Polish settlements in Balachadi and Valivade
The sojourn of Polish refugees in India is an extraordinary story of an encounter between two communities whose cultures were very different in terms of language and the climate of their native lands, yet who were brought together by the tragic events of the Second World War. It is a story of human relationships, of the ability to live side by side and reach an understanding; a story of goodness, kindness, sensibility, and of universal values: compassion, and readiness on the part of citizens of the host country to bring aid to those in need.
The example of Polish settlements in India is, moreover, a marvelous lesson in identity: a lesson in people’s exceptional attachment to Polish tradition, all the stronger for the difficulties that staying in touch with their homeland entailed. It is the story of the will to survive, to live one’s daily life even in adverse circumstances; the story of the tremendous importance of education, both institutional and extracurricular.
Military defeat notwithstanding, the Polish government, headquartered in France then from June 1940 in London, continued to operate and was recognized by other Allied countries and neutral states. Polish diplomatic posts were operating; the Polish Armed Forces fought in the West alongside France then, following the defeat of France, alongside Great Britain.
The Polish-Soviet agreement enabled the Polish Embassy to resume operations, and gave Polish people an opportunity to leave their places of exile. Moreover, it created a legal basis for the formation of the Polish Army in the USSR, under the command of Gen. Władysław Anders (hence the name Anders’ Army). The army was a component of the Polish Armed Forces, subordinate to the government in London.
“The present state of hygiene and food supplies in the Soviet Union, coupled with the extreme exhaustion of the children, makes taking them abroad the only possible way of saving them.
I therefore request that the government look into this issue as soon as possible, and take at least 50,000 children out of the Soviet Union, quartering them in British territories in Asia and Africa. …
[...] I stress that this is the only possible way of saving these children, who will otherwise be condemned to death and thus be lost to Poland forever.”
Excerpt from Ambassador Stanisław Kot’s cable from Kuybyshev, sent to Prime Minister Władysław Sikorski and to the Minister of Labor and Welfare, 6 May 1942, in: Archiwum Akt Nowych (New Files Archive).
“Each of these children carried a tragedy within. How to find a way into their hearts, which are so wounded that a mere word can touch on some painful memory? Should one comfort these children, or is it better to let them digest their old pain, and concentrate on protecting them from fresh tribulations and distress; and see to it that new cares do not deepen the blemishes on their pained souls?”
Weronika Hort [Hanka Ordonówna], "Tułacze dzieci."
Transports traveled over the Caspian Sea from the port of Krasnovodsk (today Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan) to Pahlevi (today Bandar-e Anzali, Iran). Evacuation also took place by land, from Ashgabat to Mashhad. More than 2,600 people (including 650 children) traveled this route until 20 September 1942. In total, over 116,000 people (including approximately 41,000 civilians) were transported with Anders' Army.
These numbers include at least 20,000 children up to age 18. It is estimated that approximately 77,000 children remained on Soviet territory after the evacuation.
After that, there were no further evacuations. Polish-Soviet relations were broken off in spring 1943, after the discovery of mass graves of Polish prisoners of war (some 22,000 people) whose executions Stalin ordered in March 1940, in the Katyń atrocity.
…Cries, din, bustle. Someone fell, someone lost something, someone spilled the contents of their bundle. Suddenly a strong male voice could be heard above the bustling bunch: Halt! Return to your places! The racket stopped as suddenly as it began.”
Wiesław Stypuła’s (then age 11) account of transport from Ashgabat to Mashhad in summer 1942, in: W. Stypuła, "W gościnie u 'polskiego' maharadży."
Following evacuation, the Polish armed forces under General Anders’ command were integrated into the structures of the Polish Army in the East, stationed in Iraq, Iran and Palestine. The majority of civilians (mostly women and children) were quartered during 1942 and 1943 in numerous settlements that came into being in Asia and Africa, as well as Mexico and, in 1944, in New Zealand. Polish consulates, as well as legations of the Ministry of Labor and Welfare and the Ministry of Religious Denominations and Public Enlightenment, were established in all these locations. Their task was to look after Polish civilians.
Sending aid from India to Polish citizens deported to the USSR had been inaugurated in a bold humanitarian mission organized by the Polish consulate in Mumbai (Bombay) and the Polish Red Cross delegation. A convoy of trucks carrying 60 tons of material aid departed from Mumbai on 11 November 1941, and arrived safely in Ashgabat on 30 December, having crossed the mountainous Soviet-Iranian border. In May 1942, another such transport was successfully completed along the same route.
This convoy paved the way from Ashgabat (USSR) to Mashhad (Iran) and, after Moscow had given consent to take children away, the mission also enabled the return transport of trucks to be used for the evacuation of Polish orphans from the USSR. As a result, around 170 orphans were taken in mid-March 1942. The total number of evacuees via this route was nearly 3,000 people – children and adults, mostly civilians.
