Documentary 'Little Poland in India' Explores The Stories Of Holocaust Refugees In India
Trigger Warning: The following article contains mention of the Holocaust and World War II survivors. Please read on at your own discretion.
The primordial ocean of time has engulfed swathes of our past like lost islands. The lens of our periscope cannot salvage what really saw the light of the sun. History, therefore, is not a cut-and-dry retelling of facts but consists largely of arguments and interpretations based on information recorded in the shape of writing, images or oral traditions.
But given enough time, archival documentation loses social currency and we begin to scrub out the memories from our consciousness to make way for new connotations. Case in point being how the Holocaust is illustrated between the pages of our textbooks in school. According to a study titled International Status of Education about the Holocaust, Indian government prescribed course books often misrepresent the genocide or even skip it completely. Another truism that curricula often indulge in is ‘frame switching’ by comparing this World War II nightmare with other tragedies or events elsewhere in the world.
Recently, a Bollywood film Bawaal (2023) invoked condemnation from a Jewish human rights organisation, The Simon Wiesenthal Center, for exploiting the Holocaust as a tone-deaf plot device. At one juncture in the movie, Janhvi Kapoor’s character Nisha says, “Every relationship goes through its Auschwitz.” The name of Hitler, too, has become synonymous in our colloquial vocabulary with a tyrannical parent or any commonplace figure of authority. While the ethnic cleansing of the Jewish people did not take place on our soil — so we couldn’t possibly know what it must have felt like and unbeknownst to many, British India did provide refuge to roughly 2,000 refugees fleeing Europe between 1938 and 1947.
Blossoming unexpectedly like a lotus in the snow, you will find the Good Maharaja Square amidst the dense thoroughfares of the Ochota district in Warsaw (Poland), comprising of a park with a memorial to an Indian monarch of Nawanagar, Jam Sri Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja. Colloquially known as the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar, this 'Good Maharaja' volunteered the grounds of his summer palace in Balachadi, Gujarat to provide refuge for close to a 1,000 Polish children escaping the horrors of Nazi persecution. While the Red Cross, the Polish government-in-exile and the Crown collaboratively aided in the rehabilitation of these children aged two through 17;,the Maharaja is fondly remembered as a godfather in their lives for having set up a school for them, commissioned cooks from Goa to feed themm and making them feel at home in a foreign country.
This tugboat of human solidarity — a single individual pulling behind him those who escaped the gulags — would have sunk unnoticed had it not been for Delhi-based documentary filmmaker Anu Radha who first learnt about the Maharaja from the then India’s ambassador to Poland in 2011, Monika Kapol Mohta.
Having dabbled with cable television and screenwriting before, Anu dove headfirst into research and evenetually managed to unearth a book called Poles in India: 1942-1948. With help from the Polish embassy in New Delhi, her research gave her the material Anu needed to direct an honest, eye-opening film about the Poles exiled in Siberia who traversed across seas to find shelter in India.
Little Poland in India (2015) opens to an over-the-shoulder shot of the Polish survivor Wieslaw Stypula gazing wistfully at a strip of sun-kissed coast in Gujarat narrating in voiceover, “I am here, in this land, for the fourth time and I do not know but probably it is the last, however, this land will always have a piece of my heart.” Combining war footage, animation and reenactments, this hour long documentary casts a net into the murky waters of the personal accounts shared by the war migrants from what was then a part of the Soviet Union. The magnanimity of the Maharajah will appear more commendable when you take into account the fact that when the whole world was at war, India was struggling against oppression in its own way under the British Raj, yet this cannot in any way draw parallel to what the Polish children experienced.
The documentary, a joint Indo-Polish brainchild, is the first of its kind to undercover the lives of WWII survivors who were given protection in India by the Jam Sahib. The film was produced with the cooperation of Doordarshan (India’s state broadcast channel), the Government of Gujarat, the National Audio-Visual Institute and Polish TV. Exploring the cross-currents of how war transcends continents to enter the universal realm of human suffering, Little Poland in India elicits the gratitude and trepidation felt by the refugees in relying on the goodwill of those like the Maharaja, who were somewhat removed from the context of their own culture, but still proved to be a source of comfort and security.
The efforts of filmmakers Anu Radha and Sumit Osmand Shaw revive the harmony that exists between nations even in the grasp of war, embodying in the shape of the Good Maharaja and his Polish wards, the likelihood that such stories will keep resurfacing.
Every few generations, like a letter in a bottle, tattered shreds from our past will land up on our shores again.
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