Forgotten history : World War II – Polish refugees in Iran

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In September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, marking the beginning of World War II.

As part of Germany’s nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union, eastern Poland was occupied and annexed by the USSR.

Approximately 1.25 million Poles were deported to various parts of the Soviet Union, including half a million “socially dangerous” Poles who were packed into trains and shipped to labor camps in Kazakhstan and Siberia.

Thousands died of exhaustion, disease and malnutrition.

When Germany reneged on its pact and invaded the Soviet Union less than two years later, the Soviets were compelled to side with the Allies.

An agreement was signed to reestablish the Polish state and form an army from the Poles held in the USSR.

Polish prisoners were told they were now free to join the new army, which was assembling in the critical supply corridor of Iran, then under occupation by Soviet and British forces.

From across the country, thousands of starving men, women and children slowly made their way to a hope of refuge in Iran.

The refugees were weakened by two years of maltreatment and starvation, and many suffered from malaria, typhus, fevers, respiratory illnesses, and diseases caused by starvation.

Desperate for food after starving for so long, refugees ate as much as they could, leading to disastrous consequences.

Several hundred Poles, mostly children, died shortly after arriving in Iran from acute dysentery caused by overeating.

Thousands of the children who came to Iran came from orphanages in the Soviet Union, either because their parents had died or they were separated during deportations from Poland.

Most of these children were eventually sent to live in orphanages in Isfahan, which had an agreeable climate and plentiful resources, allowing the children to recover from the many illnesses they contracted in the poorly managed and supplied orphanages in the Soviet Union.

….They were in bad shape, thin, ill and in rags…. A friend of mine, a carpenter, used to make [coffins] for them. About 50 were dying every day.

Between 1942–1945, approximately 2,000 children passed through Isfahan, so many that it was briefly called the “City of Polish Children”.

Numerous schools were set up to teach the children the Polish language, math, science, and other standard subjects.

In some schools, Persian was also taught, along with both Polish and Iranian history and geography.

GHOLAM ABDOL-RAHIMI, IRANIAN PHOTOGRAPHER

A tent city houses Polish evacuees on the outskirts of Tehran.

IMAGE: NICK PARRINO/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

In 1942, about 120,000 refugees from Poland began their exodus to Iran from remote parts of the Soviet Union.

Crossing the Caspian Sea in crowded boats, over 116,000 Poles made it to Iran.

Most landed in the port city of Pahlevi, where they were fed and quarantined — malaria, typhus and starvation-related ailments were widespread. Many died and were buried there.

Those who survived were transported to Tehran, where they were warmly welcomed by the Iranian government.

Buildings were repurposed to house them, and Polish schools, businesses, and cultural organizations were established. People who had spent years in freezing and disease-ridden conditions now had clean beds and plenty of food.

The friendly Persian people crowded round the buses shouting what must have been words of welcome and pushed gifts of dates, nuts, roasted peas with raisins and juicy pomegranates through the open windows.

“When they arrived in Iran, the country was gravely affected by political instability and famine,” said Reza Nikpour, an Iranian-Polish historian and member of the Iran-Poland Friendship Association.

“Moreover, the Soviets and the Brits confiscated and sent all of the resources from Iran to the frontline in Europe.

All of this happened despite the fact that Iran had declared its neutrality when the war started.”

The Poles entered Iran from the port city of Anzali on the southern coast of the Caspian Sea.

Soviet ships docking in Anzali were packed with starving Polish refugees, and they were the lucky ones:

Many others died along the way from typhus, typhoid and hunger.

Their bodies were unceremoniously discarded into the sea.

Several sources have documented that when Polish refugees were loaded on to trucks to relocate from Anzali to Tehran, Iranians threw objects at them.

The frightened refugees at first thought they were being stoned, but soon noticed that the objects were not rocks, but rather cookies and candies.

“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,” noted an article by Ryszard Antolak, a specialist in Iranian and Eastern European history whose mother was among the refugees who ended up in Iran.

In Tehran, the refugees were accommodated in four camps; even one of the private gardens of Iran’s shah was transformed into a temporary refugee camp, and a special hospital was dedicated to them.

“Polish refugees were well-received in Iran, and they integrated into the host society and worked as translators, nurses, secretaries, cooks and tailors,”.

“Some of them also married Iranians and stayed in Iran permanently.”

The Polish refugees launched a radio station and published newspapers in their mother tongue.

They entered into Iran’s art scene and, as with other waves of immigration, their food appeared on the menus of their host communities.

The pierogi, a Polish dumpling, is still very common in Iran.

KRYSTYNA SKWARKO, POLISH REFUGEE

A Polish boy carries loaves of bread provided by the Red Cross.

IMAGE: NICK PARRINO/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Polish refugees in a camp on the outskirts of Tehran.

IMAGE: NICK PARRINO/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

A Polish girl landscapes the patch of earth in front of her tent. The photographer noted that “the Poles take great pride in the cleanliness of their camp.”

IMAGE: NICK PARRINO/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Evacuees wear donated woolen bathrobes as overcoats.

IMAGE: NICK PARRINO/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

IMAGE: NICK PARRINO/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Polish women make their own clothing at a camp in Tehran.

IMAGE: NICK PARRINO/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

IMAGE: NICK PARRINO/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Polish maids were sought by well-to-do Iranian ladies who wanted to learn makeup and Western fashions from their servants, who often had better backgrounds and education than the employers themselves.
KHOSROW SINAI, IRANIAN DIRECTOR

IMAGE: NICK PARRINO/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

A Polish woman at Red Cross camp in Tehran.

IMAGE: NICK PARRINO/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Polish refugees at a camp on the outskirts of Tehran.

IMAGE: NICK PARRINO/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

IMAGE: NICK PARRINO/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

A Polish woman holds her baby girl at an evacuee camp in Tehran.

IMAGE: NICK PARRINO/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Polish children play among the dormitories of a Red Cross camp on the outskirts of Tehran.

IMAGE: NICK PARRINO/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

A Polish refugee who works as a guard at the camp.

IMAGE: NICK PARRINO/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Polish women do laundry at a Red Cross camp.

IMAGE: NICK PARRINO/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

A Polish girl wears a heavy sheepskin coat at a refugee camp.

IMAGE: NICK PARRINO/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Most of the refugees signed up to fight in the new Polish army, while many, including thousands of orphans whose parents had died or desperately put them on trains bound for Iran, settled into life in Iran for the remainder of the war.

While many of the refugees were eventually moved on to temporary settlements in other countries, a few decided to stay in Iran permanently, marrying Iranian spouses and starting families.

A young Polish refugee salutes outside his tent.

IMAGE: NICK PARRINO/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

A woman decorates the front yard of her tent with a Polish eagle.

IMAGE: NICK PARRINO/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

 

 

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