We are used to the fact that it is white people who save those fleeing war or persecution. It wasn’t always this way
If you know Warsaw well, you may also know that in the Ochota district there is a square mysteriously named the Good Maharaja Square. Although the name sounds like a fairy tale hero, the Good Maharaja existed and had very close relations with Poland.
His name was Jam Sahib [dynastic title – ed. note] Digvijaysinhji, the Maharaja of the princely state of Nawanagar in India, who in the 1940s provided housing support for Polish refugee children in his country. How did this happen?
A bit of history
Digvijaysinhji had been to Europe before the war. He had the opportunity to meet Ignacy Paderewski and later also Władysław Sikorski, the President of Poland. As the Indian delegate of the British war cabinet, the Maharaja was well-versed in contemporary international affairs. He was also aware of the situation in Poland.
During World War II thousands of Poles were deported deep into the Soviet Union. They were moved to camps and orphanages where hunger and disease prevailed. In an ‘inhuman land’ many children were orphaned or separated from their parents. In 1941 an amnesty was announced allowing destitute refugees to leave the Soviet Union. Hundreds of parentless Polish children suddenly became free but were left with no proper care.
The situation of the young refugees drew the attention of Kira Banasińska, the representative of the Polish Red Cross in India. Banasińska helped accommodate Polish citizens fleeing the USSR and ran information campaigns and fundraisers in India. It was, among others, thanks to her involvement that the situation of young refugees from Poland interested Maharaja Digvijaysinhji.
Maharaja and Kujawiak
Jam Sahib decided to build a special settlement for children in Balachadi, near his summer palace. Balachadi is in the Indian state of Gujarat. Welcoming the children he was said to say: ‘Don’t consider yourselves orphans. You are Nawanagaris now, I am Bapu, the father of all the inhabitants of Nawanagar, and therefore also yours.’
The Maharaja provided them with medical care, accommodation and education. He encouraged the children to get plenty of exercise. He made sure that they did not distance themselves from Polish culture by setting up a dance group in which they learned Polish folk dances: Kujawiak, Krakowiak and Polonaise.
‘To illustrate the scale of this project, 80 children could use the bathrooms, showers and sanitary facilities at the same time,’ describes Joanna Puchalska, author of the book ‘Wszystkie dzieci Maharadży’, on the air of Polish Radio. ‘Each child had their own bed with clean sheets and each barrack had its own babysitter. In the canteen the older girls fed the younger children and even got a small wage for it,’ she adds.
The settlement in Balachadi was not the only place in India where war refugees from Poland could turn for help.
The largest was the camp in Valivade, in the central Indian state of Maharashtra. Through the camp passed 5,000 to 6,000 Poles in the years 1942-1948.
Wanda in Mumbai
One of them was Wanda Nowicka. In 1942, as a 12-year-old girl, she was deported with her mother, three brothers and sister from what is now Ukraine to Siberia. ‘Grandma had a terrible journey in an unheated wagon. No food, no drink,’ says Apeksha Niranjan Mundargi, Wanda’s granddaughter and dancer of traditional Indian dances now living in Mumbai. We speak English but Apeksha greets me with a cheerful ‘dzień dobry, co słychać?’. She says that she once learned a little Polish and now she can read the language.
‘Grandma and the rest of the family took ice from the roofs of the wagons, waited for it to melt, and thus obtained water to drink,’ she continues her story. They spent several difficult months in Siberia. After the announcement of the amnesty, they left for Iran where they separated. ‘I am not sure what happened then,’ Apeksha shakes her head.
‘I know that my grandmother and sister made it to Karachi in present-day Pakistan, then to Mumbai, and from there to the Valivade camp. After some time she decided to become a nurse and became an apprentice in this profession in India. She, a Pole, worked in a hospital in Mumbai! While still in the camp in Valivade she met my grandfather who was finishing his medical studies and came to help Polish refugees. That’s how their love began. They didn’t have it easy because my grandfather came from a Brahmin family,’ Apeksha pauses for a moment.
I know why. Despite the official abolition of the Indian caste system social inequalities are still huge today. Traditionally in India two social orders could be observed: caste and varna, i.e. state. Brahmins, members of the highest priestly varna, must abide by the largest number of commands and prohibitions regarding their everyday life. For someone from this social class marrying a woman from outside Indian society, not being a part of the Hindu faith, and, moreover, being a refugee, was not an option.
Maharaja and his legacy
‘However, my grandparents overcame many difficulties, they waited for the consent of their reluctant family, and finally got married. Grandma later visited Poland several times, but she felt Indian and spent her whole life in India.’
I asked Apeksha if Wanda Nowicka was able to talk about what she experienced in Siberia. ‘It was a traumatic experience for her. Grandma and her family experienced regular violence from Soviet soldiers. She did not like to talk much about it. After the nightmare in Siberia, India was a paradise for her,’ Apeksha sighs.
At the beginning of March this year, shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, about 2,000 Indian citizens came to Poland, mainly students who were fleeing the war. At that time, Indian newspapers emphasised that Indians could cross the Ukrainian-Polish border without a visa. Adam Burakowski, the Polish ambassador to India, announced the smooth launch of flights to India. The opIndia portal then commented upon the ‘lasting legacy of the Maharaja’. They suggested that Poland is duly repaying the charity of Jam Sahib Digvijaysinhji.
‘I am coming on a dance tour to Poland in early November,’ says Apeksha cheerfully. ‘I will dance Kathak and Bharatanatyam in Warsaw, in Gliwice…’. The names of Polish cities sound very natural in her mouth, ‘So are you coming to see me?’.
Translated by Wojciech Rozner.
The text was created thanks to a grant received as part of the project “I am European. Historie i fakty o migracjach na XXI wiek”. The project is implemented by the Center for Citizenship Education (CEO) and financed by the European Union.
Sources: Culture.pl, Times of India, The First News, The Indian Express, First Post.