The Second Homeland
By Anuradha Bhattacharjee
SAGE Publications, New Delhi, 2012
In 1991, Anuradha Bhattacharjee was a rookie journalist in the Indian city of Pune assigned to work on the new local supplement of The Times of India. A few months into her new job, Bhattacharjee met a Polish lady who told her a very unlikely story about arriving in India during World War II as an orphan after being saved from starvation in Siberia. The family, it seems, was deported from Poland by the Soviets to the Gulag where thousands of Poles, including her parents, had perished. Intrigued by this, the young journalist presented her notes on this gripping and tragic tale to her superiors who promptly threw the story out and ridiculed her for falling for such a fantasy. Since the victims were not Jewish and the oppressor not Nazi Germany, she was unable to place Polish Catholic victims of Soviet persecution into “any known historical perspective.” Reluctantly, she gave it up.
Ten years later, Bhattacharjee was working for a New Delhi newspaper, The Pioneer, and since she was for a time in the United States she used this opportunity to follow up on that Polish story. She visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, located the sister of the Polish lady she first spoke to, and had a long conversation about that event. She got enough information to publish an article in Pioneer’s Sunday supplement, the Foray. The online version generated a lot of attention, including an offer to publish the book – if she could get a manuscript to the publisher in six months’ time.
As soon as she was back in India she threw herself into more research for the book, a daunting task. Inquiries at history departments of several Indian universities produced no results – except for a suggestion to write to Professor Norman Davies. (She did, and, ever courteous, he replied.) Realizing that most documents she needed were in London, she turned to the internet to gather enough information to apply for a research grant. Among other things, she reached the Kresy-Siberia Virtual Museum and the helpful people who created it not only offered assistance but warm hospitality in London and Poland. She was launched, but much more than six months had elapsed. By this time, the publisher had lost interest and “sarcastically suggested that [she] pursue the subject as a PhD thesis.” So she did, and won the Bendre Prize for Best Dissertation (2006). The Second Homeland is the book based on her doctoral dissertation.
The Second Homeland is the story of the group of Poles who, having been deported to the Gulag by the Soviets, were settled in temporary camps in India after their escape from that “inhuman land” in 1942. They were part of a much larger group of some 50,000 civilians evacuated from the USSR together with the army of General Władysław Anders, the Polish II Corps that was to be based in the Middle East and fight under British command. Their odyssey ultimately spanned several continents, every segment of it marked by tragedy and uncertainty, but also by the unexpected kindness of strangers and their own indomitable spirit. This book focuses on the Indian sojourn of Polish children who rediscovered their childhood among people who were welcoming and kind, in a land of great beauty where exotic fruit and elephants were a part of the natural landscape.
But Anuradha Bhattacharjee’s opening chapter begins with a much grimmer story, with Katyń, the murder of over 20 thousand Polish reserve officers held as POWs by the USSR. She notes Vladimir Putin’s invitation to Polish officials to commemorate the Katyń Massacre in April 2010, and Boris Yeltsin’s 1990 delivery to Warsaw the documents that definitively acknowledged Soviet responsibility for this crime. She makes clear that she is writing about one of the greatest unacknowledged war crimes, a violation of human rights that was compounded by a cynical cover-up of the massacre, and an official silence about the mass deportations to Siberia. Not a few of the children whose story she tells lost their father at Katyń.
That the author does so is indicative of her profound understanding of her subject. Bhattacharjee knows that while she is telling a heartwarming story about orphaned children welcomed by a loving Maharaja, their trauma runs deep. She never loses sight of these two strains of the narrative and this is what gives her book its power and beauty.
Following a brief historical background, the author moves on to 1941 when the plight of the Poles held captive in the USSR becomes known, a situation of no consequence to the Soviets, awkward for the British, and a humanitarian crisis for the Polish government-in-exile. Relief supplies are urgently needed and among the first to take action is Kira Banasinska, the wife of the Polish consul-general in Bombay (Mumbai) who immediately begins a campaign of awareness and fundraising.
Plans are made to send convoys overland from Quetta, in India (now Pakistan) via Meshed in northern Iran and into Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, especially to orphanages. Ideally, the trucks should not return empty after unloading but should bring back to India as many children as possible. To this end the Viceroy of India set up The Polish Children’s Fund, with the continuing involvement of Banasinska and supported by the Archbishop of Delhi, the Mother Superior of the convent of Jesus and Mary, raising funds among private donors including the philanthropic Indian family, the Tatas. A British official, Captain A.W.T. Webb, administered the funds and also left behind an invaluable historical record.
At first there was some notion of placing the children in foster homes but the Polish government was opposed to separating the already traumatized children. Other options such as schools and convents proved unworkable.
