In the spring of 1942 in anticipation of the arrival of Polish refugees from captivity in the USSR, a city of 2,000 tents was hastily erected on the shores of the Caspian Sea at Pahlavi. Just how many there would be nobody knew, but only days earlier word had arrived that there could be as many as 10,000 thousand woman and children along with the soldiers in the army of General Anders. Would these facilities be enough?
Among those watching the flotilla of coal ships slowly approaching were Polish, British and Iranian officials; it was the Iranian army that had equipped and erected this refugee reception centre under the direction of General Esfendiari. The complex included bathhouses and disinfection facilities, latrines, hospitals and dormitories, bakeries and laundries. Writing in Pars Times, Edinburgh-based writer Ryszard Antolak noted that supplies had been requisitioned from among the local population, including chairs from local cinemas.
As the ships, packed beyond any conceivable safety standards, dropped anchor, the cargo of sick, filthy, smelly humans moved onto small boats for the last crossing in shallow waters. Once ashore they collapsed on the beach, some praying, others delirious with joy, some simply because they could not continue, among them some who died the moment they reached freedom.
During the war, Iran – often referred to as Persia by Poles at that time – was a hotbed of intrigue, nominally independent but unofficially occupied by the British and the Soviets, and harboring a host of international spies, notably German, plus assorted refugees.
The tent city in Pahlavi was overwhelmed: the flotilla had brought many more civilians than expected, including 18,000 children of all ages, many of them terribly ill, all of them filthy and lice-infested. The ones with typhus and other infectious diseases were quarantined, but others, after showering and delousing were moved to hospitals in Tehran. For the healthier ones, the Poles established schools within days realizing that addressing intellectual, cultural and social development was vital to their long-term recovery.
While thousands of refugees were sent to Tehran for treatment in hospitals or to transit camps to await further relocation, as early as April 1942 it was decided to send many very young orphans to Isfahan, some 340 kilometers south of Tehran. Situated at an altitude of 1590 meters, its benign climate, lush gardens, magnificent architecture and cosmopolitan culture would provide nourishment for both body and soul.
Krystyna Skwarko, a remarkable Polish teacher and humanitarian, herself a deportee, dedicated her life to orphaned children starting in Russia and then on to Isfahan and New Zealand. She left behind a superb historical record titled “The Invited.” The most gifted writer of fiction could not possibly invent a story to match this extraordinary odyssey.
The first contingent of very young children sent to Isfahan was placed in the care of the Sisters of Charity, the Salesian Fathers, and a Protestant missionary couple, a Mr. and Mrs. Illiff. A few Polish guardians accompanied them. But it was not long before Isfahan became home to over 2,000 children, housed in various accommodations, both convents and private homes specially rented for them, a total of 17 residences. Six homes were in the Armenian sector, one of them rented from Armenian clergy. Medical care was provided at both the British and the Armenian hospitals. In time the Polish Delegation in Tehran sent two Polish doctors and a dentist. Each residence had its school, the Polish government sent more teachers, and shortly after, textbooks arrived, published by the Polish army by then in Palestine. A priest arrived to provide more formal religious education and many children made their First Communion. Some of the older girls attended carpet-weaving classes, working with a well-known local artist for the designs. Sports, craft, games, concerts and theatrical performances rounded out their days.
The Persian people, Skwarko noted, were friendly and generous, and welcomed them with gifts of dates, nuts, roasted peas with raisins, and juicy pomegranates. As the children recovered their health, strength and spirits, they started visiting mosques, museums and bazaars, always greeted with friendship and kindness. On the occasion of the young Shah’s visit to the children, one student delivered a welcoming address in Farsi. Years later, when the Shah and the Empress visited New Zealand in the 1970s, he made a special request for a meeting with the Polish children who had once lived in Isfahan.
CR highly recommends a collective memoir* written by some of the students from the Polish schools in Isfahan, not only for a record of their own journey, but very much for their impressions of the land and the people who hosted them. When their health was restored, their school curriculum included field trips to places of interest – and there were so many – including many museums. A young diarist writing about a visit to the Armenian museum, situated next to the magnificent Armenian cathedral, made the observation that the collection included ancient works of art, manuscripts, carpets, and costumes but no weapons, which led him to conclude that “Armenians are not a belligerent people.” A confirmation of the very favorable opinion the young Poles had already formed of the Armenian people.
Their Scouting groups went on many hikes and excursions where they could see deserts and mountains, small towns, bazaars and camel caravans. Always accompanied by their educators, they learned much about the history, culture and peoples of the region.
Among the most exciting excursions for the older students was the trip to Kuh-Sofe Mountain (Kuh-e-Soffeh), which they climbed. From the top they could see all of the Isfahan valley and the Zaindeh River (Zayandeh), the river of life that nourished all of Isfahan. They also visited Shiraz, “a town of gardens full of roses, lemon trees and cypresses, a town of wine and poetry,” once home to two of the greatest Persian poets, Saadi and Hafiz.
Perhaps the most spectacular site, however, was Persepolis, the amazing city of ruins that still testified to the magnificence of ancient Persia. As they gazed at the entrance to what was once the Throne Room, the ruins of palaces and the sculptures of “The Immortals,” the students imagined the courts of Xerxes and Darius. Who could have ever imagined they would attend such a school after the barbaric treatment they had endured in the Soviet Union?
Although new cohorts of children were arriving in Isfahan, everyone knew that Iran could not be a permanent home. Plans were readied for those children who had recovered their strength to move on to more permanent homes. Sorrowfully, several hundred embarked on the long journey to South Africa. Almost a thousand went on an even longer journey to New Zealand, which quite possibly turned out to be the happiest chapter in the great wartime saga of the Polish children deported to the Soviet Gulag. Although ultimately they could not return to their homes in Poland but would go on to exile in other lands, the care they received under the careful eye of the Government-in-Exile prepared them for the challenges they would have to face.
As writer Ryszard Antolak noted in Pars Times, “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 literature. The kindness and sympathy of the ordinary Iranian population towards the Poles is everywhere spoken of.” Antolak also noted that Dariusz is a very popular boy’s name in Poland, perhaps influenced from the contacts between Poland and Persia going back to Sobieski’s reign. Certainly the Polish children’s experience in Isfahan would reinforce this. The city is frequently referred to as the “City of Polish Children.”
* CR highly recommends the collective work by the Association of Former Pupils of the Polish Schools, Isfahan & Lebanon: Isfahan: City of Polish Children, winner of the Prize of the Union of Polish Writers Abroad for Best Polish Book Published Outside Poland in 1987.