A Chapter of Forgotten History — Polish people

By Ryszard Antolak, Summer 2002

“Exhausted by hard labour, disease and starvation – barely recognizable as
human beings – we disembarked at the port of Pahlevi (Anzali), on the Caspian shore of Northern Iran. There, we knelt down together in our thousands along the sandy shoreline to kiss the soil of Persia. We had escaped Siberia, and were free at last. We had reached our longed-for “Promised Land”.” Helena Woloch

In Tehran’s Dulab cemetery, situated in a rundown area of the city, are the
graves of thousands of Polish men, women and children. It is not the only
such cemetery in Iran, but it is the largest and most well-known. All of the
gravestones, row upon row of them, bear the same date: 1942.

In that year, Iran stood as a beacon of freedom and hope for almost a
million Polish citizens released from the Soviet labor camps of Siberia and
Kazakhstan. After enduring terrible conditions travelling across Russia,
115,000 of them were eventually allowed to enter Iran. Most of them went on
to join the allied armies in the Middle East. The rest (mostly women and
children) remained guests of Iran for up to three years, their lives totally
transformed in the process. They never forgot the debt they owed to the
country that had so generously opened its doors to them. Their
reminiscences, as well as the many graves left behind in Tehran, Anzali and
Ahvaz, are testimony to a chapter of Iranian history almost erased from the
public memory.

From Poland to Iran
(http://www.rozanehmagazine.com/JanFeb2005/apoilishiniran.html)

In 1939, the Soviet Union had participated with Nazi Germany in the invasion
and partition of Poland. In the months that followed, the Soviets began a
policy of ethnic cleansing in the area to weed out what they called
“socially dangerous and anti-soviet elements”. As a result, an estimated 1.5
million civilians were forcibly expelled from their homes in the course of
four mass deportations. Thrust at gunpoint into cattle trucks, they were
transported to remote labour camps all over Siberia and Kazakhstan. [1]

Their fate was completely changed in June 1941 when Germany unexpectedly
attacked Russia. In need of as many allies it could find, Russia agreed to
release all the Polish citizens it held in captivity. [2] Shortly
afterwards, provision was also made for the creation of an army from these
newly-freed prisoners. It was to be commanded by General Wladyslaw Anders,
recently released from the Lubyanka prison in Moscow. Stalin intended to
mobilize this new army immediately against the Germans in the West; but
Anders persuaded him to hold back until the Poles had recovered their health
and strength after two years of exhaustion in the labour camps.

Swept onwards by the rumours that Stalin was about to allow some of them to
leave his “Soviet Paradise”, these former prisoners of the Gulag system
began a desperate journey southwards, some of them on foot, to reach the
reception camps set up for them on the borders of Iran and Afghanistan. They
travelled thousands of miles from their places of exile in the most distant
regions of the Soviet Union. It was an exodus of biblical proportions in
terrible conditions. Many froze to death on the journey or starved. Others
kept themselves alive by selling whatever personal objects they had been
fortunate enough to have brought with them. Exhausted mothers, unable to
walk any further, placed their children into the arms of strangers to save
them from certain death. [3]

Arrived at the army reception camps in Tashkent, Kermine, Samarkand and
Ashkhabad, the refugees attempted to enlist in the Polish army, for which
the Soviets had allocated some food and provisions. There was nothing,
however, for the hundreds of thousands of hungry civilians, mostly women and
children, who were camped outside the military bases. Instead of increasing
provisions to the camps, the Soviets actually cut them. In response, the
Polish army enlisted as many of the civilians as they could into its ranks,
even children (regardless of age or sex) to save them from starvation. In
the baking heat, dysentery, typhus, and scarlet fever became rampant.
Communal graves in Uzbekistan could not keep up with the numbers who were
dying. By 1942, only half of the 1.7 million Polish citizens arrested by the
Soviets at the start of the war were still alive.

Their salvation finally came when Stalin was persuaded to evacuate a
fraction of the Polish forces to Iran. A small number of civilians were
allowed to accompany them. The rest had no option but to remain behind and
face their fate as Soviet citizens.

