A good king of Gujarat
World War 2 turned lakhs of Polish children into orphans. Between 1942 and 1946, a thousand of them were given shelter by the Nawanagar maharaja. On the 100th year of Poland’s independence, many of them returned to relive their childhood years in Gujarat.Updated: Oct 17, 2018 17:13 IST
It is mid-afternoon in Jamnagar and a bus is taking a round of one of its squares. The archway of a once-magnificent fort is in sight. Beside it, shops selling juice, spices and visiting cards, inhale and exhale customers from and onto the street. Roman Gutowski, 83, a retired Polish civil engineer, pulls back the grey curtain on one of the bus windows, and peers out. Naturally, the Jamnagar he sees 71 years after he left it is not what he remembers of the place. His son, Tomek, a businessman, who has brought along the third-generation Gutowski, his son Maciej, is shooting with his camera to ensure that this time he does.
Photographs cannot stand on their own without memories. “I know about Jamnagar and Balachadi from my father’s stories,” says Tomek. “Maciej must see where his grandfather comes from. Had I just shown him pictures….”
Roman Gutowski grew up alongside almost a thousand Polish children in a camp at Balachadi, 25 km off Jamnagar – the capital of the erstwhile princely state of Nawanagar in present-day Gujarat – in the British India of the ’40s. These were children of mainly Polish soldiers and they were trying to somehow survive the horrors of World War II.
The German occupation of Poland (September 1, 1939) led to the eventual extermination of six million Polish citizens. Lists were drawn up of teachers, clergymen, the intelligentsia and army officers for public execution; more than two million Jews died in concentration camps.
The psychological impact of the Russian invasion (September 17) was only slightly less devastating. Polish soldiers were drafted into the Soviet army by force; families were compelled to join re-education camps; children separated from their mothers.
Gutowski’s father was forced to soldier for Soviet Union; his mother and sisters were sent to Uzbekistan and he was growing up in an orphanage there when he was selected without his family’s knowledge and transported to India around the time when efforts were being made by the Polish government-in-exile to evacuate some of the families from the USSR.
The first concrete offer to rehabilitate these children came from the Maharaja of Nawanagar, Jam Saheb Digvijaysinhji Ranjisinhji Jadeja. Between 1942 and 1947, these children lived under the Jam Saheb’s protection and were maintained by his private purse in a camp close to his summer palace on a Balachadi cliff. The children’s plight had moved the 46-year-old king especially because he was interested in Polish culture due to the warm ties he had with Ignacy Padrewski, a Polish pianist and diplomat whom he had met in Switzerland.
Eight of the 1,000 Polish children – now mostly in their 80s – he housed are in Jamnagar en route to Balachadi to commemorate the 100th year of their country’s independence in this corner of India where they once flew their flag even as they had lost their nation, practised their religion and grew into their culture.
Other than when they were with their parents, Balachadi is the one place where these children from war-torn Poland were able to have a childhood. It was here that seven-year-old Roman Gutowski first saw an elephant; where Wieslaw Stypula, 15, held up a cornet; where 10-year-old Josephine Nowicka Salva learnt to sing in Gujrati; where Zbigniew Bartosz, aged 8, learnt how to be popular.
“The Maharaja visited our camp with his pockets full of toffees, which I was entrusted to distribute…. I have never had so many friends,” recalls Bartosz, now 74.
The Polish children met the Jam Saheb’s children during festival days. Says Hershad Kumari, the Jam Saheb’s eldest daughter: “We would meet them when we went to spend our summers in Balachadi from Jamnagar. They would also come over during my father’s and brother’s birthdays. When they arrived in Balachadi they were in bad shape due to malnutrition, disease, the arduous travel, but they slowly recovered.”
The Jam Saheb told the children he was the father of the people of Nawanagar, so he was also their father. The children called him ‘Bapu’. On the days they were feeling cheeky, they called him ‘the Big Jam’ – but never, of course, to his face.
Wargames, power games
Polish children such as Gutowski, Stypula and Salva made their way from the USSR to Balachadi as World War II raged in Europe. Polish leaders who had set up a government-in- exile in London began to persuade the Winston Churchill government to convince the Soviets to release the families of Polish soldiers and evacuate them to safer areas. [After Nazi Germany’s attack on the USSR in 1941, it joined the Allies.]
