‘He saved our lives’: Canadian woman among a thousand Polish children adopted by Indian maharaja during World War 2

First posted November 10, 2019

Belle Puri 

A pot of fresh borscht simmers on the stove. The aroma fills Karolina Rybka’s two-bedroom apartment in Kelowna, B.C. The walls are adorned with frames full of colourful needlepoint the great-grandmother did herself. Everywhere there’s something to see — arrangements of dried flowers, knick-knacks and endless family photographs. 

Karolina Kucharski Rybka lived in Balachadi, a small seashore town in northwestern India, for five years until she was 16 years old. (Submitted by Karolina Rybka)

t’s an atmosphere in stark contrast to decades-old memories that remain vivid in Rybka’s mind. She remembers the squalid orphanage where she landed after the Soviets deported her family to Siberia at the start of the Second World War. “They gave us only one slice of bread,” she said.”There were lots of children in a big room lying on the floor.” Life was bleak until an Indian maharaja came to the rescue. Rybka, of Kelowna, B.C., is one of an estimated 1,000 Polish children provided refuge by the Maharaja Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji, the ruler of Nawanagar, after their release from the Soviet orphanage in 1942. “He saved our lives,” said Rybka.

Rybka was the third-youngest of seven children born to a carpenter and his wife in Zulin, a small village in Poland.  When the Second World War began in September 1939, the country was invaded by the Germans and then by the Russians.  Rybka’s family was torn apart.  Her father and one sibling escaped apprehension when Soviet troops came to their door one day at 6 a.m.  She, her mother and five siblings were taken away.  “They say, ‘Get up. You’re going to Russia. Get ready,'” said Rybka. The soldiers told the family there was no need to take any belongings, everything was available in Russia. “There was nothing in Russia. We were all starving there,” said Rybka. With four and five families to a car with no beds or toilets, Rybka’s family endured a month-long train journey to Siberia. Her mother and one sibling died there.  Eventually, Rybka’s father was able to make his way to Siberia and find his children but the reunion was short-lived. 

Kind-hearted maharaja 

In 1941, the Soviets declared an amnesty allowing orphans to leave Russia. Knowing he couldn’t provide for them, Rybka’s father deposited his three youngest children at an orphanage for Polish children in Siberia. It was the last time they would see their father. Shortly afterward, the kind-hearted maharaja unexpectedly came to their rescue. The ruler of Nawanagar, a princely state in British India, volunteered to provide hundreds of Polish children with a home. 

They travelled, again by train, to Persia and then 1,500 kilometres on army trucks to the Indian state of Gujarat and a village called Balachadi. The maharaja greeted the children with the words: “You are no longer orphans. From now on, you are Nawanagarians and I am bapu, father of all Nawanagarians.”The maharaja built dormitories in which each child had his or her own bed and provided them with food, clothes and medical care. He also provided for the children’s education by bringing in Polish teachers. 

Rybka said most days she went to school until noon, had lunch, and then walked with other children to the ocean for a swim.  “Big waves. We were just jumping. We were so happy,” said Rybka. Her memories include playing sports, excelling in basketball and performing Polish dances for the maharaja. 

Family remembers Polish children 

The maharaja had children of his own, as well as extended family who lived at his palace not far from where the Polish children were staying. Nephew Rajkumar Sukdevsinhji, 83, remembers spending a lot of time with the newcomers, particularly playing football and celebrating Christmas. His uncle, he says, was educated in England and “by nature was a wonderful person.” “His mindset was to help, to say here is a good cause, a worthy cause, something I should be doing,” said Sukdevsinhji by telephone from Mumbai.  The Polish children, he says, were looked after with uniforms for school, teachers in class and beautiful residences — everything was provided. Digvijaysinhji never asked for anything in return for his grand gesture, but dreamed of the day a street could be named after him in a liberated Poland. That didn’t happen during his lifetime. It was only after Poland became fully independent in 1989 that a square in Warsaw was named after the maharaja. 

Subsequently, a small park in the city has been named the Square of the Good Maharaja, a monument in his honour has been erected and he was posthumously awarded the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland.  In 1947, India gained independence from the British and non-Indians had to leave the country. Polish authorities moved Rybka, then in her mid-teens, and others to England — and encouraged them to participate in a pen-pal program. 

At 18, the family of Rybka’s Canadian pen pal sent for her, she says, believing she might make a good wife for their son. But he wasn’t there when she arrived in Prince Albert, Sask., and the next day she met another man. She married him a few months later. Now a widow, Rybka says she’d like to revisit Balachadi and see where she lived and grew up, but doesn’t see that happening at her age. The maharaja, she says, was a good man and if he were alive and she could see him she would hug him.  “I have no idea what would have happened to us, a thousand kids,” she said.  “The war was everywhere. I have no idea what they would have done with us. Nobody wanted us.”