It was towards the latter half of World War II, when Kira Banasinska, the wife of the Polish Consulate General in Mumbai (Bombay) and a worker with the Red Cross, sent food and other essential materials over 2,000 km away to Iran.
There, thousands of malnourished Polish refugees from Siberian labour camps had gathered on foot running away from persecution in the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Instead of just leaving them there, Kira facilitated their entry into India on supply trucks. Working with Indian officials, dedicated settlements were established for these refugees across Maharashtra and Gujarat.
Till this day, villages like Valivade in Maharashtra, which is 8 km away from Kolhapur, receives a handful of visitors from Poland, who are taken around the living quarters where they or their family members once lived.
From 1943 to 1948, nearly 5,000 asylum seekers lived as refugees in this village during and after World War II.
“When we were deported from Poland to Russia, I was four. It was such a hell that it wiped out almost everything from my mind as if my mind was protecting itself from the horrors my family went through. It is in India that I have my first childhood memories. Happy memories that I can recall,” said Lancucka Labus, a Polish woman who visited Valivade this year, to Doordarshan.
“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,” says a report in Scroll.
Reports indicate that these Polish refugees lived in reasonably comfortable conditions with proper homes, schools, shops where the worked, gardens and a church for prayer.
“Women with children received a two-room bungalow complete with kitchen, bathroom and veranda. There was also a market where necessities could be bought at fixed prices,” says this report in the Mumbai Mirror.
Elderly locals remember bonding very well with the Poles, playing football, volleyball, hockey and engaging in cheerful banter. Suffice it to say, they all got along.
While many of the Polish refugees left abroad for greener pastures, some stayed back like Wanda Nowicka, who married Vasant Kashikar, a local. In fact, after her wedding, she changed her name to Malti, and the couple had five children together.
She passed away in 2014, but not before re-establishing a connection with her Polish family.
“We are still in touch with our Polish relatives. Often they come here, or we visit Warsaw…Valivade will always be special for us,” says Umesh Kashikar, the fourth son, in a conversation with The Print.
“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,” writes Anuradha Bhattacharjee writes in her book ‘The Second Homeland: Polish Refugees in India.’
However, only a few traces of the Polish refugees remain in Valivade. By 1948, after they left, the settlement had houses Sindhi refugees fleeing Pakistan following Partition. The district administration, however, is working towards building a memorial to mark their presence.
History is often told through the lens of grand narratives surrounding war, persecution and victories. Fortunately, stories like these prove that amid those turbulent times, there was also kindness, generosity and humanity.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)