The elegant ballroom of the Indian consulate general in New York has been the venue for many cultural and other events attended by Indian and American audiences. On June 29 a special event brought two communities, Indians and Jews, together to witness an unknown chapter of history, which was in a documentary film called as “Little Poland in India.”
The special screening in New York with the support of the Indian consulate general and the American Jewish Committee, shows back to the dark chapter of history during World War II when Hitler’s deadly war machinery rolled over Europe, spreading terror and destruction on the continent.
Orphaned Polish, Jews and Catholics children’s had faced an uncertain future, but in the midst of the gloom a ray of hope appeared. A kindhearted Maharaja of a princely state in Gujarat agreed to accept the Polish children and look after them.
Treasure of Poland in India
The emotionally charged subject of children produced by enterprising Delhi based female Indian filmmaker Anu Radha. Whose films generally deal with Children’s issues.
As the horrors of the Holocaust and WWII unfolded in Europe, General Władysław Sikorski. The first Prime Minister of the Polish Government in Exile and Commander in Chief of the Polish armed forces, wrote to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to plead for the safety and protection of the starving young children, the “treasure of Poland,” as he called them.
Campaign against Jewish Refugees
India was in the midst of an independence struggle against British rule. The “Jam Sahib”, as Maharaja Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja of Nawanagar was affectionately called, stepped in to help in the dire situation.
The Polish consulate in Bombay at the time launched a drive to raise awareness in India about Jewish refugees and had been arranging for their travel to India during the Holocaust.
A group of about 1,000 Polish children departed for India in 1942 from Siberia, where, lost and orphaned in the midst of death and destruction caused by WWII. They had been shifted after the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland. The children welcomed by their benefactor, the Jam Sahib, but only after a tortuous journey.
Ships carrying Polish refugees
The ships carrying Polish refugees from the former Soviet Union, including a large number of children aged two through 17, denied entry when they called on ports while sailing through Iran to Bombay. Then under British colonial rule, when the Maharaja, who was a member of the Imperial War Council, was made aware of the plight of the children in the gulags. Maharaja became concerned and established a camp in Balachadi, about 25 km (15 miles) from the capital city Jamnagar, for the Polish arrivals.
The camp existed until early 1946; subsequently, the children transferred to the Valivade camp in Kolhapur.
Indo-Polish collaboration Film
“Little Poland in India” is the joint Indo-Polish collaboration, and the first documentary film based on the lives of WWII survivors. The protection given in India by the Jam Sahib. The film was jointly produced by Doordashan. The Government of Gujarat and the National Audio Visual Institute and Polish TV.
While the Red Cross, the Polish Army in exile and the colonial administration jointly helped set up the camps. It was the Maharaja who played the crucial role in the children’s welfare.
Former Polish ambassador to India Professor Piotr Klodkowski, has gone on record as saying, “A fairly large school established for the children at Balachadi, and the Maharaja is well remembered.”
Father of Many
Indeed, according to Polish sources, the Maharaja told the children, “You may not have your parents, but I am your father now”. The children, in turn, called him “our Bapu”.
Poland has shown its gratitude to the Maharaja in various forms. Warsaw has a “Good Maharaja Square” named after the Maharaja. Poland had also named a school after the Maharaja, who was passionate about children’s education. The Maharajah was awarded the President’s Medal, Poland’s highest honor.
The Maharaja’s help is all the more noteworthy. Considering that while the world was at war, India was fighting its own battle. A non-violent battle for self-determination and independence from British colonialism.
“Little Poland in India” appeals to the heart and head. In an interview in New York, Radha explained how she became interested in the subject for her film.
“I was having a conversation a few years back with then-Indian ambassador to Poland. Monika Kapil Mohta, who asked me, ‘Why don’t you do this interesting story about an Indian Maharaja protecting Polish children?’” said Radha.
Researching the subject
Seized by the idea, Radha began researching the subject.
“The doors to the palace were opened by Jam Sahib’s son… this was a rare opportunity which has never granted to an outsider before,” she noted.
Radha reveals that she is making a commercial film about the second camp in Valivade in the state of Maharashtra.
“There were Polish refugee children in Valivade from 1943 to 1948. They moved away thereafter with the help of the International Red Cross. The Polish Red Cross which could successfully locate their relatives across the world, including in Poland. Depending on where they had relatives, some of the children left for the UK, others returned to Poland,” she explained.
Poles in India
Those who returned to Poland even formed an association called “Poles in India”. Both the Jews and Catholics, housed in the camps, became very attached to India. Often reminisce in their sunset years in other countries about that crucial phase of their lives there.
‘You may not have your parents, but I am your father now’