Forgotten chapter of history buried in Polish graves
By ANWAR FARUQI
Associated Press Writer
October 7,2000, TEHRAN, Iran (AP) - From time to time, the lone caretaker
at the dreary cemetery gets a letter from abroad asking him to light a
candle at one of the hundreds of identical headstones at the far end of
the walled, unmarked graveyard.
A forgotten chapter of World War II is buried in this Roman Catholic
cemetery in a poor neighborhood of Tehran. The occasional candles are the
only flickers of remembrance for these 1,892 Polish men, women and children
far from home and for the calamity that befell them.
In September 1939, Hitler and Stalin pounced on Poland, dismembering
it in one of the bleakest chapters of Polish history. Stalin had tens of
thousands of Poles carted off to his prison camps, but when Hitler invaded
the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin freed the Poles and agreed they could
join a Polish army being formed by the Allies. That force was to assemble
in Persia, the old name of modern-day Iran, which was then under British
In a matter of weeks, floods of starving, haggard Poles began trudging
toward Iran, most to volunteer for the new army, but many among them were
women and children who had no place else to go. In all, between 114,000
and 300,000 Poles are thought to have made it to Iran.
Most eventually moved on to other parts of the world. Some stayed on
in Iran, where only about a dozen are still alive.
Among them is Helena Stelmach, 69, who lives with her Iranian husband.
They have two sons in their early 30s.
Anna Borkowska, 83 and probably the oldest of the survivors in Iran,
also married an Iranian, a police officer, and had a son. Her husband died
in 1968, and their son died in 1982 at age 26. Her mother died several
Despite the decades that have passed since they were cast up on Iran's
shores, both women fit reluctantly into their present lives.
They speak the language of their childhood; Persian is uttered with
thick accents and frequent pauses to search for words. Both took the last
names of their Iranian husbands but prefer their Polish ones.
When Borkowska sits at a cheap piano in the living room to relieve the
loneliness, the words of Polish songs stir her modest home. On the stairs
outside Stelmach's flat, a pile of Polish magazines waits to be thrown
Both homes display photos of Iran's late Islamic leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah
Khomeini, alongside pictures of Pope John Paul II and portraits of Jesus
A world at war had forgotten the tens of thousands of sick, starving
Poles enslaved in Stalin's forced labor camps. In the summer of 1941, startling
news began circulating among the inmates: Hitler had invaded Russia.
At a hellish prison in the thick Basharova forest of Arkhangelsk, the
Russian commandant had told the arriving prisoners that they would remain
there forever, Anna Borkowska recalls. But now, the Soviet Union was in
On a grim day like any other, as they toiled in the forest felling firs
and dragging them to the river, the commandant summoned the prisoners for
a stunning announcement: They were free.
Two years earlier, weeks before Borkowska's 23rd birthday, her life
had been shattered by war and exile.
She was in love with Jan, a fellow university student she hoped to marry.
She never learned what became of him and never again walked the streets
outside her Warsaw home, where they had strolled hand-in-hand, Anna humming
a new song she had learned on the piano, autumn leaves crackling under
Stalin began emptying Poland of anyone who could resist the occupation.
First went military officers and their families, then the intelligentsia,
and last anyone with wealth, influence or education. Borkowska's father
was a shipyard executive, and his two children, Anna and Victor, had both
When the door-to-door arrests began, the family escaped to the home
of a poor relative in the countryside, where Anna's father died. One midnight,
weeks later, the rest of the family was picked up by the Russian secret
police, herded into locked freight trains with thousands of other deportees
and banished to Siberia.
There, only the strongest survived. Borkowska's brother, two years younger,
was not among them. He caught pneumonia and died alone in a hospital a
year before they were all set free.
"When we buried him, he had a pained expression on his face,"
"It was because he died alone, without anyone around who cared,"
she adds, clutching the favorite remembrance of her brother, a childhood
photograph showing the boyish Victor with an oversized violin under his
With the deadly Siberian winter approaching, and afraid that orders
for their release could be revoked, swarms of exiles from all corners of
Russia, Siberia, Vorkuta, the Ural Mountains, Kolyma, Novosibirsk and Kazakstan
began dragging themselves toward Persia. They abandoned hard labor camps,
prisons, forests, mines - anywhere Stalin had needed slaves.
This time when they loaded into railway cars there was no despair, but
hunger, disease and death traveled with them. Rape, murder and theft were
other perils of the road, especially for women or children traveling alone.
On a cold day as winter approached, 10-year-old Helena Stelmach and
her mother huddled off a train in Tashkent, capital of Soviet Uzbekistan.
They joined forces with a young widow and her child in search of food and
An old man in a shabby coffeehouse fed the ragged travelers and gave
them shelter at a vacant house. But his was not an act of kindness. He
returned that night and tried to attack the women, who fled into the icy
darkness, dragging their children behind. A kinder man gave them a place
to sleep in peace by the warmth of a furnace at his bakery.
The boats and small ships that ferried the Poles across the Caspian
Sea on the last leg of their journey were vessels of hope. But greatly
overloaded and without clean drinking water or sanitation, for some they
became the bearers of death. The murky sea bottom was the graveyard for
those who began to drop from typhoid and other diseases.
