Photo Courtesy: Sainik School, Jamnagar
Saviour and the saved Jam Saheb Digvijaysinhji in Balachadi with Polish
child actors of the play Cinderella. Also seen is Fr Pluta (in uniform), the
commandant of the camp.
Little Warsaw Of Kathiawar
A grateful Poland recalls the ruler of Nawanagar's kindness towards its WWII
Also In This Story
> Balachadians To Their
Nawanagar saved their lives. The Poles show they have not forgotten.
"When others were killing our children, you were able to save them."
Emotional statements are not the stuff of formal interactions between high
dignitaries, but this is precisely what Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk
said to President Pratibha Patil during his visit to India in September this
year. It was a clear indication that nearly 70 years on, the heartwarming
story of hundreds of Polish children who found sanctuary in the princely
state of Nawanagar in the Kathiawar region of present-day Gujarat during
World War II is still remembered with gratitude in their homeland.
The celebrated 'Kindertransport' project, in which the UK rescued thousands
of children from Nazi Germany and occupied Europe in 1938, finds an echo in
the noble decision by Digvijaysinhji, the maharaja, or 'Jam Saheb', of
Nawanagar to take in Polish children from war-torn, occupied Poland and
Soviet prison camps. The Jam Saheb took personal risks to make the
arrangements at a time when the world was at war, and when the exhausted
refugees were denied entry at all ports. Digvijaysinhji, son of the
legendary cricketer-prince Ranjitsinhji, built a camp for them in a place
called Balachadi beside his summer palace, 25 km from his capital, Jamnagar,
and made them feel at home. The Jam Saheb's gesture is said to have paved
the way for thousands of Polish refugees to be received in other parts of
the world, including some other places in India.
Roman Gutowski, a Balachadi boy, in front of the Maharaja Jam Saheb School,
Warsaw, in 2004. (Photograph by Anuradha Bhattacharya)
Nearly 68 years after the children arrived in Jamnagar and 64 years after
their repatriation, there is renewed interest in the story in Poland,
possibly triggered by a desire to ensure that this valued slice of memory
passes on to a younger generation of Poles. As part of this commemorative
effort, a square or an important street in Warsaw is likely to be named
after the Jam Saheb. (A prestigious higher secondary school in the Polish
capital has been named after him.)
Plans are afoot to honour this "Indian Schindler" with a posthumous award,
and make a feature film on the subject. Meanwhile, Indian historian Anuradha
Bhattacharya's book on this humane encounter will be released in 2011.
Prof Piotr Klodkowski, Poland's ambassador to India, told Outlook that
distant though the historical event is, it still stirs emotions in Poland.
"This is a true and captivating story for the 'aam admi' in both India and
Poland. It is a story hidden like a precious stone in history. We are not
satisfied with the common man's knowledge of this story and intend to
popularise it and retell it in various forms," he said.
Commenting on the significance of retelling the story, M. Krzysztof Byrski,
Indologist and former Polish ambassador to India, said: "Each event in the
history of our relations that exemplifies disinterested generosity should be
remembered. After the nightmare of their morbid experience in the limitless,
frosty wastes of Siberia, these children found a safe haven in India, which
for them appeared like heaven."
Polish children at Balachadi celebrate the St Nicholas day festival with a
traditional dance. (Photo Courtesy: Sainik School, Jamnagar)
So, what is the story? A warning before we dive into it: there is more than
one version. Due to the loss or destruction of archival material in
Jamnagar, it has largely been corroborated from material available in London
and through the narratives of aged survivors. Inevitably, these contain
discrepancies about how the decision was taken to allow the children on
Indian soil; how the project was funded and what route (land or sea) the
kids took to reach the shores of Nawanagar. The reconstruction one hears in
Jamnagar has the benign flavour of mythology. It is a heroic tale, lacking
in complications, and resting on one man's generosity, courage and 'word of
honour'; by contrast, the historian's version is far more intricately woven.
However, in both versions, the Jam Saheb comes through as the moving spirit
behind the mission.
When Delhi objected to him sheltering the Poles, Jam Saheb produced an
adoption certificate, saying they were family.
