Teresa Ewa Labus was all of four when her family was deported from war ravaged Poland to Russia. “It wiped out all we had. India gave me the first happy childhood memories I can remember,” reminiscences the grand old lady who wound up as a refugee with thousands of her fellow Poles in Kolhapur and Jamnagar between 1942 and 1946. She was fortunate. Like Jews, Gypsies and others, Poles too were despatched to concentration camps after Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and stomped across Europe unleashing World War II.
Eighty years after the outbreak of this devastating war, thousands of persecuted Polish refugees managed to make their way by land and sea to India and settle in Jamnagar in Gujarat and Valivade village, a half hour drive from Kolhapur, which became their home away from home.
Their stories of hope and courage have been told in books and two documentary films. The Maharaja's role has been immortalised in an Indo-Polish co-production film, ‘A Little Poland In India’ (2013) directed by Anu Radha and Sumit Osmand Shaw. Anjali Bhushan's film ‘My Home India’ pays homage to Kira Banasinska, the wife of Eugene Banasinski, the Polish physicist turned Consul General at the time, who galvanised war relief camps and shelters across India, starting with the Red Cross Hospital on Charni Road.
It was through Kira's efforts that the first group of around 1,000 children, fleeing the Nazis and the Soviet Gulag in Siberia (where their parents perished) arrived in Jamnagar in 1942. The then ruler of Jamnagar, Jam Saheb Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja (1895-1966) housed them in transit camps at Balachadi, near his summer palace situated 25 km on the outskirts of Jamnagar. Besides the Polish camp at Balachadi, around 5,000 Poles were sheltered in Valivade, which became the single largest Polish settlement in India.
“It was a home away from home which I will never forget,” says Wanda Kuras who was an infant at the time and now lives in England. When they left India in 1946, most of the Poles migrated to the US, UK and Australia. Only a small percentage returned to Poland which continued to be occupied by the Nazis till the early Fifties when Europe was bifurcated into two blocs.
“Soviet Russia had already decided on ethnic cleansing by mass deportations of Polish citizens to the remote areas of the USSR. There were four deportations, the first one in February 1940. People were loaded into cattle trucks for a long railway journey into exile. The Russian army did not leave Poland till 1990,” Kuras told this writer who has been privileged to meet the refugee-survivors several times.
Many Poles, now in their eighties and nineties, have been returning to Valivade and Jamnagar every year on nostalgia laden trips. On September 14 this year, Mrs Kuras, Mrs Labus and a dozen other former WW2 refugees and their families attended the 80th anniversary of their residency at Valiwade where a commemorative pillar was unveiled by Poland's Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz, in the presence of Poland's Ambassador to India Adam Burakowski, Polish President of Poles in India Andrzej Chendynski, Maharashtra's Guardian Minister for Kolhapur Chandrakant Patil and Rajya Sabha MP Sambhajiraje Chhatrapati, from the Kolhapur royal family and the 13th direct descendent of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.
The Poles have shown their gratitude in several ways. In 2011, the Polish Government posthumously conferred the ‘Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Polish Republic’ on Jam Saheb Digvijaysinhji R. Jadeja after whom six schools have been named in Warsaw.
A public square was dedicated there to ‘The Good Maharaja -- Jam Digvijaysinhji’ with a statue erected in his memory in 2013. The grateful Poles also installed an obelisk at the Mahavir Garden Park in Kolhapur. This writer has met several of the Polish survivors in Mumbai over the years and most recently at the Films Division where Bhushan's poignant documentary ‘My Home India’ was screened. In Kolhapur on that rainy September day, one could see their gratitude was as palpable as their joy.
Danuta Stanislava Pniewska, aged 93, was overjoyed to meet D B Jadhav (88) and B S Shinde (87) with whom she used to play hockey at Valiwade as a child. Apart from the delegation comprising members of the Association of Poles in India co-founded by Colonel Anil Gaekwad, a second consisting of high-level corporate representatives held a conclave and decided to establish a Kolhapur Poland Business Forum. Some will also do their bit to support a museum being set up with the patronage of Sambhajiraje Chhatrapati.
Valivade resonates with history and continues to be called Little Poland. Housed in rough barracks with un-tiled floors, the Poles were given freedom to set up a modest community centre, schools, colleges, post office, cinema, fire brigade and even a cooperative, all of which were financed by the Polish government in exile.