“A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion
are the things which renew humanity.”
When I heard this incredible story, I knew that it had to be told at Christmastime, as this is a true tale of hope, redemption, and altruism. This is a story of an Indian nobleman who is known as Indian Heart or the Indian Oscar Schindler; his name is Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanagar. I know some readers might at this point turn, ready to leave, these I will beg to stay and hear the story first. No one can choose into which family, or which country to be born, it is how we use the advantages given that make us special or not. This man personally saved the lives of 1000 orphans and 600 women who were on the point of dying from starvation in orphanages during Stalin’s reign of terror in Russia during World War II. What makes this Indian man remarkable is that these were Polish orphans whose parents had been murdered on Stalin’s orders, and he had nothing to do with either Poland or Russia. Furthermore., he persuaded his friends to join him in his rescue mission, and in total, he brought back to the safety of India, 5000 orphans.
Does anyone still want to leave now?
The “Good Maharaja”
The Maharaja’s uncle, Sir Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji Jadeja, a famed cricketer, whom he succeeded
THE FATHER OF THOUSAND ORPHANS
DIGVIJAYSINHJI RANJITSINHJI JADEJA, MAHARAJA JAM SAHIB OF NAWANAGAR
18 September 1895 – 2 March 1966
He was born into a wealthy family and succeeded his uncle, the famed cricketer Ranjitsinhji. Highly educated in England, he spent some years in the army.
When World War II broke out, he was in England taking part in negotiations to end the British rule. Here, he met Polish General Sikorski, head of the Polish government in exile in London. From London, he went to stay in Switzerland, where his neighbour was a former Polish president, Paderewski, a pianist and composer, where he learned about the dire fate of thousands of Polish orphans. He volunteered to give them a sanctuary in India, in Gujarat, in one of his villages, Balachadi. At that time no one knew what state the children were in. They had been left to starve. Given one slice of bread a day, in dirty rags, covered in lice, they had frostbite, and many had died already. They were scattered in orphanages across Russia, another problem to overcome.
The Maharaja set about organising the rescue with military precision. As Stalin allowed the Polish orphans to leave Russia, they were taken to Persia (now Iran) in groups of 160 by train, There a convoy of several military trucks driven by Indian drivers waited. The children were piled, dirty and in their rags, onto the trucks. At least they were given some food bought on the markets by the very kind and friendly Indian drivers. Just as well, because they were bewildered, frightened, and crying for their parents. The convoy moved slowly the 1,500 kilometres, through the rough and mountainous parts of Afghanistan to India. There were many problems during this difficult journey but everyone just lived for the day they would reach the safety of India.
Among a few adults accompanying the children was a chaplain, Francis Pluta. Told by his superior that he had to go with the children, and then stay at the camp in India, he pleaded to be excused. He was already traumatised by having been kept at a brutal concentration camp in Russia, and twice on the point of execution, he had just survived by a miracle. Now, he understood that God’s will saved him for a reason, and he agreed to go on the long journey.
On arrival in the village Balachadi, the Maharaja welcomed them, saying: “You are no longer orphans. From now on you are Nawanagarians and I am your Bapu, father of all Nawanagarians, and I will look after you all.”
There were bungalows ready for them, with a bed for each child, a clean change of clothes, washing facilities, and food waiting. The filthy rags were burned and after a thorough wash, they sat down to their first proper meal for months.
One of the children, now an old lady, remembered: “We thought this was Paradise, a beautiful place, with the ocean lapping our bare feet, colourful, exotic plants and flowers, wonderfully warm, and safe. We were so happy!” After the medical checks and the cleanup operation, a school was opened, with each child given a school uniform. To make the initial learning more comfortable for the children, the Maharaja recruited Polish teachers but also arranged English language lessons. A set of musical instruments was bought and in no time a small orchestra was practicing and first entertaining at school, but later, playing for the Maharaja at his palace, which was close to the camp.
Having their own orchestra meant that the dance evenings were very popular, and children in their sewing classes made various costumes. It could be for Christmas or a folk dance routine. Apart from singing the Polish anthem, they delighted the Maharaja by singing for him the Nawanagar anthem. This must have come from their overflowing with love and gratitude hearts because Karolina, one of the saved children, now 90, when asked to sing, gave a perfect rendition of the Nawanagar anthem, in Hindi. And she looks at least twenty years younger, I presume, because of that magical childhood.
In 1947, India gained independence from British rule and all non-Indians had to leave. All the children, now teenagers, left for Canada or the USA, some went to Poland after their relatives were found. Karolina, arrived by ship in Halifax, Canada, invited by her pen pal’s family
Rajkumar Sukhdevsinh, the 83-year-old nephew of the Maharaja, remembered spending a lot of time playing football with the boys from the camp and staying with the children during Christmas celebrations. “My uncle was by nature a wonderful man. His mindset was to help, to say here is a good cause, a worthy cause, something I should be doing”, said Sukhdevsinhji.
The Maharaja never asked for anything in return for his grand gesture but dreamed of the day that he could walk in Poland on a street named after him in liberated Poland. That didn’t happen in his lifetime. It was only after Poland was fully independent in 1989 that a square in Warsaw was named touchingly after him, “Dobry Maharadza” (Good Maharaja).
A monument was erected and he was awarded posthumously The Commander’s Cross of Order of Merit of the Republic.
The words on the monument that say it all:
GRATEFUL POLISH NATION
JAM SAHEB SHIDIGVAJAY SINHJI RANJITSINHJI JAOIJA
MAHARAJA DUCHY NAWANARA
HE SURROUNDED WITH CARE 1000 POLISH CHILDREN
HE EVACUATED FROM THE SOVIET UNION TO INDIA
FROM JULY 1942 TO NOVEMBER 1946
HE PROVIDED THEM WITH HOMES, FOOD, MEDICAL CARE
AND EDUCATION IN A CAMP BUILT FOR THEM CLOSE
BY HIS SUMMER RESIDENCE IN BALACHADI
A school in Warsaw was named after Maharaja and the words on the monument expressed the feelings of people in a country a continent away from India.
For those readers who don’t speak Hindi or Polish, here is a translation from the monument, below, in India:
TO HONOUR THE NAWANAGARI LAND
WHICH DURING DIFFICULT YEARS OF WORLD WAR II
PROVIDED SANCTUARY AND HOSPITALITY TO ONE THOUSAND
DESTITUTE POLISH CHILDREN POLISH NATION AND THE GRATEFUL CHILDREN
OF THE PREVIOUS CAMP AT BALACHADI NEAR NAWANAGARA
As it is part of a literary series based on books, this post is based on the book written by the nephew of the chaplain who stayed with the children at the camp. The author’s name is Leonard Pluta and he lives in Canada. The book’s title in English is Father of Thousand Orphans.
It would be difficult to add anything to this heart-warming, uplifting story; the facts speak, no, shout for themselves, except to let Mahatma Gandhi to have the last word :
“BLESSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS
WHEN I DESPAIR, I REMEMBER THAT ALL THROUGH
HISTORY THE WAY OF TRUTH AND LOVE HAVE ALWAYS WON.
THERE HAVE BEEN TYRANTS AND MURDERERS AND FOR A TIME,
THEY CAN SEEM INVINCIBLE BUT IN THE END, THEY ALWAYS
FALL, THINK OF IT ….. ALWAYS.”