India was then still ruled by Britain so obviously the Polish authorities turned to them for assistance, but imperial rule does not always allow for quick decisions. However, some princely states still enjoyed a level of autonomy and it was from one of these that the first offer of help – unencumbered by bureaucratic considerations and imperial priorities – came from the Maharaja Jam Saheb of Nawanagar. On hearing of the plight of the children he immediately offered to take in 500 – a figure he soon raised to 1000 – and built a camp for them on his seaside summer estate because he wanted the children to enjoy the pleasures of a beach. When the children arrived he greeted them saying he was “Bapu,” their father. When the war ended, “Bapu” adopted the children to prevent their forcible return to a Communist Poland ruled by Moscow, the very same regime that had deported them to Siberia in the first place.
The princely state of Kolhapur was the next to offer a site where a family camp, Valivade, was set up for some 5,000 people, mainly women and children. Bhattacharjee reports that several other sites were offered by other princely states but were turned down by the British who did not want the autonomous princely states to have any dealings with foreign governments. Indeed, Mrs. Banasinska’s request to have the young maharaja of Kolhapur officially open the camp was turned down, while the consul-general was denied admission in his official capacity. One suspected visit resulted in a memo stating: “We must draw his attention at once to the rules debarring States from corresponding directly with Foreign countries or inviting foreign consuls to the State without the P.D.’s (Political Department) approval.”
Valivade, though established by the Government of India, was funded by the legation of the Ministry of Labour and Social Services of the Polish government in London. It soon turned into a thriving community: the refugees planted gardens, put up Polish street signs, and established schools and a hospital. An Indian shopping syndicate set up several businesses providing groceries, fish and meat, cloth, stationery and, in time, even a cinema that screened one show daily.
Thanks to the Kresy-Siberia Virtual Museum, Bhattacharjee met and interviewed a great many “Polish Indians” and was given access to their diaries, letters and memoirs. She found a treasure in the beautifully written correspondence given to her by Franciszek Herzog, the youngest of three brothers whose father was murdered at Katyń and whose mother died of starvation in Kazakhstan. Seamlessly woven into the wealth of detail from her research, it adds to the story a gripping emotional intensity.
As the story unfolds, Bhattacharjee introduces an amazing cast of characters. Kira Banasinska and her husband, unable to return to Poland, lived out their lives in India, a country they came to love. She lived to see Poland free again and received Poland’s highest civilian honour for her work on behalf of the children. Hanka Ordonówna, the beautiful cabaret star of prewar Poland, cared for the children at the orphanage in Ashkabad and traveled with them in the first convoy to India. Wanda Dynowska, a theosophist and an authority on Indian history and culture who had moved to India in 1935 and was given the name Umadevi by Gandhi, enriched the children’s lives by introducing them to Indian history and even to Gandhi himself.
At first, some Poles found Umadevi, with her sari and theosophist views, a bit too exotic for their tastes, but she was much loved. Fr. Zdzisław Peszkowski, at that time a Scoutmaster at Balachadi and Valivade whom the author met in Warsaw, recalled meeting Umadevi and another Polish Theosophist and Gandhian, Maurycy Frydman. He found their discussions “enriching” and his visit to an ashram was an experience he never forgot. By contrast, the officious Captain Webb described Umadevi as “a certain crack-brained Pole of feminine gender who has turned theosophist, [and] apes Indian dress…”
We encounter British officials, some who cared about the humanitarian crisis and others who were indifferent, including Captain Webb in whom the author detected “unwarranted hostility” towards the Polish refugees. Indeed, she points out, the Poles were often treated more “as enemy than as ally,” and not as well as German POWs.
It is really the Indian people that the Polish children of Balachadi have in mind when they say: “India is my second homeland,” and “Balachadi was the happiest time of my childhood. How can we ever repay the kindness we received?”
Kindness like this can never be repaid, it can only be acknowledged, and serve as an example. There is, today, a public square in Warsaw named for “the good Maharaja” and a school named in his honour; and among the many reunions of the “Polish Indians” some have taken place in India attended not only by officials but also by drivers, cooks, fruit and vegetable vendors, and others who recalled those times fondly. Some could still remember a bit of Polish.
Anuradha Bhattacharjee has written a marvelous book, rich with detail from archival sources, oral history, and letters and memoirs of the time. She has a natural understanding of people who have known oppression and her contacts with “Polish Indians,” whether in London, Poland or Australia, seem to be touched by the same warmth and affection that Indians and Poles shared during the war.
The Second Homeland is a must read. It seems a quibble to point out an error that is no doubt an accidental slip. The dates of the Warsaw Uprising and subsequent Soviet incursion are wrong and should be corrected for the next printing. And I sincerely hope and believe there will be another printing. It’s a fascinating, exciting, moving but virtually unknown story from WWII. Highly recommended.