A Passage to Britain II, Polish refugees in India – BBC 2

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There’s been a sizeable Polish community in Manchester, as in many other parts of the UK, since the war. I’ve always been aware of that, right back to when I was at primary school and some of the other kids there had Polish names.  And I knew that there’d been Polish Displaced Persons camps in the UK, one of the largest being at Delamere Park near my mum’s home town of Northwich.  But I have to say that I knew very little about Polish wartime refugees coming to the UK via India; and I don’t think that the makers of this rather interesting series did either, until they came across this sad but fascinating story whilst looking into immigration from India to Britain in the immediate post-war era.

I got the impression that Yasmin Khan – who would be a good presenter if she didn’t seem so keen to present Britain in as negative a light as possible – was expecting to find that most of those sailing on the Asturias, the ship featured in the second programme, in late 1947 were fleeing the horrific violence associated with Partition.  That’s what I’d have been expecting too.  (I did also think we might get a few British people/families who’d spent their entire working lives in India returning to the UK to make a new start in a “home” that they didn’t really know, but we didn’t.)

There were certainly people leaving because of Independence and or Partition. Some of those featured were Sikhs: Partition was about Hindus and Muslims but, especially with most of the violence being in the north, so many Sikhs suffered terribly.  There was a rather nice reference by one Sikh man to his father having previously spent time in Britain in the 1930s and having worked as a market trader alongside Jewish market traders in the East End of London, two religious minority groups together.

There were also a number of Anglo-Indians, a community which tends to be overlooked when discussing this period of history. It’s a confusing term, because “Anglo-Indian” originally meant white British people living in India, with people of mixed heritage being descrived as “Eurasian” – but then, somehow, the meanings changed, and “Anglo-Indian” came to mean people of mixed heritage.  As with so many stories of immigration over the years, there were some sad tales of skilled workers having to take whatever work they could get, often with little relevance to the skills and experience they’d brought with them – but, alongside that, inspiring tales of building up successful businesses.

The part of the programme that most caught the attention, though, was the part focussing on the Polish people travelling on the ship, because it just wasn’t what either the presenter or the viewers would have been expecting.

After the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, but before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union led to the Soviets joining the war on the Allied side, the Soviets deported large numbers of people, possibly as many as a million, from Soviet-occupied parts of Poland to gulags in Siberia and Kazakhstan. During a temporary amnesty in mid to late 1942, many of those people were able to leave, but it was a long and arduous journey, through Persia.  Some of the young men went into the Polish Armed Forces in Exile.  Civilians, mostly women and children, were taken to various places, mostly parts of the British Empire and the Dominions; and India played a large part in this.

Within India, various authorities were involved – the British colonial authorities, the Polish consul general in Bombay/Mumbai and his wife, and the royal families of some of the princely state. The Maharajah of Nawanagar played a particularly important role: he unfortunately didn’t get a mention in this programme, but I’ve been reading a bit about him.  He set up a camp for Polish refugee children, and there’s a school named after him in Warsaw, and also a “Good Maharajah Square”.  The Maharajah of Kolhapur also set up a camp for Polish refugee children.

We didn’t hear about the maharajahs’ camps, but we did hear how Polish communities were established in India, and we saw pictures of Polish shops and Polish dancing there. Some of the Polish refugees settled in India and spent the rest of their lives there, but the programme was about people coming from India to Britain and, along with many other Poles – there seem to have been about 250,000 in all – who ended up in Britain after the war, the people interviewed had settled here, not wanting to go back to a Poland which by then was under communist rule.

There are so many little-known stories about groups of people displaced during or after the Second World War. Even now, the stories of Stalin’s deportations of the Chechens and the Crimean Tatars aren’t well-known in the West.  Then there were the Germans forced to leave the Breslau area, now Polish Wroclaw … and the repopulation of Wroclaw by Poles who left Lviv/Lvov/Lviv/Lemberg when it became part of Soviet Ukraine.  Just a few examples.  It’s thought that around 1,000 Poles came to Britain via India.

This programme’s hopefully drawn attention to their story – and it’s fascinating how historical research can lead you down paths that you hadn’t set off to go down, and teach you about something that you hadn’t been looking for. You look for stories about people fleeing the violence of Partition between India and Pakistan, and stumble across stories of people deported from Soviet-occupied Poland.  And, amid all the evils of those times, there were wonderful people like those two maharajahs who set up camps for refugee children from a faraway land.  I feel quite bad that I didn’t know about the history of Polish wartime refugees in India.  I’m glad that I do now.