One of an estimated thousand Polish orphans who ended up in India in an effort to escape the Second World War, Karolina Rybka was first taken to Siberia before ending up on a cargo truck bound for India.
“Maybe we would have starved someplace in Russia to death if we didn’t go to India,” she said.
“We would have died because we had nobody to look after us.”
Rybka didn’t arrive in India until she was nine-years-old. All these decades later, the war still haunts most of the now 88-year-old’s childhood memories.
“We went through hell,” she said.
“When we were in Poland as little kids when the Germans came into our village we were just terrified. Our dad was hiding us in a hole someplace because anything that moved Germans were shooting. He hid us in a hole by the house and we had to lay still and not move until six when the Germans quit.”
The family took a train to Siberia. That’s when her mother and one of her six siblings died. Her father then joined his six children and upon realizing he could not feed them all and support them, he took them to an orphanage.
She was then separated from her siblings: one of her sisters was taken to Africa, two of her brothers went to England, and she was bound for India.
Now the Kelowna woman says that she owes her life to one man — Maharaja Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji — in a princely state of Gujarat, India, that was under British rule at the time. He took care of the hundreds of orphans until 1947, when India gained its independence.
“He built schools, dormitories and one of the lines he said is ‘you are no longer orphans now, I am your father,'” Kelowna city councillor Mohini Singh said.
“This king ruled with his head and his heart, he saved the lives of thousands of Polish children that he didn’t even know. If it hadn’t been for him, Karolina wouldn’t be here.”
In 1947, Karolina was sent to live with one of her brothers in England and took part in a pen pal program that connected her with a woman in Saskatchewan. Her family helped pay for her boat ticket and then she set sail for Canada.
With her personal connection to war and the scars it left on her heart, Rybka feels the need to honour those who fought for our freedom.
This Remembrance Day she attended the Rutland ceremony, laying a wreath with Singh so that sacrifice is never forgotten.