Both the humanitarian expedition and the evacuation of children were the initiative of Consul General Eugeniusz Banasiński. Both he and his wife, Kira (head of the Polish Red Cross and Ministry of Labor and Welfare delegations), were engaged in organizing aid for Poles on Indian territory; and from 1942 they actively supported the organization of refugee transports from the USSR and the establishment of refugee settlements.
Among the guardians of the earliest transport, with 173 Polish orphans in April 1942 from Mashhad to India, was singer and actress Hanka Ordonówna, a star of the Warsaw stage and theater in the 1930s who had been deported by the NKVD from Wilno (Vilnius) in 1941.
Poland’s lot was known to the maharaja Jam Saheb Digvijaysinhji even before the war: he learned about it from his paternal uncle, Maharaja Ranjitsinhji, who served as India’s delegate to League of Nations sessions from 1920 to 1923 and, during that time, befriended Ignacy Paderewski. The young Maharaja Digvijaysinhji visited Switzerland with his uncle, and thus had the opportunity to meet the eminent Polish musician and statesman. Later, in wartime London, he met Gen. Władysław Sikorski and others. He had a liking for Poles and cared about their lot.
For each young resident there was a bed, a small table or shelf and a small chest for personal belongings. Along with these a hospital, school, community center, chapel, dining room and washrooms, storehouses, housing for the orphanage staff, as well as sport fields and a drill ground, were all established in the settlement. Through 1942, approximately 650 children (aged 2 to 15) arrived in the settlement.
Father Franciszek Pluta, a military chaplain in Anders’ Army, became the settlement’s commander-in-chief. He was remembered as severe but at the same time as a good manager, working ardently for the benefit of the children and dedicated to the settlement and its affairs. He was also the Balachadi community chaplain.
The maharaja’s kindness as a friend and the good spirit of the settlement, but also his stature and his wealth, made him seem like a fairy-tale character to the children. He participated in all major celebrations, stage performances and sports contests at the settlement; he also invited the children to his palace. He showed an unwavering interest in the work of the settlement, and was ready to assist in difficulties as they emerged.
Valivade was a family settlement inhabited by mothers with their children and men unfit for military service. It had a board modeled on that of a Polish town, with a "starosta" or district head presiding over the board. Capt. Władysław Jagiełłowicz was the first to serve as "starosta". He was posted to Valivade from the transit camp in Malir, where he had been in charge. When he took office as "starosta", the site was still under construction; thus it was up to him to insure that Valivade ran efficiently from the very beginning, and to decide in which direction the settlement would develop. He took up both tasks with excellent results.
Many adults not employed in administration or the school system became involved in
a variety of useful initiatives: a Polish publishing house, butcher shops or the “Zgoda” cooperative were in operation, to cite but a few. This last initiative brought together workshops of different craftsmen (tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, etc.) as well as service centers such as the hairdresser and the cafeteria.
“Usually classes ran smoothly; it was only from time to time that calamity (in the form of
a malaria epidemic) struck. There were periods when absence due to illness reached 50 to 60 percent. But it was much worse when the teachers succumbed to malaria, as there was virtually no one to stand in for them.”
In: W. Stypuła, "W gościnie u 'polskiego' maharadży."
The Valivade settlement had its own highly committed amateur-theater company. A highlight of the company’s work was the performance of Act III of “Wesele” [The Wedding], staged to mark the 11 November holiday. Anna Tetmajerowa, the original model for the character of the hostess, lived in the settlement at the time.
…Some mothers remained, too: they could not be evacuated, or were laid to eternal rest in a faraway land. […] And fathers were missed, oh, how sorely missed! Particularly by the boys! Small boys took to older boys, hence the prominent role of all the cub-scout and scout team leaders.”
Reminiscences of Anna Gwiazdonik (née Handerek), in: "Polacy w Indiach 1942–1948 w świetle dokumentów i wspomnień."
“Scout camp provided opportunities to win many badges, but our greatest ambition was to win the Three Feathers badge. Winning it involved many difficulties and a lot of risk. The regulations required us to spend 24 hours in hiding outside our camping place, keeping silent and feeding on whatever we could find or hunt. …
[…] And so we were each given a slice of bread, a tin of sardines, three matches and several kali crystals (as a disinfectant). Apart from that, we each had a knife, a kerchief, a cloak, a water bottle and our backpack.”
Reminiscences of Staszek Harasymów, in: "Polacy w Indiach 1942–1948 w świetle dokumentów i wspomnień."