The Jam Saheb's children Harshad Kumari and Shatrushalyasinhji say, on the
basis of conversations with their father, that there were nearly 600
children and 40 women at the camp; and that all of them came directly from
Poland, after the Wehrmacht attacked it. Hiding from the invaders, they were
rescued and put on small ships that travelled from port to port-in Scotland,
Ireland, Africa-but were barred from entering. Finally, they arrived in
Bombay, where the British governor also refused entry (saying he did not
have permission from the home office in London, and that they came from
enemy territory). Enter the Jam Saheb, then an Indian representative on the
imperial war cabinet in London chaired by Winston Churchill. Hearing of the
children's plight from the Polish prime minister-in-exile, he flew
immediately to Bombay. He first went to the ships, saw the dreadful
condition of the kids, spoke to the captains and went to meet the governor.
"Our father tried to convince him, but when he failed, he was so frustrated,
he went back to the ships and asked them to move to Nawanagar's Rosi port.
He took them all off and put them in tented accommodation for a few months
before the Balachadi camp came up," the siblings recall.
Another extraordinary detail recounted by the siblings is that when the
viceregal office in Delhi objected to him taking in foreigners, he said they
were part of his family, and even produced an adoption certificate. "Our
father politically adopted them," says Harshad Kumari, adding that he
bankrolled the project from his personal funds.
Harshad Kumari, now in her 70s, but aged six when the children arrived,
remembers being at parties with them: "They came to our Christmas parties
and mingled with 45 of us cousins. A huge shamiana was put up in an open
area. Once they came for my Bapu's birthday and once for my brother's
birthday." She also remembers attending a festival at the camp, with the
kids dancing and singing in full skirts and dark velveteen shorts: "They
made a costume each for my brother and myself. Mine is still lying somewhere
in my trunks."
Harshad Kumari, daughter of the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar. (Photographer by
The narrative of events pieced together by Bhattacharya, and the
more-or-less matching version provided by Wieslaw Stypula, a 'Balachadian'
who wrote about his stay in a commemorative volume, Poles in India
1942-1948, differs in significant ways from the siblings' account. While
corroborating the fact that the princely state of Nawanagar was the first to
offer sanctuary to the children, the historian says they were evacuated out
of the Soviet Union (they were Polish refugees deported to the USSR and
interned in camps after their country was invaded by the Red Army in
1939)-first by road-in 1942 and, according to archival documents, maintained
out of charitable funds raised in India (Rs 6,00,000 between 1942-48),
subscribed to by several Indian princes.
Stypula, in his account, says: "After the Maharaja's offer...a Polish
Children's Fund was opened with a Rs 50,000 grant from the viceroy of India,
and Rs 8,500 collected by the Polish Red Cross." He narrates a moving tale
about the condition of the children who reached Ashkabad, Turkmenistan, the
assembly point for them in the then Soviet Union: "A seven-year-old boy,
after the death of his parents from typhus, was left with his 18-year-old
sister-alone on the Uzbek farm. When news reached him that evacuations were
being organised somewhere in town, the boy set out on a dozen-kilometre
journey to Samarkand, with his sister on his back...."
The family's account differs from that of historians. But they agree on one
point: the Jam Saheb's generosity.
Discrepancies in the narratives, Bhattacharya says, may be explained by the
fact that many batches of children and refugees arrived in India, including
a batch of 200 Polish children who arrived by ship and a Jewish group that
came to Bombay after being denied permission to land at various ports. The
historian suggests there might be a "memory overlap" between the stories of
the various batches landing up in Balachadi, and regrets the lack of
conclusive palace documents. "However," she says, "there is no denying that
the 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,
Bhattacharya says, "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."
In an interview in the November 25, 1942, issue of Polska, a weekly Polish
magazine, the Jam Saheb spoke of his decision to welcome the Polish kids:
"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
The Jam Saheb's extraordinary dedication to the cause of the Polish children
is evident from Stypula's account of their departure, after a United
Nations-assisted repatriation began in 1946: "Farewell-good man from the
good land. 'Polish' Maharajah Jam Saheb. Your tears and your voice trembling
with deep emotion, when you spoke to us for the last time at the station in
Jamnagar, said it all." It is only right that Poland today wants posterity
to remember him.
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]