WARSAW, September 26, 2008 -- Isfahan is best known for its architecture. It is so beautiful, Iranians say, that to visit the city is to see “half the world.”
And, Isfahan is famous for its carpets in classical Persian court styles.
But in Poland, the city is known for still something else. It is “Isfahan - the city of Polish children.”
This summer the Polish postal service issued a stamp that explains why.
The stamp shows a small boy dressed in a cadet’s uniform. Draped behind him is an Isfahan carpet emblazoned with the Polish eagle. And next to him is the city’s nickname in Polish: “Isfahan - Miasto Dzieci Polskich.”
The stamp commemorates two things: a huge tragedy in Poland’s history, and how Iran helped rescue some of the victims. But to understand the whole story – which today is largely forgotten outside Poland – one must go back to the very start of World War II.
In 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union attacked Poland and divided it between them. Both the Nazis and Soviets sent huge numbers of Poland’s elite to prisons and labor camps. But the Soviets went a step further. They deported some 1.5 million Polish citizens to distant points in Siberia and Central Asia.
The deportations of military families, police, doctors, teachers, and anyone else suspected of patriotic feelings were intended to simplify the Polish territory’s incorporation into the Soviet Union. It also provided more laborers for the Soviet Union's collective farms as Moscow prepared for an inevitable war with Germany.
The horror of this time is vividly told in the accounts of the deportees. Families were packed into boxcars in Poland and confined in them for six weeks as the trains rolled east, for example, to Kazakhstan. Anyone who tried to escape was shot.
Then, after forcibly settling all these families and, in the meantime, executing some 20,000 Polish officers held in prison camps, the Soviet leaders suddenly changed their strategy. As the war began with Germany in the summer of 1941, they decided to raise an army instead from among the thousands of still interned Polish soldiers. And to improve the mood, they granted an “amnesty” to all Polish deportees.
The result was one of the epic journeys of World War II.
The new Polish army, under an agreement between Moscow and the exiled Polish government in London, was to be sent to the North African front to fight alongside the British. So the Army assembled just north of the border with Iran, on the road to the Middle East. And it was there, at bases in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, that tens of thousands of deported Polish families headed in hopes of rejoining the soldiers.
But for the families to succeed, they first had to escape the farms they had been assigned to (and many local bosses refused to release them), have money to buy train tickets, and travel for months from Siberia to the south under appalling conditions.
Maria van der Linden, a survivor who was then a child, describes the trip this way in her book 'An Unforgettable Journey,' published in New Zealand:
"We had to change trains frequently, because of the varying width of rail tracks In the USSR. At every railway station we faced long queues for tickets, where numerous waiting families slept on bare floors. Conditions were filthy. People were infested with hair and body lice. There were no proper washing facilities at the stations and toilets were seldom cleaned. Infections spread like wildfire among the waiting travelers. Some people were too ill and exhausted to continue their journey and many passengers died as they waited to purchase their train tickets for the next stage of their trip."
Another child at the time, Zdzislawa Wasylkowska, recalls her journey south like this:
"We had to beg for bread of steal whenever we could. There were no washing facilities. There were lice everywhere and so many dead children. I saw many people thrown from the train. It took us another month to get to Jalalabad, close to the Afghanistan border, but they did not want to take us. We moved on to Guzar where my mother and sister became sick with typhus."
Parents unable to go farther gave their children to others who could. And as the journey went on, the number of orphans multiplied, to the point that the Polish army reception centers had to set up special orphanages to accommodate them all.
The Polish army, known as Anders’ Army for its commander General W. Anders, crossed into Iran by ship across the Caspian or by road from Turkmenistan at the end of 1942. The exodus numbered 115,000 – that is, 45,000 soldiers, 37,000 civilian adults, and 18,000 children. Just after they crossed, the Soviet government closed the border again, preventing any more of the some 1 million Polish citizens still in the USSR from leaving.
For those Poles who reached Iran, after thousands died along the way, the emotions were overwhelming. Another survivor, Helena Woloch, recalls:
"Exhausted by hard labour, disease and starvation - barely recognizable as human beings - we disembarked at the port of Pahlavi (now Bandar-e Anzali). 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."
Ironically, the Poles had reached a country that itself had been occupied in late 1941 by Russia and Britain. They allies did so to secure the oil fields and keep Iran open as a supply route to the Soviet army. Reza Shah Pahlavi, who had earlier brought Iran closer to Germany, was in exile in South Africa and his son was on the throne in his place.
However, if Iranians resented the Russian and the British presence, they were sympathetic to the Polish refugees and welcomed them.
Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi opened his private pool to the orphans. Polish soldiers saluted Persian officers when they passed in the street. And, over time, all the orphans were relocated to Isfahan along with many Polish families because the beauty of the city was thought to be conducive to their physical and mental health.
After the Polish Army left for the Middle East, the families and children stayed on. From 1942 to 1945, there were 2,590 Polish children in Isfahan below the age of seven, living in what became a lively community which was very interested in Iranian culture.
During this time, Polish academicians in Isfahan began an Institute of Iranian Studies. And the carpet in the background of the commemorative postage stamp was woven by Polish girls in the Isfahan school of weaving.
At the end of the war, the refugees went on to Britain or to British colonies, or to the United States and Australia. But, due to a final twist of fate, none returned to Poland. That was because the Allied leaders had agreed at a meeting in Tehran in 1943 to put Poland in the Soviet Union’s orbit. It remained there until 1989.
The Polish postage stamp issued this June recalls all this history. One of the orphans, Przemek Stojakowski, is the boy on the postage stamp. On the First Day Cover that accompanies the stamp, the names of just a few of the hundreds of other orphaned children are also printed.
The stamp helps to explain several other things, too, including why Dariusz remains a popular name today for Polish boys and how the word “kish-mesh” (Persian for raisins) came into the Polish language.
But perhaps most of all, the stamp is a reminder of a universal truth. That is, the world has a long history of tragedies. But it has just as long a memory for acts of kindness.
Iran and the Polish Exodus from Russia 1942, by Ryszard Antolak
An Unforgettable Journey, by Maria van der Linden
Wikipedia: Anders’ Army
Polish deportees in the Soviet Union, by Michael Hope
The Polish Deportees of World War II: Recollections of Removal to the Soviet Union and Dispersal, edited by Tadeusz Piotrowski
The Institute of National Remembrance, Warsaw