Emotion pours out as impassioned declarations in the documentary My Home India, which is being screened at the upcoming The Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival. As Polish people from around the world relive a childhood spent on Indian soil, the memories flow thick and fast, and the gratitude is unmistakable.
It felt like heaven to me. After all the horrors, I felt like a normal child.
It was here that I discovered that I exist.
I’m terribly moved. I spent the most beautiful years of my childhood here.
Where are the elephants?
They have come from all over to remember, and commemorate, the role played by India in giving them shelter, a few years of peace in the midst of war, and the opportunity to heal, study and learn new skills. Anjali Bhushan’s documentary, based on research by Malgorzata Czausow, recalls India’s contribution in easing the Polish refugee crisis that exploded in the late 1930s and swelled through World War II. After the Soviet Union occupied Poland in 1939, millions of Polish people were scattered across the globe. From 1942, India was one of their destinations.
“India, though not sovereign at the time and not at all prosperous, became the first country in the world to accept and offer war-duration domicile at her own cost to the hapless Polish population rendered homeless and subsequently stateless by the events of the world’s worst war till date,” Anuradha Bhattacharjee writes in The Second Homeland Polish Refugees in India (Sage Publications, 2012).
Though many Jewish people from Europe took refuge in wartime India, fleeing Nazi persecution, the Poles who came to India were Catholic.
Camps for Polish orphans and adults were set up in the princely states in India that had aligned themselves with the British war efforts. “The Polish Consulate in Bombay, through the Polish relief Committee and the JRA [Jewish Relief Agency], extended succour to the Polish escapees reaching India,” Bhattacharjee writes.
The first batch of 500 Polish children to arrive in 1942 were housed by Digvijaysinghji Ranjitsinghji, the ruler of Nawanagar (now known as Jamnagar) in the Kutch region. This chapter of India’s aid towards Poland is explored in the 2013 documentary A Little Poland in India, directed by Anu Radha and Sumit Osmand Shaw.
In 1943, over 5,000 Polish asylum seekers landed up in Valivade in the princely state of Kolhapur, which was ruled by the Bhosale family. They were housed in barracks on the banks of the Panchganga river. The expenses were borne by the Polish government in exile, and over a relatively short span of five years, a mini-Poland came up with its own school, hospital, post office and fire brigade.
My Home India revisits the Valivade experience. The 44-minute documentary includes archival footage of life in the transit camp and interviews with Polish visitors to Valivade. The film also pays fulsome tribute to Kira Banasinska, the wife of the Polish Consulate General at the time who spearheaded efforts to set up camps across India and ensure that the refugees were cared for. “Kira bullied people into helping her, she had that indefatigable power and energy,” an associate tells Bhushan. “She wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Although Banasinska died in 2002 at the age of 102, Bhushan had access to unused video interviews between Banisanska and Polish journalist Dariusz Sobiczewski. “I have at least fix or six times the footage to make many more films,” Bhushan said.
Bhushan was initially approached to make a fiction film on the subject. In 2011, she met Malgorzata Czausow, who had once worked at the Polish Consulate in India. Czausow sent Bhushan Kira Banasinska’s unpublished autobiography. “I read it overnight, and I compelled to tell the story,” Bhushan said. “The refugees remind you that life is transient and change is the only constant. They found happiness in nothing, and made their lives more beautiful.”
The documentary was made sporadically between 2011 and 2017, depending on when Bhushan could raise the funds. The filmmaker, who works at T-Series as Vice-President Creative, is now looking for a distributor. “There is no point in making a film like this and keeping it in a box,” Bhushan said. She hasn’t abandoned the idea of spinning off the material into a fiction film, and is working on a script.
Only a few traces of the Polish experience have survived in Vadivale. In 1948, after the departure of the Polish, the settlement housed another set of refugees – Sindhis fleeing the Partition. The place comes alive in the archival footage and the accounts of its visitors, who remember the barracks with the tiled roofs and the rough floors, the gardens at the back, and the chance to experience peace after the brutalities of war and displacement.
“All surviving residents across the world recall it as a sunny peaceful place, where they spent the best years of their life, which promoted them to form associations, have regular biennial reunions, issue commemorative bulletins, revisit India and put a memorial place in the town centre after the dismantling of the community government in Poland and the USSR,” Anuradha Bhattacharjee writes in her book.