Port of Pahlevi

The evacuation of Polish nationals from the Soviet Union took place by sea
from Krasnovodsk to Pahlevi (Anzali), and (to a lesser extent) overland from
Ashkabad to Mashhad. It was conducted in two phases: between 24 March and 5
April; and between the 10th and 30th of August 1942. In all, 115,000 people
were evacuated, 37,000 of them civilians, 18,000 children (7% of the number
of Polish citizens originally exiled to the Soviet Union).

A makeshift city comprising over 2000 tents (provided by the Iranian army)
was hastily erected along the shoreline of Pahlevi to accommodate the
refugees. It stretched for several miles on either side of the lagoon: a
vast complex of bathhouses, latrines, disinfection booths, laundries,
sleeping quarters, bakeries and a hospital. Every unoccupied house in the
city was requisitioned, every chair appropriated from local cinemas.
Nevertheless, the facilities were still inadequate.

The Iranian and British officials who first watched the Soviet oil tankers
and coal ships list into the harbour at Pahlevi on the 25th March 1942 had
little idea how many people to expect or what physical state they might be
in. Only a few days earlier, they had been alarmed to hear that civilians,
women and children, were to be included among the evacuees, something for
which they were totally unprepared. [4] The ships from Krasnovodsk were
grossly overcrowded. Every available space on board was filled with
passengers. Some of them were little more than walking skeletons covered in
rags and lice. Holding fiercely to their precious bundles of possessions,
they disembarked in their thousands at Pahlevi and kissed the soil of
Persia. Many of them sat down on the shoreline and prayed, or wept for joy.
They were free at last!

They had not quite escaped, however. Weakened by two years of starvation,
hard labour and disease, they were suffering from a variety of conditions
including exhaustion, dysentery, malaria, typhus, skin infections, chicken
blindness and itching scabs. General Esfandiari, appointed by the Iranians
to oversee the evacuation, met with his Polish and British counterparts to
discuss how to tackle the spread of Typhus, the most serious issue facing
them.

It was decided to divide the reception area into two parts: an “infected”
area and a “clean” area, separated from each other by a barbed wire fence.
On arrival, those who were suspected of having infectious diseases were
quarantined in the closed section for four days, or else sent to the camp
hospital. 40% of patients admitted to the hospital were suffering from
typhus. Most of these died within a month or two of arriving. At this time
there were only 10 doctors and 25 nurses in the whole of Pahlevi.

In the clean area, the arrivals were channelled into a series of tents where
their clothes were collected and burned. They were then showered, deloused,
and some of them had their heads shaved in the interests of hygiene. As a
result, women began to wear headscarves to conceal their baldness. Finally,
they were given sheets, blankets and fresh clothes by the Red Cross and
directed to living quarters.

Food provision was inappropriate. Corned beef, fatty soup and lamb,
distributed by the British soldiers, caused havoc with digestions accustomed
only to small pieces of dry bread. They could not tolerate the rich food,
and a large number died purely from the results of over-eating.

Beggarly, unwell and dishevelled, the Polish refugees were nourished more by
the smiles and generosity of the Iranian people than by the food dished out
by British and Indian soldiers. Iran at that time was going through one of
the unhappier episodes of her history. Occupied by the Russians and the
British, her relations with the soldiers of these two countries were
understandably strained and difficult. With the Poles, however, there was an
immediate affinity which was evident from the moment they arrived and which
extended from the lowest to the highest levels of society.