“And lo and behold, just when it seemed the match would end in a draw, the tireless Dedena began his dance in front of his opponents’ goal. After double-crossing two players, he got into a fierce confrontation with the third. Losing strength, he made a last effort to pass the ball to Antoś, who was just then running into open field. And he succeeded: Antoś feinted past the last defender and struck the ball so hard that the goalkeeper was at a loss to react. …
The goals had no nets, so the ball soared far, far away, landing right by the school building. By the time someone was able to bring the ball back, the referee blew his final whistle. What happened afterwards defies description. Our players were so overjoyed that they started to run all over the field like madmen. There was no end to mutual hugging and back-slapping.”
Reminiscences of Wiesław Stypuła, in: "Polacy w Indiach 1942–1948 w świetle dokumentów i wspomnień."
Antoni Maniak – prewar player for Pogoń, the Lwów (today Lviv) football club. Like the majority of the teaching and tutoring staff, he was delegated from the army to work in the settlement. In Balachadi, he was responsible for organizing the physical-education program. He was an excellent trainer who drilled his charges in physical efficiency and skills.
Souvenir photos from a month-long expedition across southern India organized by Wanda Dynowska (seated, center). A group of twenty-five young people gave performances of Polish songs and national dances, while also learning about the culture, art, architecture and traditions of their host country.
Umadevi – Dynowska’s Indian name – endeavored to pass her knowledge on to residents of the Valivade settlement by, for instance, a series of talks.
Collaboration and friendly relations were also established between Polish and Indian scouts. In August 1947, when Polish scouts had not been invited to participate in the Sixth Jamboree in France (in 1946 the World Scouting Organization had revoked membership of the Polish Scouting Union [ZHP] functioning abroad), they organized a bonfire together with their Indian counterparts. When the Valivade settlement had been closed and Polish people were leaving India, scouting equipment was passed on to Indian scouts.
Poles, deprived of a free homeland, understood Indians’ aspirations to freedom very well. On 15 August 1947, there were joint celebrations of India’s newly acquired independence, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and the anniversary of the Battle of Warsaw (the battle that repulsed the Bolshevik invasion in 1920).
Only 20 percent of those who succeeded in getting out of the USSR with the Anders’ Army chose to be repatriated to Poland. It was mainly those whose loved ones remained in Poland who made the decision to return. However, nostalgia for their country, the desire to contribute to its rebuilding after the ravages of war, and the hope that things would get better, also motivated some to return.
“An opportunity to return suddenly came up: not to our birthplace, true, but at least to our homeland. Staying in various foreign lands had weighed on us heavily. Because we couldn’t speak foreign languages, we’d felt isolated; and the fact that we had no homeland made us feel humiliated.”
Reminiscences of Alojzy Grubczak, in: "Polacy w Indiach 1942–1948 w świetle dokumentów i wspomnień."
Transferring custody of refugees to UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) and subsequently from 1947 to the Refugee Organization (which was also in charge of repatriation) was not without its problems. Uncertainty, mistrust and confusion were rife; contradictory information was spread.
The British encouraged Poles to return home; representatives of the authorities in Warsaw arrived at the settlements with the same purpose. In the cases of those whose family members served in the Polish Armed Forces in the West, families were brought together and departures to the UK were arranged.
“Ode to Youth” by Adam Mickiewicz, translated from English into Gujarati in 1946 by Anant Joshi, who worked as a physician at the Balachadi settlement. The Indian doctor (who wrote his translation by hand on a piece of paper) kept it for decades as a precious memento. In 1985, he presented it to a group of Poles who had been charges of the settlement as children, and who were then visiting India.
The Management of Polish History Museum would like to thank the following individuals and institutions for their assistance in organizing the exhibition (in alphabetical order):
the Association of Poles in India 1942–1948
Written by: Ewa Wójcicka
Historical consultation: Prof. Janusz Wróbel
Collaboration: Wiesław Stypuła (Balachadi settlement), Teresa Glazer, Danuta Pniewska
Editing: Dorota Szkodzińska, Agata Milczarek, Maciej Jaworski
Translation: Joanna Błachnio
English version edited by: Alan Lockwood
Weronika Hort [Hanka Ordonówna], "Tułacze dzieci" [Wandering Children], Beirut 1948, p. 125
Wiesław Stypuła, "W gościnie u 'polskiego' maharadży" [Hosted by the "Polish" Maharaja], Grajewo 2011, pp. 21, 80
"Polacy w Indiach 1942–1948 w świetle dokumentów i wspomnień" [English edition: Second World War Story: Poles in India 1942–1948: based on archive documents and personal reminiscences, London 2009], joint publication, London 2000, pp. 128, 493, 537, 598
"Polskie dzieci na tułaczych szlakach 1939–1950" [Polish Children on Wanderer’s Trails 1939–1950], edited by Janusz Wróbel and Joanna Żelazko, Warsaw 2008, p. 230
Archiwum Akt Nowych [New Files Archive], Embassy of the Republic of Poland in London, catalog no. 1843