large numbers of women and children, were left in the Soviet Union. It was difficult to get them out and even more difficult to have them accepted in other countries. Bhattacharjee pieces together the various efforts made by governments, the Red Cross societies and diplomats to help move this population to better climes and conditions. Over the next two years a large number of them would move to camps in India, which incidentally had also become a major transit point for relocation of Jews escaping Nazi atrocities.

Hearing of the plight of Polish citizenry in the Soviet Union, the Jam Sahib of Nawanagar had offered his state as a destination. Bhattacharjee details how 500 orphaned Polish children, hungry and cold, with barely any clothes and often without shoes, found their way to Ashkabad from where they were shuttled in six trucks, driven by Sikh drivers, to Meshad in Iran and then into united India. Following various routes the children came in batches first to a makeshift camp set up in Bandra, Bombay, and then moved to Balachadi near Jamnagar. They were suffering from whooping cough, TB, typhus and dysentery. Franek’s diary shows what a good bath, bed and meal meant to him after the deprivations of the preceding years, during which he had clung to his dying mother on the Kazakh steppes, and later survived by hunting and skinning 250 prairie dogs with his bare hands.

Bhattacharjee has put together various valuable documents and photographs which give a clear sense of what life in the Balachadi camp was for these children. They were literally being brought back from the wild, deloused, treated for disease and then educated. Efforts were made to keep up Polish culture; it is telling that the best way the children knew how to repay any kindness was to put on an impromptu concert. Franek’s diary is testimony to the warmth and love that the orphaned children found in Balachadi, and never forgot; a school has been named after the Jam Sahib in Warsaw. Years later, Franek would write that the U.S. was his permanent home and Poland would always be his fatherland. “And India? It is my second homeland. It was the place where I had been a child again, after Poland, though in a slightly different way.”

The children of Jamnagar finally found, it seems, the narrator they had been waiting for.

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Printable version | Jun 15, 2021 3:53:21 PM |

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