By Madhusree Chatterjee
Circa 1939. Europe was in ferment. The Fuhrer’s armies were marching through middle Europe, plundering the heart of the ancient seats of European classical cultures and civilization ports with their dreams of a Nazi empire in the run-up to the World War II. Poland was a battle field — riven with intrigue, blood and devastated civilian life. Thousands of people of Jewish descent were killed, incarcerated or sent to concentration camps— and marooned on the streets. A group of young boys and girls aged between 9 and 13 found themselves on the streets as the most vulnerable victims and survivors of Hitler’s atrocities having lost their parents to the war.
Their families were torn apart and parents shipped to Russian labour camps. Poland came under two conflicting influences during the during the war — with the Nazi occupying one portion of it and the Russians the other during the second World War between 1939-1945 which began with the siege of Poland in 1939. Sapped, hungry and traumatized, these children stalked the streets looking for a safe shelter. The Polish government in exile— first based in France and then in London (1939-1940) led by Wladyslaw Silorski — moved the international humanitarian community for help — seeking a safe asylum for the children in a country untouched by wars. India was one of the country to which the Polish government appealed through the Red Cross. The former Maharaja of Nawanagar in the Kathiawar pensinsula in Gujarart , Jam Saheb Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja, responded to the appeal and allotted family land for an orphanage at Balachedi — and funds from the royal bourse for the care and education of 1,000 children. The children, who arrived in India after a harrowing journey by sea and road from Persia through Bombay – where they were lodged at a house in Bandra — and then reached Gujarat in the summer of 1939. They found a home at Balachedi, a barren hilly tract 25 km from the capital, for six years till 1946 after which they returned home at the end of World War.
Several other camps sprung up around this time in neighbouring Maharashtra at Valivade and Kohlapur in Maharashtra.
A 52-minute documentary, “A Little Poland in India” that premiered Nov 7 and telecast officially on Doordarshan, the country’s national television channel on Nov 10-11, recreated India’s connection with Polish children at Balachedi through survivor’s narratives in a unique people-to-people cultural diplomatic initiative between Indian and Polish media and governments. The documentary, directed by Anu Radha and Sumit Osmand Shaw, two independent media communicators and filmmakers — follows the life of the children in Poland and their childhood memories of Balachedi in Gujarat.
The movie is shot around survivor, Wieslaw Stypula, an octogenarian, who returned to India with the directors to recount his days at Balachedi and renew his ties. The directors use five other survivors as supporting framework to fill the gaps in Stypula’s story and convey a more tangible impression of life at the camp. A parallel plot in the movie revolves around the strange love story of two survivors —
Jadwiga Tomaszek amd Jerzy Tomaszek — who fell in love at the camp in 1939 and married in 2008 when 15-year Jadwiga was a 78-year-old singleton.
“This was a very happy period in my life. After I returned to Poland, I never forgot my adopted homeland. I began to collect souvenirs connected to my stay in India. I founded the club of the Nawanagar’s Polish children,” Wieslaw Stypula recalled in an interaction with the audience at the Doordrashan Kendra (television centre) in New Delhi.
“I was always generous with the material I collected and gave everybody access to process them. Everybody is welcome to make use of my memories and keep the connection alive. When I was in Poland, I had three wishes —I wanted to return to India. I returned tio Nawanagar 40 years after I left it. The second dream was that they should be a marking or a monument at the place where the orphanage existed on a hill. There was a sculpture of a mother and two children. The third dream was of our story of childhood in India should be made into a film. The movie ‘Little Poland in India’ gave shape to my dream,” Stypula said.
Memories keep the survivors alive as the crew of the movie shoots them in their homes — confined to their twilight comforts. “When we arrived at the camp from Bombay, the Maharaja, who said he was our Bapu (father), gave a party. But he did not know what he children liked to eat. The spicy Indian food — despite being hungry we couldn’t eat at all. Bapu saw this and said don’t worry. I will fix this and brought seven young cooks from Goa,” Stypula recounted.
Survivor Jerzy Tomaszek recalled the “diverse” activity like swimming and football matches at the camp that kept the children busy after school work. “For scouting was like a dream come true. It was my dream to be a boy scout in Poland before the war, but I couldn’t because I was very weak and in poor health conditions. But strangely, I recovered in Kazakhstan and in Balachedi. In Balachedi, I was healthy enough to involve myself in scouting,” Tomaszek said.
One of the red letter “events” at the camp was the “Spinach Strike”, said Jadwiga Tomaszek, who married friend Jerzy after nearly six decades of courtship. After being served spinach for meals for two weeks, the children refused to eat. One of the boys sat with his back to the door — and received the plates passed in relay and threw the entire cooked meal of spinach out. “When Bapu heard of this, he immediately ordered the cooks not to make spinach anymore,” Jadwiga said.
Zbigniew Bartosz loved to feed the parrots and doves. “So many of them, I would feed them and sometime we would have the lip-ti-lip feeding of the jugada. I would also feed the small squirrels with milk from a dropper,” Bartosz recalled.
“If not for the Maharaja, we would have been in trouble,” survivor Jan Blelecki told the crew of the movie before passing away three days later during the shooting.
The former Maharaja looked after the children like his on subjects— the “Nawanagaris” but saw to it that they retained their cultural sensitivities. For 365 days a year, the flag of Poland was hoisted at the camp and during Christmas, the children dressed in Polish traditional clothes. They spoke the Polish language.
The survivors who returned home after the war were lucky. They found new life in Communist Poland, jobs and balanced outlooks combining the philosophies of the east and the west. “I still do not understand that inspite of being a true patriotic Polish, one part of the soul still misses India and thus does not make me fully comfortable in Poland as I feel that India is still a part of my home,” Jan Bielecki said. Most of the survivors that the crew tracked down in Poland echoed a united refrain — “of being given a second chance in India”. “India was a new homeland for us,” Stypula said.
The former Maharaja, Jam Saheb Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja is known as the Polish Maharaja with a school — Jamsaheb School — in his name at Warsaw.