All too few of the 1,000 Polish children of Gujarat’s Camp Balachadi are still alive. But for those who survive, the memory of their original journey from Poland to this town in Jamnagar district in the 1940s is vivid. That memory brings them to India again and again, to commemorate a generous Indian benefactor, the former Maharajah or “Jamsaheb of Nawanagar”, 80 years ago.
“This is a story few know about, but it is a sign of how deep the ties that bind India and Poland are,” Poland’s new Ambassador to India Adam Burakowski tells The Hindu . Mr. Burakowski, whose journey to India is itself a unique story, is now preparing for the return of some of the survivors later this year to mark 100 years of Poland’s independence after the first world war.
The story of the Balachadi children evokes warm feelings about how India helped thousands of Poles during the Second World War, but also reminds them of the cruelty of the past, and the terribly hard journey they were forced to take.
The children had been separated from their parents or orphaned during the invasion of Poland in 1939, first by Hitler’s forces and then Stalin’s Red Army, who divided the country into two halves. Most of their families, from the Soviet-dominated East, were sent to Siberia’s labour camps.
When they were freed, they weren’t sent home, but on an even more arduous journey in trucks across Turkmenistan, Iran and Afghanistan to India. While many Polish families made it to refugee camps in Nagpur, Kolhapur and Bombay (Mumbai), the 1,000 or so children, all under the age of 15, had a special problem, as they needed a school, boarding facilities and caretakers.
It was then that the Jamsaheb Digvijaysinghji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja of Nawanagar stepped in, offering to build the school for them, and provide them food and shelter near his palace, in Balachadi. The Jamsaheb’s care didn’t end there, recall the survivors, who became the subject of a 2013 documentary film called “A little Poland in India.”
“When we arrived at the camp, the Maharaja gave a party but despite being hungry, we didn’t like to eat the spicy food served at all. [The Maharaja] saw this & said don’t worry, and he brought seven young cooks from Goa to serve us less spicy food,” recalled Wieslaw Stypula, one of the survivors, now over 90 years old.
Others like Roman Gutowski remember how the Jamsaheb helped them learn to swim in the sea. Atleast one couple, Jadwiga and Jerzy Tomaszek, met at the camp, and married decades later, which they thank the Maharaja for.
Remembering a king’s act of kindness
In recognition of the kindness they were showed, which became a famous story in Poland, Warsaw authorities named a school and a crossroad “Skwer Dobrego Maharadzy” (The Good Maharaja Square) after him.
“Their love for India keeps bringing them back at any given opportunity, even at this age of 80 years plus. When they look at the future generations of their great grand children, they are in deep gratitude towards India and Indians for giving them protection in Balachadi,” Anu Radha, producer of the documentary film, said, revealing that it took more than a year to find all the remaining survivors in Poland and speak to them about their time in India from 1942-1946.
Along with the Polish Institute in Delhi, and the Embassy, Anu Radha now hopes to bring them back for celebrations at the Balachadi school, which is now a Sainik School, in October 2018. “Each year, there are fewer survivors left, and one never knows whether it will be possible for them to return,” she says.
This year, the decades- old story will have a new twist, as the return of the survivors and the celebrations for Poland’s centenary will be presided over by Ambassador Burakowski, who is, by coincidence, a graduate of the school named after Jamsaheb Digvijaysinghji in Warsaw.
In 1997 he first visited India exactly the way the Balachadi children did: by land, from Poland . He says he fell in love with India, and resolved to teach himself Hindi, which he did with the help of Lata Mangeshkar songs.
The symbolism of Mr. Burakowski’s favourite song from the 1959-hit Ujala “Duniyawalon se duur” (Far from the world) wasn’t clear until recently, when he returned to India as the Polish envoy, humming the famous tune about living in a world without atrocity, or sadness, and one where the language of love is understood by all, (Na Zulm Ka Nishaan Hai,Na Gam Ki Dastaan Hai, Har Koi Jisko Samjhe,Voh Pyaar Ki Zubaan Hai), a world very much like the one the Jamsaheb created in the 1940s for his adopted Polish children.