India, then a British colony, was suggested as a possible destination. But it was easier said than done. The evacuation of children of Polish soldiers forced to serve the Soviet Union would mean for the Soviets, a PR failure. Their children, once free, would carry tales of suffering and hardship. For the British government, it would be a huge financial inconvenience. They would have been happy to welcome a Polish army but not a Polish population, suggests the book, Poles in India 1942-1948, based on archival documents.
The book also quotes an extract of a letter from the British Minister of State in Cairo to his Foreign Office in London in 1942: “…. Action must be taken to stop these people from leaving the USSR before we are ready to receive them (and then only at the rate we are able to receive and ship them away from the head of the Persian Gulf) however many die in consequence.”
A camp goes up in Balachadi
It was at around this time the Jam Saheb stepped in with his offer. With his friends in other princely states, he raised Rs 6,00,000 between 1942 and 1945 to build the Balachadi camp. The camp had more than 60 buildings, including a chapel, laundry rooms, a stage to hold Polish cultural programmes, a community centre to hold Saturday evening dances for growing adults, plus sports grounds.
As the head of a princely state in British India, he had a measure of autonomy and he was going to use it. “The Jam Saheb’s offer for the kids was good for everybody. Jamnagar was far from any political centre,” says Polish ambassador to India Adam Burakowski on the sidelines of the event ‘Generation to Generations’ on September 30, co-organised by the Polish embassy in Jamnagar. “The British government wanted to avoid any political colouring to be given to this event and to be used for any propaganda.” It would embarrass the British no end if the Polish, in their quest for independence, should agit-prop with Indians in British India.
Andrzej Chendynski, 82, president, Association of Poles in India, who went to the Valivade camp [in the former kingdom of Kolhapur (now in Maharashtra) neighbouring Nawanagar] from Balachadi, said the Polish children would try not to be too constrained by their circumstances. “We would join the sloganeering and shout with the Indians when we could -- ‘English, go home!’,” he recalls with a laugh. The Balachadi camp folded up close to India’s Independence in 1946. The Valivade camp was run from 1943 to 1948.
Chendynski’s story is one of the two key strands of filmmaker Anu Radha’s next movie. “The Balachadi and Valivade survivors are like family to me,” she says. Radha is the executive producer and co-director of the 2013 film, ‘Little Poland in India’, based on the testimonies of many of the Balachadi children who talked of the magnanimity of the Maharaja, the king of a small state, when even governments – the US, Canada and some in South America – had rejected pleas for their rehabilitation.
Wieslaw Stypula, 88, a former engineer, one of the most active of the Jamsaheb’s Polish ‘children’, has, since the ’70s, gone to town with the story of “the good Maharaja”. He has been one of the main backers behind naming a high school - High School Bednarska Jam Saheb - in Warsaw in 1998 after the former royal. In keeping with the spirit of its patron, the school funds the education of a few refugee kids each term. Ambassador Burakowski, in fact, was also a student of this school.
More than 70 years later, the memory of the Jam Saheb is what has drawn people over 80 from across the world to interrupt their retired lives and catch a plane to Jamnagar. For the last evening in Balachadi, Jerzy Tomaszek, a former civil engineer is dressed up in suit and tie to happily pose before the shutterbugs. He and his wife Jadwiga talk of meeting one another when they were children in Balachadi.
“We were young and stupid in Balachadi,” say the 90-year-olds, not the most romantic think to say. Prodding doesn’t make them say it better.
On that same night, Josephine Salva, the 86-year-old former nurse, is a vision in white. Jo was one of the children of the first batch who came to Balachadi from the Soviet Union. Dressed in a white peasant blouse and skirt with a black scarf tied in a knot around her head, her lips moved all evening, singing that one song, to no one in particular.
Jai jai maharaja… is how it goes. It was probably what Jo sang on special occasions when the Jam Saheb came visiting; the next few lines of the song are not easy to understand - for me.
“That’s because she is singing in Gujarati. It’s the song mom never stops singing at home ,” says her daughter, Imogene, a teacher in Denver, USA, who has accompanied her. “Mom’s mind wanders but I think she has actually never left Balachadi.”
One week after her visit, Jo died. Things one remembers: the sun dazzled her eyes but she wouldn’t stop looking out of the bus window. The windmills, the car parks, to the lone tree standing in the middle of a stubble field in and around Jamnagar and en route to Balachadi – for all, Jo had this to say in a low, thrilled voice: “Isn’t it just gorgeous?” Saying no was not an option. You had to see out of her window. You had to surrender to what she was seeing in Balachadi.