As the world watches in despair at another meaningless war, amidst the dark and dismal narratives, it is the stories of hope and resilience that resonate the loudest. And unknown or forgotten connections are remembered anew.
For many of us, Ukraine was just another name on the map, and we imagined that it was far away geographically and personally. Until we read about the many many Indians who have been living, studying and working there. It got even closer with the media in Gujarat full of stories not only of the Gujarati students who were stranded there, but equally of the way other Gujaratis in neighbouring countries were offering overwhelming help and support to fellow countrymen in need. In Poland especially food and shelter is being given with open hearts and homes—helping to create a little India in a distant land.
This link with Poland goes back many years, back to another war—World War II, and a reverse flow of displaced people. One of the heart-warming stories is about how the Maharaja of Jamnagar created a Little Poland in Gujarat.
In 1939 Poland was invaded by both Germany and Russia. There were mass arrests, massacres, grabbing of land and businesses, and large-scale deportations. Over two million Polish civilians were sent to camps in Siberia, and thousands died, even before they got there. Hundreds of Polish children were left orphaned or abandoned. In 1941 there was an international amnesty that allowed the destitute refugees to leave the Soviet Union. They undertook arduous and long journeys to distant lands that were offering them refuge.
India was at the time, still under British rule and the British government was not keen on accepting refugees. In the face of severe opposition by the British, Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja or “Jam Saheb” as he was called, the Maharaja of Nawanagar, a princely state in Gujarat was the first to offer the orphaned children from Poland refuge. The 46 year old king had developed a special interest in Polish culture ever since his meeting with Ignacy Padrewski, a Polish pianist that he had met in Switzerland. He was moved by the plight of the Polish orphans. Despite the official British refusal to accept these refugees, as the head of a princely state the Maharaja had some level of autonomy. He was determined to use it and take in the homeless children.
In early 1942 the first group of 170 children who reached Bombay, and travelled on to Balachadi a small seashore town close to the maharaja’s capital Jamnagar. The maharaja welcomed them with the words “You are no longer orphans. From now on you are Nawanagarians and I am Bapu, father of all Nawanagarians, so I’m your father as well”.
Jam Saheb was true to his word. The children were initially put up in tented accommodation while the Balachadi camp was being built. The maharaja went to great lengths to ensure that Balachadi became a home away from home for these children who, at a young age, had experienced dislocation, loss of family and home, and the horrors of war. He built dormitories in which each child had a separate bed, and generously provided food, clothes and medical care. He converted the guest house of his Balachadi palace into a school, and even set up a special library with Polish books so that the children would not forget their mother tongue. He was concerned that they should not forget their own culture; he encouraged the children to put up shows including their songs and dances, and continued the country’s strong traditions of Scouts and the church. He encouraged children to play sports, and they were free to use his gardens, squash courts, and pool. He was concerned about their choice of food and would host special meals for the children. One of the children recalled, many years later, how the children did not like the way spinach was cooked and went on a ’spinach strike’. When the Jam Saheb heard about this he immediately ordered the cooks not to include spinach in the meals.
Between 1942 and 1946 over 600 Polish children found a home in Little Poland thanks to the maharaja. When the war ended and the orphans had to return to Europe, both the children and the maharaja were heart-broken. The unusual bond that was formed remained strong, and played a crucial role in giving stability and hope to children who had lost everything.
The Maharaja died in 1966. His Polish “children” had spread across the world in countries where they started new lives after the end of the war. 76 years later, as a testimony to the enduring bonds, and to mark 100 years of Poland’s independence, in 2018, six of these “children” (now in their nineties) returned to Balachadi. They walked down memory lane, remembering the Bapu who not only gave them a home, but also their childhood.
Jam Saheb is remembered not only by his children, but is also considered a hero by the country that honours his generosity. He was posthumously awarded the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit. A city square in the heart of Warsaw is named Skwer Dobrego Maharadzy (The Square of the Good Maharaja). When he was alive the Maharaja had been asked how the Polish people could thank him for his generosity and he had replied that they could name a school after him. One of the city’s foremost private schools is named the Maharaja Jam Saheb Digvijaysinhji High School. A fitting tribute indeed.
Today, as another war rages, Poland is welcoming thousands of displaced women and children. Perhaps some of them will find refuge in the Square of the Good Maharaja, and history would have come full circle.