How a Maharaja from Gujarat housed 1,000 Polish child refugees during World War II


In 1941, as Europe was fraught in an ugly World War, an Indian king showed compassion to Polish child refugees. Between 1941-42, 1,000 Polish children were deported from Poland to Siberia. These children, mostly orphans, travelled to India from Siberia, where Maharaja Jam Saheb Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji of erstwhile Nawanagar (Gujarat), provided shelter to them near his capital Jamnagar.

A group of Polish children pose with Raja Jam Saheb in Balachadi, Gujarat, in 1945.

An exhibition titled, Passage to India: The Wartime Odyssey of Polish Children and the Good Maharaja will trail this touching tale of humanism during the World War II. The event will put on display at the UN next week.

In February 1940, Joseph Stalin initiated mass deportations of Poles to Siberia. World War II was taking over Europe and the Soviet Union, and Poland found itself in the claws of not one, but two occupiers: Stalin and Hitler. The Nazis were already carrying out methodical killing in Poland’s German-occupied territories.

From Tehran, large ships transported refugees to Africa, India, Mexico and other locales.

In Poland’s Soviet-occupied regions, large masses, that included several villages, were packed off in boxed cars with no supply of food and water. They were deported to Siberia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia Gulags.

In 1941, as Germany gained stronger foothold, the Soviet Union changed tactics, and joined the Allies. Britian, a part of the Allied group, decided to release the Poles, and transport them to India, which was a British colony then. Gradually, batches of sick and undernourished Polish children arrived in convoys.

Jam Saheb was informed about the situation of Polish refugees by pianist Ignacy Jan Padrewski, the head of Polish government in exile in London.

The Indian National Congress was not very pleased that Britain had drawn India into the war conflict. Nonetheless, several Indian rajas of the princely states came forward to play host to the refugees. Jam Saheb Digvijaysinghji, who ruled Nawanagar, and was a member of the Imperial War Council, was informed about the situation by Ignacy Jan Padrewski, the head of Polish government in exile in London.

Travelling for a month, the children arrived in India via Persia in April, 1942, and were housed temporarily in Mumbai’s Bandra area. The little refugees gained their health in their 3-month-long stay in Bandra, and picked up basic English language skill, enough to carry simple conversations. Shortly after, they arrived in Nawanagar village of Balachadi and found themselves in roomy barracks.

A group of Polish boys in Bandra in Mumbai, Maharashtra, in 1942.

Anuradha Bhattacharjee, a scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia University, says, “India, though not sovereign at the time and not at all prosperous, became the first country in the world to accept and offer war-duration at her own cost to the hapless Polish population,” she said.

Balachadi was one among the several places that housed World War II refugees. The British government brought in hundreds of thousands of displaced people from across the world: Jews from Central Europe. But some Maltese, Balkan and Anglo-Burmese refugees stayed for considerably longer periods of time in camps near Bharatpur, Coimbatore and Nainital.

Polish children perform their national dance in Balachadi, Gujarat.

India has been able to uphold with age-old philosophy of welcoming distressed refugees from various parts of the world, notwithstanding its own teeming population. May be European nations, which are better equipped, learn a lesson on being a generous host from India.



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