Second Chance At a Childhood: Surviving Orphanhood During WWII
The year: 1939. Germany had invaded Poland, marking the start of a second, gruesome world war. Innocent civilians living in Europe haven't a clue what tragedy would soon strike them. A hate crime where approximately 11 million lives would be torn from their families and mass murdered for the pleasure of Adolf Hitler.
While the dreadful events of the Holocaust are widely taught in schools, there is a plethora of lesser known information about a tragedy occurring simultaneously. With the mass numbers of adults killed during Stalin’s attack on Poland, inevitably also came a mass number of orphaned children. Families were broken, and young children were left without the guidance and warmth of their parents.
Newly orphaned children were transferred to various camps and orphanages within the Soviet Union, but even those whose lives were spared were under conditions that came nowhere close to meeting their physiological needs. Many more were faced with the cold fate of war- death by hunger or illness. Fortunately, a happier reality existed for one particular group of kids.
Life On a Downhill Spiral
Karolina Kucharski Rybka, one of the "luckier" war orphans, described some of her earliest encounters with Soviet troops. With her father and one of her siblings able to escape before the sun rose one morning, Rybka was left with her mother and five remaining siblings. When troops arrived at their home, they were told, “there was no need to take any belongings, everything was available in Russia.” Reality proved the opposite.
Having already gotten a taste of the atrocities to come, Rybka’s family was one of many exiled to Siberia. Starved and stripped of their old life, Rybka and only four siblings remained after their month-long journey. Siberia was where they were left orphaned, and where their last minutes were spent with their father.
Consistent with the Nazi ideology that certain people were to be treated as subhuman, she described the bleak reality of life in an orphanage. “‘They only gave us one slice of bread,’” Rybka recalled, in addition to, “‘lots of children lying on the floor.’” Although the children may have been alive, they were miles from well.
Life felt as though they were running down a hill so steep, that stopping seemed near impossible. Little did they know the ground would soon level enough to regain control of their tired, frail limbs.
The Father, Maharaja
While the lives of many Polish children quickly began to resemble that of Rybka’s, one particular outsider not only caught on to the horrors, but hoped to offer his assistance. The Maharaja of India at the time, Jam Sahib, viewed images of starving Polish children and wanted nothing less than to make up for the childhood they had lost. “His heart bled for them.” Despite British disapproval, the Maharaja allowed 640 refugee children into India, and straight to the royal palace in Bombay.
“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.’” Rybka recalled the pristine care of the Maharaja, having even returned to doing schoolwork and spending afternoons by the ocean. Fellow survivor, Wieslaw Stypula, described the Maharaja’s fatherly concern over the children’s lack of desire to eat.“‘He [the Maharaja] brought seven young cooks for us from Goa!’” Suddenly nothing seemed out of reach.
During the fews years spent in India, the children’s needs were met beyond expectations. They were provided a library filled with Polish literature, as the Maharaja saw the value in maintaining their mother tongue. Simultaneously, they were exposed to an entirely new culture outside of their European bubble.
Realizing that the children would eventually return to Poland, the Maharaja ensured they were well documented. “When World War II was officially over, and it was safe for the children to go home. They were transported back to their mother country." The bond they had shared with their new father made this goodbye particularly difficult. Fortunately, some children were reunited with their parents back in Poland and therefore able to restore even a fraction of their old lives.
The Maharaja’s generosity during WWII was an extreme instance where status granted someone the ability to save children from an otherwise grim fate. Him and the Indian population alike never expressed bitterness towards these refugee children, despite their arrival during a period of extreme drought and famine. The singular request was that of a street being named after the kind Indian ruler. While not occurring in his lifetime, a park in Poland’s capital was eventually named ‘Square of the Good Maharaja.’
Pure and selfless acts, regardless of magnitude, should never get lost under their neighboring tragedies. Survivors’ stories are crucial hidden fragments of history which bring these to light, offering personal insight into how one’s actions influenced the outcome of their life. Everyone should yearn to uncover where they come from, and learn whose support it was that indirectly saved them.