A forgotten story of Poland in India

While watching Crab Plovers and Great Knots in tidal flats outside Jamnagar, I noticed this cluster of buildings across the water, which make up a school. It turns out to have a forgotten history. Polish children interned in USSR during World War II were allowed to leave in 1942, provided some country took them in. The Jamsaheb Digvijay Singhji of Jamnagar opened up his seaside resort as a refuge for the children. That is the red-tiled building that you see in the featured photo. That’s the bare bone of the story. The children stayed here till 1946. During this time many were reunited with their families. Of those who had lost their families, several chose to remain in India.

Scanning old newspapers I pieced together the story of a British refusal to let the refugee ship dock in India (paralleling the Canadian response to refugees on Komagata Maru). On the intervention of the Jamsaheb, the ship finally docked in Rosi, a port which belonged to the kingdom of Jamnagar. The cultural sensitivity of the times has also been recorded: schooling in Polish, providing Polish food, and the freedom to raise the flag of Poland. Jamnagar was the first kingdom to accept Polish refugees, and others across the world followed. It is interesting to read about this at a time when there is a spreading belief that the post-war international order, including the rights of refuge, were put in place by the wartime Allies, largely the old imperial powers. This is false. Parts of the new world order are informed by values which belong to the wider and more diverse world which was emerging at that time.

December, 1989

In December 1989 Lech Walesa became the president of Poland. I remember this as the culmination of a decade-long movement, largely by ordinary people against a repressive state. Circumstances favoured the movement; the economy of the Warsaw Pact states frayed through that decade, and finally was close to collapse. The couple of times I travelled in eastern Europe at that time, it was clear that the government and the people were not living a life comparable to western Europe. The USA played a role too, keeping up pressure against concerted Warsaw Pact action.

But a major part of the success of the trade union we call Solidarity was the continuous popular support through a dangerous decade. That was the second time In my personal experience that a people’s movement succeeded (the first time was the successful 1977 movement in India which pushed back the emergency). I remember this thirty years later on a slow December Monday, as I think of the logistics of a trip to Poland. Democracy is possible; it is often killingly hard, but sometimes the will of the people can prevail against a leviathan.