On August 3, Franek Herzog, 82, will travel from Hebron in Connecticut to Orchard Lake in Michigan for a two-day reunion with a group of Polish war survivors. Mr. Herzog and his 18 friends will spend some of their time together recalling the arduous, improbable journeys they made seven decades ago from their war-torn homes in Poland to the erstwhile Indian princely state of Nawanagar, which provided an oasis for approximately 1,000 Polish children for four years until the hostilities ceased.
Nawanagar was a small princely state near the Arabian Sea coast in what is now the western Indian state of Gujarat.
India and Maharaja Jam Saheb Digvijaysinghji created “a peaceful haven during the troubled years of the World War II and after” for hundreds of Polish orphans, Mr. Herzog said in an e-mail. He arrived in India in 1942, just short of his 11th birthday. “I will never forget that and will be ever grateful,” he added.
India as a whole was “very friendly and congenial,” Sister Jacinta, a Catholic nun who teaches philosophy at Alvernia University in Reading, Pennsylvania, said in an e-mail. She said that she had especially fond memories of the Nawanagar ruler’s “beautiful palace on the seashore near our Balachadi camp’, as also of her Indian physician, Doctor Ashani, who learned to speak Polish to be able to communicate with the children.
The settlement in Balachadi, in Gujarat, was only one of the many places in which World War II refugees found shelter in India. As a British colony, hundreds of thousands of displaced people from across the world made their way through the country during the conflict. They included Jewish people from Central Europe, many of whom were in transit to Palestine or the United States. But some Maltese, Balkan and Anglo-Burmese refugees stayed for considerably longer periods of time in camps near Bharatpur, Coimbatore and Nainital.
Among the most unlikely groups to find shelter in India were an estimated 20,000 Polish people, who had an especially tortuous time getting to India. Many of them had been exiled from their homes in 1940, shortly after the invasion of their country by the Nazis was followed by the Soviet Union occupying eastern Poland, ostensibly to protect Belarusians and Ukrainians living there. But starting from April, 1940, the Soviets killed an estimated 18,000 Polish army officers and professionals in an event that has come to be known as the Katyn Forest massacre, after the region in Russia in which the executions were conducted.
The families of these men, and other Polish civilians from the eastern Kresy region, mainly Christian, were en masse deported to gulags in Siberia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. However, after the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Moscow joined the war on the side of the Allies. A Polish army was raised in the Soviet Union and families of soldiers in the labor camps were allowed to make their way out of the country. Since Poland it was under Nazi occupation, they couldn’t return to their homes and had to find new destinations.
The dispossessed included Mr. Herzog, who had been exiled to Kazakhstan with his mother and two brothers after the war broke out because his father was an army officer. Mr. Herzog’s mother died in a gulag shortly after the German attack on the Soviet Union, while his father is thought to have been killed in the Katyn Forest. Mr Herzog’s older brother signed up for the Polish forces, while the two younger siblings made their way to Ashkabad, in Turkmenistan. It was a staging point for convoys of Polish children, most of them sick and malnourished, to make their way overland to India, through the territory then known as Persia.
In April, 1942, after a month’s journey, the children arrived at a temporary home by the seaside in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra. “The first thing we did after coming to the house was to have a god meal,” Mr. Herzog recalled. “After the meal, we went to the bathroom to take showers…What a luxury!”
The extraordinary journey of the Polish refugees and the circumstances that allowed them to find homes in India are the subject of The Second Homeland, a recent book by Anuradha Bhattacharjee, a scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi. “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 rendered homeless and subsequently stateless,” she said. The publication of her book has prompted the Michigan reunion.
Established in 1933, the energetic Polish Consulate in Mumbai had been arranging for Jewish refugees to travel to India since Nazi persecution had intensified. The consulate had raised awareness about the desperate situation in Poland – and funds for its displaced people, Ms Bhattacharjee noted. Though the Indian National Congress had criticized the British government for drawing India into the conflict without seeking the consent of its residents, the heads of several Indian princely states generously support the war effort. Especially enthusiastic was the ruler of Nawanagar, in the Kathiawar peninsula, Jam Saheb Digvijaysinghji, a member of the Imperial War Council. Learning about the plight of the Polish children in the gulags from Ignacy Jan Padrewski, the pianist who was the head of Poland’s government in exile in London, Digvijaysinghji offered to host some of them in his state.
