Books

A royal welcome

A book on Polish refugees in India brings to light a little-known slice of World War II history

It happened not that long ago, and not that far away. But the story at the heart of The Second Homeland throws up numerous surprises.

The first of these is the fact that India was home to hundreds of Polish orphans during World War II. The second is that, contrary to preconceived notions, the children who arrived in India were not Jewish but largely Roman Catholics. But, most startling is how completely this episode has vanished from collective memory.

In The Second Homeland, journalist Anuradha Bhattacharjee relates the story of the two camps – Balachadi near Jamnagar and Valivade near Kolhapur – that served as safe havens for orphans and families from Poland. For almost a decade, she sifted through archival material, posted questions on the Internet, pored over tomes and traced old men and women in Poland, who had spent a part of their childhood eating daal and rice, swimming in the Arabian Sea and swotting over science in the Kathiawari summer.

Gradually, Bhattacharjee pieced together a remarkable tale. It appears that while officials of every stripe were quibbling about the future of the emaciated children streaming out of the USSR, it was the ruler of an Indian princely state who cut through the official indifference. When Jam Saheb Digvijaysingh of Nawanagar heard about the plight of these children, he immediately offered them a home. He fulfilled his promise by building a camp near his summer resort in Balachadi – and virtually compelling the British to cooperate. “Do not consider yourself orphans. You are now Nawanagaris and I am Bapu, father to all Nawanagaris, including you,” he told the children when they arrived at their alien new home. A welcome that many a septuagenarian in distant Warsaw or Quebec fondly recalls even today.

After all, these were children who had lost comfortable homes and families and virtually slipped though the cracks of history. “It was the unanswered questions that gripped me,” said Bhattacharjee, explaining why this story, of all those she has written in her career, grabbed her imagination so firmly. “Nothing that I was hearing fit in with the matrix of knowledge that we have.”

Bhattacharjee first encountered one tentacle of this sprawling saga as a bright-eyed journalist in Pune in 1992. She interviewed a woman who, she was told, had “survived the Holocaust”. It transpired that Zofia Mendonca was a Roman Catholic from Poland who, over a three-hour-long meeting, narrated a story that became “curiouser and curiouser”. She spoke about the terrible events that occurred in Poland after Soviet forces marched into the Kresy region in 1939. The entire civilian population was forced into cattle trains that transported them to Siberia and Kazakhstan where they were forced to work relentlessly. Bhattacharjee wrote up the interview, but her sub-editor sneered that it was utterly far-fetched – and the article was spiked.

Ten years later, Bhattacharjee was in another city in another job under a different editor when she exhumed her article. Hiranmay Karlekar of The Pioneer in New Delhi was fascinated when he heard about Zofia Mendonca— especially because he had once met a Polish woman who had lived in a camp in India in the early ’40s.

Around this time, Bhattacharjee and her husband visited the US, where she spent a day in the Holocaust Memorial Museum seeking details about Russian atrocities towards Poland during WWII. All she managed to unearth, however, was a skimpy pamphlet. As for the rest, she was told, “the records have never been opened”. Undaunted she convinced a Polish Army officer, who knew her husband, to call his family. “Through him I got meager substantiation,” she says.

 Back in India, the story of Zofia Mendonca finally appeared in print – and Bhattacharjee started getting interesting feedback from around the world. Slowly a blurry picture was emerging of what Bhattacharjee describes as “one of the greatest unrecognized human rights violation of our times”. And Bhattacharjee began to understand the enormous tragedy of the Polish people who were used as cheap labour in the collective camps of the USSR. “The treatment of the Poles by the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1941 is still unfamiliar to many people,” she writes. “At the time, news of what was going on barely reached the West, and later in the War, when Britain and the United States became allies of the USSR, discussion of the episode was discouraged as tactless.”

In 1941, the Russian and Polish authorities reached an agreement and suddenly the Polish “prisoners” were free to leave. The men enrolled in the quicklycobbled- together Polish army, and the women and children began to make the long, deadly trek to freedom. But was it these refugees who made their way to India?

Bhattacharjee stumbled upon confirmation in the Oxford Companion to the Second World War, where she came upon an invaluable clue: “The Polish army covered itself in glory while the families found safe haven in India.” “I latched onto that half sentence and slowly, document by document, put things together,” said Bhattacharjee. “Of the 115,000 people evacuated from the USSR, almost 20,000 spent some time in India. Around 650 orphans stayed at Balachadi, while 5,000 refugees spent time in the Kolhapur Camp.”

Finding these facts and figures involved innumerable visit to the archives, government departments and embassies where Bhattacharjee pored over stacks of tedious documents. Unfortunately for the casual reader, these have found their way into the book and, along with endless names and statistics, threaten to bury the human story.

Luckily, however, the first-person accounts, especially the vivid chronicle of Franek Herzog who watched his mother die of cold and hunger in Russia, before spending years at Balachadi and Valivade, bring life and colour to the book. The combination of those moving memories and Bhattacharjee’s remarkable research reveal a fascinating chapter of WWII history.

Anuraddha Bhattacharjee's The Second Homeland: Polish Refugees in India Sage, R895

By Shabnam Minwalla on February 19 2013

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