A Maharaja in Warsaw

A classroom with interesting motifs and paintings on the wall. Photo: Special Arrangement  

At first glance, it looks like any school in Warsaw, Poland. Children playing outside, the buzz in the corridors, the gentle aroma of snacks shared by students, and teachers hurrying to their classrooms — a typical school scene.

However, once inside the building, one is transported to different surroundings. Numerous pictures of Indian monuments and landscape, wall graffiti depicting classical dance and rangoli, dozens of handicrafts and decoration items, Tibetan Thangka paintings, classrooms with bright motifs and paintings, pictures of Indian gods and goddesses adorning the walls of the school office makes one wonder whether one is still in Warsaw.

Walking through the schools on Bednarska and Raszynska streets is like a trip to an Indian museum. The reason for the special emphasis on India and its culture goes back to an important phase of Polish history prior to World War II. The legacy of the kindness shown by an Indian ruler decades ago continues in this school — thousands of kilometres away from India.

How did a ruler so far away earn the respect and honour of the school and is still remembered today? The Friends of India Education Foundation that runs this school named it after Jamsaheb Digvijay Singh Jadeja, the former ruler of the princely state of Nawanagar, as a tribute to his love and kindness shown to Polish refugees in the 1940s. Digvijay Singh was known to have learnt much about Polish history and culture from his Polish neighbours during his stay with his uncle in Switzerland in the 1920s.

Principal of the School Krystyna Starczewska. Photo: Special Arrangement

Principal of the School Krystyna Starczewska. Photo: Special Arrangement  


The school has a unique form of functioning. It has a constitution, the executive, judiciary and legislature comprising students, parents and teachers that administer the “school republic” in a democratic manner. The school today has different premises for primary, secondary and International Baccalaureate (IB) sections spread across the city. Interestingly, Digvijay Singh was declared the patron saint of this school after the school community consisting of parents, students and teachers conducted a referendum in June 1999 and overwhelmingly approved the move.

The many wars

During the years preceding World War II, a huge number of Poles were taken away by the Red Army to work at the Soviet-run labour camps in remote parts of North-Eastern USSR and Siberia. When Hitler's army invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the USSR announced a general amnesty leading to the release of Polish exiles from labour camps. This was also done with a view to encourage forming a Polish Army unit to fight the German army that was fast advancing into the USSR.

Thus began a great exodus — from the cold parts of the Soviet Union to warmer southern regions of Central Asia. The long and arduous journey stretched over hundreds of kilometres. It was a test of human endurance and suffering in the most difficult situations. Many travellers lost their loved ones en route owing to the cold, hunger, malnutrition and dehydration. The journey stretched across many lands and transit points — Ashkhabad in Turkmenistan, Mashhad, Isfahan and Tehran in Iran, Afghanistan, Quetta, Zahedau and Karachi in present day Pakistan and to India's western coast.

The board outside the main gate mentioning the school named after the Maharaja. Photo: Special Arrangement

The board outside the main gate mentioning the school named after the Maharaja. Photo: Special Arrangement  


The first batch of the 500 severely malnourished and exhausted orphans had a surprise welcome, when they arrived in Nawanagar, from the Maharaja himself. “Don't consider yourselves orphans. You are now Nawanagaris and I am Bapu, the father of all Nawanagaris, including yourselves,” he said. Digvijay Singh was the Chancellor of the Council of Princes and member of the Imperial War Cabinet in British India (1939-1945) who opened his province to Polish refugees threatened with annihilation. He knew the officials of the Polish government in exile that operated from London owing to his position in the Imperial War Cabinet.

Kind heart

Digvijay Singh not only welcomed the refugees, but also ensured that they had special accommodation, schools, medical facilities and opportunities for rest and recuperation at Balachadi, near Jamnagar. Singh also opened a camp at Chela and involved the rulers of Patiala and Baroda, with whom he had a good rapport in the Chamber of Princes, to help the refugees. Business houses like Tata and other individuals raised over Rs. 6,00,000 between 1942 -1945 (a huge amount in those days) to maintain the first batch of 500 refugees.

Other camps were also set up at Balachadi, Valivade (Kolhapur), Bandra (Mumbai) and Panchgani. Singh coordinated with the Polish Government in exile and took steps to impart education in Polish language apart from arranging for catholic priests to follow the religious mores of the refugees. Between 1942 and 1948, about 20,000 refugees stayed and transited through the then undivided India for a duration ranging from six months to six years. About 6,000 of them were granted war-duration domicile that stretched till March 1948, according to Prof. Anuradha Bhattacharya, whose doctoral thesis submitted to the University of Pune in 2006 documents the comprehensive history of Polish Refugees in India.

After the World War II and the recognition of Poland's government by Great Britain, the refugees were asked to return to Poland. However, many chose to be repatriated to the UK, the US, Australia and other Commonwealth nations while just a few returned to Poland. Today, many of the survivors still recall with emotion and tears, the Maharaja's personal send-off at the railway station.

Principal of the School Krystyna Starczewska (second from left) with students. The office is decorated with handicrafts from India. Photo: Special Arrangement

Principal of the School Krystyna Starczewska (second from left) with students. The office is decorated with handicrafts from India. Photo: Special Arrangement  


The School's principal, Krystyna Starcewska, says that this incident from history is remembered with respect and gratefulness, and had become a part of the school's own legacy.

Right custodians

Maria Krzyszt of Byrski, former Ambassador of Poland to India from 1993 to 1996and a professor of Indian Studies, opined that naming the school after the Maharaja was a better option as the “students of such a school would be the custodians of the valuable history.”

Poland had recently honoured the king posthumously by presenting the “Commanders Cross of the Order of the Merit of the Polish Republic,” (Order Zasługi Rzeczy pospolitej Polskiej). This is given to civilians and foreigners for contributing to good foreign relations between Poland and other countries. There is also a proposal pending with the city authorities to name a square in Warsaw after the king and setting up a special plaque describing the history of his connection to Poland.

Starczewska says that the legacy of kindness experienced in India continues. The school provides free education to the children of refugees in Poland from Chechnya, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Tibet and African countries.

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Printable version | Dec 9, 2021 8:17:44 AM |

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