The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
IRANIAN PERSONAL NAMES
Many Polish Boys were named Dariusz:
A chapter of forgotten History of Iran
"Exhausted by hard labor, disease and starvation - barely recognizable as human beings - we disembarked at the port of Pahlavi (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"."
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 traveling 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.
Poland to Iran:
onwards by the rumors 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 traveled 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
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,
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
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.
Iranian and British officials who first watched the Soviet oil tankers and coal
ships list into the harbor 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
The ships from Krasnovodsk were grossly overcrowded. Every available space on
board was filled with
They had not quite escaped, however. Weakened by two years of starvation, hard labor 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 Pahlavi.
In the clean area, the arrivals were channeled 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 disheveled, 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 émigrés (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.[vi] 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.
- The City Of Polish Children:
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.
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 benevolent 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
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.
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.[viii]
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
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.[x]
[i] The author whose mother made this historical journey wrote this article in the remembrance of that event. This article was published on vohuman.org in February 2005 courtesy of the author. A copy of this article has also been featured at http://www.rozanehmagazine.com/JanFeb2005/apoilishiniran.html
There were four mass deportations of the civilian population of eastern
Poland in 1940/41 alone:
[iii] 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.
[iv] 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.
[v]General Anders himself took the responsibility to evacuate the civilians before he had even discussed it with the British.
[vi] 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.
[vii] On January 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.
[viii] The president was Stanislaw Koscialkowski
[ix] The word "kish-mish" (raisn) passed into the vocabulary of the survivors. Many Polish boys were named Dariusz, still extremely popular as a boy's name in Poland today.
[x] Polish soldiers were not even allowed to participate in the Victory parade in London in 1945
Ryszard J. Antolak was born in the late 1950s and educated at the Universities of Edinburgh and Stirling in Scotland. Apart from various writing and research projects, his professional life has been spent in Education, working mostly with children and adults with Complex Learning Difficulties. He discovered Zarathushtra by accident at school, and his interest has continued ever since. He lives in the central belt of Scotland.
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