After a three-month stay in Bandra, during which the Polish orphans were nursed back to health and given basic English lessons, Mr. Herzog and his companions left for more permanent quarters in the Nawanagar village of Balachadi. They were housed in spacious barracks, and at its peak, the camp held 600 children, aged from 2 to 17. Other inmates would pass through on their way to sanatoriums to be treated for persistent diseases or to institutions for higher education.
The approximately 100 Polish adults who accompanied the children to Balachadi made sure that they did not miss out on their education. “Overall, we were lucky,” Mr. Herzog wrote in a memoir reproduced partially in The Second Homeland. “We had good and dedicated guardians. Some wanted to substitute for our lost parents.” Among the problems camp administrators faced, he recalled, was how to prepare food acceptable for Polish palates from Indian ingredients.
But life in the camp was also filled with adventures, such as “sneaking out at night for a swim in the sea, jumping headfirst from 25 feet into deep water wells hewed in rock, running barefoot across fields chasing peacocks, where stepping on a cobra or a scorpion was possible, or climbing trees and swinging on lianas pretending we were Tarzan.” On Sundays, there was ballroom dancing around a crank-up gramophone. The children occasionally mounted shows of Polish national dances that the Jam Saheb attended, most often giving them gifts of Rs 501 or Rs 1,001. His guests were intrigued by the inclusion of the odd rupee until he explained that it was for good luck.
For Mr. Herzog’s friend, Sister Jacinta, the most vivid memories of the sojourn included a meeting with Mahatma Gandhi in Panchgani, where she was being treated for tuberculosis. The Mahatma told the Polish children that while India welcomed them and wished them well, it would eventually be necessary to find them a “more secure environment”. Added Sister Jacinta, “We parted with a handshake and friendly well wishes – never to be forgotten!”
In 1943, work started on a camp in Valivade, in Kolhapur, another princely state, that was intended to provide war-time domicile for 5,000 Polish older people, women and children from the Soviet Union. It was designed to be “a Polish village on an Indian riverbank”, Ms Bhatacharjee said. Transit centers were also constructed in Karachi. Some of the older Polish orphans from Balachadi were moved to Kolhapur, Mr. Herzog among them. He threw himself into the scouting unit there, and took several weekend hikes, including one to Panhala, a fort associated with Shivaji.
When World War II ended in 1945, the Soviet Union refused to recognize Poland’s pre-conflict eastern boundaries. As a result, many Polish people found themselves stranded in a new country. Several of the Polish people in India scrambled to find other homes. In 1947, as residents of the Indian camps were beginning to join relatives in the UK and the US, Mr. Herzog was still in Valivade and had strong memories of Indian Independence day. “There was jubilation everywhere,” he wrote. “We too celebrated it in the camp since it was the day of the Feast of Our Lady on the Vistula.”
Sister Jacinta left India that year to study in the U.S. She was 16. Two years later, she became a nun in the Congregation of the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters. In November 1947, after five years in India, Mr. Herzog boarded the troop ship Empire Brent in Mumbai, to join his brothers in the UK. He became an electrical engineer and, 21 years later, moved to the US to work. While some of the refugees who moved to the UK formed the Association of Poles in India to keep their memories of India alive, the meeting at Orchard Lake on Aug 3 is the first time their companions who live in the US will be reuniting. They will join a thanksgiving mass, and eat meals with kielbasa and potato pierogi on the menu. Said Mr. Herzog, “I have a few friends from the Balachadi Camp in US, England, Australia and Poland. But as the years march on, there are fewer and fewer of us. So if you want more information you would have to hurry.”
Naresh Fernandes is the author of “Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age.”