Australia, Culture, Offbeat, People, Stories from the road
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What a WWII Polish Refugee Taught me About “Hindustan”.

World war 2 stories, World war 2 survivors, India in world war 2

It’s a lazy summer afternoon in Fleurieu Peninsula’s wine country of South Australia. Cycling along the trail of an old railway track, we are surrounded by lush vineyards stretching into the horizon. Every few kilometres, a family-owned winery lures us in, to taste some of the finest Shiraz in the world. We chat with the friendly wine makers, satisfy our hunger pangs at organic cafes, and make our way past signboards that ask us to watch out for kangaroos and koalas!

For our tired feet and drowsy minds, a cosy abode at Linger Longer Vineyard awaits us. We’ve whiled away our evenings here sipping wine on the patio, watching the sun set upon the vineyards at our doorstep. Just as we’re settling in that evening, our hosts invite us for a glass of wine in the main house. They have just returned from a 3-week vacation in India, and in all honesty, I feel a little guilty thinking of the extent of touting and chaos my land must’ve offered them while pristine beauty welcomed me to theirs.

Linger Longer vineyard, Willunga, Mclaren Vale

Sipping wine at Linger Longer Vineyard.

Rosemary pours us a glass of their in-house 2006 Shiraz, while Karol, her husband interrogates us about India, with a tough demeanour I can’t put my finger on. When I ask him, a little shyly, about his own trip, he describes the places he visited, mentioning names like Jamnagar and Kolhapur. I’m unable to fathom why anyone would travel there; the only reason I know of Jamnagar is because it lies enroute to Diu from Ahmedabad.

Before I get a chance to question him, he says everyone in India thought he was a foreigner in the country, and we must too. But, hum hain Hindustani, with a wistful longing he confesses, Jamnagar ka maharaja hamara bapu (I am Indian, the king of Jamnagar is my father). By the time we’re finishing our first glass, he has told us the most incredible story I might ever hear.

The year was 1940, the world was at war. Karol, then a child of six, was one among many Polish kids to be sent to a gulag (labor camp) in Siberia, in the southern Artic in Russia. Karol and his family managed to escape, but he got separated from his mother and siblings. Going back to Poland wasn’t an option, so he journeyed alone, walking and riding on trains and trucks, through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Persia, all the way to Gujarat in India. Jam Saheb, the then king of Nawanagar (now called Jamnagar), who later became the Indian ambassador to the UN, took him in, together with 500 other impoverished Polish children. He gave them shelter, food,  education in a fine school (St Mary’s in Mount Abu, complete with a Polish-speaking teacher), and a place to call home.

polish refugees India, Jam Saheb, Jamnagar Maharaja, Nawanagar Maharaja, World war 2 India

The Polish kids with Jam Saheb. Photo courtesy: Sainik School, Balachadi, Jamnagar.

I can hear Karol’s voice soften, as he tells us what Jam Saheb had told the kids when they arrived. Do not consider yourself orphans, he had said. You are now Nawnagaris and I am Bapu,  father of all the people of Nawanagar, so also yours.

For four years, from 1942 to 1946, 500 Polish kids lived in Balachadi in Jamnagar, under the personal protection of the Maharaja, when no other country was ready to take them. When the war ended, they were sent on a train to England, to start new lives. Karol remembers being on the train the night Gandhi was assassinated. It was in England that he would meet his wife Rosemary, and together they would move to Australia.

The Poles in India have been meeting every year since, swapping life stories and reminiscing about the time they spent in Jamnagar. Rosemary tells us they have all gone on to lead successful lives. She laments though, that the Polish kids are growing old, and this incredible story will soon be lost in time.

I often feel that there are many things we haven’t done right as a country. But in one magnanimous act of kindness, at a time when the rest of the world was on a killing spree, “Hindustan” gave 500 innocent kids a second chance at life.

And what are the odds that of all the vineyards in South Australia, we would find shelter at Karol’s and Rosemary’s?

World war 2 stories, World war 2 survivors, India in world war 2, Polish refugees in India

With Karol and Rosemary, in their house in Willunga.

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I googled Karol’s story later and found a documentary called A Little Poland in India, that has documented the lives of some of the Poles in India. Also this story written on New York Times.

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63 Comments

  1. Wow, what a beautiful story. That’s one of my favourite parts about travel; you never know who you will meet and what stories you will here. That must’ve been a wonderful experience for you to find that connection with your home country!

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    • I agree Harvey! It was indeed surreal to have landed up there, choosing from a whole list of vineyards to stay at :) The universe works in strange ways.

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  2. Roberto Amaral says

    Amazing story! Proud to be Indian and to know what many people think of us and our country!

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  3. This is incredible! Heart warming stories of a bygone era. And I am sure, people did it with a sense of human spirit & not for votes / popularity

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    • That’s the best part, Sangeetha! It seems the Maharaja had to keep it very low key because it wouldn’t have been looked well upon by rest of the world.

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  4. Pingback: What a WWII Polish Refugee Taught me About “Hindustan”. | The Talking Sloth - Asia

  5. What a wonderful heart warming story! Inspite of all the evils of monarchy it had its positives. Specially in the hands of nobles like the king of jamnagar. Travelling is the best teacher. The most unexpected lessons pop up and if one can have wine while learning them, all the better! Have fun !

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  6. Wow, that’s quite some story, and how fortuitous of you to have actually walked into this particular wineyard of all the wineyards in the region, and to have actually met Karol of all people and talked to him about his India story.

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    • I think about that everyday. And there really is no explanation than the universe conspiring to make it happen this way!

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  7. Such a beautiful, heart-warming story, Shivya! How tough the lives of those war children must have been.. I always feel that when I read about those times in books… We can never even begin to imagine the extent of pain in their lives. :(

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  8. What an incredible tale! Reminds me of Schindler’s list! You’ve done complete justice to the story with your narration. And their story will live longer than they thought through your blog! Well done!

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  9. I remember hearing this guy’s story back in Oz.. I can’t remember when exactly, but it was just mind blowing. What a great experience you have been honoured to be a part of Shivya. Absolutely amazing!

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  10. Pingback: Confessions of an Indian Nomad: 7 Months on. | The Shooting Star

  11. Thanks for sharing Karol’s history Shivya. It was an almost unknown part of history until recently. We are all so impressed with the love and generosity shown by Jam Saheb and impressed with the warmth and vitality of the Indian people we met on our recent trip to your beautiful and amazing country

    Karol (one of the Polish kids) and Rosemary

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  12. The story is really great. You have enlightened us with so many facts about the Polish refugees which we were never aware of. I am sure travelling adds a lot of knowledge and is definitely a unique experience.

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