TRT World spoke to one of the survivors who made it back to Poland after spending many years of his childhood as a refugee in India.
WARSAW — In late August, under the blazing sun, I walked through the streets of Warsaw’s Zoliborz neighbourhood.
In the northern part of the city, Zoliborz is one of the most beautiful parts of the capital. Unlike other Warsaw districts, it was spared total destruction during the Second World War. Its local architecture infuses Art Deco elegance with socealist realism.
In one of these modern houses, I met with a war survivor, a wandering soul who in postwar Warsaw found a new life amid other lives shattered by the devastating conflict.
Andrzej Chendyski was a child when he faced the Soviet repression. He told me about his odyssey from Poland to India, where he lived in a refugee camp in the village of Valivade, near Kolhapur, a city in the west Indian state of Maharashtra.
“I was almost four years old when I was thrown into the infinity of the Kazakh steppe,” Chendyski told me as we sat in his Warsaw apartment. “In the Kazakh steppe, so poor and primitive, there is nothing but a lonesome landscape.”
Chendynski was born in Lvov (today, in Ukraine) to a well-to-do family. His mother - a native of Krakow and a housewife - passed away in Uzbekistan following a typhoid fever outbreak. His father, who at that time was fighting Germany’s Wehrmacht in Warsaw, learned about his family fate only after the war.
“My mother and my older brother died in Uzbekistan and are buried in a mass grave," Chendynski said.
The Soviet invasion from the east left millions of Poles displaced and homeless. The worst hit were those who lived in Kresy — territories regained after the Great War of 1918 and Polish-Bolshevik War of 1921. Nearly 1.7 million Polish citizens were deported from eastern Polish territories to deep Russia, where the world was pine and steppe.
Adults, the elderly and children suffered one of the worst human rights violations in the history of mankind. Yet, the postwar world order wiped these events from collective memory. “The Soviets deported the Polish people and the Western historians deported the event from history,” writes Anuradha Bhattacharjee in The Second Homeland: Polish Refugees in India.
In August 1941, the Polish Armed Forces in the east, informally named the Anders Army after its commander General Władysław Anders, had ordered the evacuation of the Polish deportees. The orders were promulgated following an ‘amnesty’ granted by the Soviets, and after the Axis forces invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. First collection centres were established in Yangi- Yul in Uzbekistan, and then in Turkmenistan.
“People were heading south from all directions: from Kazakhstan, from Siberia and other parts of the Soviet Union, far east using all modes of transport,” Chendyski explained. His childhood memories are filled with images of emaciated women, men and children who were waiting in collection centres in Ashgabad (Turkmenistan), to embark on a journey home.
But there was no home
“After my mother’s death, I was cared for in an orphanage together with my youngest brother,” Chendyski said. The estimated 75,000 children in various Polish centres or orphanages needed instant help after the ‘amnesty’. In local orphanages, the primitiveness bordered on utter poverty. There was no food, no running water, and infectious diseases were decimating the weakest children.
In Persia and India: reincarnating freedom
The Polish government in exile asked permission from the Soviet authorities to leave to Iran and India. India, though not sovereign at that time, and neither wealthy nor prosperous, was the first country which accepted Polish refugees.
In March 1942, nearly 15,000 Polish children were sent to India. Chendynski was one of the lucky ones. The perilous journey was undertaken from Krasnovlodsk to Pahlavi (today: Bandar en Anzali).
Chendynski recalls hair-raising scenes before embarkation. “Only the strongest and healthy were given permission to evacuate,” he said. “Mothers were leaving their children behind rescuing themselves.” Yet, this was not a rescue but the struggle for survival.
Evacuation ships crowded with Polish refugees, cramped boats with children or women, filled the Caspian Sea. The photos which document the evacuation from the USSR resemble today’s images off the coast of Lampedusa or Lesbos.
Chendynski’s youngest brother died on a ship shortly after embarkation. His body was thrown into the Caspian Sea.
Chendynski survived the journey. He and nearly 5000 Polish children had been allocated in Valivade.
“The Hindus were astonished to see poor and homeless white people. The local population who got used to the sumptuously rich British landlords could not believe their eyes as they looked at the impoverished Polish refugees,” he recalled smiling.
The camp in Valivade bore no similarity to the collection centres in Uzbekistan. There was a shop, a school, a kindergarten, an auditorium, and wooden barracks with running water, and medical care. Valivade gave him a sense of psychological stability.
The agonising search by refugees for new lives was over only after 1945. “Many of the Valivade children decided not to go back to Poland, and emigrated to Australia, to the United States, or the United Kingdom,” Chendyski explained.
They were poised between their devastated homeland and their affluent adoptive countries.
But Chendynski expressed regret for their choice.
“I could not understand why they decided that,” he said. Many of the survivors didn’t go to universities, pursuing relatively simple lives abroad as blue-collar workers. “Some of them never mastered the English language,” Chendynski reflected. The identity homelessness had become a bitter fact of life.
The memory of the Polish refugees in India could be an unambiguous lesson for the contemporary refugee crisis.
The Second World War was not the last time when the Polish people faced the reality of expulsion and resettlement.
In the 1980s, as economic conditions deteriorated in Poland, Poles poured into western Europe seeking freedom from communism. Marked by terrible suffering, conceived in utopian promises, the history of mankind reincarnates itself.
Today, Valivade is referred to as ‘a mini Poland’. In September 2019, a memorial was erected in Valivade to commemorate 5,000 Poles, providing a testament to the suffering and courage of those who fled.