During World War II, an Indian king set up a home away from home for Polish refugees and orphans: a Little Poland in India. His efforts saved the lives of more than 640 women and children.
The ravages of the Second World War left Poland a shadow of the country it once was. The nation was torn apart by destructive forces, its people held captive in concentration camps and countless of its children left orphans.
Overcoming grave obstacles and challenges, hundreds of Polish children (and women) managed to escape the dire circumstances in their country. Contradictory reports exist on how the kids planned their escape. However, it is known that they were turned away from every country they approached for help.
When their ship docked in Mumbai, the British governor too refused them entry. Maharaja Digvijay sinhji Ranjit sinhji Jadeja of Nawanagar, who had heard of the plight of the refugees, sought to help them and pressurized the British government to allow the refugees to disembark. Frustrated by the lack of empathy and the unwillingness of the government to act, the Maharaja ordered the ship to dock at Rosi port in his province. Thus began the story of Little Poland in India.
On disembarking, the Maharaja warmly welcomed the Polish women and children, saying “Do not consider yourself orphans. You are now Nawnagaris and I am Bapu, father of all the people of Nawanagar, so also yours.”
The children were set up in tented accommodations, while the Maharaja set about building the Balachadi camp, located near his summer palace and 25 km away from the capital city of Jamnagar. Facing severe objections from the British government for taking in foreign refugees, the Maharaja proudly claimed they were part of his family, even going so far as to provide the government with adoption certificates for them! “Our father politically adopted them,” the king’s daughter Harshad Kumari, told Outlook Magazine.
The Maharaja took many personal risks to ensure that more than 640 women and children found a safe haven in Balachadi. He didn’t just provide the Polish citizens with the bare necessities either, but went to great lengths to ensure that Balachadi became a home away from home for these people.
Mr Wieslaw Stypula, a Polish survivor, remembers the Maharaja’s concern for their eating habits, “When we arrived at the camp, the Maharaja gave a party but he did not know what we children liked to eat… Despite being hungry, we didn’t like to eat at all. Bapu saw this and said ‘Don’t worry, I will fix this.’ He brought seven young cooks for us from Goa!”
Recalls another survivor, Mrs Jadwiga Tomaszek, “We never liked the spinach that was cooked in the camp and so we decided to have a spinach strike. When Bapu heard of this, he immediately ordered the cooks not to make spinach anymore.”
Mr Jerzy Tomaszek, a member of the ‘Survivors of Balachadi’ (as they fondly refer to themselves) says, “I met Jadwiga (his wife) in Balachadi camp. I loved her since the age of 15 but married her at the age of 78. We perhaps need to thank Maharaja Jam Saheb for our meeting.”
Mr Jan Bielecki, yet another ‘Survivor of Balachadi, remarked:
“If not for the Maharaja, we would have been in trouble…. I still do not understand that in spite of being a true patriotic Polish, one part of my soul still misses India and thus does not make me fully comfortable in Poland, as I feel that India is still my home too.”
Their fond memories of the camp and the Maharaja are evidence that the four years they spent under his care were life-changing and memorable.
When asked about his decision to house the Polish kids, the Maharaja is believed to have told Polska, a weekly Polish magazine:
“Maybe there, in the beautiful hills beside the seashore, the children will be able to recover their health and to forget the ordeal they went through…. I sympathise with the Polish nation and its relentless struggle against oppression.”
The Maharaja’s gesture went on to inspire many others to open their hearts and homes to the innocent victims of war, not just in India but across the world. His act of generosity is clearly still remembered in Poland, where he was posthumously award the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit by the President. Poland has also named the Maharaja the Honorary Patron of the popular Warsaw Bednarska High School. In 2013, the Government of Poland inaugurated the ‘Good Maharaja Square’ in Warsaw.
The Maharaja’s actions are more noteworthy still given that while the world was at war, India was fighting an important battle of its own – one of self determination, against the backdrop of severe famine and drought.
As historian Anuradha Bhattacharya once remarked “There is no denying that Jam Saheb’s generosity is unparalleled. It was the cornerstone for other Polish people to get sanctuary in India. That they found refuge here also, speaks volumes about the national movement, which was not xenophobic, and about the Indian people who showed no antagonism to the presence of the Polish children in a year of severe drought and famine.”