TO JAM SAHEB WITH LOVE
World War II turned lakhs of Polish children into orphans. Between 1942 and 1946, a thousand of them were given shelter by the Nawanagar Maharaja. On the 100th year of Poland’s independence, many of them returned to relive their childhood years in Gujarat
It is mid-afternoon in Jamnagar and a bus is turning to take a round of one of its squares. The archway of a oncemagnificent fort is in sight. Roman Gutowski, 83, a retired Polish civil engineer, pulls back the grey curtain on one of the bus windows, and peers out. The Jamnagar he sees 71 years after he left it is not what he remembers of the place. His son, Tomek, a businessman, who has brought along the third-generation Gutowski, his son Maciej, is shooting with his camera to ensure that this time he does remember.
Photographs cannot stand on their own without memories. “I know about Jamnagar and Balachadi from my father’s stories,” says Tomek. “Maciej must see where his grandfather comes from. Had I just shown him pictures….”
Roman Gutowski grew up alongside almost a thousand Polish children in a camp at Balachadi, a village 25 km off Jamnagar city (the capital of the erstwhile princely state of Nawanagar in presentday Gujarat) in the British India of the ’40s. These were children of mainly Polish soldiers and they were trying to somehow survive the horrors of World War II.
The German occupation of Poland (September 1, 1939) led to the eventual extermination of six million people. Lists were drawn up of teachers, clergymen, the intelligentsia, army officers for public execution; millions of Jews died in concentration camps. The psychological impact of the Russian invasion (September 17) was only slightly less devastating. Polish soldiers were drafted into the Soviet army by force; families were compelled to join re-education camps; children were separated from their mothers.
Gutowski’s father was forced to soldier for Soviet Union; his mother and sisters were sent to Uzbekistan. He was sent to an orphanage there as well. But then he was selected without his mother’s knowledge and transported to India around the time when efforts were being made by the Polish government-in-exile to evacuate some of the families from the USSR.
The first concrete offer to rehabilitate these children came from the Maharaja of Nawanagar, Jam Saheb Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja. Between 1942 and
1947, these children lived under the Jam Saheb’s protection and were maintained by his private purse in a camp close to his summer palace in Balachadi.
The children’s plight had moved the 46-year-old king because he was interested in Polish culture due to his friendship with Ignacy Padrewski, a Polish pianist and diplomat whom he had met in Switzerland.
Eight of the 1,000 Polish children – now mostly in their 80s – he housed were recently in Jamnagar en route to Balachadi to commemorate the 100th year of Poland’s independence in this corner of India where they once flew their flag (even as they had lost their nation), and practised their religion and their culture.
Other than when they were with their parents, Balachadi is the one place where these children from war-torn Poland were able to have a childhood. It was here that seven-year-old Roman Butowski first saw an elephant; where Wieslaw Stypula, 15, held up a trumpet; where six-year-old