On 11th April 1942 Josef Zajac, chief of Polish forces in the Middle East,
noted in his diary on a visit to Tehran that the Persian population were
better disposed to them than either the British or the White Russian emigres
(who were distinctly hostile). His relationship with the Iranian Minister of
War, Aminollah Jahanbani (released a year earlier from prison for plotting
against Shah Reza Pahlavi), was genuinely friendly and cordial. During the
course of their discussions together on 13th April 1942, they discovered
that they had been students together at the same French military academy.
[5] Personal friendships such as these further smoothed relations between
the two populations. Contacts between Polish and Persian soldiers were
equally cordial. The custom of Polish soldiers saluting Persian officers on
the streets sprang up spontaneously, and did not go unnoticed by the
Iranians

Isfahan: The City Of Polish Children

Washed up in the detritus of evacuees arriving at Pahlevi had been over
18,000 children of all ages and sexes (mostly girls). [6] Not all of them
were orphans. Some had been separated from their families during the long
journey through Russia. Their condition was especially desperate. Many were
painfully emaciated and malnourished. Orphanages were set up in immediately
in Pahlevi, Tehran and Ahvaz to deal with them as a matter of urgency.

The first major orphanage to be opened was situated in Mashhad, and was run
by an order of Christian nuns. It opened its doors on March 12 1942. The
children at this home were predominantly those transported over the border
from Ashkabad by trucks.

Eventually, however, Isfahan was chosen as the main centre for the care of
Polish orphans, particularly those who were under the age of seven. They
began arriving there on 10th April 1942. It was believed that in the
pleasant surroundings and salutary air of this beautiful city, they would
have a better chance of recovering their physical and mental health.

Iranian civil authorities and certain private individuals vacated premises
to accommodate the children. Schools, hospitals and social organizations
sprang up quickly all over the city to cater for the growing colony. The
young Shah, Mohamed Reza Pahlavi took especial interest in the Polish
children of Isfahan. He allowed them the use of his swimming pool, and
invited groups of them to his palace for dinner. In time, some of the
children began to learn Farsi and were able to recite Persian poems to a
delegation of Iranian officials who visited the city. At its peak,
twenty-four areas of
the city were allocated to the orphans. As a result, Isfahan became known
ever after in Polish emigre circles as “The City of Polish Children”.

Exile in Iran

The refugees remained in Pahlevi for a period of a few days to several
months before being transferred to other, more permanent camps in Tehran,
Mashhad, and Ahvaz. Tehran possessed the greatest number of camps. A
constant stream of trucks transported the exiles by awkward twisted roads
from the Caspian to Quazvin, where they were put up for the night on school
floors, before continuing their journey next morning to the capital.

Tehran’s five transit camps, one army and four civilian, were situated in
various parts of the metropolitan area. Once again, certain Iranian
authorities and individuals volunteered buildings (even sports stadiums and
swimming baths) for the exclusive use of the refugees. Camp No.2, however,
(the largest) was nothing more than a collection of tents outside the city.
Camp No. 4, was a deserted munitions factory. No. 3 was situated in the
Shah’s own garden, surrounded by flowing water and beautiful trees There was
also a Polish hospital in the city, a hostel for the elderly, an orphanage
(run by the Sisters of Nazareth) and a convalescent home for sick children
(Camp No. 5) situated in Shemiran.

Most able-bodied men (and women) of military age enlisted forthwith in the
army and were assigned to military camps. Their stay in Iran was a short
one. The army was quickly evacuated to Lebanon and included in the Polish
forces being reformed there. Their route to Lebanon was either overland from
Kermanshah (6 rest stations were set up for them along the way to Latrun),
or by ship from the southern port of Ahvaz. The remainder – women, children
and men over the age of military service – remained behind in Iran, some of
them for periods up to three years.

Something more than food and clothing are necessary for the human spirit to
survive and grow. Art and Culture are antibodies to feelings of despondency
and decay, and within a few months of their arrival, the exiles had set up
their own theatres, art galleries, study circles, and radio stations all
over the city. Artists and craftsmen began to give exhibitions. Polish
newspapers began to spring up; and restaurants began to display Polish flags
on the streets.

Among the organizations formed to care for the educational and cultural
needs of the exiles was the influential “Institute of Iranian Studies” begun
by a small group of Polish academicians. [7] In three years from 1943 to
1945 this group published three scholarly volumes and scores of other
articles on Polish-Iranian affairs. Most of the material was later
translated into Farsi and published under the title “Lahestan”. By 1944,
however, Iran was already emptying of Poles. They were leaving for other D.P
camps in places such as Tanganyika, Mexico, India, New Zealand and the UK.
Their main exit route was Ahvaz, where an area of the city still called
Campolu today, is a distant echo of its original name “Camp Polonia”.
Mashhad’s last children left on the 10 June 1944. Ahvaz finally closed its
camp doors in June 1945. The last transport of orphans left Isfahan for
Lebanon on the 12 October 1945.

