No Way Back - Poland s WWII Indian odyssey 06.05.2011 08:00 Hollywood epic The Way Back, currently showing in Polish cinemas and based on best-selling book TheMessage 1 of 1 , May 7, 2011View Source
No Way Back - Poland's WWII Indian odyssey06.05.2011 08:00
Hollywood epic The Way Back, currently showing in Polish cinemas and based on best-selling book The Long Walk by the late Slawomir Rawicz, has reignited the debate about whether a small group of gulag escapees crossed the Himalayas to freedom during World War II.
Yet regardless of whether Rawicz or fellow veteran Witold Glinski undertook the odyssey - the latter claims that Rawicz stole his story – as many as 5000 Poles did find freedom in India, reports Nick Hodge.
Their legacy remains little known, passing almost unnoticed during recent media coverage of the movie.
We spoke to several survivors, whose wartime experiences took in the snows of Siberia, evacuation through Tehran and salvation in India as the sun set on the British Empire.
A World Apart
Teresa Glazer, (nee Kurowska), the young daughter of an army officer, was one of hundreds of thousands of Poles arrested with their families after the Red Army extended its grip over Eastern Poland in 1939.Poles at Valivade temple; photos - Association of Poles in India
Densely packed cattle wagons whisked prisoners to far-flung corners of the Soviet Union – Siberia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan - where deportees were set to work, be it felling trees in forests, laying rail tracks or digging in state-run mines.
“There was little hope beyond survival until the next day,” says Glazer, who found herself in a remote labour settlement in the midst of the Siberian forest. Her grandmother soon perished.
However, in the late summer of 1941, tales began to circulate. There was talk of an amnesty, of liberation, and of a free Polish government in London.
Stalin had indeed been compelled to sign an amnesty with Poland, after Hitler broke his own pact with Moscow, streaking into Soviet-occupied territory in June 1941.
Russia agreed to a Polish army being raised on Soviet soil. General Wladyslaw Anders, himself emerging from a Moscow prison cell, was appointed Commander-in-Chief by the Polish government in London.
Anders quickly began pushing for full evacuation from Soviet territory, including men, women and children.
“The prospect of being able to get out of this god-forsaken land brightened the spirits of even those on the brink of death,” Glazer recounts.
However, news of the amnesty had not been communicated to many labour settlements. Even when it had, Poles invariably had to make their own escape.
Over 100,000 would make it out with Anders. Many more would never leave the Soviet Union.
By land and water
Teresa Glazer's family set off on a raft that they had bound together. But the going was treacherous, and the craft soon had to be abandoned.
The family returned to work on another collective farm until an alternative means of escape emerged.
Eventually, thanks to a Polish Jewish deportee who had managed to engage in some commerce between the labour settlements, a new plan was hatched.
Teresa, then eight years old, was sent on in advance with the go-between, until her family was able to catch up. She boarded a passenger boat, a few coins hidden in a pouch concealed under her jumper.
The entire family was later reunited at Yangiyul, an official Polish evacuation point hundreds of miles away in Uzbekistan.
Thousands of other Poles were not so fortunate. Many collapsed of exhaustion or illness before making it to the evacuation camps. Others, little more than skin and bones, perished shortly after arrival.
Teresa's family joined the last transport of civilians being taken by trucks to Persia under the auspices of the Polish-government-in-exile. The destination was Tehran.
“We owe our lives to General Anders,” says Glazer. “He had argued that the Army would fight better if the soldiers knew that their families were safe.”
Teresa's father had himself joined the ranks. Now, many women and children were offered the chance of respite from the storm, either in Africa or India, where the British Viceroy had given the go ahead. Teresa's mother chose the latter.
After a short stay in Tehran, they were taken by boat to temporary camps near Karachi.
With the Maharajas
The British, working with the Polish-government-in-exile, saw to it that a principal refugee camp was raised at Valivade, Kolhapur, one of the 568 princely states that were nominally independent of British imperial India (in reality, the princes had to kowtow to the so-called British Resident in each realm).
A second camp, solely for orphans, was in Balachadi, a village in the domain of the Maharaja of Nawanagar, himself a great friend of Poland and an instrumental figure in setting the entire Indian relief action in motion.
Teresa, together with her mother and younger brother Andrzej, settled in Valivade.
“Even though the walls were built with matting, and there was no electricity or running water, this at last felt like home,” she says.
Families were provided with an allowance via the Polish government-in-exile. Children studied and adults worked, although the latter were now more than happy to do so.
"Common war experiences did away with pre-war class distinctions and 5000 inhabitants lived harmoniously – officers’ wives next to privates’ ones or peasant women,” Glazer recalls.
“The camp adopted the character of a small Polish town, with a church, schools, common rooms, a cinema, a cafe with Mr Szaustek's delicious cakes, and a market where our mothers could buy local produce, which they tried to adapt to Polish recipes.”
For the children, there was music, sport, and above all scouting camps for recreation and excitement.
“Scouting fulfilled our lives and provided adventure, as well as a moral code of behaviour,” Glazer reflects.
However, the Poland that the young scouts hoped for was destined to remain in exile.
No Way Back
With first hand experience of the Soviet system, the majority of the refugees were reluctant to return to Poland when news emerged that the Red Army had overrun Poland in 1945.
A further bitter blow was Britain and America's withdrawal of recognition of the Polish-government-in-exile. Stalin signed a pledge to leave Poland to hold “free and unfettered elections”, a notion that was no more than pie in the sky.
International relief agency UNRAA took on the funding of the Polish camps, but India itself was in the throes of upheaval, with the British now on the way out.
The camps were finally closed in 1948.
Teresa Glazer, mirroring the path of so many of Anders' soldiers, was given asylum in the United Kingdom, where she remains until today, as a retired history teacher.
Given that the deportations were a taboo subject in communist Poland, the Indian legacy remains little known in her homeland.
However, change is afoot. Krzysztof Iwanek of the Poland-Asia Research Center is leading a campaign to honour the late Maharaja of Nawanagar, who was so central in getting the relief effort off the ground.
“As Poles, it is our long overdue duty to honour the maharaja,” he says.“The story of the refugees must be preserved for future generations.'' (pg)
Teresa Glazer is the co-editor of a collective memoir on Poland's wartime ties with India. The English edition was published in 2009: Poles in India 1942-48, based on archive documents and personal reminiscences (London).
**Update, Saturday May 7th: This article is dedicated to Jan K. Siedlecki, founder of the Association of Poles in India. We are very sorry to report that Mr Siedlecki, a retired architect, passed away yesterday in the UK, where he had lived since 1948. We would like to express our condolescences to his family and friends.**