Many of the dying were children. Stelmach, whose father had been off
fighting the Germans when mother and daughter were deported to Siberia,
survived the voyage through a stroke of luck.
"The ship's captain had a son suffering from hemophilia. Mother
knew nursing, and she offered to care for the boy in return for a place
in the cabin and good food and water," Stelmach recalls. "All
around us on the boats, people were dropping like flies."
Finally, on a bitterly cold morning, the refugees began going ashore
at the Iranian port of Anzali, broken, sick, hungry and infested with lice.
There was fresh snow on the ground the morning Gholam Abdol-Rahimi,
a struggling photographer in Anzali, emerged from bed to witness ships
disgorging disheveled refugees.
"They were in bad shape, thin, ill and in rags," Abdol-Rahimi
said in the "Lost Requiem," a film made in 1983 by the Iranian
director Khosrow Sinai. "A friend of mine, a carpenter, used to make
boxes (coffins) for them. About 50 were dying every day."
Abdol-Rahimi's photographs are perhaps the most complete account of
the catastrophe. But his work was never recognized or published. He died
last year at age 83, recalling until the end, his friends say, the morning
he woke to find the refugee ships in port.
In all, 2,806 refugees died within a few months of arriving and were
buried in cemeteries around Iran. Their alien names and the dates on their
tombstones chronicle a calamity, even to a visitor without knowledge of
their history. Etched on row after row of identical tombstones is a single
year of death: 1942.
The majority of the arrivals - men, women and children as young as 14
- signed up for the new Polish army led by Gen. Wladyslaw Anders, which
compiled a distinguished combat record fighting alongside the British,
Americans and other Allies. For the rest, new lives began with a bus journey
to refugee camps in Tehran, Isfahan and several other cities.
"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,"
wrote Krystyna Skwarko, a schoolteacher who came with her own two sick
children to take charge of a growing orphanage in Isfahan.
Skwarko's book, "The Invited," recounts the journey from Anzali,
then through Persia and on to New Zealand, where she and 700 orphans were
eventually resettled. She died in 1995.
More than 13,000 of the arrivals were children, many orphans whose parents
had died on the way. In Russia, starving mothers had pushed their children
onto passing trains to Iran in hopes of saving them.
Skwarko's impossible task was to wipe the scars of war from children
who had been robbed of their childhood.
"I can never erase from memory the sight of an emaciated 14-year-old
girl, standing apart from a newly arrived group, holding a tiny sister
tightly in her arms, the smaller so thin that the skin of her arms and
legs hung loosely, as on an old man," Skwarko wrote. "The older
girl, Irenka Wozniak, whispered as I went up to her: `I could manage to
save only little Ewunia.`"
But amid the heart-rending tales, there are happier accounts of parents
who were reunited with their children.
Jewish orphans were cared for by a Jewish organization in Iran and later
sent to Israel. Others went on to new lives in the United States, Britain,
Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and elsewhere.
Few residents of Ahvaz in southwestern Iran remember how the downtown
neighborhood known as Campulu got its name. It was once "Camp Polonia,"
one of several camps built for the refugees in cities around Iran.
Like Campulu, most signs of the Polish journey have faded. Boarding
houses, hospitals, schools and orphanages built with Allied funds were
used by the refugees for two years, but nothing remains to indicate their
The laughter, music and cigarette smoke of the Polonia bar and restaurant
in downtown Tehran, where Allied servicemen mingled with Polish girls,
is a distant memory, like the bright neon "Polonia" sign that
once beckoned clients. The basement bar became a chocolate factory, and
then the print shop it is today.
Behind the British Embassy, not far from the old Polonia, Polish prostitutes
once attracted clients with their bright red headscarves, according to
film maker Sinai. Shaved heads for the treatment of typhus were common
among the refugees; the prostitutes adopted the scarves to advertise their
Photographs of the time show smartly dressed Polish women in long skirts
working as office secretaries, peering through microscopes in laboratories
or working as nurses.
"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," said
Sinai, who was born the year before the influx.
Many nights, Polish musicians organized soirees to raise money for fellow
refugees. Theater and dance entertained those who could afford it. Even
the poorest could revel in forgotten pleasures like clean beds, warmth,
plentiful food and enough room to stretch the legs at night.
Sinai's "Lost Requiem" captures some of the spirit of those
times. But like its name, the film itself is lost, never promoted and today
thought to be collecting dust somewhere in the vaults of Iran's state television.
Occasionally, letters arrive from abroad at the Polish Embassy in Tehran,
inquiring about a dead parent or other kin buried at one of the graveyards.
The embassy sends back photographs of the cemetery and grave.
The letters to the embassy, or to the cemetery itself, come from Britain,
New Zealand, the United States, wherever the Polish refugees who passed
through Iran have settled. Last year, a woman who had passed through Iran
as a child came to visit her mother's grave.
The dozen or so Polish survivors still living in Iran are not close.
They would rather forget the tragedy that binds them. Occasionally, they
get together for Christmas at the embassy or at rare reunions.
Once they are gone, the grim cemeteries will remain the only footprints
through Iran of the Poles' sad, forgotten journey. //www.polishheritage.co.nz/PAHIATUA/SKWARKO/S0/S00T_CONTENTS.HTM