Wanda Kuras has just one complaint at the end of her guided nostalgia tour of western Maharashtra’s historic Kolhapur city. “They’ve stuffed me like a turkey,” she says, with a mock sternness that comes from a lifetime of drilling math lessons into unwilling students. For three days in mid-September, she joined a group of 12 other octogenarians (and their families) on a tour of the city they had first set foot in nearly 80 years ago as refugees of World War II. She was a baby when Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland’s eastern flank in 1939, signalling the beginning of the war. Soon after, the USSR marched through Poland’s western frontier and began an ethnic cleansing, aimed at driving the natives out of their homes. Millions of Poles were packed off to forced labour camps and concentration camps in bitterly cold Siberia and the eastern reaches of the republic.
Kuras was too young to remember those days. She does not remember that she was close to death twice. She suffered from typhoid as her mother struggled to care for three young daughters in a camp in present-day Kazakasthan. With unspeakable wartime atrocities, cold and disease killing hundreds of thousands of displaced Poles, hope arrived during a crucial moment in the war when Germany turned on the USSR in 1941. The Polish government in exile in London signed an agreement with the USSR to evacuate its exiled population to safety. But it would take a year before a few thousand families were led by the Polish Army to Iran, and, finally, to India, where the royal families of Jamnagar in Gujarat and Kolhapur agreed to take them in. Five thousand women, children and men unfit or too old to serve on the battlefront lived in a refugee camp in Valivade, a village in Kolhapur. Kuras is one of the lucky ones. “My first memories are of here. It was sunny all the time and I was young and had a friend to play with. What else can anyone want at that age?”
The cleanliness of the camp — rows upon rows of spartan barracks that served as homes, schools, orphanages, police check posts and offices — stands out in Kuras’s memory. “The first thing we did was to plant trees. Soon, creepers began to climb up our veranda and the main road of the camp looked like a promenade,” she says. Life in the camp in the early ’40s is described best in the book Poles in India 1942-1948: Second World War Story (2009), published by the Association of Poles in India, which is based in Warsaw. The association ensures that survivors of the war meet every two years. This year is special — it marks 80 years since their home was invaded. The 80th anniversary also gave the Maharashtra government and the Poland Embassy in New Delhi the perfect occasion to fly out the remaining survivors to witness the announcement on September 14 of a museum in Valivade, tracing the extraordinary circumstances which brought the Poles to India and a depiction of everyday life in the camp.
“The museum is for future generations to understand the relationship that the people of India and Poland share,” says Andrzej Chendynsk, president, Association of Poles in India. “None of us is getting any younger, and, for some, this may be the last visit to India.” All that remains of the camp now is a set of barracks, one of which has been converted by Valivade’s present residents into a school. But walking past the barracks on September 14, Ludmila Jakutowicz remembers what Valivade was like growing up, and, in particular, fondly recalls Shivprasad Pardeshi, the handsome local shopkeeper who sold her chocolates. “I was a nine-year-old girl in love. He was 25 and very good-looking, He would also set up a tent theatre and screen Hollywood movies,” she recalls. Now in her 80s, Jakutowicz continues to treasure a pair of silver bangles her mother bought as a Christmas present in 1944. “I haven’t taken them off since. When I die, I will take memories of Valivade with me,” she says.
Kuras says the one thing common to each of the survivors is how happy they were in Valivade — skipping school to play with local children, swimming in rivers whose names they did not know and hiking to the nearby Panhala Fort. “None of us had any toys so we made up our own games. We played petanque with marbles purchased at the camp market,” she jokes. The other theme linking reminiscences of the former refugees is how the tranquil environs of the village helped heal scars of war. Chendynsk arrived in Valivade a orphan after the mother and younger brothers perished to hunger and disease. “Everything I know I learned here.
Back then, all I wanted was to not attend school and play with my new friends,” he says. Janusz Osinzky, a retired 80-year-old lawyer, adds that he felt revived in Valivade with the alien tropical climate almost letting him forget the trauma of having previously lived in a Siberian concentration camp. For Maria Wylot, who like Osinzky, also survived Siberia, Valivade was a paradise made sweeter by mango trees. Olga Topol, the London-based curator of The Jozef Pilsudski Institute, recently interviewed Wylot for a project documenting the loves of Polish refugees who moved to the UK after the war. At the interview, Wylot treated the curator to lunch and mangoes. “After her relocation to the UK, she used to, for many years, bring mangoes to her scouting meetings. People called her ‘the mango lady,’” says Topol over email.
The refugees stayed on in India until 1948, four years after the war ended. Leaving India, the Kolhapurkars of Polish descent say, was heartbreaking. Chendynsk never got to meet his hero, Mahatma Gandhi, Osinzky wasn’t able to witness the celebrations that broke out in Kolhapur on August 15, 1947 and Kuras caught a cold on the ship to England. “I fell sick after reaching England. It was raining all the time and we went through an extreme change in weather from warm Valivade. I wasn’t happy at all to leave,” she says. With Poland having lost nearly half of its eastern provinces in the war, the refugees found themselves without a home and emigrated to the UK, the USA, Africa and Australia. Only 10 per cent of the 5,000 who came to Valivade were able to return to Poland. Chendynsk was among them. Through the association, the survivors keep alive their close links with India. In 1998, they built twin memorials consisting of a pillar and plaque in Warsaw and Mahavir Garden in Kolhapur. Every August 15, the former refugees gather at the memorial in Warsaw to celebrate India’s Independence Day. “As children, we were enrolled in the Boys’ Scouts in Valivade and our unofficial emblem was an arrow pointing west and the words ‘6,000 km. Kolhapur to Warsaw’,” says Chendynsk.