What Remains

The deepest imprint of the Polish sojourn in Iran can be found in the
memoirs and narratives of those who lived through it. The debt and gratitude
felt by the exiles towards their host country echoes warmly throughout all
the literature. The kindness and sympathy of the ordinary Iranian population
towards the Poles is everywhere spoken of. [8]

The Poles took away with them a lasting memory of freedom and friendliness,
something most of them would not know again for a very long time. For few of
the evacuees who passed through Iran during the years 1942 – 1945 would ever
to see their homeland again. By a cruel twist of fate, their political
destiny was sealed in Tehran in 1943. In November of that year, the leaders
of Russia, Britain and the USA met in the Iranian capital to decide the fate
of Post-war Europe. During their discussions (which were held in secret), it
was decided to assign Poland to the zone of influence of the Soviet Union
after the war. It would lose both its independence and its territorial
integrity. The eastern part of the country, from which the exiles to Iran
had been originally expelled, would be incorporated wholesale into the
Soviet Union. The Polish government was not informed of the decision until
years later, and felt understandably betrayed. 48,000 Polish soldiers would
lose their lives fighting for the freedom of the very nations whose
governments had secretly betrayed them in Tehran, and later (in 1945) in
Yalta. [9]

NOTES

1. There were four mass deportations of the civilian population of eastern
Poland in 1940/41 alone:
a) 10 Feb 1940. 250,000 from rural areas sent to Siberia in 110 cattle
trains.
b) 13 April 1940. 300,000, mostly women & children 160 trains) mostly to
Kazakhstan and Altai Kraj.
c) June/July 1940. 400,000 to Archangielsk, Sverdlovsk, Novosibirsk etc.
d) June 1941. 280,000 to various part of USSR. Some 500,000 Poles had also
been arrested by the Soviets between 1939 and 1941, mostly the government
officials, judges teachers lawyers, intellectuals, writers etc. So the total
of 1.7 million Poles were in captivity in the Soviet Union.
2. Under an agreement signed on 30th July 1941 by the Polish premier,
General Sikorski and the Russian representative I. Mayski, Russia agreed to
release all the Poles who had been arrested under what was termed an
“amnesty”. The word “amnesty” was extremely ill-chosen. The amnesty was
signed in London in the presence of Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden.
3. Although the “amnesty” was announced in July, the news did not filter
through to many of the remoter camps of eastern Siberia until December. For
others, the news never reached them at all, and they remained in Russia.
4. General Anders himself took the responsibility to evacuate the civilians
before he had even discussed it with the British.
5. They had studied at the Ecole Superieure de Guerre in Paris. General
Anders, who visited Jahanbani in Teheran a few months later, was also a
graduate of this school.
6. On Jan 6 1943, the Polish embassy was told to close all 400 of its
welfare agencies on Russian soil (including orphanages and hospitals). Two
months later, all Polish citizens remaining on Russian soil were deemed to
be Soviet citizens.
7. The president was Stanislaw Koscialkowski
8 The word “kish-mish” passed into the vocabulary of the survivors. Many
Polish boys were named Dariusz, still extremely popular as a boy’s name in
Poland today.
9. Polish soldiers were not even allowed to participate in the Victory
parade in London in 1945

References:
Faruqi, Anwar. Forgotten Polish Exodus to Iran. Washington Post. 23 Nov 2000
Kunert, Andrzej. K., Polacy w Iranie 1942-45. Vol I. R.O.P.W.i M. Warsawa.
2002
Mironowicz, Anna, Od Hajnowki do Pahlewi. Editions Spotkania. Paris 1986
Woloch, Helena, Moje Wspomnienia. Sovest. Kotlas 1998